Here come the design critics 16.02.08

There are no design critics because there are no students of design criticism. But that’s about to change. Three new master’s programmes will soon be training an army of critics and equipping them with the writing weaponry required for intelligent inquiry into all things design.

In the autumn of 2007, an MA programme in critical writing and curatorial practice started at the University College of Art, Craft and Design (Konstfack) in Stockholm. In September this year the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York will launch the first American design criticism MFA. And in October, the first British MA in design writing and criticism opens at the London College of Communication (LCC).

These courses are a response to a worldwide dearth of design criticism. It’s hard to name a single working design writer with a wide readership. The architecture and design critics on British newspapers are really just architecture critics. The closest the mainstream press gets to design writing is the shopping pages of the Sunday supplements. And design magazines are often satisfied with merely reporting the doings of designers, as opposed to engaging with their work critically.

Alice Twemlow, programme chair at the SVA, wants this to change. By 2010, when the first graduates emerge from SVA’s course, she hopes that “newspapers such as the New York Times will include dedicated design sections, and appoint dedicated design critics”.

But why have these courses emerged now? “I think it is kind of a maturity of the profession where there is now a much stronger interest in looking at our field as a discipline,” says Teal Triggs, professor of graphic design at the LCC and programme chair of the new course. The appearance of the courses is the result of people becoming available to teach them: academic experts in design reaching the point in their careers – and having the time available – where they are free to run programmes of this kind.

Triggs says that the London courses will enrol about 16 students, and take between a year and two years. The students are being given a broad curriculum, covering all kinds of design from industrial to interiors, and examining both the historical background and contemporary practice of criticism.

The New York course is similar. The 12 SVA students will learn about criticism as a literary genre and be introduced to the tools of the trade, drawing heavily on design history and art criticism. As in London, the programme covers design in a broad sense, including urban planning and fashion.

In contrast, the two-year Stockholm programme, known as WIRE (for Write, Interpret, Research and Exhibit), makes more of a distinction between criticism and curation, and takes in arts and crafts criticism as well as design. “The critical writing curriculum at WIRE [requires] that students move between writing art, design and craft criticism even in the expectation that a hybrid form of criticism may result,” says Ronald Jones, professor of interdisciplinary studies at Konstfack.

All three courses encourage students to explore non-conventional formats and media, such as blogs and podcasts, for their theses. Also, the courses all include curatorial elements. “We’re not just about writing a book or writing an article,” says Steven Heller, co-founder of the SVA programme. “We’re talking about how criticism could be injected into the exhibition arena.”

For example, SVA students will work with curators at the Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, and Konstfack students will curate student exhibitions at the Milan Furniture Fair in April. In London, students will collaborate with several high-profile institutions. “However,” Triggs is quick to point out, “it isn’t always about the big names either as we see a great deal of value in working with some of the up-and-coming museums, galleries, publishing ventures and studios in London and abroad.” Students will also be able to contribute to the University of the Arts London student newspaper – the Arts London News – and other student publications.

One of the aims of the courses is to develop a new, shared language for design criticism. “There have been ad hoc approaches to this, but there has never been any focus on developing a language that allows writers, journalists and scholars to talk about… design in a critical fashion,” says Heller. This might sound like a tall order – a common vocabulary that simultaneously speaks to academics, design practitioners and the public – but it’s really a straightforward task, says Triggs: “It’s taking the descriptive, in the sense of making it accessible to a broader audience, and giving it some meat.”

The academics may see the need for a common language for the discipline, but really the most important task ahead is ensuring mastery of the written word. As design author Rick Poynor says, “above all, graduates will need the ability to write compelling prose. That can be fostered in those with talent, but not implanted. Without excellent writing that people want to read, ‘design criticism’ will come to nothing.”

Adrian Shaughnessy, a design consultant and editor of Varoom magazine, agrees – a common vernacular may be desirable, but accessibility is paramount. “Personally,

I’m looking for the next Reyner Banham, someone who can write about design from a broad cultural perspective, but informed by the insight that comes from mastering a subject,” he says. “Unless the new courses can engender this, I don’t see anything changing.”

There is a chance, of course, that these courses will not simply turn out writers and journalists. “We aim to provide students with all the intellectual equipment they need to express historically, politically and culturally informed opinion about contemporary design,” says Twemlow. “The way we are interpreting design criticism doesn’t just lead our students to careers in journalism or criticism, however; it also provides them with tools that are more broadly applicable.”

And it will take a while for real effects to emerge. “You could only say there is a maturation of the field when we have a lot of critics, who we know by name, whose writing we encounter regularly, writing critically about every aspect of design in all kinds of outlets,” Poynor says. He adds, however, that the advent of the courses is a good sign. “The arrival of these courses is good news for anyone who thinks that design criticism matters,” he says, “but it remains to be seen how many people are interested in writing about design in greater critical depth.”

illustration Francisca Prieto


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