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Teaching Design Criticism
Are Design Critics Born or Made?

by Linda Cooper Bowen

Critic n. 1. one who judges, evaluates or criticizes. 2. a person skilled in judging the qualities or merits of some class of things, especially literary or artistic works, dramatic or musical performances etc. 3. a person who tends too readily to make trivial or harsh judgments.
—Random House Dictionary

 In the fall of 2008 the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York City will offer what it describes as the first MFA Design Criticism program in the country dedicated to critical writing and thinking about product, fashion, Web and graphic design and urban planning. The school’s ambitious goal is to establish design criticism as an academic discipline and professional practice. Although the graduate program already has established courses in Art Criticism and Writing, Art Education and Art Therapy, for an art institution con­sidered primarily as a studio school and not known for pro­viding academic credentials, this is a radical departure. What has prompted this shift, and can SVA now earn a broader and more profound educational role?

What is the design criticism MFA?
The two-year program promises to prepare students for careers as design critics, journalists and curators as well as yet to be defined roles in writing and design. SVA encourages students from a range of academic backgrounds and professional experi­ence to join the program. Sample courses include Design History, Researching Design, Architecture and Urban Design Criticism and Exhibition Curation. The faculty represents some of our leading writers and design experts: Paola Antonelli, curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art; Michael Bierut, partner, Pentagram; Karrie Jacobs, contributing editor, Metropolis magazine; Steven Heller, co-founder, SVA Design Criticism program; Janet Froelich, creative director, the New York Times Magazine; Ralph Caplan, journalist and contributing editor of Print magazine; and visiting scholars, journalists and critics. Each student will be responsible for a final thesis and the first gradu­at­ing class will plan and produce a public conference in 2010. Limited to a class of 12, the program will be held in a sleek 4,000-square-foot studio in SVA’s new space on 21st Street in Manhattan. Classes begin at 5:00 p.m. with studios open 24/7. With no daytime classes, this program essentially amounts to night school, the advantage being that students may be employed full- or part-time while attending.

How much does the program cost?
Tuition for two years is $52,240 plus departmental fees. Liv­ing expenses, on average according to the SVA financial advisor, are $35,200 for two academic years (no summers), include room, board and personal expenses. The estimated grand total is $85,240. Compare this to the MFA at the Yale University School of Art in which critical writing is a central component. The tuition for two years is $54,600 including health care services. A dormitory room with bath averages around $10,000 for two years with board and personal expenses averag­ing the same as SVA. The estimated total for two years at Yale is $75,100. Which diploma do you think will provide the more impressive credentials?

Are there any other schools that have similar graduate programs?
Graduate degrees in design history, design writing and criti­cism are offered at Cornell University, North Carolina State University, University of Michigan, California Institute of the Arts, University of Houston, Arizona State University, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and California College of the Arts. For example, the program at Arizona State “applies critical methods to design as material culture, evaluates achieve­ment vs. intention.” California College of the Arts offers “an exploration of the connections between design, history and culture and their influence on the design of pro­ducts, services and communication.” At Cornell’s College of Human Ecology, Department of Design & Environmental Analysis, it is con­sidered an important aspect of design history, theory and criticism and the University of the Arts in London has an honors program that teaches Criticism, Communication and Curation of Arts & Design. The advantage of attending a full-time university is that students can avail themselves of a variety of other departments on campus with the option of adding courses of interest, like business or psychology or any others relevant to design criticism. Other schools put design criticism within a context essential to any career in the art world whether as a curator, teacher or journalist. Proficiency in critical writing and thinking are basic tools for every kind of design-related business that requires the ability to com­muni­cate effectively and position itself within contemporary culture. Today an advanced degree in design writing and criticism must be seriously considered as a valid educational plus. Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, director of studies in graphic design at Yale supports this direction, “Design lacks the deep history of critical writing that architecture has, so I welcome all efforts to strengthen informed and well-crafted writing about design.”

What are the graduate’s future career opportunities?
The SVA program plans to teach the requisite skills for pro­fessional writing on design or other critical practices like cur­at­­ing, publishing or teaching. One example of the new oppor­tunities available for this generation of design critics comes from the prestigious architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) in New York where the position of writer/design critic requires an individual with the ability to write intelligently about concepts for briefs and presenta­tions, as well as develop critiques and theoretical strategies as a mem­ber of the design team. Ideally this person will have some architectural background. Ivan Pazos, associate of SOM’s Interior Architecture Department says, “Although some of our architects and designers do write well, we are still lacking good writers. We need someone who will be focused on critical writing that communicates our creative concepts in a lan­guage that differs from our marketing copy.” What is the salary for this position? “Most everyone here has a master’s degree, it is expected, and the applicant with an advanced degree has a definite edge. A junior person with a MFA will earn between $40,000–60,000 depending on the level of work experience and skills.” Professor Leslie Becker at the California College of the Arts teaches Visual & Critical Studies in the MFA pro­gram. She sees a degree in visual criti­cism as especially useful in teaching undergraduate and gradu­ate level courses in art and design schools. Keep in mind that the salary range for writers in general, regardless of advanced degrees, is under­whelm­ing; according to the Wall Street Journal ’s­ the top salary for an editorial director editor-in-chief is around $73,000 with writer salaries about $46,000. In 2005 the Creative Group, a staffing firm in Menlo Park, California, reported annual salaries for Web-content writers with 1–5 years experience from $33,500–$47,500. Freelancers are paid between $1–$2 per word. Highly sought after art and history museum curatorial jobs that offer prestige and a degree of security, pay less than $50,000 on average. (Source: American Association of Museums Unlike designers who have the option of opening their own office with or without a partner, a solo design critic relies on connections to publications, cul­tural organizations or, in rare cases, may join a large design firm as a staff writer/critic. The earning potential and job openings are limited. Cooper Bowen
Linda Cooper Bowen is a marketing consultant interested in exploring current business issues which concern the creative profession. She has written for Communication Arts, Graphis, Print, HOW and I.D., as well as a number of foreign publications. Bowen has taught a graduate marketing course at Pratt Institute and is a frequent guest lecturer to design organizations in the U.S. and Canada. Her book, The Graphic Designer’s Guide to Creative Marketing is published by John Wiley & Sons, New York. For additional information, see Bowen live in downtown Jersey City, where she enjoys an excellent rear view of the Statue of Liberty.