is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Vice President of User Experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. You can reach him through one of the services below.+
A friend of mine who happens to be a famous designer (this person shall remain nameless) said something not long ago about one of my projects that really pissed me off. At the time, I objected to this person’s tone and delivery, thinking it inappropriate. After all, we’re friends! But given some distance from the event, I realize now that, the formal qualities of the remarks aside, this person had a point. They weren’t necessarily right, mind you, but there was a legitimate criticism at the core, to which I should have paid attention. In retrospect I realize that getting hot and bothered about this person’s tone said something much less flattering about me than about the person.
Here’s why I’m saying this: almost by definition, design is a small community. If you’re a serious, dedicated practitioner of design in any of its flavors, you’re almost sure to meet a good number of your peers before too long — and then you’ll start to run into them over and over again, at conferences, at industry events, in trade publications, even when competing for business or interviewing for work. This is part of what makes design so terrific a vocation; its boundaries are reachable, its population so knowable.
Sometimes I wonder, then: given that everyone in design seems to more or less know everyone else, are we really having the kinds of meaningful, constructive, critical discourses that we really should be having? Are we too quick to take offense at the opinions of our peers? Or are we pulling our punches too much when discussing the merits of the work that our peers turn out? To put a finer point on it: are we being honest with one another?
There are designers whom I’m very friendly with, whom I personally respect, but who have produced work that I have serious reservations about, or that I find objectionable or lacking. Many of these people are responsible for designs that have attained great notoriety and influence, that are commonly cited as important works, but that in my estimation are detrimental to the field as a whole. There’s lots of design out there that I frankly don’t like.
And yet, if I might betray disdain more than I would like — if I’m less discreet about these opinions than I think I am — then it’s also true that I’ve bitten my lip, held my tongue, smiled and offered some empty, meaningless or flatly dishonest compliment in lieu of speaking my mind truthfully. This has happened more times, many more times, than I care to admit. It would seem that essential to the compact that affords inclusion into the small tribe of design is the notion that one shalt refrain from criticizing one’s friends within the profession.
And yet, those critiques are so important. The notion of speaking openly, honestly and objectively about work is inherent to learning how to be a better designer. That’s why every design school uses critiques as a core tool of teaching design. Critiques conducted amongst peers, people you know, people that you have to see again the next day in class, that you have to build relationships with. If you’re learning design, then you’re giving and receiving criticism regularly. If you’re not engaging in constructive criticism, then you just aren’t learning about design. And yet, at some point when a designer achieves some modest level of notoriety or establishes some foundation of peers in the industry, the critiques stop. If you’re a practicing graphic designer of more than say five years, it’s a pretty good bet that no one outside of your design practice actively and regularly provides you with objective, rational and lucid feedback.
Living in Bubbles
The other side of the coin, of course, is the notion that there’s lots of criticism out there that we willfully ignore. It’s not hard, in design, to reside in a frictionless environment, ignoring or, when encountered, dismissing criticism. Beyond the abovementioned incident, I probably don’t need to dig much deeper to find further complaints about the design that I do: my slavish aping of Modernist masters; my formulaic distillation of serious, grid-based design into a stylistic shorthand; the limited range of my visual vocabulary; my hedgingly conservative approach to digital design; and, no doubt, my claustrophobic tending of NYTimes.com. Unless I’m completely paranoid, it seems reasonable to me that all of these thoughts have crossed the minds of some of the people I know at some point or other. Maybe quite often, or even all the time.
I’m a little to blame for my own blissful ignorance, as are we all. But we could say also that it’s a symptom of the still-immature state of the design industry. There is very little serious criticism of design in the public square. To be sure, there are very good design publications and Web sites that do a very good job of writing seriously about design, but if you take a good look at the contributors listings for any of them, you’ll see almost immediately that they are largely written by practicing designers.
Like it or not, you can’t have a serious discourse about an art form until you have people whose sole involvement in that art form is criticism. You need, in effect, an independent press. Actually, to be clear, what you need is an economic model that can support a corps of passionate, clear-thinking individuals who are dedicated to vigilantly watching over the progression of the medium. Recent troubles aside, this is why art, film and architecture have achieved such great heights in our society: those art forms are economically robust enough to support a vibrant critical class.
Design is far from having that. Especially the design forms to which I’m closest: graphic design, Web design, interaction design. We have lots of smart people writing actively about design, pushing ourselves to do better design, but we have very few design critics who remain apart from the practitioners. We need more.
Critically Speaking… to One Another
All of that’s digression, though, because it’s a long way off, if it’s ever coming. For now, for better or worse, this is our lot in life: a small community of peers whom we rely on for support, encouragement and inspiration, whom we can’t avoid even if we try.
It’s not that bad a deal, really. We’re lucky to have the design communities that we do. Personally, I have found them very rewarding. But I’m pretty sure they’ll be even more rewarding if we can be more open about what we think about the work we’re all doing, more honest about constructive criticism, less hesitating when we come across work that we just don’t like.
That starts, of course, with us, each of us. It starts with not getting pissed off when one of us lobs complaints about another’s work. It starts with remaining calm and objective in the face of critiques from people we know, listening to the core of a complaint, without becoming distracted by personal familiarity. When we can separate the critique from the friendship — when we can hear the feedback without confusing it with the relationship — then we’re getting somewhere. I’m going to try my damndest.+