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
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.