Cast your mind back to 2007. Apple had unleashed its first iPhone to a near-hysterical global reception. The Helvetica documentary was released, cementing its subject’s superstar status in the design world. Wolff Olins’ London 2012 identity had just provoked a minor outcry in the mainstream press. And, in certain corners of the design community, the announcement of three pioneering new postgraduate programmes had brought the topic of design criticism’s fate to the fore once again.
Those announcements might not have made many headlines, even in the design press, but the three courses—MA Design Writing Criticism at the London College of Communication; Write, Interpret, Research and Exhibit (WIRE) at the Konstfack in Stockholm; and D-Crit at New York’s School of Visual Arts—represented a landmark move forward for the field.
They offered something no educational institution had done before; programmes of study dedicated to improving the way in which design was thought about, written about, and ultimately understood. Spearheaded by some of the design world’s most renowned writers and thinkers, they promised to furnish a new wave of critics with the skills needed to interrogate design and its outcomes in an informed and engaging way. In short, they offered design criticism a potentially life-saving shot of adrenaline.
The death, or at least dwindling health, of design criticism has been a recurring topic within the design community for years now. There are many ways in which the field has been found wanting—poor-quality writing, practitioners’ subjectivity, unwillingness to ruffle industry feathers and even a disinterested audience have all been blamed for the fact that design still has comparatively few prominent critical voices in its own community, and almost no presence whatsoever in the mainstream press. Yet design’s influence upon our everyday lives has only continued to grow. If design criticism’s aim is to explore design and its impact on an ever-changing world, as critics and writers have repeatedly suggested, then new chances for focused study into its execution would surely make the discipline’s future look more hopeful.
Now, four years on, the first few groups of graduates from those three courses have begun to establish themselves within the professional field. The short-lived WIRE programme’s final four students graduated last year. Last month, the class of 2011 from both LCC and SVA completed their studies and must now be contemplating how they’ll put their hard-earned skills to use. And next year, the first graduates of a new Critical Writing in Art and Design course at the Royal College of Art will be in a similar position.
It’s still too soon to expect a complete overhaul in design criticism’s fate as a result of these courses’ contributions. But with new blood pumping in the critical community’s veins, there are still questions to be asked. What kind of climate are these latest graduates entering into? And what can the paths their predecessors have pursued so far tell us about the future of design criticism?
From an economic perspective, this seems like an inauspicious time for new writers to enter the working world. There’s a grim irony in the fact that design has finally got its first serious influx of specially-trained critics at the point when writers across the board are struggling in the face of dwindling fees, shrinking editorial budgets and a dearth of in-house opportunities, particularly in the design press. The demise of Design Week earlier this year is just the latest in a string of closures that’s seen printed creative publishing shrink alarmingly in recent years; indeed, if I’d been writing this article a year ago, Grafik too would have been on the obituaries list.
Paid venues for design writing and criticism look set to remain scarce, and this isn’t good news for those primed to enter the field. Their work was always going to be a labour of love, but it’s both unsustainable and unfair if that labour goes unrewarded. And solutions to this problem—bluntly put, of how to be a design critic whilst still somehow paying the bills—haven’t been forthcoming. At his commencement address for D-Crit’s class of 2010, John Thackara recommended that graduates shrink their living costs to almost nil to make the pursuit of their craft sustainable, even suggesting squatting as a solution to their potential financial woes. This, from one of the field’s most respected and outspoken contributors; grim prospects, then.
With print venues a seemingly volatile option for budding design critics, what about the Web? At face value, it still seems to be a hotbed of activity both for the consumption of design and for commentary upon it, offering an accessible platform for people to publish their thoughts to a potential audience of thousands. A solid money-making model for online writing still proves elusive, but that hasn’t stopped hordes of design-focused sites from flourishing. Turning to the Web wouldn’t solve design critics’ economic problems, but as a place to publish their work and reach a receptive audience, it looks like a much more optimistic option.
But just how receptive is that audience? Hive of activity it might be, but the web isn’t exactly renowned as the home of accomplished critical output. The very attribute that’s allowed online venues to prosper where print seems to fail is its ability to reach audiences quickly - there are no lead times to take into consideration and space is hardly at a premium. Online readers are hungry beasts, and to sate that appetite a lot of sites rely on image-heavy, text-light posts that don’t invite the kind of critical insight that longer articles can. That’s not to say that there’s no place online for more extensive such writing—DesignObserver, among others, continues to publish longer and more considered pieces at an impressive pace, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.
The consequence of this fast-paced online world is that we’ve ended up with a culture where instantaneous approval is easy to come by, and it’s shaping the way that many of us consume and interact with content. With new input whizzing by in the blink of an eye, judgement’s cast in a similar fashion, and our seal of approval—a ‘like’, a ‘favourite’, a grab for the Tumblr feed—is often instantaneous. Unfortunately, disapproval is just as easy to convey and design blogs’ comment feeds can end up polarised, with either gushing praise or derisive comments that reduce criticism to cocky mud-slinging which isn’t constructive for anyone.
It would be easy to condemn this culture of speedy judgement as a Bad Thing for design criticism, but it’s not as black and white as that. At least readers feel compelled to engage with what they encounter online, and their outpourings of praise and derision show that ultimately, people still care enough about design to celebrate what’s done well and call things out when they go awry. The challenge for future critics will be to find ways to capture that collective strength of feeling - a task that’s made much easier by accomplished written skills, which existing design criticism courses already place considerable focus on.
There’s something else we could learn from design’s online success stories, though. It’s telling that many of the big-name sites in this field are run by people who’ve taken an entrepreneurial approach, focusing not on one outlet but many. Take It’s Nice That, the blog founded in 2007 by Will Hudson, which has since developed into a business incorporating events, exhibitions, workshops, symposia and even a printed magazine, alongside a design practise of the same name. Or Tina Roth Eisenberg, the force behind Swissmiss, who’s since branched out into app design, a fun temporary tattoo business, and the CreativeMornings international events series.
More than just exercises in brand development, these are far-reaching, multi-faceted projects that show how, with a little imagination and a lot of ambition, many different platforms can be employed to explore and interrogate design. Whether the people behind them call themselves critics is a different question, but they’re still engaging in a kind of critical act, using their sites as platforms from which to launch ventures that encourage debate and professional development within the design community, and explore the different roles that design can play. They’ve also embraced a more diverse view of what can be presented in a design context; It’s Nice That has long championed a wide range of disciplines on its site and over on Swissmiss, you’re as likely to encounter a cleverly-designed baby bath as you are a provocative bon mot. These sites are only two examples; across the Web, there’s an emerging trend for diversity both of focus and of venue when it comes to exploring design and the contexts in which it sits.
What does all this tell us about the future of design criticism in the online world and beyond? Superficially, it suggests that the web, for all its financial uncertainty and fast pace, is still a promising place for aspiring critics to start. More importantly, though, it shows that the polarisation between printed publishing and the web has become rather old-fashioned. Instead, it’s ventures that spring up in between, straddling the two and stretching their boundaries, that show the most promise for design critics wanting to remain relevant to readers and reach a broader audience. The future of design criticism—as for design itself—belongs to those with an incisive mind, an enterprising spirit, and a willingness to embrace new forms and venues for their craft.
Look at what the first design criticism graduates have been up to since completing their studies, and it becomes clear that many of those new forms and ventures are already being explored. D- Crit’s graduate employment list shows former students working within an impressively wide array of fields—from developing multimedia social history projects to curating video-based exhibitions and working on the panel of editors at DesignObserver. Graduates of the MA Design Writing Criticism course have gone on to publish their own zines and journals, take up roles at exhibiting and publishing institutions, continue their academic studies to PhD level, and plough their critical skills back into the development of their own design practise.
If future graduates from the three design criticism courses - and, indeed, any other aspiring critics—continue to take this kind of diverse approach to their craft, then things don’t look so bad for design criticism’s fate after all. Now more than ever, it’s clear that critique can be performed not only through writing but through raising issues, addressing certain debates over others, presenting new ideas in unexpected contexts and taking the initiative to point us towards the form that criticism might take in the years to come. And this offers opportunities for all kinds of contributors to come forward and get involved. If future criticism can encompass a multitude of acts, then the next generation of design critics certainly seem primed to take to the stage.
Originally published as the lead article in a Special Report on Design Criticism in Grafik magazine, issue 193.