Observer: In a Critical Condition

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Has the term “critical graphic design” run its course? Or can the concept still deepen the practice of design? 

Way back in 2008, I wrote an Observer column about a phenomenon labeled “critical graphic design,” which at that point appeared to be emerging. My essay focused on the catalog to an exhibition titled “Forms of Inquiry: The Architecture of Critical Graphic Design,” which the curator explained was “a group of contemporary, international graphic designers who base their work in critical investigation.”

This was the first use of the term in connection with a public manifestation or event, and the show went on to travel to art schools and similar venues for a few years. The catalog’s editors, Mark Owens and Zak Kyes, weren’t pleased by my comments, and we had a brief exchange, which can be read here.

In the years since, I’ve written about critical graphic design from time to time, but the tendency has never seemed adequately debated, never quite real, as a Google search soon confirms. In the absence of a widely used definition, we could adapt the wording of Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby’s description of critical design as it applies to products, and say that critical graphic design “uses speculative design proposals to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role graphic communication plays in everyday life.”

If something significant for professional practice had been going on—I’m using “professional” in the widest sense—then one would expect to see many articles discussing it in the design press, yet the subject has been greeted largely by indifference. To my knowledge, Eye has never published a critical report on critical graphic design, nor has Print. Despite the list of “Forms of Inquiry” participants hailing from the artier end of design, one would struggle to name even five designers who have, since the exhibition, proven to be publicly and strongly committed to the rubric and what it might represent. 

The one salient exception is the research-led Dutch design team Metahaven, authors of the books Uncorporate Identity (2010) and Black Transparency. If there were plenty of designers operating at the same level of ambition and impact, then critical graphic design would by now be a force to be taken seriously and a topic for wide discussion.

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“The idea is only trash if not executed,” a poster by Eric Cai Shi Wei created for the International Ningbo Design Biennial in China, indicates the reach of “critical graphic design.”

Regardless of its low visibility in the professional mainstream, critical graphic design has persisted—as a term, idea and design mode—within graphic design education, particularly at the MFA level. Anyone studying over the last few years at institutions such as Yale University, Rhode Island School of Design or at the Sandberg Institute or Werkplaats Typografie in the Netherlands, will be familiar with “Forms of Inquiry” and its milieu. Some impressive student projects can be found online, though they aren’t necessarily classified as critical graphic design, and only insiders, or people who follow the output of particular design schools, are likely to see them. 

Something of the flavor of this educational culture can be gleaned from a Tumblr started two years ago, “Critical Graphic Design.” Its tone is humorous and satirical, suggesting an engagement with the theme that is ambivalent, if not sometimes hostile. 

A poem on the Tumblr titled “Love. Of Critical Graphic Design,” begins:
“I want to fuck you
in front of
works of critical graphic design
in front of installations …
performances
video graphic design
at a graphic design gallery
or at a graphic design auction
while people call out lot numbers
and bang gavels”

And so it goes on for many lines. I thought it was hilarious until I realized it was a steal from a poem on the n+1 website (no longer online). The words “contemporary art,” repeated like a mantra, have been changed throughout the poem to “critical graphic design.”

In the wickedly accurate “Critical Graphic Design Song” (2013) by Michael Oswell, who worked at Metahaven for a while, Oswell intones the names of Zak Kyes and Czech type designer Radim Peško, who were featured in “Forms of Inquiry,” to the point of absurdity in a cod-threatening mid-European accent over an ominous techno beat. These are obviously household names to the critical design crowd.

In a recent—and rare—article about critical graphic design posted on Design Observer, Francisco Laranjo, a doctoral candidate at the London College of Communication, draws attention to the Critical Graphic Design Tumblr and laments the way that graphic jokes and parodies have become substitutes for more formal critiques of critical graphic design projects. He gives some compelling examples of this kind of initiative, including Taxodus by Femke Herregraven, Drone Survival Guide by Ruben Pater and The Spectacle of the Tragedy by Noortje van Eekelen, which can all be found online.

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The Spectacle of the Tragedy is an online project by Noortje van Eekelen. Here, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s public image is presented as a Pantone chart. (The Spectacle of the Tragedy © 2012 Noortje van Eekelen)

But Laranjo, who is situated within design education, tends to overestimate the interest of student work for external observers. Students of history or literature often produce accomplished writing, but we don’t expect the outside world to pore over their school essays. We wait for noteworthy public contributions from these individuals in their subsequent careers. We want to see existing channels occupied and transformed.

At a time when graphic design criticism appears to be in general decline, it isn’t so surprising that student projects have failed to inspire a detailed public critical response. It’s equally unsurprising that students don’t publish formal critiques of one another’s projects.

Even if they were to do so, how would this connect to a wider critical discourse, if that’s what we still hope for from critical graphic design?

In any consideration of the issue, it’s always worth going back to Dunne and Raby’s concept of critical design—introduced in Dunne’s Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience and Critical Design (1999). Dunne and Raby told me recently that the initial uptake was slow, and that by around 2005, they had more or less stopped using the term. Then, in 2006, MIT Press reissued the book, giving it international distribution, and critical design is now established as a stance in the experimental industrial design and interactive design communities, though its use is complicated by the emergence of related concepts such as “speculative design” and “design fiction.”

The same thing is happening in graphic design. The recent “All Possible Futures” exhibition, curated by Jon Sueda at the SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco, focused on speculative design. Sueda was a participant in “Forms of Inquiry” and included 10 of the 19 designers or design teams in his show, as well as Zak Kyes’ studio, Zak Group.

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Image from All Possible Futures

Despite my occasional censorious remarks about the vagueness of critical graphic design, I’ve always argued for and supported the idea of using design for more critical purposes. Laranjo believes that critical graphic design’s moment (not that it has been much of a moment) may be passing, and that newer, more fashionable terms will supersede it, although the ideas and methods they represent may not be so different.

Recent attempts by student thesis writers to summarize criticality in design display a regrettable tendency to look inward. “Critical practice is more about expressing disciplinary issues or concerns in ways that help define and strengthen the graphic design discipline,” writes Amanda Thomas (who studied MFA Communication Design at Texas State University) on the Walker Art Center blog. 

If critical graphic design were to become a consolidated, fully evolved mode of practice, then it’s highly likely that it would strengthen graphic design as a profession by deepening its thinking, enhancing its reputation and extending its influence. But this cannot be the sole or even main motivation for undertaking such projects. The primary aim should be to produce work that addresses and interrogates communication needs and issues—not the meta-problems of being a designer—and that proves itself to be beneficial to society in some way.

“I worry that critical design is only preaching to the choir,” observed Susan Yelavich, associate professor at The New School for Design, in a debate about nongraphic critical design on the MoMA website. “Work like this needs to move into the space of editorials and essays that are read outside of the design community.” This is surely true. Dunne and Raby said as much from the start.

Yet the argument hasn’t been made with conviction—looking outward beyond graphic design’s borders—by practitioners willing to identify themselves as critical graphic designers. Whatever we’re going to call the activity, it remains the case that the world urgently needs more critically engaged graphic communicators. 

Read Observer: A Report from the Place Formerly Known as Graphic Design and Critical Omissions for more on the subject. 


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