An Anatomy of Uncriticism

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By: Alexandra Lange | January 5, 2012

What happens to design when we’re afraid to take on our sacred cows?

Apple criticism illustration

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. Companies have been plunking big geometric shapes in the countryside since the 1950s, simulating urbanism for their employees with cafeterias and bike shares, bowling alleys and snacks color-coded for health. For Apple to “think different,” I argued, the company would have to spend its dollars making Cupertino a more sustainable and urban place for all, not just the 12,000 with company IDs. Commenters immediately wrote back, accusing me of East Coast snobbery and, worse, irrelevance.

One wrote: “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. Apple needs space. It has a good plan that saves land and reduces carbon emissions. No one can complain or has a right [to].”

No one can complain or has a right to. As a critic, this stuck in my craw, but not just because I disagree. It seemed to encapsulate a dominant attitude about Apple, particularly in the design world. We cavil at the wood grain on the Newsstand app; we buy bigger and bigger cases for a product that, in my opinion, should be made not to need one—but that’s just picking at the margins. Apple has such a track record of success and such a hold on the market, and is such a mainstream promoter of design, that it is above criticism. I doubt that anyone at Apple read my comments or would have cared; and yet the commenters still felt a need to defend, as if the power of scale were not enough.

Way back in 1983, Massimo Vignelli issued a call for criticism, writing in Graphis, “The main function of criticism is not that of providing flattering or denigrating reviews but that of providing creative interpretations of the work, period or theory being analyzed.” He added, “Graphic design will not be a profession until we have criticism.” That’s exactly what I thought I was doing for Apple, and yet here as elsewhere I see pushback against criticism as useless or parasitic. If design—graphic, product, interaction—needs criticism to make it whole and mature, it seems clear we aren’t there yet.

So I set about trying to identify who was up there with Apple, above criticism, and why. In considering the contemporary design world, I identified three categories of popular practice that seem largely uncriticized. (To be perfectly clear: I’m not saying I harbor secret desires to write takedowns of all of the below, just that they seem to be no one’s targets.)

The first is living legends: the power of excellence. If you do beautiful work for more than 20 years, indeed, why should anyone take notice of a few lesser projects? In this category I would put Vignelli himself, along with Chermayeff & Geismar, Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, and organizations like the Museum of Modern Art and Oxo. They are our collective influence, which makes it difficult to stand apart from them and critique. Their best work is already in the books, so their worst work is immediately dropped from the historic record, or assimilated into the narrative as a stepping-stone on the way to more success. Consider how NeXT was typically discussed in the career of Steve Jobs (not a designer, but still a design-world legend); we talk about its software influence, not its market failures. In fact, I couldn’t even remember what a NeXT computer looked like, as its image has been replaced by Paul Rand’s celebrated logo.

One can become a legend for a single paradigm-shifting product. Bill Moggridge has worked on hundreds of projects. But when we see him in Objectified, or read his bio, the first tag is “the creator of the first laptop.” Does he need to do more? He can never be anything less than that. Maybe he took on his current challenge as director of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, in an attempt to do something equally paradigm-shifting for the 21st-century museum, since it’s hard to top the laptop as a product. You might ask what the point would be of critiquing legends’ efforts, besides being an obnoxious upstart. But if they are still working, they are still questing, and there are lessons to be learned from where (or when) our institutions fall short.

There’s also fame, and being famous outside the design world in particular. I think of Chip Kidd, whose appearance at the last AIGA conference was greeted, at least on Twitter, by a revival-meeting level of enthusiasm. He has the excellent work, but he also has the name recognition. New York’s High Line park is sort of an urban equivalent: It’s an example of contemporary design that is also popular. Except at its current level of popularity, it’s an unpleasant experience.

A second category is those too good to be criticized: the power of intentions. When the work in question is meant to improve lives, save the environment, or even just educate, who are we as critics sitting in our comfy ergonomic desk chairs to criticize? After I wrote one of the few negative reviews of the director Gary Hustwit’s documentary Urbanized, he tweeted at me, “The film will get millions of non-experts more involved in urban issues.” This isn’t really an argument about its merits, and yet it stills many voices. Of course I want more people interested in urban issues. Exhibitions like MoMA’s “Small Scale, Big Change” and the Cooper-Hewitt’s “Design with the Other 90%” are often evaluated purely on the “goodness” of their content and the publicity they can bring to issues, with few critics questioning their criteria for inclusion or evaluation, or even the effectiveness of their presentation. There was a good back-and-forth around Bruce Nussbaum’s Fast Company essay “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?” although his use of the word “imperialism” jumped the discussion past such reasonable first- and third-world questions as: Does it work? How well?

A few “good” projects can act as critical camouflage for an entire practice. What do we know Yves Béhar for? Probably his design for the light, bright, sturdy XO computer for One Laptop per Child. Such humanitarian design is not the largest part of his portfolio, but he now has the platform of a designer who is above colored consumer plastics and mobile headsets. The last line of Béhar’s CV: “In 2009 Yves Béhar was one of two industrial designers invited to speak at Davos.” Without the XO, he’d be one of the other 99.9 percent.

The last category of the uncriticized is perhaps the newest: the power of happy. I speak mostly of the bloggers, those too helpful, too tasteful, and too relentlessly positive to be critiqued. There are two versions
of this: the ostensibly neutral online magazine, like Dezeen and Fast Company’s Co. Design blog, and the more personal design blog. Co. Design occasionally publishes criticism, including a recent test run of the Jawbone UP, but the overall tone is aggressively up.

I’d put Tina Roth Eisenberg (a.k.a. Swissmiss) in the latter category. I share much of her taste, she can crash a new site with a recommendation, and she supports the design community IRL with the proliferating Creative Mornings. Ditto Grace Bonney of Design*Sponge. They’re powerful and popular presenters of design, so it seems worth analyzing what these blogs valorize, implicitly and explicitly. As a regular reader of both of the personal blogs in particular, I have noticed that they seem uncomfortable with criticizing, and could even be seen as arguing for avoiding it. When Bonney didn’t have anything nice to say about last year’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair, she posted a video and a justification: “Rather than just being disappointed I wanted to discuss these issues here this morning in hopes of starting a dialogue.” She had to break from her regular blogging practice to be critical. Roth Eisenberg recently posted a quote from the web designer Chris Shiflett that included the comment: “There’s no particular sophistication required to be a critic. We know this, because children often dislike foods they learn to love as adults.” I would argue that the adult who can describe what changed about her taste during that time is a fairly sophisticated critic—and I’d love to hear more about ambitious work that doesn’t make Swissmiss smile, and why.

Stars illustration by Graham Roumieu

In a recent talk at AIGA Chicago, Alice Twemlow, the chair of the design-criticism M.F.A. program at the School of Visual Arts (where I also teach), argued that criticism does the most good when it moves from talking about design to talking about society and the world. But that’s exactly where I see the gap. We can pick apart a Frankenfont like Roboto on Typographica, but we don’t always articulate to readers what the problem with it is as an application. I think part of the hesitation is fear: fear of tearing down figures who have “made it” outside the design profession, who engage with social and economic problems, and who have created positive showcases for design. All of these people and projects bring more attention to design, which is wonderful, but not if it means the end of analysis. Should critics be silenced by economic success? By the limits of their own geography and experience? If they were, design could turn into an online popularity contest, about nothing more than what gets the most retweets. Take minimalist posters, for example, which I critiqued on my blog as nothing more than link bait. That post proved to be link bait itself, more popular than anything else I wrote last year. But if criticism is to be constructive, it has to take on the Apples, not Snow White as represented by an apple with a bite out of it. ▪

Illustrations by Graham Roumieu

Alexandra Lange is a critic, journalist, and architectural historian based in Brooklyn. She is the co-author, with Jane Thompson, of Design Research: The Store That Brought Modern Living to American Homes (Chronicle, 2010). In March 2012, Princeton Architectural Press will publish her next book, Writing About Architecture.