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15 minutes at 300 degrees

Recently, I got into a semi-heated email debate with Ahrum Hong, a student at RISD, over, partly, the critique of design. I’m certainly no stranger to defending—to the teeth—half-baked ideas I’ve come up with on the spot, and this was no exception.

This time it was:

Design is a process that takes place between a designer and a client. Without having intimate, or at least good knowledge of what the criteria and direct interaction was within that process it is, in my opinion, impossible or at least very difficult to critique design.

Furthermore, I said:

I have great difficulty judging or even commenting on student work for the above reasons. To me, student work can only be judged when I know what the assignment and objectives were, and on what criteria (eg. level of knowledge of the student, the “lesson” they were supposed to learn from the exercise, and in some ways the relative work of other students in the class, which would give an indication of how well the teacher communicated the concept and objectives to the students) the assignment is based. I can almost not know this without being the teacher (read, client).

You could potentially read no further and say “Marian is so full of shit.”

Indeed. Ahrum said:

I’m totally lost on your reasoning. Isn’t the object a separate entity from the designer[s]/client? Even without knowing the context in which something was created, can’t we still talk about the concepts that are apparent in the object itself?

I didn’t respond for a few days. I had to think about that. I mean, he’s right. The result of design the process is design the object, and it goes out there on its own into the world and has to stand up for itself, that’s the whole point. So perhaps it’s Design the object that can be critiqued.

And yet … beyond the ill-consideration of technical details (logos that break down at small sizes, failed printing techniques, bad typography, or whatever) what really is there to say in the critique of design beyond “I like/hate it”?

More from me to Ahrun:

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been prepared to go into a meeting with a client about whom I know something (having had a brief rundown of who they are and what they want, on the phone) with an idea … a brilliant idea in my head of what i could do for them. More often than not (in fact, almost always) after sitting down and really going over what it’s all about, I have to reject my initial brilliant idea and rethink from scratch. Often it also means rejecting some wildly inventive concept in favour of something much more tame and expected, because it’s the right thing to do.

What I’m saying is that when we see a design about a company we know a little bit about, it’s easy for us to come up with that first inventive idea. It’s “I know! I would do THIS!” But the reality of design is sitting down with the client and learning a bunch of stuff that you didn’t know and then starting from that point and going forward. This is why i say it’s hard to critique design, because we weren’t there and we don’t know … not only about their objectives but about the personalities and group dynamics involved in the process.

I feel like I’m right, and yet I look at my initial statement (way up, above) and it just looks ludicrous to me—indefensible. And yet again … I’m right. I’m wrong. I’m right. I’m wrong.

So what does constitute useful and valid critique of design?

p.s. I am fully aware that I have, on this very site engaged in the critique and, yes, trawling through the mud of certain design work. Mea culpa.

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PUBLISHED ON Dec.07.2004 BY marian bantjes
szkat’s comment is:

it sounds to me like you're focusing on whether or not a project meets its goals of functionality, which should be a part of every student critique; it sounds like your friend is trying to get you to admit that it's possible to have a discussion based only on what is in front of you, in other words, what you would derive from it if it was posted to a wall as you walked down a city street.

graphic design needs to funtion in both realms, and that cannot be denied. but it's very possible and often informative to try to separate the two in critical discussion.

your friend was probably just frustrated because regardless of anything, you always have the freedom to say "a little more to the left." that will seldom depend on the client needs, but will always have a lot to do with the general aesthetic.

i wouldn't say you're wrong. i agree with you because any advice would feel incomplete. if you don't take the overall objective into account, then who cares about the color palette?

On Dec.07.2004 at 01:17 PM
Daniel Green’s comment is:

Great question, Marian.

Generally speaking, once we get beyond foundational aspects of form (color, pattern, texture, scale, etc.), as well as functional characteristics (such as size of type for an obviously elderly audience), it seems like a useful critique needs to become a conversation, rather than a lecture. While we can comment on how we are perceiving a concept, we might not be looking at it in the way the intended audience will. That doesn’t mean that just because the client said that they wanted a purple plaid background, that it was a good thing to pursue. But at least with a conversation, an attempt can be made to connect form with meaning on an intentional level.

On Dec.07.2004 at 01:20 PM
nat’s comment is:

while i agree, generally, that it is difficult to critique STUDENT work without some knowledge of the assignment and it's goals etc., i have mixed feelings about marian's argument.

i don't need to have intimate knowledge of a design's genesis in order to offer a critique any more than i need to know about the architect/client/contractor relationship in order to judge whether a building meets my needs, or to be present in the kitchen in order to critique my meal.

i don't think that simply saying "i would have done X differently" is a necessarily valid critique. it is offering up a different solution to a problem that you may or may not fully understand (this is where i essentially DO agree with marian). but on a different level, you CAN asses whether or not a work is succesful as an object, seperate from the designer's/client's intentions, and i think that this is, in the end, more important. ultimately, a design does need to be able to stand on its own, and a piece can be successful even if it doesn't explicitly do what the client/designer intended. i think we all have a general idea of what an ad or a product catalog or an annual report, etc, is supposed to do, and we can usually make basic assumptions about an audience based on context. we don't necessarily need to know the specifics in order to offer a well reasoned opinion on the piece. does it communicate its message thoroughly; or am i left with more questions than answers? do i understand its purpose? am i motivated by the piece to take action? is it easy to read? is it laid out well? i don't need to have any background knowledge to offer a valid answer to any of these questions.

On Dec.07.2004 at 01:44 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Design, the object, can, should and must be critiqued on its own. Yes, the "context" in which a piece was created is important but in the end — once the thing is out there in the world — the only way it can be judged is by what you see and the references that that work triggers. A work of graphic design works on many levels other than the superficial (i.e., typography, color, kerning, whatever) so it is totally possible to come to a conclusion based on our reaction to it. Surely we know a thing or two about graphic design so we immediately judge its surface first, but we are doing it based on an assumed body of knowledge and understanding. And, ultimately, don't we ourselves expect the end user to, if not critique, at least understand our work without the context in which it was created?

A critique of graphic design — just like a critique of food, art, music or books — can, and does, happen (and is immensely valuable and credible) after it's all been said and done.

On Dec.07.2004 at 01:52 PM
marian’s comment is:

needs to become a conversation, rather than a lecture

But I feel like the designer (and/or the client) needs to be involved in that conversation.

Whenever we put a logo up for commentary here on this website, I feel uncomfortable. The dogs come out and start ripping (and yes, I've taken bites), but the discussion is always transformed if the designer comes on and says "what you don't know is that this was the criteria," at which point half of us back off and say "Oh! Well then, that's different."

My conversation with Ahrum came out of a little logo feast that spontaneously occurred over at Design Observer, which also changed once the designers came on to tell about the criteria and rationale.

Take the AFLAC discussion. There's a lot of talk about the use of the gradient in the logo, and god knows I hate shaded logos as much as the next person, but have AFLAC been duped by Futurebrand into using one? I sincerely doubt it.

The point is, given a duck and a logo, what Futurebrand did is not what I would do. But they went through a process (200 #@%^* logos), and somebody, possibly many people are happy with the results. What the hell do we know?

What's to critique? Where's the arena? I'm not saying there isn't one, or that we just shouldn't critique (at least I don't think that's what I'm saying), but I'm looking for opinions on what's valid and useful and interesting.

I'm saying that generally speaking we say "design is not about aesthetics" and generally speaking we critique based on aesthetics. There's something wrong with that.

On Dec.07.2004 at 01:57 PM
agrayspace’s comment is:

Isn't the fact that graphic design should be interpretable and evaluatable without a project brief what makes it different than art? Good design should communicate its purpose and objectives on its own. If an explanation is needed, failure is acheived.

But I will grant the notion that certain elements of a design can't be critiqued without some project specific knowledge. For example, someone might critique a design by saying its tame and missed opportunities for emotional power, which could be defended through a description of the client relationship and the design process that resulted from that.

Still the interpretabilty-over-pow factor is completely in the designers hands and that can and should be critiqued with fiery unforgiveability. There are no safety nets for design once its living on its own out there in the cruel icy real world right.

Sometimes I wonder if this new focus on design's subjective power is going to ultimately hurt our ability to communicate universally (which I believe is still an acheivable and worthwhile goal. Some would not I guess.)

On Dec.07.2004 at 02:02 PM
Garrison’s comment is:

You either like it or you don't. How does learning more about the process that created it change anything?

On Dec.07.2004 at 02:06 PM
marian’s comment is:

I do think there's something different about design from food, architecture, music, etc. and that is the client-designer relationship.

The food in a restaurant is made by the chef for the consumer. If I the consumer think it sucks, I have good reason for saying so. Architecture is meant primarily to shelter people and function for an intended purpose: if it doesn't meet those purposes, critique is necessary. Design is primarily meant to communicate a message of some kind from a client to an audience. The client knows the messge they want to communicate, the audence knows if they've received the message. What if we're part of neither?

Let's go back to the chef. Suppose the chef is hired by a client to do a themed banquet of ancient Roman recipes. Those who attend the banquet knowing that appreciate the unusual flavourings and strange ingredients. Those who don't say, "I think it was very heavy in flavour, and all those small birds had too many bones."

Am I making sense, or am I way way out on a limb here?

On Dec.07.2004 at 02:09 PM
marian’s comment is:

You either like it or you don't. How does learning more about the process that created it change anything?

Basically, who cares if I like it or not?

Jessica Helfand's critique of Microsoft Spaces is a good case in point. She critiques based on her knowledge and taste, but as someone so rightly points out "this isn't meant for you."

Let's take my phone bill. It's inscrutable. It drives me crazy. My temptation is to rant, lengthily, about the fuckin' idiot who designed this thing. But wait a minute. Maybe Telus wants it that way. Maybe by making my phone bill difficult to figure out, they're able to make it difficult for me to compare with other phone companies, or avoid certain practices or services that earn them $$. Now is it good design or bad design?

What about some of those award winning ads we see in the Annuals? We look at it and say "Brilliant! I so get it." But what if the intended market doesn't get it? Or what if it raises awareness of the product but not the brand? Is it still good design? I'm certain it's happened many times that design that we think is brilliant, is a complete failure from the client's perspective. Who's judging it now?

On Dec.07.2004 at 02:30 PM
szkat’s comment is:

this is turning into basic form versus function argument. yes, you CAN focus on pure aesthetic, but should you?

your original question was "what constitutes useful and valid critique of design?" and i think the answer is this: use all the things that you have running around in your head that point you in one direction over another. form and function both matter. share everything you've got and let the kids sort it out. they need to learn both as much as they can before the clients are real and their decisions determine their paycheck. to only concentrate on the form half of the problem is only giving them half an education. our craft is based on problem solving and freedom within parameters, and the more exposure students get to that, the better they will be for it.

i forget who said it: "First you must know the rules in order to effectively break them."

On Dec.07.2004 at 02:56 PM
BlueStreak’s comment is:

Marian, you are so right!

Your RISD friend, Armin and so many others seem to think the superficial qualities of the visual are the basis of concept. And it pisses me off that they win awards with concepts based on superficial concepts based on graphic decorating rather than graphic design.

Graphic design goes deeper than mere graphic decoration and involves concepts based on context. Critiquing work without information on the context can only dwell on the pretty surfaces. Works that may be miserable failures could actually give the appearance of success and vice versa.


On Dec.07.2004 at 03:02 PM
Jemma’s comment is:

So if I create a logo for company X, and the client is really happy with it, and all of the design objectives have been met or exceeded - does that make it good design?

Even if the final design is really awful/trite/bland to everyone but the client's target audience?

I think there is a lot of value in assesing the object outside of the process. How many pieces of work have you done, that have been a huge success to the client, but would never make it into your portfolio in a million years?

I think the process is important - but if the piece can't stand alone, then the process doesn't really matter.

On Dec.07.2004 at 04:28 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Marian, you are so right!

Blustreak somehow assumed that I think the superficial qualities of the visual are the basis of concept. But, Marian, I don't recall saying that, at least not if you read my comment carefully.

OK, OK… I'll take the sarcasm down a notch. I really don't know how my comment got misconstrued… but anyway…

> Critiquing work without information on the context can only dwell on the pretty surfaces.

That could be true in some instances. But if we are starting from the premise that "I like/I don't like" does not constitute good critique, the conversation we are having is a bit deeper than that. When I say I can critique without context I mean that I can look at, say, the logo for UPS, and based on what I know about principles of graphic design, knowing how identites are applied, knowing that UPS has some of the shittiest customer service, understanding the effects that color brown has and perhaps having a slight notion of the marketplace and the culture around me, I can come to a conclusion. Good or bad. I can. And I do.

> I think the process is important - but if the piece can't stand alone, then the process doesn't really matter.

Or: the means do not justify the ends.

On Dec.07.2004 at 04:33 PM
Tan’s comment is:

The best design succeeds on every level — from designer, to client, to the public. Apple and VW comes to mind. It has to work on its own merits, and it has to work within a context. One doesn't trump the other. "Pretty" is as valid as "information context" — you can't use either as sole justification.

And a process is not a judging factor, it's just a by-product of the need and result. A complicated process and thick creative brief doesn't guarantee that the design is any more successful than a 5-minute idea.

We crit a lot of work in SU without knowing its full context. But that doesn't make it invalid or wrong — it just makes it incomplete.

The last thing I'll say is that experienced designers have a sixth sense when it comes to judging work. I don't always need a full briefing to know if something works or doesn't visually. That's why we're designers and clients aren't.

On Dec.07.2004 at 04:50 PM
Ben Hagon’s comment is:

Nice Armin.

I like your rationale.

A work of graphic design works on many levels other than the superficial (i.e., typography, color, kerning, whatever) so it is totally possible to come to a conclusion based on our reaction to it.

One can get so lost in your bracketed words as a professional, comments like this bring things back into perspective.

Thanks to Marian for an interesting post too.

On Dec.07.2004 at 04:54 PM
ben kutil’s comment is:

Isn't the fact that graphic design should be interpretable and evaluatable without a project brief what makes it different than art?

Critiquing without a "brief" or context to the art is exactly what happens upon entering a gallery. A piece of art also has to stand upon its own 2 feet. Upon entering a gallery, we do not always have a "brief" about the work we are viewing, and yet most people critique it in the lowest sense at least. (i do/not like it).

Design can be critiqued without understanding the process, but cannot be fully understood without it.

On Dec.07.2004 at 05:40 PM
marian’s comment is:

does that make it good design?

Even if the final design is really awful/trite/bland to everyone but the client's target audience?

Well, I think a strong case could be made for "Yes."

How many pieces of work have you done, that have been a huge success to the client, but would never make it into your portfolio in a million years?

Well a portfolio has a different purpose: that being as an aid in getting work of a certain desired type.

Blustreak somehow assumed that I think the superficial qualities of the visual are the basis of concept. But, Marian, I don't recall saying that

No, I didn't think you said that. Down, boy.

Or: the means do not justify the ends.

Y'know you guys I am so torn on this issue. I have to say that I agree with you (Armin, Tan et al). In my heart, I think you're right, but there's something really holding me back from just caving and saying OK, it's decided then, discussion over.

[and I've been sitting here for the past half hour typing things and deleting them again ... I need to think.]

On Dec.07.2004 at 05:41 PM
marian’s comment is:

Critiquing without a "brief" or context to the art is exactly what happens upon entering a gallery

But that's not really critique ... or it's not constructive or informed.

Let's talk about art critics for a moment. Before critiquing they know the history, process, context and they also know something about the artist; often a lot. To talk about art from any other perspective is just bandying about opinions of taste. Fun. Sometimes informative about whoever you're speaking with, but not informative about the artist or the piece.

So here we are, we're informed about many aspects of graphic design, but when we "critique" a piece do we really know the designer and client as well as we should? For instance Futurebrand, do they have an oevre (e.g. gradated logos) within the context of which we should be critiquing?

I don't know.

On Dec.07.2004 at 05:55 PM
BlueStreak’s comment is:

"Design, the object, can, should and must be critiqued on its own. Yes, the "context" in which a piece was created is important but in the end — once the thing is out there in the world... A critique of graphic design — just like a critique of food, art, music or books — can, and does, happen (and is immensely valuable and credible) after it's all been said and done."

It's not just the context in which a piece was created. It's more important to consider the context in which a piece is expected to operate and succeed. That's the point that too many graphic designers pursuing and winning awards are allowed to toss aside.

Please allow me to carry your comment about critiquing food forward. Suppose that you were to taste two meals, one from an award winning restaurant and one is a military MRE, is it best to judge them the day they were created or after several months of shelf life? Do you think you could adequately judge the restaurant meal if it were eaten in the context of an MRE and vice versa?

While I, like Marcel Duchamp, believe that an object of can be critiqued on its own. I don't think design should and must be judged out of context.


On Dec.07.2004 at 06:10 PM
Greg’s comment is:

Ok... let me see if I can summarize the arguments of all sides effectively:

Armin and his posse: Design based exclusively on concept misses the point. People have to understand what you've done on first glance, since it's too expensive and unwieldy to include the design brief with each piece.

BlueStreak and his posse: Design based on aesthetic alone is useless and meaningless. Design is not being furthered by the trends from the latest design annuals. It should mean something in relationship to the client.

Marian: Help!

I write this because I think that both arguments are being mischaracterized by the opposition. Armin wasn't saying that only the aesthetic matters, just as BlueStreak isn't saying that design should be so weird and confusing that no one gets it.

Can't it be both? Isn't it possible to create a logo/brochure/website/annual report that both reaches out to people yet still retains a sense of style? This is what I strive for in my work. Shouldn't we all?

On Dec.07.2004 at 09:46 PM
mandy’s comment is:

Marian, you seem to be searching for the one-true-criticism when there is ample reason to consider no such creature exists. Why should you feel that you must be married to a particular method of criticism when there are so many valid methods out there to choose from?

As a designer who was educated in literature, I can hear an old argument running beneath this thread. There are two dominant methods for literary criticism that extend well into design criticism: New Criticism and New Historicism. New Criticism argues that a work of art exists outside of its artist and must be critiqued as such. It doesn’t care about the process, or the artist’s life, or the social or cultural events that molded him/her. In fact, new critics will often point out that there can be quite a significant gap between what an artist intended and what he/she actually accomplished. Better to judge the latter, in that case, since it’s what stands before you, while the artist’s intentions tend to slide through your fingers. (If you ever took a literature class and were forbidden to look up additional sources when writing a paper, then you’ve been baptized in New Criticism.)

On the other hand, new historicists argue that such a critique assumes the work lives in a vacuum, a proposal that is increasingly difficult to support. New Historicism wants to know the social and cultural underpinnings of a work, wants to know the historical events that prefigured its creation, demands to know everything that can be learned about the artist and his/her life. New historicists consider the work in the context within which it was created—much like you, Marian, seem to be arguing.

But in practical terms, almost no one converts to one type of criticism and swears off all others. Both of the above methods have obvious handicaps: New Criticism severs the art from the artist, while New Historicism undervalues aesthetics. So why not consider both (and any of hundreds of other methods) as tools of criticism that you can use as you deem appropriate? When Armin critiques the Aflac logo, he is simultaneously a New Critic (judging the aesthetic of the duck poking it’s head into the letters) and a New Historicist (considering the cultural justification for the duck’s intrusion).

In other words, it is ok to say “design is not just aesthetics” and then proceed to critique a logo entirely by its aesthetics, because you are only performing one instance of criticism. Just like, in another situation, you could elect to critique a design primarily by its context (and you probably judge your own designs this way). You do not have to embrace the totality of design criticism in every critique. Nor should you.

On Dec.07.2004 at 10:24 PM
Mike’s comment is:

Design can be judged from either perspective. Whether it is observed by a person on the street or by a client who knows what you are trying to achieve, both judgements are valid. A teacher or a designer may be more educated in the field of design, but isn't most design created for public consumption. It doesn't matter whether it is hanging in a gallery as "art" or on a sign around the corner of the street as an advertisement. Someone will observe it and judge it based on their own personal criteria and experiences. Let's face it, it is almost impossible for any designer/artsist to stand next to his or her work and explain the most in depth meaning of it, why they made certain choices and if they accomplished the goal they set out to achieve. Designs take on a life of their own once they are released from the designers hands. I guess that the argument could be made that "good design" could be design that is asthetically pleasing and communicates its message(no matter who the viewer is).

On Dec.07.2004 at 11:20 PM
Jason A. Tselentis’s comment is:

So what does constitute [a] useful and valid critique of design?

What is said means a lot. What context you bring it under will help too. But who gives the critique means the most.

When the critic is informed, this helps all those involved. Have you ever gone to a museum with somebody who doesn’t know art beyond Norman Rockwell and Warhol? Have you listened to somebody critique a wine based on “what they like” instead of how it works with their meal? And don’t get me started on the folks that tout the latest and greatest movie just because it stars so and so.

Connoisseurs do nothing more than discuss their likes, dislikes, and tastes. An informed critic will consider all angles, recognize the good with the bad, and offer suggestions for improvements and advances. They bring a wide array of knowledge and experience to the table. They will be thoughtful, considerate, and critical. They will see the surface, substance, history, and theory. They wonder about implementation. They ask about minor details and help troubleshoot.

They validate your success(es) and help you move beyond shortcomings.

On Dec.08.2004 at 01:56 AM
marian’s comment is:

Mandy: very interesting; thanks.

An informed critic will consider all angles,

Jason: indeed.

Marian: Help!

Greg: funny!

On Dec.08.2004 at 02:16 AM
Dan S.’s comment is:

I think when it comes down to it all implicities that went into the creation of a design must be considered -- the functionality, satisfaction of the client, reaction to its viewers. At the same time explicit criticizm must be used as well -- does it look good, or not?

On Dec.08.2004 at 03:36 AM
agrayspace’s comment is:

I like what Mike had to say:

Design can be judged from either perspective. Whether it is observed by a person on the street or by a client who knows what you are trying to achieve, both judgements are valid.

I can agree that a critique that is informed of the details and background of a projects "brief" could have different results than a critique coming in "cold". But I think it is unfortunate if we start to give too much weight to this subjectivized version of a critique. Its part of my lament over the dying modernist notions of universiality.

Most people will interact with a piece of design "cold" so I still believe this is the most valid and powerful form of critique. The successful work should wear its "breif" on its "sleeve".

My original point about the comparison about art and design got a little skewed. The point was that art CANNOT be fully understood without knowing things about History and the Artist, but design SHOULD be interpretable without this knowledge and any design piece that looks vastly different after a backstory is known is still a failure in some ways.

On Dec.08.2004 at 09:25 AM
Greg’s comment is:

Greg: funny!

I try.

It's funny that this comes up now, I was just complaining to Armin via email that my family and friends' critique of my brand new portfolio site (wink wink*) was coming up short, and asked him to do a quick analysis (to which he replied with a diatribe, but that's beside the point.) My complaint had been that people had made great comments about the work, but lukewarm comments about how to make the site better. But when Armin replied, he came back with what I realized later was what a lot of people had been kind of saying already, it's just that he said it better since he knows the language. The point being, critical analysis from "design civilians" (or those who don't know the situation) and from "design vets" (or those who do) may just be a difference of knowledge, but both are just as valid. People know what they like, they just may not know why they like it.

*Feel free to go and leave your own analysis if you want. Every bit helps.

On Dec.08.2004 at 11:36 AM
Rob ’s comment is:


I am firmly and confidently sitting in your camp. One may be able to critique the technical aspects of a design without knowing anything about the assignment/client but to truly judge whether a design 'works' one must be aware of the "thoughts behind the design."

For me the valid critique must answer the question does it work more than do I like it or not. Like is a subjective issue that can change from one viewer to the other and is not what I call the goal of graphic design. Graphic design's job is to communicate a message or messages effectively using image and type. So, for me the ability to communicate the intended message is the key to successful design. Not that the aesthetics aren't important but the message is still the key.

Anything else should be considered personal opinion which while valid for the person holding the opion does not necessarily become valid for others.

On Dec.08.2004 at 11:55 AM
Ahrum Hong’s comment is:

A lot of this discussion has been focussing on 'aesthetics' vs. 'message,' but I think its confusing to equate either of those things with New Criticism/Historicism (which is essentially what this debate is about... nice post on that by the way). To crit a design without full knowledge of the client/designer relationship doesn't necessarily mean you're criting whether something is pretty or not.

'For me the valid critique must answer the question does it work more than do I like it or not.'

Rob, I don't understand how knowing more about the process informs whether a design 'works' or not. If something looks mindless, confused, uncommunicative, etc., it is all those things, even if the designers/clients are not. Background information allows for better understanding of where things went wrong, and that frequently leads to more constructive criticism, but these things we design are meant to 'work' without that knowledge.

On Dec.08.2004 at 02:29 PM
Saeed’s comment is:

What I think you are getting at is the importance of CONTEXT, UNDERSTANDING and MEANING.

Just as the context of a conversation between two people creates a basis for UNDERSTANDING beyond the actual words they use, so is the context upon which design is based the basis of the MEANING of the final product. Looking in from the outside, out of CONTEXT, a third-party might not have the UNDERSTANDING required to catch the MEANING.

Thus, each piece of work should be based on a specific message (MEANING), targeted towards a specific group of people with a common background (CONTEXT), so the work can serve a purpose (UNDERSTANDING).

On Dec.08.2004 at 02:31 PM
marian’s comment is:

I agree with Ahrum that the debate has become confused, and in terms of what it is about, I agree also that Mandy's post puts that in the framework that I was unable to.

I also think that ultimately Mandy is right both in a desired approach to critique and in the origin of my angst.

Forgive my brief 2:15 AM comment, I was tired, and wearing a tight corset.

If something looks mindless, confused, uncommunicative, etc., it is all those things, even if the designers/clients are not.

I also think, without ever having said so before, that there are clear cases of bad design, some signs of which are listed here in Arhum's comment; but by and large work executed by professionals (e.g. the work that tends to turn up under scrutiny here and in the press) has the basics down and we engage in a higher level of critique—or we try.

I've been very cautious of late in what I post, if anything, in the more recent logo critiques, and I will continue to be so.

BTW, for the record there also seems to be some misunderstanding that I advocate that the intended audience for a design is a better judge of that design than a designer. Absolutely, vehemently not so. Only that that intended audience needs to be known and taken into consideration.

On Dec.08.2004 at 03:06 PM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

I design a poster, the purpose of which is to be confusing.

You look at it and offer a critique: this design does not work because it is confusing.

I say aha!

On Dec.08.2004 at 03:30 PM
marian’s comment is:

stop confusing me.

On Dec.08.2004 at 03:56 PM
tom B’s comment is:

This discussion is one of the reccuring themes of the 20th century. If meaning comes from context, but context can't be pinned down, then meaning must come - at least in part - from the text (using this term as literary critics do, to refer to the inherent meaning in the piece - removed from context). But this creates more problems: how can anything have meaning without context? How would a system like this work?

Every piece of communication has context, and this context is constantly sliding around so that no two interpretations will be the same.

This isn't the same as saying that interpretation is meaningless (the postmodern attitude). We must rely on the fact that, as members of a shared culture, with similar explanations and narratives, we can be confident that our interpretations will be similar.

We can always increase our understanding of meaning by learning more about context. Conversation and research allow us to hone in on meaning. But we can never reach THE meaning - the COMPLETE meaning - because context can always be extended.

The reason we can critique design without knowing about the designer or the client isn't because a piece of design can somehow detatch itself from context - far from it. We can critique because we know a great deal about context. We know how certain forms affect other people through years of experience of being human, and existing within culture.

Without ANY context, we wouldn't be able to understand anything at all. We'd be blind, deaf and senseless.

On Dec.08.2004 at 03:57 PM
kevin’s comment is:

Generally i would think that as practicing professional designers the critique would ultimately be; the answer to the question: how are the sales of any particular product? For students the critera should be slightly different in my mind. 1st critera did the design successfully represent the intent of the problem. 2nd was the process that derived the design sound? because as a student you need to learn how to re-create successful designs on a drive through basis. 3rd does it act like a successful product. i.e all the qualities that Don Norman talks about in his book on emotional design...visceral, behavioral, reflective qualities. It is through strong critiques of process that young desingers learn the craft of problem solving.

On Dec.08.2004 at 10:45 PM
BlueStreak’s comment is:

Marian, I'm sorry for injecting confusion in this discussion that you initiated. I'll try to be more to the point, and articulate my thoughts more clearly.

This topic touches on an issue that bothers me enormously. Some of the attitudes represented in the comments posted infuriate clients and give our profession a terrible reputation.

While I thought you were on the right track, your last comment was very wrong in my opinion. I firmly believe that if a target audience judges a piece to be a design failure, the piece is a design failure, no matter what every other designer in the world thinks.

Too many designers gunning for awards and placement in the annuals prepare their work with fellow designers in mind as the target audience. The work wins accolades for the designer and garners more work, but the client's goals are missed and he/she feels like they've been cheated and the designer didn't listen. I hear far too many people say that graphic designers never listen.

Here are two examples I'll always remember. One is the ad with very elegant type. But the audience was older with poor eyesight and all said they never even tried to read the information presented. The other example is a poster for a play. It was beautifully illustrated and produced. But the client pointed out that the location and dates of the play were an afterthought to the designer and not a soul knew where or when the play was produced. The clients brought these issues up to the designers, but were steamrolled with the same old line. "I know more about communication than you. Because I'm the designer, and you are not."

My problem within this discussion that seems to be getting ignored is that without context only the form of a design can be judged, not the function. And having good form does not automatically ensure a piece has good function. So to offer any reasonable and complete critique on a design, the function and audience MUST be known and considered.

-- BlueStreak

On Dec.10.2004 at 09:36 AM
marian’s comment is:


My "absolutely vehemently no" was a recoil from the prospect of seeking actual critique from individuals who know nothing about design. You cited 2 examples where the design did not work for the intended audience, and I have to agree that with that information known the design would have to be deemed a failure, regardless of how beautiful it looked.

However, I absolutely vehemently maintain that a designer is far better suited to critique that work, taking that information into account, than a non-designer who will not know the too-many-to-list things that are also necessary to create good design.

The target audience's reaction matters only as an ingredient in the judging process.

On Dec.10.2004 at 12:34 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

2:15 AM. . . and wearing a tight corset

That quote has nothing to do with what I’m going to say. I just wanted to read it again.

So, critting student work. On several occasions I’ve found myself in a classroom looking at student work and I’ve been asked to comment. I end up asking what it’s all about, how they got to this point, etc. Often my real crits are not about the work but about the answers (or lack of answers) to the questions. After working on a poster project for a month, how can nobody have an answer to “Who do you think will be seeing this and how is it suppose to affect their behavior?”

There are, of course, many things you can say without understanding context. Formal issues aren’t just “Is that pretty?” or “Is the type spacing even?” I often tell students to act as if they are anthropologists newly arrived from Alpha Centauri. Looking at things without reading or knowing can be very helpful in seeing. What’s important? What’s it related to? What’s the attitude about those things?

I take an animist view of design so I ask where things want to be and what relationships they what with other things. I’m a grid mystic so I also ask questions about power and geometry.

Ultimately, I tend to agree with Marian’s premise, however. In the case of students work I find it unfair to ask them to have done things that weren’t part of, and are, perhaps, counter to, the assignment. In the case of professional work, not knowing what the goals of a project were often leaves designers babbling on about their love for Rand’s little present on the old UPS logo when the whole point of redesigning was to positions UPS as more than just a package delivery service. Those of us who believe that great design flows out of the purpose are always going to be shy about talking before we know about the purpose.

The client’s role is vital and often unknowable. If the designers we revere were not involved, would IBM, Westinghouse, and Olivetti still have sponsored great design? I suspect so. Graphic designers cannot take all of the credit or the blame for graphic design. By the same token, the marketing organization using design generally has more to do with the success of a product than the graphic design does. I love to take credit for sales bumps associated with my work but I’ve had enough of my good projects used by incompetents on the road to bankruptcy to know that it’s not entirely about my genius.

I suppose it all ads up to a call to crit with a large degree of humility. “So what does constitute useful and valid critique of design?” There is not one answer any more than there is one answer to how to do great design. Formal considerations, communication effectiveness. . . all are valid approaches but it is only the question of how all of those things add up and how much they are one thing that really answers the question.

On Dec.10.2004 at 03:00 PM
Steven’s comment is:


While I think that the designer on designer critique is always fruitful for reasons you previously mention, I do disagree with the notion that non-designer input is of not much value. Sometimes lay-people can see things that designers overlook in thier quest for loftier pursuits. I call this the "briliant observation of the obvious."

Any design concept/execution lives in four cognitive worlds: the realm within the designer(s), the realm within the client, the realm within the client's customers, and the realm within the sphere of the public domain. All of these are important, in varying degrees.

I'm reminded of a billboard campaign that was launched by by an agency that worked for one of my former employers. The agency thought the billboard campaign was "edgy" and hip. We, being the client, thought it was okay (although I personally hated it), our customers had a mixed reaction, but many parts of the public were really upset by the in-your-face non-politically-correct messages that were being projected in the campaign. This became such a big deal that the ads were scrapped, and by-in-large the campaign was a failure and the agency fired.

So lay-people do matter. In my own practice, if I'm wanting input on a design and its impact or effectiveness, I ask designers, maybe some people in the clients related field, and general lay-people like family members or neighbors.

Ultimately, as the designers, we are in control of a project and can choose to accept or refuse the value of any commentary. So with that in mind, I think its more important not to screen sources of input. Gather up whatever you can first, and then analyze what has true merit from there.

On Dec.10.2004 at 03:24 PM
marian’s comment is:

A little more about student work. A while ago I was helping set up a display of student work for an awards ceremony. Someone asked me "So what do you think?" and I was really stumped as to an answer beyond "Uh, well, it looks great." And it was mostly nice looking work, but beyond that I had nothing to judge it against. What was the assignment? Was this a success or failure? I had no idea.

I did notice that apparently an instructor had assigned a redesign of the New Yorker (several NY'r redesigns were present). This I did have an opinion about, and that being that I wanted to find the instructor and ask them why? Why the New Yorker of all publications? What on earth can a class of students from Vancouver Canada know about the history of the New Yorker and the beloved, quirky aesthetic that speaks to an audience quite outside their ken? How could the Martha-Stewartization of the New Yorker possibly be considered a design success? I wanted to ring someone's neck, and it wasn't the design students.

When grading my own students' work I am rapturous of the details that they got from the lesson I taught them and deeply forgiving of the rest. Dante sometimes has a look over my should and will say "What? But this looks like shit: look at this, this and this ..." And I'll say "That's because I haven't taught them that yet."

Anyway, yada yada yada ... you get the point.

On Dec.10.2004 at 03:41 PM
Stuart McCoy’s comment is:

Without having read all the comments (came to this one a little too late apparently), I have to agree with Marian. Design is not about the object, it is about communicating an abstract idea in a way that the target audience can understand. Without knowing what that idea is or who you are talking to, how can one critique design? At best, one can only critique the artistic composition inherent in the design but who cares? If the final piece does not communicate the idea, despite it being a beautiful piece of art, it hasn't solved the problem it was supposed to.

On Dec.10.2004 at 07:32 PM
Stuart McCoy’s comment is:

I should have added that you do not need to know every intimate detail of the project but knowing the client, the goals, and some basic information about the project itself is important to determining if the project was successful as a design solution or not.

On Dec.10.2004 at 07:56 PM
Tan’s comment is:

I was just flipping through a Herman Miller book today, and marveling at the beauty of designs of the furniture. I'm sure a puffy Barcalounger is more comfortable — and thus, a better "seating solution" — than an Eames Aluminum Group lounge chair and ottoman, but frankly, it doesn't matter to me. The success and superiority of the Eames design is obvious, regardless of what the project goals and parameters were.

There's an innate value to good design that's easy to recognize, but difficult to pinpoint. That goes for fashion design, automotive design, architectural design, and graphic design.

Knowing the context and relevance of a design makes judgement more comprehensive, but it's not crucial in determining a design's success or failure.

Remember, design is an art and a science. Not everything can be rationalized and dissected methodically and evaluated. There's still a bit of magic in how something works in design.

Believe in the pixie dust.

On Dec.10.2004 at 08:19 PM
BlueStreak’s comment is:

"The success and superiority of the Eames design is obvious, regardless of what the project goals and parameters were."

Tan, I have to agree that everything I've seen from the Eames brothers is wonderfully designed. But I doubt that your ass would let you say "regardless of the project goals and parameters" if you had to endure a transatlantic flight in one. Context matters. For an aircraft it would be a miserable design failure.

On Dec.10.2004 at 11:30 PM
BlueStreak’s comment is:

Er, error on my part, it's late. I retract my previous post.

I thought you were referring to the potato chip chair, but re-read your post and realize you were talking about the lounge and ottoman. OK, I'll take it on a airline any day, but doubt the airlines will go for it.

On Dec.10.2004 at 11:39 PM
Ahrum Hong’s comment is:

Quickly, before I head off to Rome (ha!),

Without knowledge of the client's intentions, one might not be able to tell if a design is successful with regards to the brief, but I think it's quite possible (and imperative, even) to recognize when you're looking at a failure.

Marion, by and large, I stongly feel that the bulk of the work done by professionals (and students and myself) is 'mindless, confused, and uncommunicative.' But mostly mindless.

On Dec.10.2004 at 11:54 PM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

BlueStreak — Charles Eames, a man, was married to Ray Eames, a woman.

On Dec.11.2004 at 12:46 AM
Steven’s comment is:

Charles Eames, a man, was married to Ray Eames, a woman.


On Dec.11.2004 at 03:10 AM
BlueStreak’s comment is:

Sigh indeed. They were known to many, and apparently still are, as the Eames Brothers.

OK, back to the real point. I got a little sleep, and came up with a better example.

I recently read about the design of the 40/4 Stacking Chair by David Rowland. (I think it was the last issue of Metropolis.) If the project goal was to have a chair that would stack 40 together and only be four feet tall, how good of a design solution would the Eames Lounge and Ottoman be?

That's my ultimate problem. If Tan was judging a design competition, it sounds to me like the prize would go to the Eames design. When the best design for the project is the Rowland chair. (This is only my speculation of what Tan would do.)

On Dec.11.2004 at 09:09 AM
BlueStreak’s comment is:

PS: My speculation also assumes that Tan wouldn't know the project goals.

On Dec.11.2004 at 09:23 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> Sigh indeed. They were known to many, and apparently still are, as the Eames Brothers

Perhaps they are referring to the Ames Brothers (of Pearl Jam poster fame)?

On Dec.11.2004 at 09:54 AM
Tan’s comment is:

I think you're beginning to grasp for things to support your position, BlueStreak :-)

Look, you either believe in the intangibles that makes a design succeed or fail — irrelevant of goals and clients — or you depend on the minutia of a design's process and production to define success. The latter, I believe, most often leads to just mediocrity.

No client/project restrictions can suitably justify poor design. None.

On Dec.11.2004 at 01:39 PM
Tom B’s comment is:

Tan's example of teh Eames chair got me thinking.

When we judge a piece of work (such as the chair) as having intrinsic benefit because of its obvious beauty, aren't we just changing the context of the piece?

When we don't know about the intentions of the designer and the client, we can't say whether these have been achieved. All we're doing is placing the piece into our own context, and using our own criteria to judge it by.

Now, realistically speaking, these two distinct contexts will usually overlap to a large degree (beauty is usually an important factor in selling chairs)

But not necessarily always! And this is why some of the people posting here are cautios about critique without knowing a great deal about context.

It is conceivable that the Eaves sisters (sorry, I couldn't resist) had intended to produce an incredibly ugly chair. If this was the case, then we could only say that they had failed abysmally.

I know this is a bit of a silly example. But it does show that we must always have a context within which we can judge something, but that this context can be different depending on who is doing the judging, and why they're doing the judging.

On Dec.11.2004 at 03:39 PM
Stuart McCoy’s comment is:

Furniture is perhaps not the best example because we can easily understand the basic goal of the design based on past experience with other similar pieces of furniture. Some furniture can truly be poorly designed from a functional standpoint but be beautiful pieces of artwork. As a design project, unless their goal was to design e piece of art never intended to be used by people, it fails. As an art project it's left to the observer.

A better project to look at would be direct mailers. As with many others I'm sure, I get quite a bit if junk mail. I don't just throw it away, I study the piece and mentally critique it, then I'll probably throw it away. Without knowing the target audience (mailing lists are not as targeted as they could be), it's hard to determine if the piece is successful design. Does it use type and image carefully? Perhaps. As an artistic piece of work it may be successful but if people just throw it away immediately without giving it a second thought is it possible that the piece failed to achieve its goal, despite it being beautiful? It's ok for a design piece to be beautiful as long as it communicates with its audience. Form follows function anyone?

On Dec.11.2004 at 04:02 PM
marian’s comment is:

Let's get a little less abstract, here. Back to the AFLAC duck, and I choose it only because it's the most recent piece of design we've critiqued on this website.

First off, if I were teaching a class in logo design, one of my first rules would be "no gradients." My class, my rules. So if that was student work from a class of mine, I'd send them back to the drawing board.

If it were student work from someone else's class, I'd still view it very sceptically, because ...

if it were work by a freelancer, or a small neophyte firm I would have my doubts that the designer had the experience and the might (if you will) to both explain the various complications that can arise from a gradient logo, and convince the client (or have reassurance from the client) that those problems won't be an issue in the applications they'll need.

But what do you know, it's Futurebrand. So now I'm going to start making some assumptions. I'm going to assume that they have both the experience and the might to go over all the options and conclude that the gradient won't be a problem in their intended applications.

But still I wonder, why not a flat duck? I can easily imagine a flat duck that would be more successful as an icon that what they've got. But would it be as "cute"? Was cuteness a factor? If it was, maybe this was the best way to go. Or maybe the client wanted a duck that looked as close as possible to the advertising duck.

And I wonder about the duck, too. Whose idea was that? I'm already slightly skeptical about the wisdom of adopting an ad campaign character as your company identity, especially if it's just the head.

I think "If a cute duck, why not a full-bodied, flat duck that can move around and do different things that somehow relate to the business ... which is, what, again? insurance?"

So ultimately, I'm left with "If a cute, semi-realistic duck head was required with no need for printing at small sizes in newsprint or embroidering onto jackets [etc.] then yeah, that's a good logo. Otherwise ..."

Without more information, I shrug my shoulders. Looks OK to me. I don't see anything terribly wrong with it that can't be rationally explained somehow. It's not a work of staggering genius; it's not a piece of dogshit.

TAN however, I think is referring to works of staggering genius. And I do believe there are times when you see something that is just so blindlingly brilliant, where you just get it and it works on every level and you can articulate why, but you also just know. We've all seen them, or at least I have, where it takes just one second, one look and you leap from your chair and you say "Jesus christ! Who's the fucking genius who did that?" and no explanations are necessary, and really you have to say "If their target audence didn't get this or the client didn't like it, they should be shot."

But those times are rare.

On Dec.11.2004 at 05:00 PM
aizan’s comment is:

I'm with Marian. I think it's more important what the client and audience(s) think of the design than what the designer thinks. Designers, teachers, and students think they know so much, and it bums me out how narrow minded and ineffectual their critiques and judgements usually are.

On Dec.20.2004 at 02:01 AM
Jane’s comment is:

Hi, sorry to fall into your conversation like this, I know nothing about graphic design and have a project.The question is what is the diffrence between graphic design and decoration? And which one is dominating? Please help!

On Oct.02.2005 at 06:30 AM
Armin’s comment is:

What kind of "project", Jane?

On Oct.02.2005 at 08:26 AM
thorri’s comment is:

This discussion just jumped on my radar - I'd like to add a small comment to Jeff Gills musings:

I design a poster, the purpose of which is to be confusing.

You look at it and offer a critique: this design does not work because it is confusing.

I say aha!

Designing a poster with the sole purpose of confusing the viewer, is not design, but possibly art. There is no message, no communication. It's like writing a novel in a language no one understands. Not literature, but possibly art.

On Oct.04.2005 at 06:00 AM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

For the sake of my silly argument, let's say my client comes to me and gives me a very thorough brief for a poster: confuse the heck out of my audience.

I research the intended audience. I don't just find things that they don't understand, I find things that they think they understand, but actually don't.

I carefully craft a visual message that is sure to suck people in then take them in a direction that makes no sense and leaves them feeling confused & a bit lost.

The posters go up in bus shelters across Britain. The target audience is confused. My client is thrilled. I whistle all the way to the bank because I just did an effective piece of design.

Maybe someday it will be considered art, but today it's just design.

On Oct.04.2005 at 03:15 PM
thorri’s comment is:

The fact that the job is commissioned doesn't diminish it's artistic value :)

Frankly, I think we're at the arguments end here. I maintain the stance that needs to communicate a message or serve a specific need. The Confusing Poster does neither, so obviously your stance is different to mine.

What would be needed for The Confusing Poster to be regarded as art to you? Why is it design?

On Oct.04.2005 at 05:30 PM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

it's art if it is.

it's design 'cause I designed it.

I maintain the stance that [design] needs to communicate a message or serve a specific need.

I maintain a conscious effort to keep my stances to a minimum. My only point in commenting was to turn things sideways & perhaps make a person or two think a little. So that worked. If your conclusion after thinking is that design is as you strictly define it, that's great with me.

On Oct.04.2005 at 07:46 PM
BlueStreak’s comment is:

"I carefully craft a visual message that is sure to suck people in then take them in a direction that makes no sense and leaves them feeling confused & a bit lost."

Jeff, I just hope David Carson doesn't get mad when he finds out you're muscling into his market. But don't worry if he calls and threatens to break your skull. He'll never actually show up.

On Oct.04.2005 at 08:19 PM
Armin’s comment is:

If it exists, I would like to see this Confusing Poster. Settle this once and for all.

On Oct.04.2005 at 10:08 PM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

If it exists...

Alas, 'tis but hypotheory. Yet even now my heart yearneth for such a brief.

On Oct.05.2005 at 04:26 AM
thorri’s comment is:

it's design 'cause I designed it.

I have to disagree with you on that point. To me, an object does not become design because the creator says so. It has to have other qualities, unrelated to the creator. Art, however, only needs such an exclamation from it's creator (or anyone else) to become art.

I maintain the stance that [design] needs to communicate a message or serve a specific need.

Thank you. I missed that one :)

I maintain a conscious effort to keep my stances to a minimum.

Did my english slip using the word stance? I sense a bit of sarcasm.

If your conclusion after thinking is that design is as you strictly define it, that's great with me.

Actually, I don't think my definition is strict at all. It doesn't regulate any style or technique. The only two things needed for a thing to be design is to deliver information or fulfill a specific outer need.

I don't mind being proven wrong though...

On Oct.05.2005 at 09:41 AM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

thorri, your english is great, & I wasn't being sarcastic. I really do try to keep my stances to a minimum. The way I see the world, everything in life, except for a few key things, is relative. The definitions of design & art don't fit in my Few Key Things.

If you ever get a client that asks to communicate a message of confusion and you don't want the job, look me up!

On Oct.05.2005 at 10:03 AM
thorri’s comment is:

If you ever get a client that asks to communicate a message of confusion and you don't want the job, look me up!

I'll let it end here :)

... communicating a message of confusion? Can't I do that with: "I'm confused".

(stop it now, thorri!)

On Oct.05.2005 at 10:32 AM