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Teaching Design Criticism
Are Design Critics Born or Made?

by Linda Cooper Bowen

What are the additional areas where this education can be applied?
Heller believes that although criticism is still in its infancy, “The range of venues for critical discourse has increased in the multimedia era, enabling students to apply critical skills to a range of media, including radio, television, film and exhibitions.” For the practicing creative professional with a fully realized career, this course would be rewarding as a scholarly pursuit—an end in itself. Most of today’s critics are self-appointed, without advanced academic degrees. But the majority of them have come to the position after years as designers; they know the history, the origins and context of contemporary design. With the introduction of the Internet and its spontaneous, unregulated platforms, people with little or no credentials can invent themselves as critics and com­ment on design while infiltrating the creative community. The dogging question here is how can a twenty-something recent graduate become a design critic with little or no work experience in this field?

Can criticism be taught?
What is that saying, “Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach” or become critics? Obviously the SVA faculty is enthusiastic about the program, explaining how they learned their craft after much stumbling, but can there be a shortcut to real experience? There is a lot to be learned from stum­bl­ing. At the Open House introduction to the Design Crit MFA, the faculty members described the labs, the proposed tours of some of the well-known New York offices and a roster of excellent future guest speakers, but never really got into where this was all leading—a job. Most thoughtful, seasoned pros in the design business would love to take this course, regardless of the degree, simply for the pleasure of learning, as well as improving their communication skills and critical thinking. The point is not whether design criticism is of value, but whether perhaps the focus is too narrow.

How many “critics” does the world need?
Jacques Giard, Ph.D, director and professor at Arizona State University College of Design, is a pragmatist. “The issues fac­ing many in the design world are much more pragmatic and unfortunately less prone to deliberate scholarly reflec­tion. This is not to say that reflection via design criticism isn’t necessary, but as a stand-alone area of study it is not central to our mission here (at the College of Design), not when sus­tain­a­bility, global­i­zation, digitization and off-shoring are irreversibly changing the design professions.” Arizona State University offers bachelor, master and doctoral degrees in planning, archi­tecture, landscape architecture, interior design, industrial design and visual communication design. The MSD degree is essentially a research degree in design and their Ph.D is interdisciplinary in nature, much as the practice of design has now become.

We are accustomed to reading criticism of music, films and theater. A negative review has serious consequences at the box office and these reviewers have the power to make or break a new production. In the world of fine art and architecture criticism either enhances or devalues the work and reputation of the artist. When a newly published book receives a “glow­ing” review this not only translates into sales of the book but also its future potential as a film plus product and franchise tie-ins. Restaurants live or die by the number of stars they are given. But what happens when the public reads a review of a piece of graphic or environmental design? What are the last­ing consequences of negative criticism of landscape or interior design?

Positive, informative reports to the non-design public are rare. Gary Hustwit’s widely released documentary film Helvetica reveals this ubiquitous typeface, and some famous designers who love or hate it. After 50 years, even in its most bastardized form, Helvetica is still widely used simply because it works. Michael Bierut, one of the instructors in the SVA program says, “At this moment the field of design criticism is imma­ture and undefined; the role of an academic program is not only to serve the needs of a mature profession, but also to help rear those still in their infancy. Intelligent, accessible writing on any sub­ject is not the easiest thing to find. In the field of criticism, design remains largely unexplored territory. There is plenty of room for new writers.”

What makes a good critic or design writer?
Alice Twemlow, chair of the MFA Design Criticism Program at SVA, puts a great deal of emphasis on history. “I think they have to be historically informed. It is somehow over­looked that one needs to know that there is a whole history that led up to this point in graphic design. When I am look­ing for good critics I am looking for good historical writers. We will be devoting 30 weeks of the first year to design history classes. The other thing is the development of an interesting, personal voice. We focus deeply on the ability to analyze and formulate a rationale, a sense of a network of objects that a critic has to understand, not just how it looks but why it works and how it connects to similar objects.”

Twemlow describes the difference between design writing and design criticism, “Criticism can play out in many different ways. It’s critical thinking that is refined and developed, then applied to different formats: radio, TV documentary, maga­zine, conference, blog. In terms of format, criticism is purer than writing, but writing is at the very core of everything we teach.” Creative director of GOOD magazine, Casey Caplowe, sees it this way, “What we understand as ‘design’ is beginning to extend beyond the confines of an esthetic denotation to encompass a broader way of thinking and solving problems. We will benefit from those who are trained to critically view, analyze and communicate. The critical perspectives they bring can enhance our understanding of the designed and undesigned world, how it works and how it can work better.”

Alone or as part of a team, a good design critic acts as an intermediary between design and viewer. Today an MFA seems less an option and more a necessity. Objective, intelli­gent commentary provides the essential view and we need influential writers who convey a powerful message. As the field of design grows, it will demonstrate the profound envi­ron­mental and economic impact of good design on our society and its ability to solve complex problems. Critical thinking is the engine of positive change. CA

Editor’s note: We pay the ultimate price if we are not effective critics of our own education—whether in school or on the job. —DK Holland 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.