Thoughts on discussions on criticism

Design criticism is often discussed within design circles. Such pondering on the topic has been brilliantly, and I can’t help think sarcastically, summed up in the title of a 4-way debate recently published in AIGA’s Eye on Design journal (2018, the Gossip issue). The article was called: What We Talk About When We Talk About Talking About Design.

Image: Eye on Design, AIGA

There is a concern amongst some designers and academics, or you could call it a chip-on-their-shoulders, that graphic design criticism isn’t given the same level of respect as other, more highbrow artistic disciplines. The Eye On Design article itself raises this in its introduction stating: “We [graphic design] still side-eye art, architecture, and literature, wondering why design doesn’t have quite as robust a history of criticism.” (2018, p21.) It is a shame that such a discussion comes up time and time again when graphic design writing is being discussed. I am constantly bemused that we do not just accept that graphic design should be judged on its own terms, and not on those of other disciplines. Cultural and academic elitism is something we can circumnavigate by simply ignoring such questions.

Regardless of any such imposter syndrome sentiments, the 4-way discussion does throw up some interesting points, not least in questioning who should be involved in such criticism. Graphic Design can be seen as inward looking sometimes, which is a shame, considering that what graphic designers actually produce is outward looking. The work itself is not closed off in some collection or gallery, in is alive in the world people inhabit.

Joe Marianek, a designer, educator and AIGA NY board president makes a salient contribution by asking: “When I hear the word criticism, I always think, ‘How many people are involved in this critique’ … Criticism is context specific.” (2018, p23.) Assistant Professor at Rhode Island School of Design, Ramon Tejada, continues this theme by posing the question: “…is it us designers who should be writing the criticism?”

In the introduction to his book The Politics of Design, Ruben Pater raises important points. “A design cannot be disconnected from the values and assumptions in which it was created, from the ideologies behind it. [But] It can be difficult to see how visual communication and ideology are related because ideology is in everything around us, we perceive it as natural.” He goes on to say: “Communication was and is a volatile process, wherein misinterpretations cannot be entirely avoided. At the root of miscommunication lies the assumption that people will understand us because we use ‘universal’ or ‘objective’ communication.” In his honest reflection on 15 years as a designer, he says: “I have learned that visual communication comes in many flavours, none of which are exempt from ideology. … Working in different countries, I have made many…false assumptions, … Being from Western Europe, my view on the world is not neutral.” (2017, pp2–4.)

The Politics of Design—image: Dutch Design Daily

Such self-appraisal is often rare in the designer, and it is healthy to see. And it chimes with my thoughts on design criticism because what it does is highlight to me just what Tejada questions, in whether design criticism should be the sole preserve of designers? But Ruben goes one step further in his honesty, because he doesn’t just highlight the dangers of not engaging a critical public in discussions about the visual communication they have to interact with, but he also questions the arrogance of designers who believe they know best.

Designers create work for use in society by others. So those others, the audience, should be considered stakeholders in what is produced. The natural development of such thinking is that the end user has every right to be a design critic, and should be welcomed into the discussion. As Molly Heintz says in the What We Talk About When…article: “As the non-designer here, I think it’s also a question of what audience you’re trying to reach with what conversation. It benefits everybody’s interests if designers are able to speak to a broader audience and not just a professional audience.” (2018, p29.) I couldn’t agree more.

Critical thinkers, whether designers or not, are needed to probe, question, argue and cajole. Without this non-specialist view, any discussion is prone to nebulous rhetoric. There is an obvious contemporary danger to this, as Tejada highlights: “Twitter or Instagram [as a vehicle to engage the public in criticism] can very quickly disintegrate into a complete crap show. There are many people who shoot from the hip, and the opinions of people who actually know what they’re talking about can quickly get buried.” (2018, p26.) But if you turn this logic around, too academic a discussion will bury the non-designer audience and important voices that could inform future practice will be lost. There is, alas, a tendency of academia for academia’s sake in some graphic design criticism—we need to choose our words carefully in order to engage.

All of this introspection has led me to try to make sense of my current thoughts on design criticism the best way I can; and that is to turn them into an image. In this I see the vast majority of graphic design practice as centred around three distinct groups of people: the client, the client’s audience, and the designer. These are represented on the left of the schematic below. There are many exceptions to this rule, but this is the most common scenario.

artboard 1-100

There are four contexts within which these three groups of people sit—societal, financial, political and cultural. Each of these will influence the mindset and decisions of the client and designer, (consciously or subconsciously), which in turn will influence the production of the work, which in turn will influence how the audience reads the work, (consciously or subconsciously), both from the perspective of what the work is, and in what the reader brings to the work.

In any critical reading of the work I identify five groups of people who are most likely to be involved. There are the professional critics; there are the academic critics; there are the designers who are involved in the design of the work in question; then there are designers who had no hand in the creation of the work. And last, but certainly not least, there is the audience. The latter could be sub-divided into the audience the work is intended for, and the audience for whom it is not; but this starts to get a bit messy.

Each critical interaction will be dependent on the environment / scenario in which the discussion takes place, and each critic will tend to sit in their own bubbles. There will be some cross-over, naturally, be that in journals or on social media. Rarely though are they all involved collectively. In the active critical design community, both in journals and at graphic design conferences, it is often the non-designer public that remains under-represented, if they are represented at all.

Maybe it is far better for the future of graphic design criticism if we stop questioning how under-respected it may be in terms of “art, architecture, and literature”, and get on with the job of considering how the audience of graphic design can be bought more meaningfully into any critical discussion. Although such a thread emerges with in the What We Talk About When We Talk About Talking About Design AIGA article, it gets lost again before the end. At least it is starting to emerge in the first place though.

AIGA. (2018) Eye On Design: Gossip. Issue 3 New York: AIGA
Pater, R. (2017) The Politics of Design Amsterdam: BIS Publishers

Published by Nigel Ball

Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design

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