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Teaching Design Criticism
Are Design Critics Born or Made?
by Linda Cooper Bowen
According to a recent article in the New York Times, “More students
than ever have started master’s programs this fall and universities are
seeing these programs as potentially lucrative sources of revenue. The
number of students earning these degrees has nearly doubled since
1980.” Although university degrees are generally expensive, they are in
great demand and are considered necessary for career advancement and
future salary increases in the fields of business, science and law.
However the MFA in Design Criticism discussed here is no guarantee of
success. With armies of newly hatched graphic designers hitting the job
market every year, many will not easily find work, so developing
additional communication skills is clearly a wise career strategy.
Who are the prospective design critics?
Questioning some of the potential applicants to SVA’s Design Criticism
program provided some insight into the attraction to this special
curriculum. As seen by Kristen Lukiewski, a senior at Carnegie Mellon
University with a major in communication design as well as creative
and professional writing, the appeal is strong: “The chance to combine
design and writing is perfect for me because it allows me to become
more critical, questioning and analytical about design. This program
has the power to make design more important to everyday life.
I would like to be an entrepreneur, start my own magazine and, ideally,
make a name for myself as a design critic.” Someone who has worked in
the design profession for twenty years finds the opportunity to grow in
an existing role particularly important. Benita Raphan, projects
coordinator and an instructor at SVA, envies people in the design
profession who are able to put their thoughts and discoveries into
words and be proactive in their roles as educators. “With an MFA I will
be able to expand my repertoire so that I can write books and create
new concepts to expand arts education in general while continuing to
work at SVA.” After working as an editorial intern and freelance
writer, Shirley Surya is currently a project manager for the Design
Singapore Council and assistant editor for an art and design publishing
house in Singapore. “I see the growing trend toward interdisciplinary
collaboration and the importance of dialogue between the different
disciplines. We need to be well-versed in everything from product
design to urban planning to anticipate solutions when boundaries of
influence are crossed. New York City is one of the world’s major
creative hubs, thus presenting great resources for learning and
opportunities for practice and debate.” So far most of the prospective
applicants are graphic design students, but the school is keen on
attracting students from a variety of disciplines including
architecture, product or environmental design and hopes to have a mix
of people with work experience as well as young people just out of
school. Some of the applicants, however, have expressed concerns about
the program such as whether it will give them an edge over a museum
curator or magazine editor who already has five years of experience.
How relevant is the MFA with regard to finding a job, and what value do graduates offer over someone who assumed a design critic role without formal academic training?
Aside from acquiring an appropriate critical vocabulary and historical
perspective, a professional critic needs to have a distinct individual
voice, be passionate, witty, provocative, angry or possibly ambivalent,
but always, unequivocally, well-informed. Critics need the courage of
their convictions since they may express a point of view that is not
popular. The fact is, critics are always outsiders. Team players need
not apply. Yes, one can be taught to write well, learn design speak and
the history of every area of design, but cannot be trained to express why design matters culturally and socially. The primary role
of critical writing is to create attention to areas of design that are
commonly accepted without question. The critic questions: Is this the
best use of the space or materials? Does this sign or poster really
communicate the intent of the message? Is this object functional or
merely a frivolous, hip statement?