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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? 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.