Danger Muse Hazards of the Design Critic

Posted inID Mag

With so much design pushing itself into the public eye, the critic must look—and push back. Hazards abound: ad hominem attacks, self- aggrandizement, the temptation of a handy-but-unfair pun as a deadline looms (“Eyeland Castaway: Designer Overbored?”). Some hazards, though, uniquely plague design critics.

lists The media love to rank the ten best blops,1 the number-one frip, the 100 greatest pippadoos. The value judgments inherent in these shopping lists arenot criticism.2 Instead, a critic interprets a work and explains to the public why the design in particular and Design in general matters. The critic selects but doesn’t rank. The public may want a buyer’s guide to fraggadorps, but the critic is obliged to compose a thinker’s guide to design. In this sense, all critics are contrarians.

shopping Every consumer who buys tobacco-flavored toothpaste is entitled to fill out a nasty feedback form, but that doesn’t make him a critic. Consumers don’t need backgrounds in design or marketing to justify their responses. They need only to open the magazine, turn on the TV, or walk through the store to speak their minds about what they know best: their consumption. Critics are consumers, too, but the greatest hazard of being a critic is to equate it with being a consumer. The consumer experience counts, yes, but critics don’t think with their credit cards. Nor are they personal shoppers for the masses.

To buy or not to buy? That is the consumer’s dilemma. For the critic to adopt the binary attitude of a consumer is market madness, a forfeiture of purpose. The critic respects the design as a work within a context, created by an authority, disseminated to the public. The critic asks not, “Is this for me?” but, instead, “Why was this made?”

identity crises Design critics tend to be self-appointed. If design can be consumed, and everyone’s a consumer, then we can all be design critics. This fact tends to deflate the critic’s ego.3 In self-doubt, the critic sabotages his or her own opinions with the plastique of qualifiers and the tiger trap of habitual deference to other authorities.4 Hobbled by an identity in crisis, the critic limps to the sidelines and, remote control in hand, becomes as passive a viewer as any home-shopping enthusiast.5

ventriloquism The design critic does not let the businessperson, academic, journalist, or even designer speak through her. The design critic resists the lingo of the scrutinized subject and favors the language of criticism.

Put another way, the design critic does not overidentify with her subject. The critic must remain an intermediary between the design and the audience who wants to appreciate it. A critic can’t do this properly if she adopts corporatespeak, designspeak, academic jargon, or the third-person neutrality of journalistic recounting. Critical language is nimble, flexible, ambivalent, theoretical, personal, rambling, and occasionally contradictory. Design a brochure or corporate identity, a first-aid kit or a stun gun, and you aren’t, as a rule, encouraged to contradict yourself, mix messages, be for smoking as well as against it, be for your company as well as suspicious of it, hide the stun gun beneath the antibacterial bandages. Designers make one choice and communicate one message.6 Critics don’t paddle in this pond. Critics can make three choices, explore tentative propositions, muddy the waters. Critical writing is not catalog copy, or a mission statement. Criticism adapts language to its revelatory purpose.

mindless authority Design has a problem with authority. The measure of a designer’s creative power varies widely among projects. Clients exert final control and take full credit. Designers often prefer anonymity, especially when the design sucks. Ignoring sticky questions of relative authority means crafting slick fictions and upholding the pretense of a designer’s creative control. Calibrating relationships among members of a design team and client representatives presents a troubling matter of empirical inquiry, the findings of which are sure to be as lively as a judicial ruling on a multi-party negligence suit. Rarely will we have the patience for that degree of parsing.

Critics, however, can’t resort to simple appreciation of the object. Critics need an authority in whom to invest the maker’s intent. The art critic has the artist; the literary critic, the novelist. The design critic has maybe a roster of contributors, including multiple clients and design teams. To avoid this difficulty, critics employ the passive voice, imparting to the object its own intent to be whatever it is. “The design is intended to be used,” etc. Intent, however, is the main character in the critic’s story and, like any main character worth following, invites scrutiny as it defies summary.

Good criticism is like good fiction: it makes you wish the characters were real.

David Barringer is well aware that another hazard of being a design critic is the temptation to write an essay on the hazards of being a design critic.

1 In the August 2005 Esquire, the subtitle for the product survey “The Esquire Ten” reads: “There is power in things. The right things.”

2 Magazines allow consumables to roam through their pages, but they departmentalize design criticism, if they include it at all. Design criticism should not be confused with product showcases (which depend on editorial judgment) or with design journalism.

3 In “What’s My Motivation?,” from Emigre 64, Shawn Wolfe defines his identity crisis as a designer in terms of conflict between the personal and the professional: “Actually I felt ashamed for thinking it [redesigning a gum wrapper] mattered at all in the first place,” and, “It’s silly, but I’m a designer and can’t help but notice these things.” His discomfort arises from a conflation of the consumer perspective (it’s just a gum wrapper) with the designer perspective (I care about design), and it’s an ambivalence all too easily shared by design critics. In the Jan/Feb 2005 Print, Grant Widmer cites aas a virtue of a photo book that it never lets “savvier-than-thou design criticism interfere with their world of fun.”

4 In the May 2005 I.D., book reviewer Nancy Levinson admits, after citing the defects of a Phaidon title, “I do hate to be a spoilsport.” In the May/June 2005 Print, book reviewer Colin Berry quips, after citing the defects of Graffiti World, “But who cares?” And even the indefatigable Rick Poynor, in reviewing The Push Pin Graphic for Eye 54, confesses, “It feels churlish to complain about such an enjoyable book.” These reflexive apologies reveal a charming paradox: The design critic doubts the legitimacy of criticism but stands in awe of its power to affect sales. To avoid the stigma of being a critic, design writers may defer to other design critics, namely by adhering to the journalistic convention of fielding quotes from experts. In the Jan/Feb 2005 Step Inside Design, Chantal Omodiagbe relies on Rick Poynor’s observations, and in a critical essay in Dot Dot Dot 7, Rob Giampetro depends on Susan Sontag’s arguments.

5 Voting from home, however, constitutes the essence of Mike Kippenhan’s call for an online American Idol–inspired program entitled Design Idol. In Emigre 65, Kippenhan suggests that designs from around the country compete for the critical approval of judges and the votes of an online audience.

6 As a consumable, a design may express a designer’s intent while still being subject to misuse by the consumer who, say, uses a screwdriver to puncture her neighbor’s tires.