Making Critical Choices About Criticism

In the current issue of Print, Alexandra Lange wrote a very interesting essay titled “An Anatomy of Uncriticism,” proposing the concept that certain sacred cows are not simply impervious to design criticism, they are not critiqued at all. Apple is her primary example.

“In June, when Apple unveiled its donut-shaped, spaceship suggestive headquarters in Cupertino, California, I took to my Design Observer blog to critique what I saw as its retrograde suburbanism,” she writes. . . “Commentators immediately wrote back, accusing me of East Coast snobbery and, worse, irrelevance.”

One commentator’s response triggered Lange’s ire:

“Apple can do whatever it wants to do. It is a company and they make good stuff and they try their best to do the best at whatever it may be. Not all companies do that . . . No one can complain or has the right [to].”

She was right to be annoyed. That last phrase is just plain silly. Criticism is as necessary in every part of the design realm as it is for art and culture. Opinion sparks discussion. Discussion educates. Education forms opinion. Opinion is essential for free speech . . . and so on. So, what’s that bunk about not having “the right” to be critical?

Lange takes her thesis further, questioning where, when and how criticism should be practiced – and what is worthy to be critiqued. (She does not, however, address who is worthy to be a critic, though). In asking who, along with Apple, is “above criticism, and why” she lists three categories: “Living Legends” (and the power of excellence), “Those too good to be criticized” (owing to their good intentions) and “The Power of Happy” (bloggers who are “too helpful, too tasteful, and too relentlessly positive to be critiqued”). [Read Lange’s essay for the significance of these distinctions.]

There are indeed designers and designs that get free-from-critique passes. There are also those that are totally ignored by critics for various reasons. The larger question is not who or what is scrutinized, but what deserves scrutiny. Critics must make critical choices. Saying nothing is often as telling as saying something — although sometimes it is just ignorance. Interpreting the reason for silence is itself part of the critical discussion.

Arguably, the Apple advocate is right in a wrong-headed way. Apple has definitely done much for industrial, graphic and all manner of design. By virtue of its virtues it has earned a place in the pantheon, but that does not mean blind acceptance. Apple has made mistakes that have impacted the consuming public.

When Steve Jobs died, the first request I received asking me to write about his legacy was to focus on the “flubs,” “misfires” and “failures.” Aside from the Newton and Lisa, I selected the E-Mac (above), the handsome, though bulky and bulbous desktop without any handle. That was a design flaw that still plagues me (I still have the machine on my studio floor, too heavy and much too difficult to carry downstairs).

So, Apple is not above design criticism. Nor should any company or company’s products that directly impact the populace. But does that hold true for individual designers? What about Massimo Vignelli, Chermayeff and Geismar, Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast, who Lange singles out as “legends.” All are or are about to be in their 80s. Does a lifetime of work exempt their work from evaluation? If they are still producing after all these years, which all of these designers are, shouldn’t they get some kind of senior discount?

If the criterion for what warrants design criticism is based on a level of social, cultural or political impact, then a particular work is fair game regardless of the age or virtuosity of its maker. Since criticism is not meant to be a scold, but is rather a means of illuminating — delving below the surface — finding aspects of work that benefits by explanation and analysis, nothing and no one should be exempt. The “legends” deserve the attention, even if the work is “lesser” than their earlier accomplishments.

The critic must serve as an arbiter by choosing what is worth critiquing. Sacred cow or simple heifer, whatever the decision the critique must have merit — it must provide value to the end-user, who in the end, after all, will be the final arbiter.


8 thoughts on “Making Critical Choices About Criticism

  1. Paperacrobat

    When Apple get it right they really get it right though.
    They entered the mobile phone market 15 years after everyone else and with their first iPhone model, created the most innovative phone in the world. Everything else now is just a sad clone.
    That’s why I love Apple – they invent not copy

  2. Joe

    The problem with design criticism is that design is often not solely the product or system of the mind of a single designer. Often projects are team based and have the influence of the client who might also be more than one person. 
    The budgets of projects are much smaller for graphic design. So unlike a billion dollar building by a hot architect, not much is on the line. It is easier to move on after a bad conclusion, not put it in your portfolio, and do something better in the future.
    Fine art is often made by just one artist. If they are a big name and have a team, that team (1 or 2 assistants) follows the direction of the artist. The work is almost always open to criticism.
    Even movies have a director and the directors team (usually) follows their demands.
    Many agree that the London 2012 design leaves much to be desired but, it was done with many people involved. In that sense, that is the biggest problem with it, making it un-critique- able.
    Interestingly, a historical figure like Paul Rand, who worked alone for much of his career (except for assistants who never contributed) is probably one of the most critique open of graphic designers. Now, can we talk about those cigar boxes?

  3. David D

    I like how the article is a criticism on criticism.
    I stand firm that everyone is allowed their own opinion – even if that opinion is to withhold or exclaim theirs. However, I also believe that one must always consider the source of that opinion when it comes to relevance and potential value.

  4. mss

    Design “legends” in this field or any field should not be exempt. That implies a certain condescension. Many of those legends are still most able but may be resting on laurels (think King Lear). We, and they, are better off if they continue to work hard and produce given their obvious talents. However, any critique should respectfully acknowledge their contributions.

  5. artbymichael

    It seems like we are a culture given to extremes. There are some people and/or products that, as you say, are given a pass, but it seems that everything else is fair game and is critiqued in a rather mean spirited way. A good description of our times is taken from the title of a book by Diana Rigg (from 1983), “No Turn Unstoned”.