Today's Obsession: Whither Critique?

Photo: Flickr member Peter Hess

Tangentially related to yesterday’s thoughts about a failure of quality, I have also been noticing a failure of critique in the design community lately. Well, lately meaning “since social sites started popping up,” and most specifically on Twitter.

The other day, The Morning News launched a redesign from Jason Santa Maria, and the web-design community went a little crazy with the congratulations (like so). The combination of The Morning News, which is essentially NPR-ish left-centric essays and reportage, and Jason Santa Maria, who’s a hero of many young web designers, created a little bit of a perfect storm on Twitter. My boyfriend quipped in his (private) account,

Every time Jason Santa Maria launches a design and I don’t mess myself like everyone else, I kinda feel I’m doing something wrong.

And I retweeted it with agreement from the House of Pretty account. Jason popped up shortly thereafter (is there anyone who isn’t constantly running a search for their own name?) asking if I was saying I did or didn’t like his work. The full conversation is here. The thing was, I wasn’t really talking about his work at all—I was really grousing about the constant, irritating stream of affirmation that falls into my Twitter stream like an avalanche whenever a popular designer launches something new.

It’s irritating for a few reasons.

There is almost no room on Twitter for extensive critique; the messages have to be hyper-edited. That, combined with its speed and disposability, creates an environment where thinking before posting is largely eschewed. So most posts about someone else’s new projects end up being largely meaningless “Yay!” or “Boo!” brainfarts with a link.

When something unpopular is posted to Twitter, mob mentality takes over almost immediately. If you’re on the offending end of of an unpopular tweet, lord save your soul for the amount of trash-talk you’ll have to endure from one-time posters who see your name once, attack you, then move on to the next item—without even pausing to think about what’s really going on. Twitter enables members to constantly have automatic search updating their interests. The founders think of the medium as facilitating a conversation, but the search tool makes it more like wading through a river of vaguely-collected thoughts. More a series of megaphones, less a conversation.

The third portion of my gripe is based on what I see as a degree of sameness in Jason’s work which i never ever ever see anyone address. Now, this is a personal point of peeveishness, and it doesn’t particularly affect the operationality of his work one way or the other. Nevertheless, I see it and it makes me nuts that I see it.

(And, here I go actually criticizing someone’s work in public. Jason, my apologies, but I need an example.)

There are two default decisions that seem to recur in his work. First, there are a lot of black, red and white sites in his body of work. Secondly, he uses a particular type treatment often (grotesque, usually condensed, with a lot of white space).

Does the actual work piss me off? No. Is it bad? No. But I’m suspicious of defaulty-looking decisions like red/black/white and a recurring type treatment across unrelated projects, because they seem to say that there’s a possibility something in the process isn’t being considered—considering how universal both those things are.

Obviously, based upon what Jason’s written here—that design’s about communication, not innovation—he’s not working within the same context I am at all.

What bugs me is that I have never once seen any sort of actual critique of his visual rationale anywhere on the web—only platitudes affirming a great job, never any real commentary. That, my friends, is a failure of critique among designers.

13 thoughts on “Today's Obsession: Whither Critique?

  1. Duri Chitayat

    SOME people try to take twitter into the realm of serious conversation (think tweetchats on #themeaningoflife). I find that the medium is best used as a likebox with flare. You said it right though, basically nothing but yays an nehs and not a whole lot behind it.
    The saving grace is, when I look for criticism i often find it on twitter, through links to great articles like this one.
    Now off to go tweet this “YAYY read this post ‘whither critique?’”

  2. Chappell Ellison

    I think the lack of meaningful design criticism runs pretty deep, with its origins rooted somewhere in our design schools. The ability to communicate is not only glossed over, but sometimes completely missing from the curriculum of most undergraduate design programs. Students with impeccable portfolios find themselves jobless, wondering why they just can’t get a break. Yet it’s never the student with the best portfolio who gets hired — it’s the one who is most skilled at communicating their work.
    A dearth of criticism will continue to be a problem, as with any insular discipline. Those of us who do step forward with a bold critique, such as Alexandra Lange’s stellar piece about Ouroussoff, can fall prey to Twitter/Tumblr, where we’re branded as jealous, sycophantic, etc.
    But I think critique is still out there, we just have so many channels now that it’s difficult to know where to look. As a design writer and critic, I find myself less inclined to write for design journals and more so attracted to broader publications, such as GOOD and The New Yorker. Design criticism is alive, but unfortunately, it might not be under the design umbrella.

  3. Patric King Post author

    i agree about a failure to scale highe-quality content. frankly, i argued about this with emigré years ago and they pooh-poohed it. i’m going to look back at those old emails, but if i recall correctly, they didn’t think the medium was worth much.
     
    that in and of itself makes me feel kinda like the sky’s falling.

    (apologies, on re-reading, conversation was different—was arguing that the web was fundamentally changing the way design happens for young designers & emigré wasn’t buying it; seemed like a disconnect because of unfamiliarity with the tools)

    published critique and debate was really easy to come by all through the 90′s. but then… poof. it went away. i have no idea what happened, but suddenly, there just wasn’t all that much of a discourse anymore. that’s what frustrates me so; i know it’s out there somewhere. where?

  4. Frank Chimero

    I think it’s really important to have discourse and criticism in design, but I’m not terribly sure that a bunch of attaboys on Twitter represents a failure to critique in general. I think this all comes down to publishing: criticism is still happening all over the place, it just doesn’t always come up in a published format. This is the way it’s always been.

    I don’t think the permission idea should be shrugged off: most aren’t comfortable criticizing the work of a stranger without permission, and if they aren’t a stranger, there are often better modes for feedback than publishing it. This is what Laura was mentioning.

    It’s not so much that the web has decreased the amount of serious criticism out there, it’s just that it hasn’t significantly increased published criticism. I think that’s an important distinction, because there’s a bit of an illusion that happens. We can sometimes feel like the web is making us dumber or more shallow because it hasn’t scaled “high-brow” content at the same rate as the more conversational, “low-brow” stuff.

    But it’s of the format. What used to be ephemeral (like appreciating a design piece by passing it around the office) is now documented in words. It’s not that there’s more of it, it’s just that now we can see it and are made subject to its presence because it is active. Those attaboys come at us if we follow the right people, and has a feeling of being en masse because of the consolidation of the real-time feedback afforded by social media.

    So, I guess my point is that I don’t think the sky isn’t falling. Apologies for the length.

  5. Patric King Post author

    to add to this: critique is difficult to handle even within scientific communities, as emotions always interfere. my boyfriend, who is a coder, runs into this sort of thing all the time in scenarios where the opinions can be traced back to facts rather than styistic opinions like ours.

  6. Heidi Schmidt

    At the risk of staying on topic, I agree with Patric’s point:

    “There is almost no room on Twitter for extensive critique; the messages have to be hyper-edited. That, combined with its speed and disposability, creates an environment where thinking before posting is largely eschewed. So most posts about someone else’s new projects end up being largely meaningless “Yay!” or “Boo!” brainfarts with a link.”

    I would also add to the list, design porn sites such as Dribbble where design is offered up like bites of sticky candy that fanboy/girls vote on. What happened to design discussion and critique? Is something good because the designer is most “popular” or because there is a well considered design process that is based on client requirements and educated design decision making? The lack of discussion and understanding of the design process avoids the heavy lifting of what makes a design an elegant and smart solution.

  7. Patric King Post author

    i don’t agree with conversation about work being stopped by manners or permission—it doesn’t actually bother me if i upset someone by disagreeing with them. that said, i understand i’m very much in the minority.

    but!

    i did actually make it a point to rewrite this post a few times to be clear about my point that my feelings about jason’s work are a jumping-off point for a larger issue (i hope that worked out). we’re missing a major component of discussion by not disagreeing in public. it brings out the very reason our work is so different from designer to designer, and it brings forth the reason potential clients should choose one over the other.

  8. Laura Brunow Miner

    Remember the part of Outliers about the Korean pilots who found it culturally uncomfortable to disagree with each other in their native language, and actually had to learn English for the purpose of … crashing fewer planes?

    People who spend a lot of time on the web are over the drama of flame wars and loud opinions, and realize that anything can be taken the wrong way when typed into a little box. So we avoid unpleasantness on screen.

    But that doesn’t mean we’re not trying to do the best work we can, and have our peers do the same. Instead of looking for this challenge on the web though, many of the web designers I know seek critique/dissent in coffee shops, on the phone, or over Skype. When designing <a href=”http://pictorymag.com”>Pictory</a> I had someone smart over for dinner every Tuesday for most of a summer in order to tear back and rebuild my designs.
    So maybe talking over the web is like speaking in Korean, and there’s not a good way to criticize someone without being offensive. But my takeaway has been that spoken English is a great fallback.

  9. Frank Chimero

    One of the things, I think, that frequently gets forgotten when we have discussions about commentary is the important role of permission when offering feedback. One’s more likely to trumpet the virtues of something because they feel they do not need permission to do so. Our consciences, however, restrain us from providing less positive criticism without permission out of fear it could viewed as vitriol, even if it wasn’t intended to be so.

  10. Jason Santa Maria

    “not really, but close to that. what i’m asking is why no one has contested the reason behind using a default style, or if that’s a failure of the work (anyone’s, not just yours).”

    Well, if that’s the case, you can leave me out of the discussion. I’m happy to just go back to making things. :)

  11. Patric King Post author

    “You seem to be asking why no one has noticed that I have a particular style in my design right now.”
    not really, but close to that. what i’m asking is why no one has contested the reason behind using a default style, or if that’s a failure of the work (anyone’s, not just yours).

  12. Jason Santa Maria

    “What bugs me is that I have never once seen any sort of actual critique of his visual rationale anywhere on the web—only platitudes affirming a great job, never any real commentary. That, my friends, is a failure of critique among designers.”
     
    “There are two default decisions that seem to recur in his work.”
     
    Yep, these things are true, but I don’t see a problem with that. I’ve only been really designing for a little over a decade. I have things I gravitate toward and ways I approach problems. If you see my hand in something I do, that’s OK, I did it. A good solution is a good solution, so if it works, what does it matter?
     
    Many designers go through phases and lapse in and out of their personal styles over the course of a career. If you saw some of my work from 5 or 10 years ago, you’d notice themes as well, albeit different ones. I think that’s natural, and the practice of being a designer takes that into account. You are always learning, testing, and experimenting, even on the things you think you know. So, even if I’ve used a solution to a problem before, it doesn’t mean that solution is forever off the table of options from there on out, and it doesn’t mean that solution can’t be further explored and experimented upon (because it likely wasn’t perfect the first time around either).
     
    While I do lament the way the conversation around design and critique has diminished, I don’t think what you’re looking for is criticism around a particular project, but more an observation of the way my mind works. You seem to be asking why no one has noticed that I have a particular style in my design right now. I’ve seen and talked to people who have made this observation, just as they and I have made observations about other designers and where their tendencies lie.
     
    At the end of it, I try to avoid designing to impress or avoid a good solution merely for the sake of it. Instead I always strive to just do the best job I can under the constraints I’m given. That’s the best I can ever hope for.

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