Design Reporters and Design Critics

A new topic is called for: what is the differencw between reporting and criticism, when it comes to design?
Julie, you told me that you are planning a panel on design criticism for ICFF as part of a series of discussions organized by I.D. and RISD. How is the preparation going? Would you please share with us a preview of the themes you will address?
Incidentally, I would like to bring to your attention a panel that is planned for the end of the month at SVA in New York. It is about art criticism, but some of the issues seem to overlap with us:

The School of Visual Arts (SVA) will present a panel discussion to address the state of contemporary critical practices, The Crisis in Criticism, on Thursday, March 25, at 7pm, in the SVA Amphitheater, 209 East 23rd Street, 3rd floor. This event is free and open to the public.
“The state of affairs with regard to criticism has become something of a global concern, both in academic journals as well as in the popular press,” says Suzanne Anker, the Chair of the Art History Department at SVA. “Some art criticism, along with major media sound bites, continues to create impressions that are far from trustworthy, accurate or even meaningful.”
What can we expect of art criticism today? Is there a growing inability on the part of both artists and critics to reflect critically on the subject and practice of the visual arts? When we reflect upon the visual arts, have our judgments and expectations been drastically reduced? Has art criticism become little more than an act of indexing art works to historical themes and genres or to simply supplying appropriate anecdotes to an audience, in order to make them feel like insiders? This panel, composed of writers, editors and educators will consider these topics."

Paola, the ICFF design panel evolved out of a conversation with RISD’s president, Roger Mandle, about what we can do to nurture design criticism in schools as well as the media. We hope to instigate live conversations around the country and invite students and local design organization members to attend. The first panel, which will take place during ICFF on Saturday, May 15 (see, will concern many of the subjects we’ve discussed in this forum: what criticism contributes to design disciplines, how it can flourish in advertising-driven media, and how it can transcend thumbs-up/thumbs-down evaluations to foster a multilayered, multivoiced body of knowledge.

My interest in the subject comes in part from our decision to launch a critical section in I.D., which Ralph mentioned in his last post. Begun in January, “Crit” is a collection of reviews presented at the back of each issue. Subjects encompass consumer products, medical equipment, buildings, design exhibitions, books, fonts, branding schemes–anything that can be pinned down and evaluated. We took this step after much thought about the hazards: the potential of offending not just advertisers but also designers we respect and like. As you know, design, even with all its facets, is a small world, and one’s sympathies grow very strong. In the end, we decided to take the risk because cloistering is no friend of journalism–rather, too-cozy relationships with one’s subjects often lead to stuffy, narrow, and personality-oriented reporting. More important, if a magazine’s critical approach is simply a matter of deciding whether or not to cover a particular design or designer, the result is often as limited as its strategy. The work is presented heroically, the result of the designer’s successul wrestling bout with a “challenge.” (I have banned that word from I.D. because it has grown so tiresome.) And the story is almost always a romance, with the happy product, say, rolling off the assembly llne though we rarely get a glimpse of its life beyond, any more than we see the aftermath of a marriage in a Hollywood romance. A critical approach presumes that few good products are perfect and that few flawed ones don’t have some redeeming feature. It allows for subtlety, and that’s the main reason we decided to venture beyond the binary in/out mode of coverage.

I’m happy to report that we haven’t lost any friends or advertisers so far. I think most designers recognize that reviewers represent only one point of view. If those views could be multiplied, as they are in, say, film criticism, they would add up to a broader and perhaps more tolerable collection of insights.

Julie, I applaud your decision and I think the “Crit” section is a good start in trying to get people to think about design in a more complex way.

In my experience, one of the problems with writing about design is that it falls so easily into that catch-all category called “lifestyle,” which tends to be presented in the most superficial ways, in order to generate glamour. There’s a difference, of course, between writing critically about movies and writing critically about design–or fashion, for that matter–in that a film is an experience, and the readers compare theirs to the one that the critic describes. Whereas when we write about design, we’re discussing material choices that people have made, which in a consumer society are aggrandized as a means of self-expression. It’s one thing to disagree with a critic’s opinion of “Lost in Translation.” It’s another to read that your backpack or sofa or flatware is derivative or that it conveys a message that you never intended to send. Both design and fashion are more loaded, I think, because they hit people where they live.

I’d like to see more design criticism on the level of functionality – i.e., the criticism of stuff that’s poorly designed. There’s a lot of kludgy design around, whether it’s the size of bathrooms in airplanes or my idiotic Italian toaster (I’m living in Rome), which forces you to use those little wire baskets to toast bread in; the baskets are forever becoming entangled with the bits of metal inside the slots that heat up the toast. (Plus, if someone accidentally sets down a magazine on top of the toaster when the wire baskets are in the slots, the weight of the magazine pushes the baskets down, and that turns on the heat, and before you know it you’ve got a fire – but don’t know it until it’s too late because no one in Italy seems to have smoke detectors in their apartments.) And Paola perhaps you can explain why Italian washing machines take two hours to do a load that an American machine would handle in twenty five minutes? Can Italians’ clothes really be that much cleaner? Is this the Slow Food movement applied to clothes?

I like Donald Norman’s writing about design. He has made a lot of good points over the years about designs that are needlessly complex and counterintuitive. (For example, why do doors that require you to Push them have handles that suggest Pull?) I suppose what I like about his design criticism is that it includes more of a psychological and less of an aesthetic approach.

Holly, I agree that writing critically about design is different in some ways from writing critically about film or literature (just as writing about either of them is different from writing about the other), but I’m not sure it’s the difference you describe. A film is an experience to be compared to a critic’s appraisal only if you’ve seen it. Often you (or at least I) haven’t. For that matter, I don’t usually own the backpack or flatware I’m reading about. I read critical material about the Sistine Chapel and the Elgin Marbles for years before I ever saw them, and reading The New York Review of Books today means having to take seriously works I haven’t read and in most cases, won’t.

I think critical writing means treating aspects of the culture as though they matter and that design criticism means writing about design as if it matters, as we all know it does. That, in my view, is why we need design criticism. What I believe is a difference is that design encompasses both the aesthetic and the functional — even the prosaic — and it’s frequently very hard to consider them simultaneously. At a panel at MOMA the anthropologist Ashley Montague complained to Arthur Drexler, then curator of design, that the Wedgwood in the museum’s current good design show became smudgy when washed. “We’re not Good Housekeeping,” Drexler retorted dismissively. I doubt that he, or any curator, would be so contemptuous of practicality today; yet museums and magazines still find it hard to choose objects in full confidence that they perform as they should. Ordinarily, curators and editors are not equipped for, or charged with, testing them.

I’ve been thinking of Don Norman whenever I confront a door fitted with handles that give no hint of whether to push or pull, a serious concern at present because I have a torn rotator cuff. In her initial email about this roundtable Paula asked rhetorically, and humorously, “Should we be content with Consumers Report?” No, and neither were they when they began. The founding editor Dexter Masters wanted an industrial designer to write product criticism, but couldn’t find one.