On Monday, Michael Bierut posted a new essay on The Design Observer called “Graphic Design Criticism as a Spectator Sport.” If you have the time to read it, it is both fascinating and troubling. An aspect of the discipline that I have fared for most of my professional time on the “safe” side is design criticism. My jobs out of college so far have not exposed me to the same types of overwhelming fame or shame that designers from Pentagram have. My undergraduate experience was actually where I had the most exposure to useful criticism to date. It was structured in such a way that it was inevitable for your work to escape feedback, positive or negative by peers. I think of how much I grew during that time and how it helped to release me of my biases that kept me stuck from achieving something even better.
The type of criticism that Bierut describes is not the type that I think anyone thinks they’ll be faced with when they begin practicing design, but unfortunately it appears that the public has taken a comfortable seat as our looming design critic, keeping out the unfamiliar, modern design that they deem too “easy.” If you scroll down well into the comments that people have made since Bierut posted the article, Paula Scher says something I think is worth repeating: “If our common goal as designers is to raise the expectation of what the design can be, the UC debacle is to all of our disadvantage. Inherent in the rejection of the UC logo system is the belief, both from lay people and design professionals alike, is that a school won’t be perceived as “serious” unless its logo looks like it was designed in 1787. That’s pathetic” (Design Observer). What I want to point out is that alongside more and more nontraditional designers competing for professional work, there are also more unqualified critics deeming work worthy or not. I think about Sharon Poggenpohl’s lecture at NC State that was posted within this unit’s coursework. We cannot afford to not take design seriously as professionals practicing and researching within the field because the “false narrative” of design is not shrinking, it is growing and those of us that care deeply about the meaningful criticism, the type I experienced as a student and a little as a professional so far. Bierut quotes Massimo Vignelli to the call for an obvious need for better criticism, “Pretty pictures can no longer lead the way in which our visual environment should be shaped. It is time to debate, to probe the values, to examine the theories that are part of our heritage and to verify their validity to express our times” (Design Observer).
Thankfully this plead is being answered gradually by more design professionals taking into consideration the essence of their work, what it means, and pursuing critical thinking dialogue to give their work a chance in the rough terrain of the public eye. A conference that is taking place in April (that I REALLY want to go to) is called Blunt: Explicit and Graphic Design Criticism Now. The conference is supposed to highlight contrasting views about design criticism and to reveal the positive and negative aspects of criticism as an activity for designers. The conference is broken up into four areas: practice, history, writing, and education. It is valid to ask ourselves what technology has done to aid and disrupt our process of design criticism. It is an area of research that is potent with potential as public design executions cannot be what keeps design from evolving to suit needs and not merely the comfort of consistency. There are many sites that embody a respectable, useful sense of criticism, such as Brand New on Underconsideration.com. It all boils down to having more research about design. Better understanding does not guarantee a better public reception, but it does give needed leverage to a professional practice that currently has too many cooks in the kitchen. Maybe some of my other classmates can come to the Blunt conference and we can start some type of design criticism revolution? Just a thought.
Bierut, Michael. ”Graphic Design Criticism as a Spectator Sport.” The Design Observer. 14 January 2013. Accessed January 15, 2013. http://observatory.designobserver.com/michaelbierut/feature/graphic-design-criticism-as-a-spectator-sport/37607/