Double Vision: Graphic Design Criticism and the Question of Authority


If the strength of a discipline can be measured (at least in part) by the quality of the criticism that it attracts, then the field of graphic design is arguably in a weakened state. The reasons for this are varied. Working within the general public ambivalence toward criticism, some commenters have attributed the absence of critical dialogue in graphic design to insufficient remuneration, the disappearance of traditional publishing venues, and the paucity of educational programs dedicated to training critics (Bierut, 2013 & Triggs, 2011). Others have blamed changing political and cultural conditions for the waning climate of critique (Heller, 2002 & Poynor, 2005). Distanced from the political upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s as well as the culture wars of the late 1980s and 1990s, graphic design criticism appears to have lost its urgency as well as its subject.

What is curious about this post-critical condition is that it is concurrent with an expanding public awareness of design’s impact on everyday life. Although predominantly invoked for the sake of commercial gain, it is still the case that design, as a value as well as an activity, is increasingly a part of civic consciousness. Given the gulf between such awareness and the silence that has enveloped the graphic design profession, it seems fair to ask whether designers have a thorough understanding of the reasons behind criticism’s meagre beginnings and contemporary decline. After all, one could argue that criticism has never been a lucrative profession, that design publications, even when more numerous, were rarely champions of rigorous critical discourse, and that (until recently) specific academic qualifications in design criticism were non-existent. Moreover, the twenty-first century has offered provocative social and cultural catalysts for analysis and debate. Myriad questions concerning the sustainability of graphic design’s output, its social relevance as well as its cultural particularity, and its role in technological development, use and access have yet to be asked. To what then can we attribute our collective reticence? And why, when so many writers and designers are calling for the revitalization of critical discourse, does the lull persist? Acknowledging that the factors above have contributed to a retreat from critical engagement, I would like to suggest that our flight from criticism may also be due to an ambivalent relationship to authority itself.

Critical Foundations
It would be difficult to deny that the field of graphic design has experienced an identity crisis over the past twenty years. Technology not only has changed (and in many ways complicated) the way designers work, but challenged the very definition of graphic design—most notably by raising questions about established conceptions of expertise (Heller, 1994; Miller, 2002; Elkins, 2003; Hall, 2013). In response, the field has become increasingly fractured and offers both a broader range of subjects for study as well as a profusion of new advanced degrees. Institutional motivations aside, these changes reflect the maturation of the graphic design discipline—underscoring, in particular, the development of design research. They also indicate the shifting ground on which designers stand.
It is therefore not entirely surprising that graphic design criticism has failed to establish sustained traction inside as well as outside the profession. Key suppositions about graphic design’s process and object seem to be changing daily and the increasingly diverse social and cultural context within which designers work puts notions of the public intellectual in a precarious position. At the very least it begs one to consider the vocational expertise often affiliated with specialized aptitudes and the way in which this squares with an intellectual scepticism that has wider social, cultural, and political resonance. Is it possible, or desirable, to establish common critical foundations or a shared critical vocabulary given the fissures in the discipline today? And, if not, how does critical debate proceed without dissolving into nebulous relativism? Acknowledging that a thorough examination of these questions would require more space than the scope of this essay allows, I would like to consider two questions that relate to these larger queries. Does a general ambivalence toward authority among graphic designers leave us predisposed to certain approaches to critical dialogue? And, if so, in what ways has critical discourse in graphic design progressed as a result?

Theories of Relativity
It is ironic, given what graphic designers do for a living, that the profession has an image problem. Graphic designers began to suffer from low professional self-esteem long before contemporary technology suggested that our collective knowledge might be expendable. Plagued by a chronic sense of belatedness relative to established professions like art and architecture, graphic designers have long felt the need to make our conceptual and pragmatic labor more visible and to justify our worth to allied professions and the greater public. The periodic call for graphic designers to be certified—however well-intentioned it may be—is only one testament to a desire for validation and authority. Increasingly it is criticism that is summoned to play this supporting role. In 1997, the writer Steven Heller referenced Massimo Vignelli’s 1983 call for the development of historical and critical foundations in the graphic design field, to underscore the potential for “serious introspection” to have a “remedial effect on our professional self-esteem” as well as inspire the mainstream press “to be more respectful of our achievements” (Heller, 1997, p. 1). This claim followed his suggestion three years earlier that there was a developing “clamour for a body of criticism that [would] help legitimize the graphic design profession—in the way it did for architecture and industrial design” (Heller, 1994, p. xi). Although Heller acknowledged in 2006 that this initial promise had yet to be fulfilled, his comments anticipated those of others who likewise saw in criticism a way to claim professional respect (Triggs & Gerber, 2007). Acknowledging that such professional insight would undoubtedly have an effect as well as the fact that Heller attributed wider benefits to the establishment of serious critical debate, these comments reveal a fundamental problem. With more rigorous criticism comes evaluation and it is precisely this judgment that many designers resist. How do we proceed with critical debate when it is both embraced and rejected—lauded for its potential to supply the legitimacy we crave and demonized for the ways in which it challenges this same authority?
An ambivalent relationship to authority is not unique to graphic design. Authority is intrinsic to a free society and the public embraces it when it serves a common good or curbs habits of self-interest. Yet, the same people may reject it when it operates as a distant power or a challenge to personal freedom (Hendel, 1981). Underscoring this latter point in 2012, the art historian and critic Hal Foster attributed the decline of art criticism to growing concerns about the position of the critic.

First, there was a rejection of judgment, of the moral right presumed in critical evaluation. Then, there was a refusal of authority, of the political privilege that allows the critic to speak abstractly on behalf of others. Finally, there was scepticism about distance, about the cultural separation from the very conditions that the critic purports to examine (Foster, 2012, p. 3).

These concerns have echoed larger debates in cultural studies throughout the past twenty years and have reconfigured the general authority of the art critic in both positive and negative ways. A reconsideration of the position of the critic has clarified the perspectives of marginalized social and cultural groups. It also has refocused the attention of the critic on the specific histories and contexts of critical debate. Perhaps most significantly, it has reminded interested readers of the constructed nature of all discourse. Yet, in some cases, challenges to the authoritative position of the critic have reinforced a relativity of perspective that too often is mistaken for pluralism (Foster, 2012). Conceived as a struggle between ideological perspectives, criticism is frequently dismissed as a myopic “will to power”—one that is not self-reflective about its own claims to truth (Foster, 2012, p. 3). Allowing that there are contexts that require this interpretive approach, the relativity that results from its general application has tended to stymie critical debate rather than encourage it. For all its value, the internet complicates this situation because it atomizes critical dialogue and diminishes the agency of its readers (McDonald, 2007). By bringing the interests of the loudest voices into the foreground, the internet exposes a general desire among readers to fall in line rather than stand out. Even in cases where a dialogue may begin as a reaction to a thoughtful essay, the ensuing din of commentary can divert or eclipse an argument. The result is often the confirmation of bias rather than the transformation of perspective.

Although the field of graphic design lacks an established tradition of criticism upon which to reflect, it wrestles with similar concerns about authority. Questions about who stands in the best position to analyse and evaluate design work (independent writers or practicing designers; journalists or scholars?) are routine in the design press as are discussions about distance: for example, whether critical practice can provide a direct and more meaningful method of critique. The commercial nature of graphic design complicates these questions. Concerns about client confidentiality, the negative economic impact that criticism can cause, and the objectivity of the practicing designers who often serve as critics—beg one to consider the potential conflict of interest between professional goals and a more disinterested analysis (Adamson, 2005). At the very least they help to explain the perpetuation of design competitions as the predominant form of assessment in the field. Winners are celebrated rather than scrutinized in a public forum. Losers retain their anonymity. When critical authority is asserted in the field, it typically takes the form of biting and snarky quips voiced by online agents hiding behind pseudonyms, personal acronyms, or the blank landscape of unsigned comments. Given this situation, it is not surprising that many view criticism as problematic or self-righteous. This predicament also explains why would-be critics might equivocate about jumping into the fray. It is one thing to have one’s design work subjected to evaluation. The collaborative nature and commercial restraints of design make mediocrity easier to justify. It is another to willingly expose one’s individual ideas to mass interrogation and debate. Balancing the need for critical foundations in the field against the possibility of offending one’s professional colleagues and friends, it is easy to understand why some might demure at the very prospect of initiating or responding to critical discourse.

Critical Agency
The ways in which graphic design criticism has developed in recent years reflect these concerns. Vacillating between a desire for stable foundations as well as a need to address change—graphic design critics have tended to both embrace and resist authority through a range of manoeuvres which foreground personality, sidestep history, or prioritize description over analysis.

In written criticism, this tendency in many cases has thwarted debate. Originating for the most part from within the graphic design field, the majority of written criticism is editorial or reportorial in voice, breadth, and depth. Lauded for its immediacy and accessibility, as well as the ways in which it delivers pointed condemnation and praise, such popular criticism has been largely commended for its authoritative yet straightforward manner—an approach that is not problematic in itself. At its best, such writing not only entertains but teases out significant insights and shapes them into efficient prose. Yet, at its worst, it can be diffusive and emotional, palliative rather than probing.

The belle lettristic variant of journalistic writing common to design blogs can inhibit critique by showcasing personality and narrative style over argument. In 2001, the art historian James Meyer, actually dismissed this so-called “writerly” approach as “anti-writerly in ambition” because it avoided “sustained reflection” (Meyer, 2002, p. 216). As the art historian James Elkins has added, “extravagantly attracted to non-sequiturs, repetitions, asides, apostrophes, jokes, self-contradictions, and impressionistic collages,” the approach runs the risk of baiting anti-intellectualism (Elkins, 2003, p. 52). Suggesting the prevalence of such writing in graphic design criticism in 2011, the editor of Eye magazine, John L. Walters, asserted that there was a misplaced desire among writers to express themselves as stylists rather than communicators (Walters, 2011). And, perhaps, therein lies the rub. Is it possible that style has trumped substance in such cases because it is not only familiar territory for designer-critics, but because it functions as an intellectual placebo—one that, while dressed as criticism, maintains the status quo by shirking authority and implicitly suggesting that we don’t take ourselves seriously? Accepting that one should never take oneself too seriously, it seems fair to assume that one should approach their work in an earnest manner—one that is respectful of the reader’s time and effort. This is not to say that all online criticism is written in purple prose or that serious criticism should be lifeless. Yet, inasmuch as academic writing has been censured for its opacity (sometimes deservedly so), shouldn’t stylized journalism also be scrutinized for the ways in which it indulges its own esoteric machinations? And, if we avoid such investigations do we expose our desire to have it both ways—to allow a reader access but not allow a deeper entry into the substance and context of the claims we make? Certainly, as the writer Matt Soar (2002) has suggested, it is easy to imagine the ways in which a broader public understanding of design—aided by thoughtful and rigorous criticism—might jeopardize, or at least challenge, a level of expertise that graphic designers have always considered to be their own.

Of course, journalism is not the only medium where one can detect ambivalent manoeuvrings around critical debate. Although often presented as an antidote to the failings of graphic design criticism in written form, critical practice in design frequently reveals a similar desire to embrace and reject authority. Akin to more stylized approaches in written criticism, design projects that are ostensibly critical often represent a bifocal view by attempting to rationalize a process of open subjectivity that detaches criticism from history. This approach was evident in the exhibition Forms of Inquiry that London’s Architectural Association mounted in 2007. Making the case for critical practice as an intuitive endeavour, curator and catalogue co-editor, Zak Kyes, explained that the term inquiry was chosen specifically to accommodate “obfuscation” as well as “clarity” and to distinguish an intuitive approach from the more analytical aspects of design “research” (Kyes, 2007, p. 11). In so doing, he suggests that inquiry is invested in a kind of presentness—distinct from what he deems to be the “interpretive baggage” that binds research to the past. As Kyes proposes, it is precisely this immediacy which allows for true critical investigation—which encourages “posing questions and pursuing paths without necessarily knowing where they will lead.” Given that the broad goal of the exhibition was to “mobilize graphic design as a specifically critical activity,” this approach presents problems. First, if confounding and explicating work go hand-in-hand as motivating factors in Forms of Inquiry, is it reasonable to expect that critical insight will be the result? After all, doesn’t criticism ultimately seek to distinguish as well as explain? Second, in as much as intuition foregrounds the potential freshness of a first impression, is it wise to privilege this way of understanding over a more analytical approach—one that takes into account the insights as well as the complications of past ideas? Given that all research incorporates intuition as well as logic, is intuition alone preferable in this case merely because it seems to require no larger explanation and suggests that critical awareness can be decontextualized from the messiness of history? Accepting the exhibition organizers’ later claim that the curatorial intent was not to resurrect the “insular polemics” surrounding critical practices of the past (Kyes & Owens, 2008, n.p.), one is compelled to ask if such omissions inadvertently narrow the space for critical exchange rather than extend it. Certainly, acknowledging the ways in which the exhibition curators legitimize the authorial voice(s) behind such subjective investigations and therein risk reinforcing the modernist elevation of the brilliant designer, seem appropriate in this case (Rock, 1996). At the very least, doing so would help other designers understand that critical practice is not without its own history or ideological baggage. It also would encourage practicing designers to examine more closely what they mean by criticism and to what end critical practices aspire.

In discussing journalistic and practical approaches to criticism, I am not suggesting that academia does not have its own complicated relationship to authority. In particular, recent commentary, emanating from scholarly sources, reveals not only the range of practices that many consider to be under the rubric of criticism but also the varying ways in which they carry authoritative weight. A 2013 special issue of Design and Culture, the journal of the Design Studies Forum, brought the issue of criticism to the foreground. In her contribution, the educator Meredith Davis emphasizes the distinction between professional design criticism and scholarship. Professional design criticism focuses on design practice, including graphic design work, behaviours and trends, in an effort to mark both modulations in the field and the value that others assign to design. Davis explains that scholarship, in contrast, is an “evidence-based study” that facilitates the transfer of knowledge and builds the foundations for future research (Davis, 2013, p. 8). Going on to explain reasons for the confusion surrounding definitions of design research and the subsequent slow growth in the field, Davis makes a convincing argument for more rigorous expectations from graduate study in design. Her analysis, nevertheless, raises its own questions. Noting that Davis’ argument is premised on “the need for design to achieve maturity as an academic discipline,” the writer and critic Peter Hall (2013a) suggests that seeking such maturation can also circumscribe disciplinary boundaries too tightly. As a result, scholars can make problematic distinctions between not only what counts as legitimate design research and its acceptable subject matter, but the ways in which this research influences the larger profession. Underscoring the position taken by Anne-Marie Willis, the editor of Design Philosophy Papers, that both journalism and scholarship are too narrowly defined, Hall substantiates the case for more open-ended critical inquiry. In particular he argues for switching focus from what the French sociologist, Bruno Latour has deemed “matters of fact” to “matters of concern.”

The critic is not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles. The critic is not the one who lifts the rugs from under the feet of the naïve believers, but the one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather. The critic is not the one who alternates haphazardly between antifetishism and positivism like the drunk iconoclast drawn by Goya, but the one for whom, if something is constructed, then it means it is fragile and thus in need of great care and caution (Latour, 2004, p. 246).

Actor-Network Theory (ANT) is an approach with origins in the social sciences that can be used to reorient one’s focus from the juxtaposition of the critic and his/her subject. This theory acknowledges the non-human as well as human agents behind a claim and therefore emphasizes the complexities and contradictions intrinsic to what critics might naively assume to be factual. Hall explains that this approach is particularly appealing to designers because it brings the materiality of the designed object back into view. Underscoring the range of agents involved in a given design, this approach also foregrounds a kind of intellectual humility on the part of the critic—a diffidence that will offer many readers a welcome respite from the seemingly definitive and sometimes censorial voice of the critic as grand pundit. It becomes the opposite of a more traditional authoritative view, though not without difficulties. As Hall has acknowledged, this approach, for all its openness, runs the risk of being politically conservative. Citing a critique of ANT by the sociologist Nick Couldry, Hall explains the ways in which allocating agency to both humans and non-humans, potentially fails to register the very real issue of “human power differentials” and also “the possibility of resistance to wider power structures” (Hall, 2013a, p. 416). Although he concedes this possibility, Hall believes this approach remains useful. Others are not so sure. Not only does the focus on a more collective and, in many ways, more descriptive rather than evaluative approach tend to ignore what Latour himself defines as “good matters of fact”—reminding everyone that not everything is a construction—but, as Hal Foster points out, giving inanimate objects ‘agency’—creates a kind of “quasi-subject”—an actor who is more virtual than real (Foster, 2012, p. 7).

Ambitious Judgment
In 2016, in a telling rebuttal to those who believe that interest in criticism is waning, a newly published book on criticism written by A. O. Scott, the film critic for the New York Times, provoked lengthy reviews in both The New Yorker and The Atlantic (Scott, 2016; Heller, 2016; Wieseltier, 2016). Particular to both reviews was a consideration of the nature and value of authority in critical analysis. Writing for The New Yorker, staff writer Nathan Heller argued that Scott’s criticism carried authority because it avoided the overarching theoretical frameworks that governed the evaluations of the scholar-critics of the past (F.R. Leavis and Clement Greenberg for example). Heller claimed that such theoretical approaches handicapped critical judgment by not being adaptable to change. In contrast, critics like Scott, Heller continued, won allegiance by seducing readers rather than demanding deference—by suggesting that their experience and the experience of their readers was or would be the same. Authority, in this case, Heller explained, is based on sharing what one sees “without the distraction of special preparation or theoretical commitments” (Heller, 2016, p. 66). Yet, for Leon Wieseltier, the critic and past literary editor of The New Republic, this approach presents a problem rather than a solution. Reviewing Scott’s book for The Atlantic, he lamented the ways in which rigorous analysis has been eclipsed by an “intellectual weightlessness,” in cultural criticism today (Wieseltier, 2016, p. 39). Citing Scott’s work as an example, he warned against criticism that was “a jovial blur of local perceptions and easy paradoxes…of big ideas chatted away” (Wieseltier, 2016, p. 39). Presented as a kind of “winking worldliness,” an entertaining range that “correct[ed] high thought with the social and economic lowdown,” such writing, Wieseltier argued, sidestepped the mental struggle associated with research and reflection and resisted the important discipline of conclusion (Wieseltier, 2016, p. 39). Calling for a serious approach to criticism—one that embraced thoughtful and sustained argument as a way to develop and expand intellectual possibility, Wieseltier underscored the need to reconsider the authoritative role of the critic. In so doing, he also gestured toward the original meaning of authority itself. Derived from the Latin term auctoritas (and its root augere), authority, historically, was about establishing a relationship to the past—about recognizing a foundational idea and not only carrying it forward into the present, but augmenting it. In the eighteenth century, when reason supplanted adherence to custom or allegiance to the Divine, such augmentation became more about the possibility of rational elaboration—about the ways in which extended reasoning could both encourage understanding and inspire participation in social and cultural dialogue. Considered in this context, criticism becomes authoritative rather than authoritarian—a productive mode of communication that respects considered opinions precisely because they provide the foundation for meaningful dialogue and growth.

Although there has been a decline in graphic design criticism recently, it is a positive sign that designers and critics have voiced the need for more considered, long-form writing in the field. Responding to Rick Poynor’s 2005 appeal for more design criticism, Glenn Adamson (2005), past Director of Research at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and current Director of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, made the case for critical dialogue that is constructive rather than destructive. What critics are searching for, Adamson claimed, was “a lineage of internal debate and theory that constitutes a space for distinctive and somehow ‘productive’ thought”. Others seem to agree. Noting the increasing amount of writing about design in independent magazines as well as online, John L. Walters implored graphic designers to take writing seriously. Observing the variance in quality that such writing demonstrates, Walters challenged writers to engage in more original research (Walters, 2011, p. 67). Interviewed in the same special issue of the (now defunct) design magazine Grafik, the writer and educator Ellen Lupton echoed Walters’ challenge when she made a case for a more rigorous approach to graphic design criticism. Acknowledging the growth of independent publishing in graphic design as evidence of a palpable interest in producing texts, she questioned the audience as well as the object for such publications—their stature as “artifacts and evidence rather than reading material” (Lupton, 2011, p. 70). Given the predominance of visual material online, Lupton argued, magazines offered an alternative as they could offer something “slower and deeper” (Lupton, 2011, p. 70). Quoted in the same issue of Grafik, Justin McGuirk, the design critic for The Guardian, reinforced this view. Offering the nineteenth-century art critic John Ruskin as an example, McGuirk not only underscored the value of more thoughtful criticism, but also the importance of contextualized judgment—the possibility for complex arguments to carry their own authoritative weight. Seen in this way judgment is not viewed as spiteful or self-righteous, but an essential part of discourse—one that opens rather than closes down debate.

[…] there’s another kind of criticism – classical criticism rather than the newspaper variety – that doesn’t seek to change events but to find meaning in them. This search for meaning is more compelling. At its height it raised the work of criticism above mere commentary on an event and into the event itself. I see this as a creative act distinct from the social act of crusading criticism. And, crucially, the critic doesn’t have to be right (McGuirk, 2011, p. 68).

At a time when there is not only less criticism in the graphic design field, but when the criticism that does exist assumes increasingly atomized forms, the call for long-form criticism seems opportune. Noting that such criticism could be more discursive in its structure and tone also makes sense and suggests a middle way between the mere assertion and the evasion of judgment. Ultimately, as the art historian James Elkins (2003) has emphasized, one should not shy away from the authority of judgment. It is important to know what critics think. Yet, such judgment should be ‘ambitious.’ It should be the result of broader comparisons, of knowledge and time, and of self-reflection. Addressing criticism in this manner would encourage finer distinctions. It also would remind us that the ways in which we analyse what we see and make as well as the conclusions that we draw from this analysis matter.

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Essay originally published in Modes of Criticism 2 – Critique of Method (2016).