D-Crit

Later this year here in New York, the School of Visual Arts will debut a new, two-year Master of Fine Arts program in Design Criticism. The program promises to train students “to research, analyze, and evaluate design and its social and environmental implications,” and boasts a faculty roster that includes many of the sharpest minds writing about and working in design today.

In spite of my general aversion to academia, I must admit that I’m pretty excited about this. Don’t get me wrong; I have no objection to scholarly pursuits. There’s just something about academia that usually fails to get me as worked up as I feel like it should. But D-Crit, as the program has colloquially named itself, has the potential not just to turn out stellar practitioners, but also to elevate a sorely underdeveloped aspect of our craft. Design has gained much traction over the past several decades, but the way we think and write about design has a long way to go, it seems to me.

The chair of the D-Crit program is the prolific Alice Twemlow, who has written far and wide about design and over the past several years has had a rapidly growing reputation and influence as one of the profession’s key critics and thinkers. She also happens to be a friend of mine, so I took advantage of that fact to conduct a brief interview with her here, trying to get a better idea of her ambitions for the program as it readies itself for a fall kickoff.

(Another note: in advance of that kickoff, D-Crit has been organizing a series of readings in New York City, previewing some of the writing and works from faculty. The next one takes place this coming Thursday, at KGB Bar in New York’s East Village, and focuses on the intersection of design and food. I’ll be there.)


An Interview with Alice Twemlow, Co-Chair, SVA D-Crit

K.V.

What kind of students enroll in the program? Specifically, how much experience do they have with design criticism, and what are they looking to get from the program?

A.T.

Since this is our first year (we open in September) it’s hard to answer this with any authority. What I can talk about are the kinds of students I’m hoping will enroll as well as some of the prospective students who’ve been to visit with me. We’re looking for twelve students.

In my mind, this program is for designers who are already writing and would like to enrich their practice through knowledge of history, experimentation with various theoretical models, and exploration of related disciplines such as material culture studies, film criticism or curation. And it’s for writers who want to deepen their understanding of design and its implications. In both cases it’s a program for people who want to focus on design but also through design, as a way to view and comment on the social condition.

We’re meeting with prospective students from all walks of life. There’s an editor at a publisher’s, as well as a freelance design journalist from Portugal, and a designer from Dubai, to name just a few. I meet with several people a week. They have degrees in subjects as varied as landscape architecture, anthropology, art history — as well as design.

If this diversity is an accurate representation of our actual students in September, I will be ecstatically happy. Maybe I should get out more, but you know what I mean! The more diverse the students’ backgrounds and viewpoints, the more heated and informed the class debates will be.

As for their experience with design criticism. Some don’t have any. And for those I’ve suggested some ways of getting up to speed over the summer: starting their own blogs, submitting articles to publications, and so on.

K.V.

The description of your program includes this line: “…While forums for design commentary have increased, there is a crucial need for more intellectually rigorous approaches to design criticism.”

Can you elaborate more on that “crucial need”? Would I be misinterpreting your words if I read them as an indictment of how design criticism has evolved in the past decade — especially online?

A.T.

Yes, that’s what I’m getting at. The term “crucial” might be overstating it a little; this was written to promote the program.

On the one hand it’s exciting that the volume of design discourse is increasing, and that the range of venues in which it is heard is expanding. Online readers’ “comments” and consumers’ “user product reviews” are new critical genres to be reckoned with. I’m really interested in the idea of democratizing design criticism by putting the tools of opinion-making, the vocabularies and criteria of evaluation, directly in people’s hands.

However, in the face of such a multitude of opinions and platforms, many believe that design criticism is in need of some kind of disciplinary recalibration. In recent years there have been conferences devoted to the topic, the launch of the Winterhouse Design Writing & Criticism Award, new journals such as Design Criticism, and now a clutch of graduate programs. These include: a one-year program opening at the London College of Communications and a course in critical writing at Konstfack, the College of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm.

To me it’s clear there’s momentum gathering around the need to clarify design criticism’s purposes and processes. D-Crit will work alongside these other initiatives to improve the quality of public discussion about design. Our specific goal is to help provide a new generation of critics with the tools to generate writing and thinking that is imaginative, historically informed and socially accountable.

Students will have more than one class devoted to the specific conditions of writing about design online, and they’ll develop their own blog where they can put their newly acquired skills into practice. I’m especially interested to see if the students can come up with an evolved approach to the “comments” section. We’ll explore models in other media, such as the ways in which designated respondents or moderators are used at conferences, and see if these might usefully be transposed to the Web.

K.V.

How much of the “imaginative, historically informed and socially accountable” approach that you describe is about ‘fixing’ what’s out there today, versus evolving it? Put another way, will you measure your success against a specific historical precedent in which design criticism was more intellectually rigorous? Or are you taking a different approach, looking to create a new kind of discourse?

A.T.

We’ll certainly be studying historical precedents for design criticism — from John Ruskin to Reyner Banham to Jane Jacobs. But we’re just as interested in examples of contemporary design criticism, and in examples in other fields such as film, art, and music.

As far as I know there was no real ‘golden age’ of design criticism. I’m studying this for my Ph.D. and the 1950s and 60s were certainly important as a period in which design criticism became both more visible and more self-conscious. But I’ve no intention of holding up the work produced in this era as some kind of standard to return to.

I’m way more interested in what the students have in store for us and how they will evolve the discipline as we know it. The innovative thing about what we’re doing is that we’re introducing the students to a range of formats, in addition to writing, through which they might practice criticism.

We’re offering them workshops and classes in skills such as producing a radio podcast, curating an exhibition, directing a conference and producing a blog. They may come up with other formats they’d like to explore such as the publishing house, the documentary, the design store, or the audio guide, and we’ll be happy to fix them up with the people and resources they’ll need to realize their ideas.

The part of your question that’s difficult to answer is how we’ll measure our success. Obviously, improving public discussion of design is not an activity that’s particularly quantifiable. One venue where we’ll be able to test the students’ endeavors with an audience will be at the annual D-Crit conference, an event which graduating students will organize themselves and in which they’ll present their thesis projects alongside keynote speakers of their choice. The first of these conferences will be in May 2010 and I think that’s where we’ll be able to gauge, to some extent at least, the public reaction to their new work.

K.V.

I have no doubt a conference like that would be fascinating, but will it be something just for academics or will it welcome less erudite members of the design field, too? Really, what I’m asking about is design criticism’s reputation for not being as accessible or fun as it could be — is that fair or unfair, and will your program address that one way or another?

A.T.

Well, we’ll be welcoming everyone to the D-Crit conference, absolutely. Whether they want to come or not remains to be seen!

I imagine the character of the conference will change from year to year, depending on the interests of the graduating students: One year they might want to present a scholarly conference, and their choice of keynote speakers and the way they frame their own presentations will reflect this. Another year perhaps the students will want to broaden the scope of the conference both in terms of its subject matter and audience.

Generally speaking, however, I hope we’ll be reaching as many people as possible and I’ll work with the students to develop strategies for doing so. And, yes, I believe conferences can be fun and should include elements of light relief, however deep the subject matter.

As for design criticism being “accessible or fun,” well I think it should always be accessible. A good critic makes the tools, methods and vocabulary of their criticism transparent to the reader, enabling them to form their own opinions as a result — and I think all of our faculty is on the same page about this.

But fun? That’s going to depend very much on the context and subject matter. An analysis of anti-land mine devices is going to have a rather different tone than a piece about flip-flops for example. And an exhibition about chairs aimed at school kids will feel very different from an opinion piece about the use of robots in warfare for publication in The Nation.

It will also depend on a writer’s particular voice. Some writers are just more serious than others and, as students explore their writing voices, we’ll expect them to try out different approaches that range from the serious to the humorous. Where they finally land on that spectrum is up to them.

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  1. Sounds like a remarkable program and I look forward to seeing the outcome. Very interested to see the students blogs and new eexploration of the comments system, which I feel is in major need especially right now when we see so many imaged based design blogs.

    Wondering how you might plan on including other people in the program in any way besides just the blog and conference. For example people that don’t have the time to fully enroll, or in my case will only be starting to work towards a BFA in Design next year. Hyper Island just launced a program of short Master Classes, also would be interesting to develop a basic guide for design critism. Some of this is farther down the line as the program is just starting but thought I would through out some ideas.

    Best of luck and I will be following the progress!

  2. SVA, huh? Yeah, they’re the ones that forced the school I work at to change its name from School of Visual Arts to College of Visual Arts and Design. Seriously, you should have asked about that.

  3. KGB bar always reminded me of a vampire type of hangout.

    BTW, any thoughts in perhaps taking up teaching for a year or so at SVA (even with your general aversion to academia)?

    SVA is in need of some decent web design classes… big time.

  4. Alice,

    Precisely that site, yes. I respect the reasoning behind the actual course itself, and it sounds from all of the above that it is being put together well and with a lot of care and thought.

    People take a lot away from first impressions of a business, product, or service. The reasons for this are simple – if they don’t have a reference for your service from a trusted source, they’ll judge whether your service is the one for them shortly after their first impressions of it. The first of these will be the way the service is initially presented.

    If you’re going to be marketing a course that puts you in the position of being an authority on good design, you will want to invest sufficient time and money to ensure that the media used to present the course to prospective students (website, course guide, promotional materials and so on) would stand up to exactly the same sort of critical analysis you’ll be asking your students to apply to the works of professional designers.

    Some specific comments on the site:

    1) Animated logo is distracting and makes it difficult to read the introductory copy.

    2) Reason for dividing the page into left and right halves aside, frames are definitely not the way to do it.

    3) Images rather than text for navigation and headings (bad for a whole host of reasons).

    4) Small body text size and insufficient leading makes it quite tricky to read.

    5) Under the hood, extremely poor code, semantics right out the window (a single paragraph tag around the whole main body of text, with each actual paragraph separated by line breaks).

    I hope this comes across as the constructive criticism it is intended to be, and not some harsh rant.

  5. Ben, I understand why you might not like the site, but it seems you are focused more on the code than the aesthetics.

    True, the type and leading could be a bit bigger, but I don’t have any major problems reading the copy.

    ‘Reasons for dividing the page into left and right halves aside, frames are definitely not the way to do it.

    But why? Doesn’t the site accomplish its goal? It might not follow strict web standards, but I think as a whole it’s a unique site and is easy to use (plus I love the animated logo).

  6. It’s interesting to think about what separates a review of usability from design criticism, especially in the context of digital design. The issue seems to come up a lot. Can a site that doesn’t adhere to web standards be considered good, or even great, web design? Can a book that uses incomplete sentences or obscure references still be great literature? What are the factors that cause us to judge different media by different criteria? I think that web designers sometimes view the possibilities through a pretty narrow lens. This is somewhat understandable because there are a lot of websites out there that neither function efficiently nor are well designed, just like there are a lot books that are bad and grammatically incorrect. But I think if you view the internet only through the perspective of standards you’re going to miss a lot of interesting work. While Ben is undoubtably right in his particulars, I would disagree with his initial assessment that the site doesn’t communicate the intended impression to its target audience. The site was designed by the team at the Walker Art Center. While they may have misplaced a P tag or two, they are certainly not naive about communicating through design. While you may or may not like the site (I’m somewhat biased), I don’t think you can assume that the effect it creates isn’t intentional or that you should immediately disregard it because it uses frames. Adherence to standards may be an important criteria for assessing websites, but it’s not the only one.

  7. @Joey Pfeifer

    The code is the aesthetic.

    As an artist and someone who likes good design, I agree with Ben on all counts.

    Now I might not have the street cred of the author of this blog site or have the skills of a competent web designer – but, I do bel

  8. David,

    There are two criticisms being discussed here and I think it’s important not to mix them, as people (myself included) can very easily get hung up on good coding for the sake of good coding.

    Web design is of course more than just code, but if I were on a web design judging panel and I was presented with a site that had the absolute perfect, ground-breaking ‘design’ but was poorly implemented/coded, I still don’t think I could give it full marks. The reason is that poor implementation of a web design means that the site does not function to its full potential (and in this respect, a badly coded website is quite different to a book whose text doesn’t follow grammatical convention). That’s not to say I view the web through standards-blinkers – there’s a lot of incredible work out there by Flash designers that any web developer can learn a thing or two from, and I fully accept that standards adherence is only one factor when judging a website design.

    However, think for a moment of how well the DCrit site would render on the average mobile phone, or other limited ability device such as a screen reader for the visually impaired – the primary navigation built out of images might just work, but the frames will probably kill it. I don’t think anyone can argue that aesthetic is that much more important than function in any field of design. Form follows function, etc.

    It’s up to the stake-holders behind the site how important the audiences who visit it from phones, and the visually impaired are, but given that it costs nothing to make the site accessible to them if you build it properly, what are you gaining by excluding them?

    Imagine if Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim looked precisely the same way it did now, but instead of being titanium clad stone and steel, was titanium clad papier mache, and collapsed within months of opening. I don’t think that’s an unfair metaphor for a great web design that’s built on poor code.

    There are other reasons for going with standards beyond accessibility and device portability, but that song has been sung a million times before.

    On a final note, I think your defence of the Walker team is letting them off a little lightly – there’s misplacing a p tag (we all do that from time to time), and then there’s an end result that paints an obvious lack of understanding of the tools used. You can know everything in the world about communicating through design, and I don’t doubt their abilities on that front, but if you don’t know how to hold your brush, that knowledge won’t be adequately leveraged.

  9. I agree with Ben on how web design = code + design.

    The question here is, do you really want to perpetuate the fact that designers only know how to ‘make things look pretty’ and not have a clue as to how a site should really function when it comes down to real world projects?

  10. Ok. So, besides the fact that you think the coding is inelegant and the does not meet certain standards for usability, what else don’t you like about the site?

    Do you find it derivative?

    Do you object to it on Marxist grounds that it represents hegemony?

    Or do you think it’s a bland re-skinning of the status quo?

    I just think that the conversation among web designers gets too narrow too quickly–that too often it is an argument about syntax rather than substance. That it lacks historical awareness or any kind of theoretical grounding. That, because of this focus, practitioners do not ‘make things look pretty’ because they don’t know what pretty is or how to articulate the very real value of prettiness. I think and hope this is exactly what programs like D-CRIT might provide the profession and–while I really do appreciate the issues you’ve raised–I look forward to a broader conversation.

  11. Seems like you keep ignoring the feedback you are getting, David – there’s no point in defending the site or the design. To be frank, the D-Crit site lacks the professionalism I’d expect, due to the fact of the content of the course. Can’t you see that?

  12. Here are my aesthetic crits…

    1) I feel like the site should visually expand on the blinking logo. Instead of going back to 1990s animated gifs, why not tile the images? I.e. refer to the background used on SVA’s current site. Perhaps this will help maintain the SVA online brand?

    2) The quality of the images used in the top header (the nav elements and SVA logo) are a bit pixelated.

    3) The left side of the site could use a bit more variation in type size/style/etc. Right now, Helvetica @ 11px(?) isn’t doing much in creating the sense of authority and knowledge that the new SVA d-crit program has to offer.

    4) The placement of ‘The Reading Room’ label is confusing. Does it have anything to do with the information that sits directly below it? What’s the relationship?

    5) The thumbnails under the ‘The Reading Room’ header should probably change when clicked on instead of on rollover. Its a bit confusing as to what you’ve read and not read after scrolling your mouse all over the thumbnails.

    6) Having the site expand according to browser size may provide site content producers with obstacles in selecting the ‘right’ image sizes used in the left column.