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One of my design history students is writing a paper about Milton Glaser. He told me that he’d read everything he could find by Glaser himself and by others and he characterized it all as either generalized platitudes and assurances of Glaser’s greatness or pictures of his work presented as prima facie evidence of its greatness and importance. He wasn’t looking for a second opinion—someone who’d say “Milton sucks!”—but for something that justifies judgment in some way. I couldn’t argue with him but I also find that to be the norm. Graphic design writing being hagiography or marketing news releases is hardly an aberration.

Do we have examples of real criticism? I don’t mean negative comments or broad dismissals; I mean real analysis of graphic design work or graphic designers’ careers. If the answer is yes, will you tell us a bit about it? Did it work? Was it useful? How so? (Is it likely to live outside the archives of Speak Up rebranding threads?)

If the answer is no, what form could real and specific criticism take? Does it make sense? The worlds of art or food or music or film have a few hundred objects of criticism a year. Graphic design might have thousand of times that many. Is the subject to diffused to generate analytical scrutiny?

Or is the whole idea just dumb? Nobody laments the lack of good shoe reviews or insurance agency criticism.

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PUBLISHED ON Mar.10.2005 BY Gunnar Swanson
sam r’s comment is:

Probably most writing about most designers is for the most part hagiography. But isn't this post an old tired subject that's been written about elsewhere (and maybe even here)? Can we have criticism? Are we worthy? Is there enough dispassion or passion? Yadda yadda.

There is design criticism out there. Those Looking Closer volumes are full of examples, including Rick Poynor's profiles of N.Brody and D.Carson.

Perhaps there have not been really deep articles on key designers, but there is a lot of "real criticism" in print.

Its admirable that your student is looking beyond the conventional wisdom, but your post implies there is nothing that can be called criticism. Print, Emigre, Eye, Metropolis, Dot, Dot, Dot, all publish.

I think this is a straw dog post. Of course the whole idea is not just dumb, and if you look you'll find.

On Mar.10.2005 at 04:31 PM
James A. Reeves’s comment is:

I think this is an excellently phrased question. I agree that there is a tendency in the literature surrounding design to simply canonize our predecessors rather than present them as complex, dynamic individuals whose failures and successes might help inform designers today. For a discipline that, in its most idealistic moments, seeks to “nurture authentic individual voices” (to use Lorraine Wild’s excellent phrase) there is surprisingly little of this in its writing.

In the forums for proper design criticism that I know of, I have become frustrated by the tendency to criticize the whole profession rather than its parts. There is too much “we speak” (“we must”, “we have a responsibility to”, “we should begin”, etc.). The self-reflective dialogue that is emerging around design is exciting, but it is becoming shrill. Instead, tell me a story. Make it personal. Use the word “I” and offer personal opinions, complaints, ideas, etc. If design is (ideally) about creating a distinct and meaningful space, its writing should seek to do the same.

On Mar.10.2005 at 04:51 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Sorry Gunnar, but I agree w/ Sam. This is a tired subject that's been rehashed countless times here since Rant. Now it seems that this thread is about critiquing criticism. Mon Dieu!, but there's only so much navel gazing one can take.

And James — if you want honest, direct, personal dialogue — then look no further than right here, at blogs like SU. The (mostly) unpretentious writing here is one of the reasons why it has resonated so strongly among the design community.

Maybe I'm just missing the point here.

On Mar.10.2005 at 05:25 PM
John Athayde’s comment is:

Coming from an architecture background, I see a lot more criticism about various projects or directions of architects and their careers. While there is a bit of hero-worship involved, I found that many of the students (at least at my school) were very much into going their own way to the extent of inhabited sculpture. I feel there was more worship of their relative contemporaries (e.g. Eric Owen Moss, Antoine Predock) than of purely historical figures (e.g. Saarieen, Johnson, F. L. Wright, etc).

Graphic design is, like architecture, functional art. Insurance and shoes would not fall into that category (imho).

On Mar.10.2005 at 06:13 PM
James A. Reeves’s comment is:

I can understand not participating in a discussion because of perceived redundancy or navel-gazing, but to take the time and effort to publicly quash it - who, exactly, does that benefit?

Gunnar's question is earnest & increasingly relevant (to me, at least). I am relatively new to Speak Up (having lurked around here for a few weeks before daring to post my first comment), but I cannot see the harm in occasionally revisiting such an important topic with new voices.

After all, design criticism is constantly in flux. Emigre took an unexpected (and welcome) departure when it devoted its most recent issue to a single tract by David Barringer (and I'm very curious to hear what others think about it). Is there a particular piece or publication that we can look to as being the ideal sort of design criticism? Because graphic design is experienced by all, shouldn't its criticism be just as accessible and ubiquitous as the writing that surrounds food, music, or film? Is there evidence that this is happening?

On Mar.10.2005 at 10:53 PM
Jason Tselentis’s comment is:

I suggest reading Poynor's The Time for Being Against reprinted in Looking Closer 4, which covers this issue rather well.

Critique (telling) = you gain a point of view relative to the author and their background, where they give praise in addition to citing fault: "Real" criticism is not a tired subject, it's one we must demand. Worthwhile, critical journalism that covers design is not as prevalent as it could be. Most design writing revolves around the vocation itself, largely because the writers are either designers or come out of a design background. What would happen if a music critic wrote about design, or a film critic? They would have no fear, and maybe bring some fresh insight to the table. This is what I enjoy about film criticism, especially by somebody like A.O. Scott. He brings not only a personal point of view about his cinematic experience, but tells us why things succeed or fail. As an added bonus, philosophical and historical relevance will surface in his work too. Chances are Scott would call himself a writer or a critic, instead of a reviewer.

Review (showing) = giving the reader what the author sees, in an uncolored fashion, almost a play by play low on analysis and opinion: Design criticism is relatively young. For the most part, it has evolved out of art criticism, but according to most industry insiders, it wants to be something more akin to architectural criticism. There's a lot of writing out there, and each author has his/her own reasons for crafting their work, whether it's critical, topical, historical, or academic in nature. The easiest way to learn about what you should read is by looking at the star system used on sites like Amazon.com. A quick gaze at a title's star-power will tell you if the book is worth your time.

Example concluded. Now, here's why Gunnar's topic is not "tired." Blogs put what we write into a public sphere easier and quicker than ever. Because online sojos (solo journalists) and bloggers get equal if not more attention than the larger trade publications, there's gonna be crap out there and there's gonna be worthwhile reads. We'll see more and more and more reviews, but what we (or at least I) want are more critics and more risk takers when it comes to writing about design. Teach me something. Give me your biases and your experiences, and tell me if things are great or crap...and tell me why.

On Mar.11.2005 at 12:49 AM
Jorge Pi�on’s comment is:

Although it's true that this hole has been dug before, this time it has at least prodded this designer into his first entry. The new Emigre also deserves credit for making me feel less like an impostor.

Being, and still becoming, a self-taught graphic designer coming from the fine art side of things, I had always been frustrated with the same problems this student is having. The trouble, it seems to me, is that designers don't easily fit into any school like artists do, or did, historically. All of those big old names in design have grown into their own School of One, and many books will be nothing but pablum, and pictures and dates.

Paul Rand wrote that "what a designer does is not limited to any particular idea or form". To a student, this is like putting a quicksand pit just inside the door to Design 101. But there is a good amount of brain food in the publications that have already been mentioned, as well as here in Speak Up and over at Design Observer and others.

There is a very good series of books called "Art In Theory"--the latest spans 1900-2000--in which artists and critics talk and write, simply and directly, about art, with all the biases that Jason is right in demanding. There are few pictures. If there was a series called "Design In Theory", I'd be one of the first in line. (So if Mssrs. Poynor and/or Heller are reading...)

On Mar.11.2005 at 02:44 AM
Steven’s comment is:

what we (or at least I) want are more critics and more risk takers when it comes to writing about design. Teach me something. Give me your biases and your experiences, and tell me if things are great or crap...and tell me why.

Here, here to that!

BTW, Our own dearest Armin is quoted in David Barringer's essay/issue, which I find interesting in that a statement in a blog thread is given the same credibility as other more academic sources. Sorta puts the insular, esoteric world of academic writing on notice. I haven't finished the whole piece yet, so I won't comment on it other than to say I agree with some things and disagree with other aspects.

On Mar.11.2005 at 03:09 AM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

> Critique (telling) = you gain a point of view relative to the author and their background, where they give praise in addition to citing fault

> ...tell me if things are great or crap...and tell me why.


You (and perhaps Rick Poyner — I haven't read that book) are confusing critiques and reviews, and I think you are falling into the same trap that too many people fall into. Which is, thinking criticism has something to do with opinion.

Once again, with feeling: Proper criticism is not opinion. It describes the subject and locates it within a larger context. Once described (hopefully with a degree of objectivity), the reader is free to develop (or not develop) their own opinion. Otherwise, you're no better than the record reviews in Rolling Stone; or worse, shouting heads on the political pundit shows.

When evaluating an aesthetic object, I try to follow Laura Chapman's four criteria:

1. Representational accuracy — how well the object represents its subject.

2. Formal restraint — decisions made about composition and their relation to the work and/or the work's context.

3. Expressiveness and originality

4. Social utility

These criteria may not be applicable at the same time. You wouldn't necessarily discuss the representational accuracy of an abstract painting; like you wouldn't immediately think to dissect the expressiveness and originality of smooth jazz. And the cool thing is, this kind of rigor is applicable to most things — including insurance and shoes.

As a sidenote, where does the bullshit about giving praise in addition to citing fault come from? Couching feelings like this is appropriate to grade school. In a university or professional environment, infantilizing. If someone's willing to give the time to go through a work, in depth; then that's a gift of love, not aggression.

"Yay! You made a poopy! ...but you got it all over the bed" does not equal "Yay! You made a layout! ...but make the logo bigger."

On Mar.11.2005 at 03:37 AM
Steven Heller’s comment is:

Gunnar's post does raise the perpetual debate about "what is criticism," and Mark Kingsley's definition moves the discussion along in a rational way.

While I agree with Sam this is well-hashed territory, it is also useful to address it regularly, because the frustration of Gunnar's student is real. I would argue it is a problem in education as well as the profession itself.

Massimo Vignelli said at the first design history conference at Rochester Institute almost two decades ago graphic design will not become a [serious] profession without a body of history [and criticism].

Since then many attempts (some very successful) have been made to rectify the problem. Indeed Emigre and Eye, Print and Critique, Design Issues and Dot Dot Dot, and now Speak Up, Design Observer, and (I hope to a certain extent) VOICE (http://journal.aiga.org/) have offered forums, and have published models of viable criticism (and not simply reviews either - although a review can be an occassion for a smart critical discourse - as in the New York Review of Books).

Referring specifically to Gunnar's student's need to find analysis that will help him write a critical profile that will place a designer in context is not easy. A life's work cannot be summed up in 1000 words (although a particular piece of work can). It is a shame that Glaser and scores of others have not been viably viewed through a critical lens - yet. A lenghty biography was written about Conde Nast creative czar Alex Liberman (by Dodie Kazanjian and Calvin Tomkins), which may go as far as any "critical" analysis has gone, and still be a good read and a telling story about a fascinating life. Leo Lionni has also been analyzed, not for his art direction, but his children's books.

Currently many publishers are re-evaluating whether design books are profitable endeavors and I've noticed that fewer are willing to take chances in the critical realm. There is room (and need) for an important book dealing with what might be called "designers in context," which is implicitly critical in sofar as it addresses individual designers from the perspective of how and why their works (and ideas, and theories) tick or fail in the context of professional, cultural, technological, and social worlds.

This is not rooted in opinion alone. It requires deep reporting - talking to the designers then filtering their words through other critical means. As most who have tried this know, living (and even dead) designers prefer to place themselves in a favorable light. I know a few subjects who have squashed projects that discussed their work critically because they did not agree (and without their cooperation it is often hard to show examples, which are important in any analysis of a visual thinker).

Gunnar's student would like to know exactly what we'd all like to learn: So it would be useful for design schools to offer a "context" class (as part of a history/criticism curriculum) that doesn't simply assert the greatness of any given designer, but devotes at least a class period each week analyzing and comparing individuals in their respective contexts.

Before designers' names are etched into the ultimate pantheon (or even into the club and organization Halls of Fame), it would useful to pass them through the critical guantlet that, again, isn't just opinion but astute analysis of their long and short term significance.

On Mar.11.2005 at 07:06 AM
Armin’s comment is:

[Digging out of four days sans-internet, don't ask]

My initial reaction to Gunnar's question was knee-jerk into "not again!". However — and I don't know if this happens only because it's an easy subject to question — it's interesting that year after year we question what and where design criticism is. It's certainly out there as many have mentioned; to ignore these sources is a bad idea. I think an appropriate question is what do we expect from design critics, because it seems no matter how many attempts there are we keep asking "where is it? where is it?". One of the problems, I think, is clearly stated in Kenneth FitzGerald's Buzz Kill in Emigre 67: We are very quick to dismiss criticism. So might as well act like there is nothing out there, right?

A very interesting book would be to take on all the "Untouchables" of our profession and address them objectively, but without the inention of simply knocking them down. Would this be beneficial? Or would it simply be dismissed as just being playa-haterism.

> Our own dearest Armin is quoted in David Barringer's essay/issue, which I find interesting in that a statement in a blog thread is given the same credibility as other more academic sources.

It was a nice surprise to be quoted in it. And if I may boast… Speak Up has been mentioned, addressed, dissed or acknowledged in the past four issues of Emigre. Just sayin', it's nice to know that we are all having some sort of effect.

[I have only started reading the new Emigre… very interesting, we'll have to address it at some point]

> Sorta puts the insular, esoteric world of academic writing on notice.

Steven, is this a bad thing? While I don't disagree that we need to look outward I disagree that referencing ourselves is bad. Is it because it's "designers talking to designers"? Because designers have a lot to learn from designers.

On Mar.11.2005 at 09:10 AM
Peter’s comment is:

I saw Milton Glaser give a talk with a client (a president of a SUNY out on Long Island) at the Gain Conference last fall. It was a slide show--the typography, and the work in general (branding) looked like he mailed it in. No questions at the end were allowed. What I wanted to ask was--how much did he charge?

On Mar.11.2005 at 09:34 AM
Jason Tselentis’s comment is:

As a sidenote, where does the bullshit about giving praise in addition to citing fault come from? Couching feelings like this is appropriate to grade school. In a university or professional environment, infantilizing. If someone's willing to give the time to go through a work, in depth; then that's a gift of love, not aggression.

Oh please, M. Really, what's so wrong with seeing both sides of the picture, and addressing how something can be improved or why it doesn't work? What's wrong with questioning? What's wrong with attacking? Poynor's The Time for Being Against touches on how most writing in the popular marketplace amuses and entertains without stating a critical position [LC4 p128]. Personally, I'd compare this to the tone of a "grade schooler's" book report or a writer trying to create a unique style that reads as badly as a toupee looks. Poynor goes on to say that, "Looking at design writing in the design press, as it's currently practiced in this same marketplace, much the same conclusion holds true. Most of it plays safe" [LC4 p128]. I would like to see more design writing that goes toe-to-toe with the subject, wouldn't you?

This is not to say that other written "gifts of love" do not count in my book. Oh, no. I have a broad and deep palette, M., and find pleasure in well written design criticism that may be devoid of finding fault, attacking, or questioning.

On Mar.11.2005 at 11:17 AM
john’s comment is:

It's hard to get a handle on the art directors and designers who reside in the pantheon (Glaser, Rand...) mainly because the volumes published about them are mostly greatest hits packages. I can remember the work Mr. Glaser did for Circus magazine back in the 70s, so due to my advanced age I have some perspective on Glaser's bulletproof status (that stuff was DRECK.) I think it's a question of access to a more full body of work, rather than trying to construct a critical review of 20-30 pieces of someone's finest work.

On Mar.11.2005 at 02:32 PM
Steven’s comment is:

...is this a bad thing? While I don't disagree that we need to look outward I disagree that referencing ourselves is bad. Is it because it's "designers talking to designers"? Because designers have a lot to learn from designers.

Armin, I think we're actually in agreement. Designers do have quite a bit to learn from one another. SU, DO, VOICE, and other blogs are wonderful vehicles for opening up the dialog to a larger audience, which is important. Blogs are gloriously democratic! While not discounting the value of academia, it was a long-standing frustration of mine that, previous to blogs, a lot of analysis and critique of the design practice occurred outside of the mainstream, obliquely referenced in the footnotes of essays in Emigre, etc. But now, thanks to blogs, the continuing dialog has the ability to be much more democratic and open, which can only help to bring more diverse opinions and hopefully fresh ideas and perspectives. And the fact that blogs have become a resource within traditional academic and professional writing only validates their importance. ...Not to mention that it also makes me double-check my spelling and grammer. ; )

So, it's all good!

On Mar.11.2005 at 03:32 PM
Michael B.’s comment is:

Critical writing about graphic design faces one big challenge: the emphemeral nature of the subject. Although the graphic design object is sometimes "about itself," more likely it's a conduit or enabler for something else. So ambitious critics are likely to talk about contemporary graphic design as an ideology, or a movement, or a syndrome, anything but what it really is.

I often recall the three issues of Visible Language that Andrew Blauvelt edited in the early nineties. They were dedicated to critical writing about graphic design and Blauvelt had enlisted a fantastic array of thinkers from inside and outside the field. The result was a real landmark (that should be reprinted as a single volume, by the way) but with one funny characteristic: it's only halfway through the second volume that any of the writers make reference to an actual piece of graphic design.

Does graphic design evaporate under scrutiny?

On Mar.12.2005 at 07:10 AM
Michael B.’s comment is:

One more thing. When it comes to hagiography, the (unspoken?) rule seems to be that for writing about a living graphic design to be truly critical, the subject must have both created a significant body of work and made ambitious claims, or better still demonstrated a certain degree of hubris, about it. Carson, Mau and Rand all fit the bill and have gotten critical assessments; Glaser, despite his output, doesn't seem to fulfill the second requirement somehow.

The only exception I can think of is Poynor's volume on Vaughan Oliver. Can anyone think of others?

On Mar.12.2005 at 07:25 AM
steve Heller’s comment is:

There is another category, perhaps called resurection (or better, reappreciation) those who "have both created a significant body of work" and NOT "made ambitious claims, or better still demonstrated a certain degree of hubris, about it."

Julie Lasky wrote a stunning essay on the work (and tragic life) of Georg Olden (reprinted in GRAPHIC DESIGN HISTORY (Allworth Press). My own contributions include essays on Pablo Ferro, Victor Moscoso, and Alex Steinweiss. I also wrote and lectured on Lucian Bernhard, Lustig, Dwiggins,and Sutnar. I remember Abbott Miller did an excellent piece on Quentin Fiore in EYE, and Phil Meggs wrote about Will Bradley's type and book work, as well as T.M. Cleland. Veronique Vienne has covered Liberman and Walter Landor, and Martha Scotford has done an exhaustive job chronicling and analyzing Cipe Pineles. Over a decade ago, DOCUMENTS OF AMERICAN DESIGN published (through Harry Abrams) books on Brodovitch and Goudy, that were fine critical biographies. One was being done on Bass, but he pulled the plug because he did not like the author's findings. A new, and I belive quite good, bio on Bass is almost due for release. In Baseline, one is likely to find essays on known and obscure practitioners who have had little discussion in recent years, some fill the critical bill.

Of course, there is little written in a critical mode on contemporaries (other than those Michael mentions above, perhaps for the reasons he mentions above). But there has been an attempt in Poynor's Monographics series featuring books on Kidd, Ware, and Kyle Cooper). Oh yes, the current book in that series on H. N. Werkman by Alston Purvis, is quite good as critical analysis. As was Christopher Burke's superior book on Paul Renner (the designer of Futura). And dare I forget Robin Kinross who edited and commented on the work of Anthony Froshaug.

The problem with our critical history is that few seem to remember it. If Michael, with his extraordinary institutional memory forgets, then something is wrong (or maybe he had a rough night). Even with the various websites devoted to preserving texts, there is no truly efficient database that can share these documents (and reveal the holes).

This does not answer the question why Glaser and countless others have not been scrutinized in ways that will satisfy the increasing intellectual needs of the field, but it does prove that graphic design has a critical foundation.

Back to Michael's point. I don't think hubris is the only reason to draw attention (and I question whether the attention drawn to the above mentioned is all or part about hubris), but I do believe that as a critical culture we are more apt to examine (or shoot at) those who challenge the norms (or fervently protect them).

Armin's idea for a book, is similar to mine about context, which is another way of saying what this field needs is a critical venue for analyzing our "formgivers" in ways that enlighten and uncover.

On Mar.12.2005 at 08:35 AM
steve Heller’s comment is:

speaking of rough nites, I almost forgot:

Julie Lasky's "Some People Can't Surf: The Graphic Design of Art Chantry."

And if you haven't noticed, Art is still alive, and was cooperative.

Of course, there is more to be written, but this was decidedly larger than simple hagiography.

On Mar.12.2005 at 08:46 AM
Michael B.’s comment is:

Thanks, Steve. I don't think I was being (completely) forgetful but perhaps thinking of something more specific in response to Gunnar's original post about Glaser.

All of those examples you name are indeed "decidedly larger than simple hagiography" but I would say most of the ones I recall for living designers are still basically well-informed, well-illustrated, well-written appreciations of their subjects. You seldom get the kind of separation between critic and subject that you see, for example, in Poynor's piece on Carson ("Pagannini Unplugged") or -- to name a really good example -- Thomas Frank's review of Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist in Artforum.

I know I'm mixing up two different definitions of criticism. I guess, to put it bluntly, and perhaps simplistically, I'm looking (like Gunnar) for criticism that isn't afraid to go negative when the subject warrants it.

On Mar.12.2005 at 10:02 AM
steve heller’s comment is:

I remember Frank's "review" well.

And wouldn't it be daring and useful to have that kind of criticism in graphic design journalism. But keep in mind Tibor had (perhaps in part through hubris) transcended and traversed the boundaries of graphic design and art and popular culture, etc. He had achieved what few designers have done, and was being recognized and critiqued not solely as a graphic designer but as a visual thinker/communicator. In a certain respect he "earned" the criticism.

Frank (who this year wrote the most intelligent book on why mid-America turned on their own self-interest) may or may not be motivated to write about another graphic designer in the same way. But few designers elicit that kind of response. Surely, Glaser is one, so I'm still not certain why it hasn't happened.

Your last comment reminded me of a piece I wrote about a project by Matt Mahurin, someone who I greatly respect, in which I was not "afraid to go negative when the subject warrants it." His response was negative too. Of course that should not thwart me or others, but what you say about being distanced enough from the subject to make those judgements is difficult from within the field - and you know it.

The Tibor book, which you co-edited and I contributed to, is a case in point. A truly "critical" essay never made it into the book. Instead it is a good, solid monograph that underscores the reputation and gave Frank had a lot of material to work with.

On Mar.12.2005 at 10:20 AM
Jason Tselentis’s comment is:

I know I'm mixing up two different definitions of criticism. I guess, to put it bluntly, and perhaps simplistically, I'm looking (like Gunnar) for criticism that isn't afraid to go negative when the subject warrants it.

True, Michael. And this is my qualm too in the above comments. Let's see more writers go toe-to-toe with their subjects, whether they're alive or dead.

On Mar.12.2005 at 12:35 PM
Kenneth FitzGerald’s comment is:

My thanks to Armin for having the temerity to frequently mention my name when design writing gets discussed.

In the service of being contrarian (and likely off topic), I offer a graphic to this discussion. It's a diagram I've toyed with for years, to represent for students my critical method. I suppose this is my "vernacular relativism" in action.

The metaphor is a recording studio mixing board, as I think you must consider a number of inputs/channels affecting/determining what the final design result may be. Some of the channels in my diagram overlap, while others have sub-channels. "Self" at the end is the stance of the critic: I don't believe in objectivity but a declared, rigorous subjectivity.

On Mar.12.2005 at 04:21 PM
Ricardo Cordoba’s comment is:


One example of real criticism, besides those mentioned above, is the book “Modern Typography: An Essay in Critical History,” by Robin Kinross. While it is not confined to one single designer, it is a great example of serious analysis and research, with the author going to the trouble of extensively commenting on his sources for the benefit of those readers who want to learn more.

On Mar.12.2005 at 07:48 PM
Ricardo Cordoba’s comment is:

Oops, I just noticed that Steven Heller already mentioned Robin Kinross and his book about A. Froshaug... :-/

On Mar.12.2005 at 07:57 PM
Rick Poynor’s comment is:

I do appreciate the difference between reviewing and criticism, but thanks for your concern M. Kingsley.

And thanks to Michael for mentioning my book Vaughan Oliver: Visceral Pleasures. This was an explicit attempt to explore the idea of graphic authorship, discussed throughout the 1990s, in relation to a designer's body of work. Maybe it would be useful to say a little more about it.

To Oliver's credit, I was allowed a completely free hand when it came to the writing. It was unambiguously a book by me about him. It's rarely that straightforward with design monographs. His studio designed the book, but produced layouts that supported my critical aims by showing the work in a clear and restrained way -- no jigsaw puzzle layering and obstructive graphic effects. However, not a single review engaged with the book's critical approach. So it goes. Maybe Oliver's moment had passed (this was 2000) but it made me wonder whether there was much interest among writers and editors -- let alone book buyers -- in close readings of this kind. Progress is slow and that's probably why this issue keeps coming up in forums like this.

The book was framed as a critical interpretation and I know Oliver felt uncomfortable at times with some of the claims I made for his work. He hasn't been able to sustain the level of authorship I argued that he achieved from the early 1980s to the early 1990s. It was this, though, that justified such a study. Without an unusually high level of achievement and complexity of form and content there will be nothing worth writing about at this length. That's one answer, I think, to Michael's point about graphic design evaporating under scrutiny.

Inevitably, any monograph will be largely supportive of its subject, alive or dead. Martha Scotford's book about magazine art director Cipe Pineles rightly advocates her work. The critical task in that case was to establish Pineles's place in design history. I wrote about Oliver's work because I thought it had lasting value, but I hope the writing has the right mixture of involvement and detachment. Susan Sontag captures this ambivalence in her essay "Notes on Camp": "no one who wholeheartedly shares in a given sensibility can analyze it; he can only, whatever his intentions, exhibit it. To name a sensibility, to draw its contours and to recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion." This has always seemed true to me.

I contributed to the Kalman monograph and to the more recent Peter Saville book, but I would prefer to see a sustained interpretation by a single author rather than this parcelling out of the task to different contributors. It suggests a lack of faith in a unified analysis, an attempt to cover all the bases that can end up looking merely celebratory. The Monographics series that I edit is an attempt to develop critical writing about significant designers. I would single out Daniel Raeburn's essay about Chris Ware as a model of thoughtful, beautifully written critical writing that illuminates its subject more fully than any previous discussion. If only more writing about graphic design subjects had this level of insight and degree of literary flair, we would really be getting somewhere.

There is nothing stopping a more adversarial form of critical writing about design apart from the reluctance to do it. Journals, magazines and, yes, blogs at their best are the place for this. The outlets exist. It will require some guts, a strong, coherent point of view, and the kind of ambition simply to say something worthwhile and get people to listen that is a basic requirement for any serious writing about anything at all.

On Mar.13.2005 at 07:53 AM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

FitzGerald's "Graphic Equalizer" is an antidote to both hagiography and myopic critiques. Cool.

On Mar.13.2005 at 11:45 AM
sp’s comment is:

"Probably most writing about most designers is for the most part hagiography. But isn't this post an old tired subject that's been written about elsewhere (and maybe even here)? Can we have criticism? Are we worthy? Is there enough dispassion or passion? Yadda yadda."

Old and tired? I think not! This is almost an insult to those who have been working so hard to create a body of criticism. When we are critical of a designers work it forces them to question their intentions. I have found that students can sit in critiques and be very critical of their peers, but when it comes to their “design heroes” they have a very difficult time applying that same criticism. Gunnar, I had a similar experience as a student. I had to write a lengthy paper on Tibor Kalman, who’s work I had admired for years. I became quickly discouraged because the criticism was little to none. I then came across an article,Fuck Tibor written by Dmitri Siegel - at the time a student at Yale. Even as a Tibor admirer, I can remember my relief. This was a example of real criticism.

On Mar.13.2005 at 01:05 PM
Chip Kidd’s comment is:

Sorry to come so late to this party, but allow me to add: Gunnar, it should go without saying that there is more than enough of Glaser's work accessible to your student for him to analyze it and draw his own conclusions. That is, as I undertstand it, what such an assignment is for. If he needs a "critic" to tell him what to think then I have a nice bridge I'd like to sell him. And the same goes for "sp"---if you think "Fuck Tibor" is "real criticism" then I have two special words for you: one of them is "grow" and the other one is "up."


On Mar.13.2005 at 02:49 PM
Michael B.’s comment is:

Despite its inflammatory title, Dmitri Siegel's "Fuck Tibor" is actually a thoughtful (and funny) piece of criticism, in my opinion. (The link works in this post, so see for yourself.)

On Mar.13.2005 at 04:37 PM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

When engaging in the general pissing contests such as a discussion about the nature of criticism, it is probably incumbent upon the participant to engage in the gold standard of critical thinking; which is close reading. Otherwise we're victims of a situation humorously described by Fran Liebowitz: The opposite of talking isn't listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.

My comments were a response to something Jason Tselentis wrote further up in the thread; where he framed his definitions of 'critique' and 'review' by invoking Rick Poynor's The Time for Being Against. Jason's comment is ambiguous, and could be misunderstood as having something to do with Rick's essay.

Rick, your issue isn't with me. But now that you've called me out, I've had the opportunity to read your essay. It, and the Dimitri Siegel piece Fuck Tibor lead me to the realization that there is much graphic design criticism which focusses on personality, oeuvre or the 'all I want for Christmas' list — like this thread.

Dimitri writes:

Tibor was deeply critical of the role design plays in buttressing political and corporate power and spent much of the last part of his career trying to reform the profession. His struggle to do so was carried out largely in the public forum of the American Institute of Graphic Artists (AIGA). Fuck Tibor. Because his ideas on what the role of design should be were never fully resolved, the lasting influence of his struggle has been a model for a kind of diffuse dissatisfaction and grumpiness... ...Unfortunately,... ...many others who are thoughtful about design have not picked up where Tibor left off. Instead they have focussed on affecting his compellingly blunt style. This leads to a hollow critique of a profession that desperately needs vital critical voices.

I don't have as much of an issue with Tibor's "unresolved ideas". In answer to Dimitri's displeasure, I doubt there is an overriding (non-hollow) official critical stance which fits the whole range of design and designers, clients and contexts. Personally, I think we would all do well to take a cue from the First Things First manifesto and examine the greater social context that design exists in. Most designers are anonymous facilitators of their clients' messages, and hopefully one could agree that this is a more politically charged situation than the mythic artist in his atelier. So why is it that the design critiques which appear in the graphic design press rarely address the work's social utility?

In a letter to Paul Dukas, Debussy described the contemporary music of his time as having the smell of the lamp, not of the sun; — music made for other composers, not for people — which manifest(s) an inability to see beyond the work-table. Perhaps there is a degree of similarity when Rick Poynor writes: there’s a nice term for the kind of writer who chooses to occupy this cultural position, to think in public and address the broadest possible readership—it’s “public intellectual."

The two most recent discussions about our little world to appear in the American media are the controversy over the forged Texas Air National Guard memos which brought Dan Rather down, and the recent cover of Newsweek that features a collage of Martha Stewart's head on another woman's body. It is agreed: as a profession, we should know design history and be able to think critically about designers' oeuvres. Yet, the general public frankly couldn't care less about such specifics.

In that, I remain convinced we are more lamp than sun. Not necessarily a bad place; but a familiar place. But... what if?

On Mar.13.2005 at 09:15 PM
sp’s comment is:

Chip, I will be the first to admit I have a lot of growing to do. That is why I am here. I am here to share ideas and learn how others think. Rather than telling me to "grow up", please tell me why you don't agree that Dmitri Siegel's "Fuck Tibor" is not a great piece of criticism. I understand the title can be misleading, but if you take a minute to read it I think even you will have a chuckle. While reading it, keep in mind the Tibor's frequent usage of the word "fuck".

Michael B. - thanks for fixing the link.

On Mar.13.2005 at 09:49 PM
Jason Tselentis’s comment is:

Jason's comment is ambiguous, and could be misunderstood as having something to do with Rick's essay.

Yes, M., I was up late that night—past 12a.m.—and should clarify. My comments are not pulled directly from Rick's essay (thanks for finding it online); he inspired my comments. That said, I will stand by my belief that it's okay to push buttons and take risks, and embedding criticism with opinion does no harm. Lastly, your citation of Chapman's definition opened my eyes to things I've never considered in the way of criticism. I have some reading (and learning) to do.

On Mar.14.2005 at 11:36 AM
Dmitri Siegel’s comment is:

Since I'm being invoked here I'll offer my own critique of critique. I think one of the problems with designer/writers is that we tend to apply design strategies to writing. Everything is relentlessly on message, left aligned and snapped to grid. You can see this really clearly in publications like 2WICE and COLORS that are/were edited by designers. The conflation of design and editorial agendas results in heavily themed, highly conceptual, relatively shallow surveys. No matter how progressive the designer might be, the designer super ego is constantly pushing for clarity of communication in word and image. When this super-ego is applied to writing it leads to clear, clean bursts of writing that can be taken in at a glance, consumed almost subconsciously. Writing requires investing yourself in the message of your piece as opposed to the structure. This requires RESEARCH, which is hard work and does not always yield results that support the structure. Of course, unstructured writing is just as bad as inconsequential writing but the shift of the hierarchy is an absolutely essential one for a designer to be able write well.

I'll give an example from the Fuck Tibor piece. I was so enamored of the convention of turning Tibor's irreverence against him that I used this structural convention of repeating "Fuck Tibor." in the middle of each paragraph to signal the shift from describing an aspect of his work to criticizing its legacy (which was the actual focus of the piece). This really pleased the designer super-ego in me, but forcing the content into this rigid form weakened the piece. I only discovered this later when I was expanding the article into "Fuck Heroes (I Believe in Heroes)". The structural rigidity had kept me from seeing a broader point in the content and more importantly it had limited my research.

On Mar.14.2005 at 12:28 PM
Kenneth FitzGerald’s comment is:

To be sure I'm grasping their comments correctly, I'd appreciate Dmitri and M Kingsley identifying some design criticism that they feel engages the concerns they mention. Or that they definitely state it has yet to be produced—a fair comment for them to make.

I regret giving only passing mention to Visceral Pleasures way back in the Emigre Rant issue (spending too much time on that negative, toe-to-toe stuff everyone wants so much of). It's a (the?) book I'd hand to my art history colleagues as what design criticism can be. And one I unreservedly give to students, urging them to read it.

On Mar.14.2005 at 11:46 PM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

Kenneth, I suspect you're asking me for examples of my blue-sky reverie; i.e. critical writings which specifically or generally address the sociological contexts of design works or media. Off the top of my head, and within reach in my library, here are a few. I suspect you're familiar with most of them.

John Berger — Ways Of Seeing: on "publicity"

Roland Barthes — Mythologies: the essays The New Citr�en and Photography and Electoral Appeal

Roland Barthes — Image—Music—Text: the essay The Photographic Message

Roland Barthes — The Eiffel Tower

Dan Graham —Rock My Religion / Writings and Art Projects 1965-1990: the essays Homes for America; Theater, Cinema, Power; Corporate Arcadias and Garden as Theater as Museum. Many of the other essays on punk rock and architecture, while wider-ranging, are applicable.

Jean Gagnon — Pornography in the Urban World: how the "look" of mass media correlates with the semiotics of pornography.

The Un/Necessary Image — edited by Peter D'Agostino and Antonio Muntadas: esp. John Brummfield's essay What Do You Know When You Know a Picture?

J. Hoberman's essay Vulgar Modernism originally published in Artforum #20, Feb 1982; and reprinted http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/840_reg.html" target="_blank"> in this collection.

The magazine The Baffler is usually good for an article or two. For example, in issue 8, Tom Vanderbuilt's Miracle on Ice and Andrea Codrington's Revolution in Cliché-land may address Skyy Vodka ads and stock photography catalogs, respectively, with a bit less critical rigor; but they sure are fun to read.

The Anti-Aesthetic / Essays on Postmodern Culture — edited by Hal Foster: Fredric Jameson's essay Postmodernism and Consumer Society

Guy Debord — The Society of the Spectacle

John Gage — Color and Culture and Color and Meaning

There are also film and video works that strike me as media/social critiques. For example: Richard Serra's http://www.vdb.org/smackn.acgi$tapedetail?TELEVISION" target="_blank">Television Delivers People and Jean-Luc Godard's Letter To Jane.

Within the known design press, we have:

Design Discourse — edited by Victor Margolin

Much of Johanna Drucker's work.

Robin Kinross' Modern typography

Steve Heller on the swastika

...and the occasional post here on Speak Up and Design Observer.

So after pulling this partial list together, I've come to the conclusion that maybe Gunnar's students do have resources for some non-hagiographic, analytical and social critiques of design. But then, my definition of Graphic Design is polymorphously perverse.

An other conclusion that I've drawn again raises the question I asked earlier: why is it that the design critiques which appear in the graphic design press rarely address the work's social utility? A lot of the material listed above is either out of print or available in the non-design press. And for a profession that engages the world (I think) more than art, music, or even film; doesn't this seem a bit odd?

I guess there's never a Marxist critic around when you need one.

On Mar.15.2005 at 05:01 AM
Kenneth FitzGerald’s comment is:

I suspect you're asking me for examples of my blue-sky reverie

I was specifically interested in the texts at the end that are mostly concerned about graphic design, but thank you for the extensive inventory. I am familiar with and admire many of the texts (meaning: I haven't read them all). Just to call out one, I'm glad you mentioned Design Discourse, which I constantly refer to.

You decide if it's cynical for me to say that the reason there's so little address of social utility in design writing is because it would make criticism even less popular than it is now (like Marx was ever popular, academia excepted, of course). How a design artifact is actually used and who has access to it (which is how I would describe some, not all, of what you're asking for) is often given short shrift, and I wouldn't exclude myself from that.

On Mar.15.2005 at 10:02 AM
Rick Poynor’s comment is:

Going back to Gunnar's starting point, I agree that Glaser is a key figure badly in need of careful critical reassessment. His book Art is Work (2000) provided a very useful collection of images, but it lacked an independent, authoritative critical text. The recent Push Pin Graphic book has a useful text by Steve Heller, but once again it is the designer, Seymour Chwast's own project, with all the limitations that implies. (I said as much about both these books in two reviews in Eye.)

Incidentally, I know Eye is expensive in the US, but it contains some great research and writing on the subject. Anyone seriously interested in the possibilities of design writing should be looking at it. Same goes for Dot Dot Dot.

There really is no lack of critical writing on design, though of course we need more. Here are a few more essential volumes:

Judith Williamson, Decoding Advertisements

Dick Hebdige, Hiding in the Light: On Images and Things (essays)

John A. Walker, Design History and the History of Design

Stuart Ewen, All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture

Nigel Whiteley, Design For Society

Victor Margolin and Richard Buchanan (eds.), The Idea of Design (essays)

Victor Margolin, The Politics of the Artificial (essays)

Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller, Design Writing Research: Writing on Graphic Design (essays)

Julian Stallabrass, Gargantua: Manufactured Mass Culture

Vilem Flusser, The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design (essays)

Jessica Helfand, Screen: Essays on Graphic Design, New Media, and Visual Culture

Robin Kinross, Unjustified Texts: Perspectives on Typography (essays)

And of course there are others . . .

Jorge mentioned the Art in Theory compilations, suggesting Steve H. and I should get to it with graphic design. We already have! If I can be forgiven yet another plug, Looking Closer 3: Classic Writings on Graphic Design, edited by Steve, me, Jessica Helfand and Michael Bierut, contains important and often out of print and otherwise unavailable texts by Alexey Brodovitch, W. A. Dwiggins, El Lissitzky, Alvin Lustig, F. T. Marinetti, Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova, Susan Sontag, Ladislav Sutnar, Wolfgang Weingart, and many others.

On Mar.15.2005 at 10:38 AM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

> You decide if it's cynical for me to say that the reason there's so little address of social utility in design writing is because it would make criticism even less popular than it is now

Kenneth, true... true... But... Perhaps graphic design is too popular. There certainly are an impressive number of schools churning out greater numbers of fresh designers ready for the meat grinder. In this respect, I am specifically thinking of places like the Katherine Gibbs chain, which advertises the vague glamour of the profession.

I don't think you're being cynical, but I probably am. Apologies in advance.

On Mar.15.2005 at 11:53 AM
Steven’s comment is:

Mark and Rick, thanks for putting up your lists. I've saved them for future reference. (Also, I enjoyed reading The Time for Being Against.)

Anybody else have a short-list to offer the rest of us?

On Mar.15.2005 at 02:59 PM
sam r’s comment is:

some more books and authors:

Something to Be Desired: Essays on Design

by Veronique Vienne

By Design: Why There Are No Locks on the Bathroom Doors in the Hotel Louis XIV and Other Object Lessons

by Ralph Caplan


by Andy Grundberg

Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design -- by HENRY PETROSKI

check out: http://journal.aiga.org/content.cfm?ContentAlias=%5Fgetfullarticle&aid=951258

Clean New World: Culture, Politics, and Graphic Design -- by Maud Lavin

Texts on Type: Critical Writings on Typography

edited by Steven Heller and Philip B. Meggs

Design Literacy: Understanding Graphic Design

by Steven Heller

The Politics of the Artificial : Essays on Design and Design Studies -- by Victor Margolin

Emotional Design: Why We Love (Or Hate) Everyday Things

by Donald A. Norman

Borrowed Design: Use and Abuse of Historial Form -- by Steven Heller and Julie Lasky

On Mar.15.2005 at 05:50 PM
Kenneth FitzGerald’s comment is:

Hmm. From the looks of things, practically every design book in print seems to have been mentioned. On a practical note, I would love to give a project such as Gunnar's to my students but don't because, never mind worthy volumes, students have limited access to design books period.

If you're in a major metro area with great bookstores, or a university with an enlightened and well-funded library (which doesn't describe ODU, I donated two sets of back issues of Emigre to our library and they threw them all out), you're okay. But here, and I know in many other places as well, the best resources are in the teacher's office. Call me selfish but I don't circulate (but I'm always carting armfuls into class). So, sadly, this discussion is, er, academic.

On a more positive note, as this has become another episode of Graphic Design Book Club I want to give a shout out to Annie Dillard's Living by Fiction.

This book has been immensely important to me as a reader, writer, and artist. Along with a paucity of critical rigor, a lot of design writing suffers from a lack of transmittable enthusism for the subject (present company excepted). The writing actually drags the work down. I think critical writing is great when it makes you lust to see the work.

Living by Fiction does that for books; after I read it I was open to a broad world of literature I'd never have approached otherwise. Dillard shows you can be an strong advocate for a medium, yet still be critical. Unfortunately, you have to have her prodigious talent...

On Mar.15.2005 at 11:34 PM
Steve Heller’s comment is:

Kenneth says: "I would love to give a project such as Gunnar's to my students but don't because, never mind worthy volumes, students have limited access to design books period. "

Okay forget the books. BUT what's valuable about the GunnarProject is teaching students to research, which includes primary as well as secondary sourcing. SO, in case this is not already apparent, students should be encouraged to contact and interview their subjects through email or phone. I get a dozen or more requests a year asking for comment on particular figures or themes or issues, and if the questions are smart I'm glad to answer (I answer most anyway, but I know others who loose their patience when the questions are pro forma or ill-informa-ed).

So, to echo Chip Kidd, and to return to the original impetus for this post, I'd like to urge students to go beyond the literature - which isn't to say ignore it - or lack thereof, and use this opportunity to directly learn more about the subject, and formulate unique critiques.


On Mar.16.2005 at 07:46 AM
Rick Poynor’s comment is:

Well, it's true that tracking down out of print books in libraries and through secondhand book dealers takes a bit of effort. But anyone who wants to undertake proper research will have to do this, and those who do will know the great satisfaction you can get from finding what you need and making unexpected discoveries as you go.

One of the unfortunate side-effects of armchair Googling is that people seem even less inclined to go in search of old printed material. And that's why I joined in the book lists above. The stuff is out there if you want it, sometimes in unexpected places. I have found rare British items in the US that I have never seen in Britain. On a trip to Detroit, Kenneth, your old pal Elliot Earls and his students took me to a vast secondhand book warehouse that was piled high with treasures. Don't your librarians consult the relevant teaching staff about what should be bought, or in the case of Emigre, kept on the shelves?

On Mar.16.2005 at 08:49 AM
sp’s comment is:

If you're in a major metro area with great bookstores, or a university with an enlightened and well-funded library (which doesn't describe ODU, I donated two sets of back issues of Emigre to our library and they threw them all out), you're okay. But here, and I know in many other places as well, the best resources are in the teacher's office. Call me selfish but I don't circulate (but I'm always carting armfuls into class). So, sadly, this discussion is, er, academic.

Each design student should be developing a library of their own. With stores such as amazon, location is no longer an issue. Sure cost plays a factor, but students should figure books into their financial expectations. It is school, after all. I have found subscriptions to magazines can just as effective and cheeper. Not mention the amount of information online. By giving you students such projects it will teach them to work with what they have. Should all research be handed to them on a plate? Like Dmitri said writing requires �RESEARCH’.

On Mar.16.2005 at 08:56 AM
Kenneth FitzGerald’s comment is:

I hear and agree totally with the comments above and employ all the strategies suggested (I have links to discount booksellers on my University web site and flourish every new acquisition in front of my students' faces). Students should be doing all those things. But I've learned from experience: they won't. I tried and got tired of handing out so many Ds and Fs. Perhaps this reflects upon me as an instructor. However, in discussions with other faculty (not just here), it ain't me babe.

Don't your librarians consult the relevant teaching staff about what should be bought, or in the case of Emigre, kept on the shelves?

To my outrage, the answer to that is a flat No. My protest at them throwing out the first set didn't stop them for tossing the second. It's academic fief-domage.

(And I got taken to that bookstore, too, Rick. Must be on the visiting critic tour.)

On Mar.16.2005 at 09:21 AM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

Oftentimes I only come in contact with design students thru friends who teach. Occasionally, as an illustrator, I'm asked to visit and show what I do. Since I'm kinda reserved (shy), it takes effort to talk about illustration as a part of design, as a profession, and about a broader field of knowledge. One famous designer/writer here awoke in me critical thinking above borrowed design that has stuck with me for years. I'm grateful for that in a way that praise never would have accomplished.

Luckily, the books mentioned here are all admirable for giving the Googling young designers access to a thinking world of designers - with or without the hagiography. And I always encourage the kids to read more. But still I've observed something bigger that's lacking in these student's worldview: the computer's access to information seems broad but it's also shallow (without the passion to dig deeper) and a kind of default knowledge sets in. A call for a contrarian view is necessary, yes?

Recently, for instance, I went to see "Merchant of Venice" with Al(Scarface)Pacino. And while the premise was to stay faithful to the Bard in language and story, I was shocked to hear lines that were never in the original. An added agenda. I came home to my library and reread the play to see what they added as improvements on the text. It was a typical modern distortion rather than the classic original. So goes culture.

On Mar.16.2005 at 10:00 AM
Ricardo Cordoba’s comment is:

Rick and Sam, thanks for your book lists! Libraries are our friends. :-)

Kenneth, thanks for the Annie Dillard recommendation. I'll look for her book.

On Mar.16.2005 at 01:30 PM
Steven’s comment is:

Thanks to all that have contributed to this most recent "...episode of Graphic Design Book Club..." It's really wonderful to get resources from people I respect and admire.

...the computer's access to information seems broad but it's also shallow (without the passion to dig deeper) and a kind of default knowledge sets in.

I agree with this statement. "Googling" a subject gives a sort of greatest hits overview to a subject, but doesn't allow much for putting things into a larger context. It's a means to an end, not an end in itself. Perhaps, it's an example of how efficiency isn't the same as (or better than) effecacy. In a way, googling can be a lazy substitute for personal investigation and discovery, as others have mentioned. Learning should be a journey, and best when not in a straight line.

I also think that the Web isn't really the optimal medium for lengthy written content. There's something that's disorienting and annoying about scrolling through text fields that isn't felt by turning pages. And like TV, I think the Web promotes brevity and visual over verbal; which isn't so bad in the right context, but this doesn't include research. Also, I find reading text through the projected light of a monitor to generate more eye-strain than reading text on the reflective field of ink on paper (or plastic, as the case may be).

On Mar.16.2005 at 04:15 PM
The Alpha Male’s comment is:


A very interesting book would be to take on all the "Untouchables" of our profession and address them objectively, but without the inention of simply knocking them down. Would this be beneficial? Or would it simply be dismissed as just being playa-haterism.

Well said Mr. Heller.

Which reminds me to the outright blasphame and stupidy surrounding the discussion about Massimo Vignelli. Truly a very passionate and giant within our industry. Nothing less than a legend and god.

On Mar.16.2005 at 04:59 PM
Jason Tselentis’s comment is:

Which reminds me to the outright blasphame and stupidy surrounding the discussion about Massimo Vignelli. Truly a very passionate and giant within our industry. Nothing less than a legend and god. And does that mean he's unworthy of criticism? Does that protect his ideals/work—or any other designicon's—from an investigative lens?

The intention of that Vignelli discussion was not to merely fault Vignelli or throw curses and hatred at him. I realize that some commentators did this, but my objective was to entice people to take a stance on their own values and even state something original or personal in their approach to design. I feel we learned something in the end, and that’s one thing good criticism should provide.

I presume Gunnar hopes his students will learn how to research and analyze. Designers that communicate about their work (or peer's) with verbal/textual acumen are valuable, no matter how or where they perform—classroom, studio, newspaper or publishing house, to name a few.

On Mar.16.2005 at 07:49 PM
The Alpha Male’s comment is:

And does that mean he's unworthy of criticism? Does that protect his ideals/work—or any other designicon's—from an investigative lens?

Jason, that truly depend on which uninformed and misguided soul is doing the criticism.

If the shoe fit...

On Mar.22.2005 at 11:56 AM
Michael Johnson’s comment is:

Returning to the original question, briefly, I wrote a fairly scathing review of Milton's most recent book a couple of years ago in London. It didn't go down at all well. An extract follows:

"I had hoped that �Art is Work’, his new book produced 25 years after his first, would shed some new light on what my old mentor had been up to. To be honest I wouldn’t even had minded if he had merely added a couple of chapters at the end of the old book, such are my fond memories of it.

The new tome thumped down onto my desk, an imposing nearly-three-hundred-page number with a confusing title (Art is Work) offering up �a glorious celebration of one of the most extraordinarily versatile and acclaimed graphic artists of our time’, according to the flaps. I think the cover is also a self-portrait (in rather dodgy pastels) but the dust jacket was too full of platitudes to tell me if it is or not.

Now for the awful truth - you haven’t seen much of his work in the last 25 years because it looks pretty similar to the work he did in his first 25. The classics from the sixties and early seventies are barely touched upon, the Pushpin era with Seymour Chwast airbrushed from history in a revisionist swipe of a broad watercolour brush.

Instead we get pages of Monet homages, pseudo-erotic illustrations and interminable case studies of restaurant designs which all look pretty much like the set of Bugsy Malone, you know, all deco references with a few post modern squiggles thrown in.

We get detailed drawings of typefaces designed, most of which feature those funny cross bars and stencilly bits you used to see down the local wine bar when they �got the designers in’. �The diagonal cross bar seemed interesting enough to build a complete alphabet around it’, explains our host about one specimen. Not interesting enough, I fear.

We get pages from sketch books of Italian holidays, designs for Alessi chopping boards with cows feet (a joke I hope), a revival of the Grand Union case study from the first book and some Catalonian newspaper designs. We get plate designs from those �Bugsy Malone’ eateries. We get jewellery. Had Glaser designed a kitchen sink in the last 25 years I fear we would have got that too.

This is all presented in a big pictures, small words environment with some information on the projects supplied in captions written by Glaser. There is some attempt at analysis to make a clear break between chapters by making use of the interview techniques used in Alan Fletcher’s �Beware Wet Paint’, but essentially this is a book about himself, by himself, with no credit to any editor of any sort.

Whilst the Fletcher book was a genuine insight into that man’s work post-Pentagram and is obviously aided by Jeremy Myerson and Phaidon’s views, Glaser’s is in need of an outside influence. Someone to shave off some of the dodgy projects, bring the pagination down to a more useful length and concentrate on the Good, leaving the Bad and the Ugly in the plan chest - there if needed for the spaghetti clients, but not to be printed. Of course that’s easier said than done. Thames and Hudson presumably thought this was a good idea for a book (and it was) but sending an editor into battle with all guns blazing with one of the giants of post war graphic design is a fairly onerous task.

The long sections on illustrations and sketching may may be of some use to illustration students. Sometimes the work seems deliberately crude, sometimes well crafted but I’m not really target market - a book of good to middling drawings is never going to persuade me to part with my plastic. But will this really be of that much use to illustrators? I’m not so sure - they can do exactly what Glaser himself freely admits he did — go back to first principles, study fine art in detail and borrow as much as you feel you can get away with.

Whether his views and work will be of influence a second time around as the medium finally drags itself out of the doldrums remains to be seen. The current revival of curvy-linear drawing and flat colours owes more to Brit Art, Aubrey Beardsley and those laminated aeroplane information sheets stashed next to the sick bags.

But if you follow the Glaser dictum, design is drawing and hence must be mastered if you are going to become a true master craftsman across all disciplines of art and design and compare yourself to Michaelangelo and Leonardo (as he happily does). I’m not sure that I should comment on the Michaelangelo reference but I do know that any designer training now is grappling with the requirements of design in the computer age, not stretching watercolour paper. It comes as no surprise that the newest generation of successful illustrators draw directly in the computer but we are left in no doubt as to Glaser’s views about the negative influences of the computer — you know, �only a tool’, �invention of the devil’, the usual stuff. As for Leonardo, I think if he were alive now he would have his head in a manual learning 3D drawing programs with the best of them.

As for the historical references that pepper the book, the sabbaticals in Bologna, the homages to Piero de la Francesca? One can’t help feeling that this and his own references to past glories reveal one of the truths of this book — here is a man who has designed the same way for forty-odd years and his early successes are inevitably going to time lock his style. Graphic innovators often find themselves inexorably linked to the period that made their name — for Gorham think seventies, for Brody, eighties, for Carson, nineties. As a rule of thumb designers learn in their twenties, make their name in their thirties, and consolidate in their forties. After that, well it’s very much up to their willingness to stay interested or ability to change their spots.

And whilst he would hate to admit it, Glaser’s way of working is a recognisable style, not a method. A style that you will either love or hate. The sad truth that with the first book unavailable many young designers will form a view on about a third of a great portfolio with the rest hidden away on second hand bookshelves.

Probably the most telling item buried deep in a section of transcribed talks is a top-ten list of �designer don’ts’ entitled �The Road to Hell’. It includes ethical no-goes like �Designing a children’s cereal pack with a high sugar content’ at number six and �Designing a promotion for a diet product that you know doesn’t work’ at number eight. All right-on stuff. Unfortunately it stops short of number eleven which should be �Don’t produce a book of your work 25 years after your first without the advice of a good editor’".

Michael Johnson, johnson banks

On Mar.24.2005 at 11:33 AM
Christine Lorenz’s comment is:

While I recognize that this thread has been shelved for over a week (which makes it ancient history in internet time), I ran across something yesterday that seems germane. It’s in the current New Yorker, in an article by Adam Gopnik. He writes:

“All artists in all fields despise all critics all the time. (They may like the individual critic, but they despise his conviction that he has a right to criticize.) Still, there are levels of loathing, as there are circles in Hell. Writers at least recognize that the critic is a writer, and shares a table, if not an agent. Magicians, on the extreme edge, despair of those outside their circle ever knowing the difference between a trick that anyone can buy for six dollars and sleight of hand that only two people have learned in six years. Chefs are close to magicians in their certainty that their critics cannot tell the difference between something that takes time, thought and talent and something that dazzles only by surprise, perversity, and snob appeal.”

From this perspective, and speaking very generally, I wonder if designers can be said to view critics of design in a way that’s closer to the writers, or to the chefs. Or maybe there’s not really a parallel to be found here, due to the nature of the profession as closer to industry than to fine art. When I was in art school, in “theory” seminars you’d often hear the old saw that art critics are to artists what ornithologists are to the birds. People who said this most often were generally not too interested in the existence of critique—particularly critique practiced by historians, rather than by artists who sometimes felt like writing —they just wanted to do their work. I think this came more from a sense of art criticism being out of touch with what these artists thought really mattered, and less from a fear of the power any particular criticism might have over the market. But this was just grad school, and as professionals, artists know that it’s part of their job to engage with critics, however ornithological they may believe their job to be.

I brought this up because I've followed the thread (and similar ones) with interest, and even though a lot of the same things get said again and again, I really don't think it's beating a dead horse. I don't think anyone doubts that design criticism exists, but it seems like the profession is still working out exactly what purpose writing about graphic design serves, and how seriously to take it, and who it's for. I think this sort of meta-talk is more than worth doing. And, yes, I personally am an academic, not a practicing designer.

The Gopnik article, by the way, is about food writing. He reviews a number of recently published books (from bios of chefs to massive culinary dictionaries) and in the process manages to examine a lot about how we talk about the things we love — while never really straying from the specific subjects of his critique.

On Apr.01.2005 at 11:38 AM
Kenneth FitzGerald’s comment is:

the old saw that art critics are to artists what ornithologists are to the birds

It's "Aesthetics is for artists as ornithology is for the birds" and it's a quote by Barnett Newman.

On Apr.02.2005 at 02:24 PM
Christine Lorenz’s comment is:

Oh. OK. Thanks.

On Apr.02.2005 at 10:54 PM
Michael Dooley’s comment is:

I just returned from a two-hour Milton Glaser talk to an overflow crowd at Art Center's main auditorium. His subject was "ambiguity," a topic he admitted at the outset he's given frequently. I found it quite smart and amusing — much like the samples he showed — and not at all the sort of "phoned in" presentation one would expect from someone who's been practicing and preaching for more than a half-century. I would guess from the sustained applause that many others felt the same way ... although, inasmuch as there were several inane questions from the group near the end, I'm sure his pearls were falling on a certain number of swine.

It wasn't only his words that impressed me; some of his recent designs showed as much depth, sophistication, and grace as the best of his earlier work, if not more.

I'd be very interested in reading the paper from Gunnar's student. Of course Milton is a mere mortal and not above criticism — "Sometimes his solutions are simply facile, recycled, and whatever" or "It's easy to do great work when you have patrons rather than clients" — but again, we're talking about a career that spans over 50 years. In that respect, he's earned his high position in the pantheon of designers ... not that this should stop younger generations from engaging in some good, healthy patricide. The man is over 75 years old and still designing; I'm sure he can take it.

After the talk I even started to feel Milton deserves a little slack regarding his wrongheaded opinions: okay, "computer technology" (which, incidentally, he only mentioned briefly, in passing) doesn't work for him. Fine: he obviously has all he needs in his brain and at his fingertips to continue to produce exceptional work. Besides, I hardly think he's about to convince many young people to pull the plug on their Macs. And even if he does have acolytes who decide to heed his words, some of them may just wind up producing designs that will benefit our profession in unexpected ways.

In summary, all I can say is that if only a third of the design lectures I sit through were delivered with as much clarity, preciseness, intelligence, and wit as I heard tonight from Milton, I'd be a much happier attendee.

~ mike D

On Apr.15.2005 at 03:20 AM
Keith Russell’s comment is:

Design criticism is passive host to several traditional fallacies (New Criticism) that restrict its possibilities. Chief is the Intentional Fallacy: the view that the text/object in question is the result of a purposive or weak intention arising from an author/designer. The discussion on this topic has been consistent in its homage to the Designer as intender (negative accounts of designers are simply reverse homage). This fallacy would seem to be inescapable for design.

Then we have the Affective Fallacy: the view that because the text/object seems to produce a certain response in the reader/critic then the text/object must have been designed to produce this affect. This one could be dealt with through rigour and bothering to attend to some kind of articulated reception aesthetic.

To these we could add the Pathetic Fallacy: the view that because we agree to talk about this stuff means it exists; or, weak intention is a sustaining discourse — I sustain you as designer if you sustain me as the one designed for. This could be overcome through a phenomenological approach.

On Apr.16.2005 at 02:34 AM
Mayur Karnik’s comment is:

I am a design student specialising in communication design. A design school is a place where a student imbibes a certain value system with regards to the profession. I want to comment on what I have observed within a teacher-student interaction context.

Criticism (by the teachers)falls under three categories:

01. Criticism by an 'academician'.

This form of criticism pivots around theories, models, design philosophy and thus the design process. The teacher in this case is somebody who's spent most part of his life understanding design through books, conferences, numerous lectures across the world, so on and so forth.

02. Criticism by a 'professional'

This form of criticism usually comes from teachers who have spent a large portion of their working lives outside the campus, working with big design studios, freelancing, etc. In their days, such teachers were considered good design students. The advice during an assignment review pivots around aspects of quality, 'professionalism', skills, design management, etc.

03. Criticism by a non-academic, non-professional

This form of criticism comes from people who have had very little professional or academic experience. The stress in criticism is either on being contemporary or on being idealistic (or modernistic).

Needless to say, when students ingest suggestions on their works, they wily-nily evaluate the words of advice depending on who it comes from. Most students fail to question conventions in the face of very adamant, orthodox, traditional or genre imposing teachers.

Design students desparately need some help in understanding what really forms design critique. There's a big white elephant in the room and nobody wants to admit it's there. Any pointers to a resolving a dilemma like mine.

On Apr.17.2005 at 05:51 AM
Elizabeth Guffey’s comment is:

Gunnar makes a good point about the neglected role of design criticism.

Artists have a love/hate relationship with art criticism, since it

functions as a kind of gatekeeper, making and breaking careers (buyers read

critics, curators use them to follow emerging artists, dealers court them

for attention, etc). There is no equivalent within the design world. In

some ways this is for the best, because it makes design less insular and

exclusive. Designers design for many reasons, but they often have an eye

for the market and clients, not critics.

Still, the low profile of design criticism does some harm to the

profession. Just to be plain, "criticism" means considerably more than

evaluating, also taking into account identifying, classifying, interpreting

and, some would argue most importantly, establishing meaning. In

architecture and industrial design, one of the most evocative critics was

Reyner Banham; although often pigeon-holed as an architectural critic, he wrote for almost forty years on everything from Airstream trailers to

the bolo tie. While arguably wrong-headed at times, Banham's books and

essays have been standard texts, opening the eyes of generations of

architects in training who first come across him in school.

But, because design has remained so rooted in practice and public

reception, criticism has never fully developed and plays

a minor role in the design world. Without a well-developed tradition of

design criticism, we lose the first step that other fields take for

granted, creating a dialogue and building a shared sense of community and

history. In art and literature, criticism is the first step towards

compiling histories. Histories build identities. While designers are

absorbed in the present, it's important to grasp where we've come from, who

we are now, and start to shape how we're going to be understood in the


Picking up the ideas being floated on this thread, I'm co-chairing a

session at the College Art Association next year titled Design(ing)

Criticism. I'd encourage anyone who's interested to submit an abstract.

The call for papers is listed at the CAA website (www.collegeart.org).

Just to pick up on Gunnar's original thread about Glaser, I've been

researching Glaser and "the Push Pin school" for some time for a book on a

related topic. The tricky thing with Glaser is how he and his colleagues

could be quite obscure about identifying their sources and had little

interest in dating their work or establishing a chronology of their

activities. Criticism of Glaser's work in the early sixties often cited

him as "post modern"--one of the first applications of the term to the

visual arts. But since so little has been written on Glaser, his position

vis-a-vis some of the most important intellectual trends in the late

twentieth century remains unknown.

On Apr.17.2005 at 09:34 PM