Today’s Obsession: Whither Critique?

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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.