01 October 2008
Rick Poynor
Rick Poynor

How is critical design different from the norm? Is it self-critical or does it reach into the public's lived experience? Rick Poynor addresses these questions and looks at what "critical design" means in the current design context.

Rick Poynor is a contributing editor to PRINT. This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue of PRINT and has been republished with permission.

The newest group of design critics can only gain from accepting and interrogating their own evolving history.

The term "critical design" has been gaining currency in design circles for several years, and in 2007, it went public in the titles of three imaginative exhibitions. Two of these shows, in the U.K. and Belgium, dealt with three-dimensional design. The exhibition that concerns me here was the first I know of to apply the term to graphic design. "Forms of Inquiry: The Architecture of Critical Graphic Design" took place at the Architectural Association in London, a private school with a huge international reputation (former students include Rem Koolhaas, Richard Rogers, and Zaha Hadid). The exhibition's two young curators were Mark Owens, an American designer, writer, and filmmaker, and the AA's art director, Zak Kyes, a Swiss-American.

As a term, "critical design" has plenty going for it: It sounds sharp, analytical, en-gaged, and urgent. It also raises some questions, since its existence as a special category implies that regular design is, by contrast, not critical. Our view of this does, of course, depend on what we expect design to be doing. But if the implicit aim is simply to help clients sell more doodads, then all that matters is how effectively design achieves this goal. Design that lacks critical awareness of the situations in which it operates can only be a compromised activity. Critical design suggests aims and methods that are different in some fundamental ways from the norm.

Even if we allow that most design is not in any deep sense critical, it surely can't be the case that there has never been any critical design until now. Yet proponents of "critical graphic design" tend to present it as though it had arrived fully formed with no precedents. In a section of the Forms of Inquiry book devoted to modes of production, Kyes and Owens ask: "But what happens when the designer assumes the role of editor, publisher, and distributor outside the constraints of the ... client/designer relationship? Taking such a position challenges the ... service-based model of graphic design, reliant as it is on supplied content, external requests, and the division of work-flow into discrete specialisations."

These are good points, and a few graphic designers have been making them with great self-awareness and no little controversy for 20 years, if not longer. To give just one example, Emigre was a self-initiated venture that debated such questions at length while demonstrating by its own independent example exactly what it was talking about. In the 1990s, these critical discussions were usually conducted under the banner of "the designer as author," and sometimes, especially in the Netherlands, "the designer as editor," but the similarities to contemporary critical design are clear enough. In a discussion about critical design exhibitions on Design Observer, design educator Steven McCarthy, co-organizer of the 1996 exhibition "Designer as Author: Voices and Visions," expressed concern that the initial post by design critic Alice Twemlow didn't "acknowledge that much of the philosophical foundation of ‘critical design' resides in the theories of graphic design authorship advanced over ten years ago." This omission certainly reflected the self-positioning of many of the critical designers, who seem to want to distance themselves from these earlier debates.

Above: Cover of Forms of Inquiry,
Architectural Assocation, 2007.

In reality, some of the older graphic designers associated with critical design and featured in "Forms of Inquiry" - Paul Elliman, Armand Mevis and Linda van Deursen, and Stuart Bailey of Dexter Sinister and Dot Dot Dot magazine - were in the early stages of their careers as the concept of the designer as author took hold. No well-informed designer could have failed to notice these debates - Bailey even contributed to Emigre. At CalArts, where Kyes earned a BFA, instructors such as Lorraine Wild (who taught design history), Louise Sandhaus, and Gail Swanlund were all associated with Emigre, and Michael Worthington was invited by Kyes and Owens to participate in "Forms of Inquiry." Jeffery Keedy and Ed Fella, central to the authorship discussion, were also influential figures at the school.

More than anything, the reluctance to acknowledge recent precedents is probably just a new generation's desire to establish its own identity, combined with a cyclic swing in graphic taste. Where the 1990s was a decade of thickly encrusted visual overload, the critical designers can't get enough don't-sweat-it typography and fastidious conceptual restraint. Their shyness about origins does seem shortsighted, though; it's just the latest example of graphic design's endemic lack of faith in its own worthiness. Art and architecture, conspicuous sources of envy among the new critical designers - many of their projects are for artists - would never make this mistake. Critical design can only gain from an explicit acceptance and conscious interrogation of its own evolving history.

There are, nevertheless, some differences of emphasis. While the new critical designers take their own agency for granted, just as post-feminists took the feminists' hard-won gains for granted, they are less concerned with what Owens, writing in Dot Dot Dot, calls the "market value of ‘the designer as author.'" They tend, at least in graphic terms, to be humbler than their predecessors. They stress their role as participants and collaborators, proclaim the value of process over final product, and rethink the means of distribution, favoring the idea of "just in time" production - a manufacturing term - to avoid needless waste. "In my graphic design practice, leaving things as found, or even taking things away, can be just as valid a design decision as making something new," says James Goggin. (It's also worth noting how tight-knit this group of like-minded colleagues appears to be. As one of the selectors for Phaidon's Area 2 compendium, Goggin chose to include Dexter Sinister, Owens, and Will Holder, who was also in "Forms of Inquiry.")

To make critical design's recent history and usage more complicated for graphic designers, the term was first applied to industrial design. Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby devote a section to it in their 2001 book Design Noir, and anyone using it now should consult their discussion. "Critical design, or design that asks carefully crafted questions and makes us think, is just as difficult and just as important as design that solves problems or finds answers," write Dunne and Raby. "Its purpose is to stimulate discussion and debate amongst designers, industry, and the public. ... Critical design takes as its medium social, psychological, cultural, technical, and economic values in an effort to push the limits of lived experience, not the medium."

Dunne and Raby are absolutely clear about the political nature of critical design.Its task, as they see it, based on their own practice, is to develop design proposals in the form of models, publications, and exhibitions that challenge conventional values. They caution that designers must avoid the pitfalls of earlier attempts at critical design and develop strategies that link it to everyday experience and engage the viewer.

Kyes and Owens don't mention Dunne and Raby in their Forms of Inquiry book, but the most carefully thought-out, fully realized and convincing example of critical design they present is strikingly close to Dunne and Raby's precepts. Metahaven, headed by Daniel van der Velden, Vinca Kruk, and Gon Zifroni in Amsterdam and Brussels, is a kind of graphic design think tank that uses models, proposals, essays, and lectures to discover how design might facilitate new forms of critical investigation. One Metahaven project focused on the identity of the Principality of Sealand, a former World War II antiaircraft tower off the coast of Britain, which became a "micro-nation" in 1967 when a broadcaster declared it a sovereign state. The firm's contribution to "Forms of Inquiry" dealt with the destruction of 7 World Trade Center during the afternoon of the September 11 attacks. The building's collapse was announced by BBC television 26 minutes before it happened, an event that became the focus of conspiracy theories. Metahaven's graphic report for the exhibition was a double-sided poster carrying a dense grid of data about the building.

"We as designers want to step out of the ideological deadlock offered by current politics," they write, "and explore the possibilities of design re-engaged with the imagination and the political." In their democratic view, designers are, first of all, citizens. This is energizing talk, but again, the idea of the "citizen designer" has a history that shouldn't be forgotten. If critical graphic design is more than an aloof intellectual pose, it should spend less time hanging out with artists, turn its intelligence out-ward, and communicate with the public about issues and ideas that matter now.