Thursday, April 13, 2006

Design critique

Great article by Rick Poynor in the March issue of icon: The Death of the Critic

In assessing the current state of design criticism (not design journalism), he takes a look at three different kinds of design criticism as well as what I would call design critique. From my perspective, there are several differences, but the crucial one is that design criticism comes from within the practice and design critique comes from outsiders. As Poynor explains:

"The final category of criticism takes a more questioning and sometimes even hostile view of the subject. This is the cultural studies approach. It treats cultural production as a form of evidence, taking these phenomena apart to discover what they reveal about society, and viewing the subject matter through particular lenses: feminism, racism, consumerism, sustainability. Design, as a primarily commercial endeavour, makes a particularly good subject for this type of analysis and unmasking. The problem, from a designer's point of view, is that this form of design commentary can be deeply sceptical about many things that a working professional takes for granted. Designers who read it are often confronted with two bald alternatives: feel bad about what you are doing or change your ways. Combative, campaigning criticism - Naomi Klein's No Logo is the best known recent example - is more likely to come from outside the design world."

Brilliant - I finally understand why some designers get so pissed off with me. And if this is what it means to be arrogant and elitist, I renew my commitment to design critique! Just kidding. But that idea points at something of particular interest to me: how individual and cultural differences get negotiated.

I mean, clearly I stand behind being sceptical rather than taking things for granted, and clearly I believe that critical thinking is a fundamental skill for everyday life. Put otherwise, I believe that life is political. I ask myself and my students who we want to be at the end of the day, and if we're willing to accept the consequences of our decisions. I especially value critique when it compels people (including me) to strongly react and defend against change. I believe it is always already more constructive than de(con)structive. In my mind, it isn't about guilt, shame or feeling bad about what we do--it's about honesty, compassion and responsibility. But I seriously object to certain business practices that seem to channel current design and design-thinking, and I know there are designers out there who agree. What seems to be lacking though is any sort of shared commitment to actually do something about it. To change the ways we teach our students, the ways we manage our projects and teams, the goals our businesses and organisations set...

Take Poynor's comments on Ian Nairn's 1955 Outrage issue of the Architectural Review:

"What is remarkable about Outrage is its controlled anger and passion. The purpose of criticism here is to force open people's eyes, to change opinion and make a difference...To produce a scorching critique like this you need profound idealism and a shared sense of what matters, and we have lost this now...Many people find it harder to feel such a keen sense of outrage today because they have ceased to believe that it's likely to have much effect. What counts is to find ways of accommodating things as they are and of making whatever practical interventions you can lever, though these aren't expected to bring about fundamental change."

Is this true? Is today's outrage only another commodity? Have critiques been replaced by catalogues and congratulations?

Poynor concludes:

"I would say we have a problem. We desperately need criticism. It's a vital part of the development of any creative discipline. It helps to shape the way practitioners think about their work and it plays a crucial role in fostering critical reflection among design students. Conducted convincingly, design criticism might even establish design in the public's consciousness - at last - as an activity that has a little more to it than dreaming up cool things to buy in the shops."

Hear hear! And while we're at it, how do 'by-and-for the people' technologies and media help to construct who 'the people' actually are and what they can do? Who benefits from this and in which ways?

(article via Design Observer)


Anonymous amoeda said...

In my first career I was an (aspiring) design critic. I did, in Poyter's term, much championing of the new--that was the fun part, as far as I was concerned. That is, I wrote about design and new media. After a few years, I started to feel that despite being published, I was mostly talking to myself. It could be that my editors thought that too, because they started assigning me stories that were less about championing or interrogating the new and more about guiding the readership (mostly designers) in how to incorporate the new into their practices. I decided that Career #1 was over. In my next career, my goal was to be a critic not by writing, but by designing (mostly intangible) products that embodied the principles I had tried to write about, doing this work for cultural institutions and other patrons outside the mainstream economy. These products could even be interactive--that way, I would no longer be talking to myself. I would suggest that we lost a generation of design critics to this idea, and to the technology-driven lowering of barriers to the mass production of designed artifacts. We are losing them still, I think. Not that it's always a net bad thing. Some former critics are quite good designers. Personally, I have enjoyed mixed results. One thing I have learned, though, is that critique by artifact is better for inciting people to create their own artifacts than it is for initiating discussion and social change. Again, not a bad thing, but not what I intended, except when I was teaching design students, which was quite gratifying. Now in Career #3, I am trying to think more systemically and analytically. That is to say, I am learning methods of observation that I hope will help me write and design (or both, as appropriate) to make change in contexts I can define. Thanks, Anne, you're always asking questions that bear a lot of reflection. I just wish you were teaching down here so I could do that reflection for credit ;)

Blogger Anne said...

Thanks amoeda - great comments and interesting work!


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