words Rick Poynor
Author and design critic Rick Poynor takes a hard look at his own profession and finds that, despite living in an age when everyone’s a critic, real criticism is almost impossible to find.
Does design criticism matter any more? It’s certainly not a term you
hear bandied about by designers. Busy professionals have clients to
meet, projects to plan, studios to run. If designers pause to think about design criticism at all, they probably imagine that it is still going on somewhere – and good luck to it.
But if we aren’t actively looking for design criticism, how do we know whether it’s flourishing or not? There is plenty of design journalism, but criticism and journalism are different activities. While it’s certainly possible for journalism to have a critical intention, most design journalism simply reports on the latest news. There is nothing wrong with that, but it isn’t criticism and it tells us nothing about criticism’s state of health.
We will call design criticism in for a fitness check and take its pulse in due course, but first it might be useful to look at what criticism in general – whether in the fields of art, architecture, literature or film – is for.
Perhaps the most basic service provided by criticism has been to champion the new. The idea here is that without the intervention of the critic, the public would fail to understand or appreciate artistic innovations. People might ignore or even attack them. The critic is presumed to have special insight into the motivations and meaning of the work that comes from a deep personal engagement. It may be necessary to challenge earlier ways of thinking to explain why these creations are timely and significant. The critic may become strongly identified with particular individuals, movements or causes, a fellow traveller with the innovators he or she champions, influencing their artistic development and ideas.
If we consider this model in terms of contemporary design, some problems emerge. Most obviously, there is no public resistance to design today and there is no provocative design avant-garde requiring the critic to step in as intermediary and advocate. Twenty-five years ago, Memphis might have needed this kind of critical support. The movement was controversial with modernist designers, and writers trotted out various theories to explain it. Where are the contemporary equivalents? Postmodern design caused a ruckus for a while, but this passed and nothing as turbulent has occurred since then. Meanwhile, adventurous design has become something that any modern consumer appreciates. People need updates about the latest sofas, mobile phones, bars, restaurants and hip hotels, but they don’t need anyone to argue the case for these things or to explain their relevance. Journalism handles the publicity – from the glossy interior mags to reports in the daily press.
The same reservation applies to criticism’s more general function of promoting a discipline’s cause. Fifty years ago, design needed all the support it could get. “The role of the serious critic is that of an educator,” wrote advertising designer Ashley Havinden in 1952. “By searching out the many examples of good design and appraising them constructively, he may convince the manufacturer or the printer of the merits of good design associated with his product . . . Such constructive criticism in the press would teach the public, not only to appreciate, but to demand good design in the products they buy.” Today, we have plenty of organisations and initiatives to beat the drum for design: the Design Council, the British Council, D&AD, the London Design Festival. It’s debatable whether writing produced for this well-worn purpose can be regarded as criticism.
The third possible function of criticism goes considerably further than mere promotion. This kind of writing takes design’s presence for granted as something that no longer needs to be argued for, and it arises from a commitment to design’s cultural possibilities. The emphasis here falls on the depth, subtlety, sophistication and complexity of the critic’s response. The writing is more discursive and playful; it weaves around its subject; it offers pleasures of its own. Making assessments of quality might once have been a key task for this type of criticism, but this has become unfashionable in other art forms, particularly in visual art, and today it is less likely to be attempted in design writing, where there is an inherent tension between subjective aesthetic reactions and more objective assessments of whether or not a design fulfils its functional purpose. The problem with the more rarefied forms of criticism is that they can too easily seem arcane and elitist, and in the age of public access this is unacceptable to many. Even art people seem to find much of what is written about art unreadable.
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.
This summary suggests some of the difficulties facing design criticism today. There are other factors that need to be taken into account. It has been publishing wisdom for years that readers’ appetites for ploughing through long articles has dwindled. We are busier than ever, the thinking runs, and other forms of media compete for the browser’s attention. Magazines respond with an easy-to-swallow diet of captions, sidebars and pictures. If criticism needs space to flex its muscles, then today’s design magazines are not always eager to supply it. You can see this at work in the industry bible Design Week, never the most critical of organs. Since the magazine’s redesign, which increased the page size, articles appear to be shorter, with smaller type that only adds to the feeling that the words take up space that might be better allotted to more colour pictures. The “Private View” opinion column was hardly an unduly taxing read at 800 words; it has been slashed to just 500.
The notion of criticism has been undermined in other ways. The critic, as traditionally understood, was a person of superior knowledge and insight. Critics presumed to know best about their areas of expertise. They made judgements on behalf of other people and their authoritative pronouncements about books, films or art used to count for something. New York theatre critics could famously close plays with a damning review. People are much less prepared now to regard critics as sources of authoritative opinion. A consumer guide with handy star ratings may be all you need to decide which CD to buy this week or which movie to see.
It’s often said that everyone is a critic today and the Internet, with its challenge to all forms of printed authority, has taken this democracy of opinion to a new level. A growing army of bloggers offers commentary that editors would never dream of publishing in print on every aspect of cultural life. When everyone can broadcast their views so easily, the position of the critic looks much less distinctive and necessary. Still, the torrent of words unleashed by blogging and the popularity of some sites seem to contradict the idea that people are less prepared to read than they were.
When it comes to design, it’s sometimes suggested that blogs might offer a new forum for design criticism and, as a design writer, this certainly attracted me. In 2003, I co-founded a site called Design Observer with three American designers and for a couple of years I wrote short essays for it as often as I could. What I soon realised was that as a medium for writing (as opposed to more diary-like uses), blogging software is a kind of Trojan horse. The open-to-all-comers comment box at the end of each entry can generate a vast trail of digression that overpowers the original article, no matter how carefully it is written. One 1,000-word Design Observer essay by a colleague produced more than 60,000 words of comment – the size of a book – and much of it utterly pointless. Internet publishing might, in time, provide a way forward for criticism, but I am not convinced that blogs will. Attempts to define a distinctive position disappear beneath the hubbub.
Whether design criticism has a future or not, we should at least be clear about what it can do. Here, I want to turn to an example that shows what critical thinking used to mean in the design field, and that suggests why we still need it today.
In June 1955, the Architectural Review published a special issue, written by the brilliant architecture critic Ian Nairn, then just 25, which it titled Outrage. The issue documents the spread of what the AR calls Subtopia – a compound of suburb and utopia – across Britain. “Subtopia,” Nairn writes, “is the annihilation of the difference by attempting to make one type of scenery standard for town, suburb, countryside and wild.” The AR documents this with great thoroughness. Everything about the issue – the use of drawings and different coloured papers, the typography – glows with visual intelligence. Nairn shows scores of photographs of street lamps, arterial roads, overhead wires, street advertising and bungled attempts at “municipal rustic”. He undertakes a 400-mile car journey from Southampton to Carlisle, producing a written commentary supported by pictures of everything he sees, then switches his attention to the Scottish Highlands, where he looks at housing, roads, tourism, hydro-electricity. The issue ends with a manifesto about what needs to be done aimed at the man in the street, which sets out some precepts (“The site’s the thing, not a set of rules, and your eye’s the thing, not the textbook”) and offers a comprehensive list of malpractices to watch out for (“Has the town lost its centre to the car park? Or the open square to a wired-in public garden?”).
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. The writer has a view of Subtopia grounded in a philosophical awareness of what it signifies for the person who lives inside it: “Insensible to the meaning of civilization on the one side and, on the other, ignorant of the well-spring of his own being, he is removing the sharp edge from his own life, exchanging individual feeling for mass experience in a voluntary enslavement far more restrictive and permanent than the feudal system.” The issue became a book, and it’s clear from the many reviews quoted on the cover that it received a level of attention in the papers that a design magazine initiative would never be granted today. “Sameness can become a most virulent form of ugliness,” writes The Observer. “If we are not shocked into recognising it in time, we shall ourselves become subtopians, sub-humans, no longer individuals but for ever members of a herd.”
To produce a scorching critique like this you need profound idealism and a shared sense of what matters, and we have lost this now. Much of what Nairn and the AR feared came to pass in spite of their protests. In their terms, the visual environment of Britain was carelessly ruined. Subtopia – sprawl, if you prefer – continues to throw a dull blanket of sameness over everything in its path. Design and its offshoot, branding, were instrumental in stamping this uniformity on to British high streets to a degree that Nairn, who died in 1983, can scarcely have imagined. 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. In architectural circles, the term “post-critical” has gained currency as a way of describing some younger architects’ acceptance of the prevailing social, economic and cultural reality. In a recent issue of Harvard Design Magazine, Reinhold Martin notes that this form of architecture is committed to “an affect-driven, nonoppositional, nonresistant, nondissenting and therefore nonutopian form of architectural production”.
Reinhold wonders, with some justification, whether post-critical polemic might just be part of the general political swing to the right, an authoritarian manoeuvre intended to kill off once and for all any lingering traces in architectural thinking of the radical politics of the 1960s. If the post-critical position purports to be “realistic”, then Reinhold proposes “utopian realism” as a riposte. “Utopian realism is critical,” he writes. “It is real. It is enchantingly secular. It thinks differently. It is a style with no form . . . It is utopian not because it dreams impossible dreams, but because it recognizes ‘reality’ itself as – precisely – an all-too-real dream enforced by those who prefer to accept a destructive and oppressive status quo.” We are back to the idea that criticism’s purpose is to strip away the layers and try to expose what is going on underneath. This task has nothing to do with professional and institutional needs to build careers and promote the design business.
So where does that leave the possibility of design criticism today? Britain has plenty of outlets for design journalism, but design criticism is much harder to find. The quickest way to assess its state of health is to try naming some design critics, writers who are well known for consistent preoccupations and points of view, who are prepared to speak out and take a stand, and whose writing has a distinctive style and voice. If we use, say, the great Reyner Banham as a yardstick, is there anyone who measures up? Recently, I took part in two panel discussions about design criticism organised in London by iD magazine and Rhode Island School of Design. Part of the way through the second event I pointed out that no one on either panel had mentioned any design critics. I challenged my fellow panellist, Icon’s editor Marcus Fairs, to name some – he proposed himself and his team. I threw in the name of Sam Jacob, whose writing about design and popular culture in Icon and Modern Painters seems to me to display an individual voice. And that was it.
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.
It comes back to our publications. The standard of design criticism is in the hands of the editors who commission most design writing. New writers cannot possibly emerge without places to publish and sympathetic support. The greatest gift an editor can give a writer is the space and freedom to explore a subject in a personal way; this was the opportunity that AR gave Nairn. Nurturing writers is a basic editorial task, but it’s not clear that editors see it that way any more. Most magazine writing is publisher-led: this is what we need, this is our style, 1,200 words, go away and do it. What we see in the best blogs is a desire, in both writers and readers, for writing that shatters the chains imposed by narrow journalistic formats and agendas. If design magazines learn one lesson from blogs, it should be to put the emphasis back on good writing. Let’s be utopian realists and ignore the old saw about designers not wanting to read. It isn’t true. Publish commentary that is so timely, lively, perceptive, provocative, informative, irreverent and entertaining that people can’t afford to miss it.
There is no reason why criticism has to follow set paths. Analysis of the designed world can, and should, take visual forms. The AR knew it 50 years ago. Yet it’s surprising how rarely design magazines use the resources at their disposal – photographs, diagrams, illustrations – in partnership with words to deliver an incisive commentary on the visual realm. Why is the prevailing visual mode always celebratory? That might be appropriate for the glossy, weekend-break, luxury-lifestyle end of publishing, but not for magazines professing a commitment to design thinking. And why isn’t humour used more often to puncture pretension and cut the over-mighty down to size? Music magazines have been doing this for years. While criticism needs space to stretch out, it can also be delivered in sharp, concentrated bursts. It should be as unpredictable and inventive as the best design.