Less Agreement, More Argument
Posted on June 30, 2013
(This article is the third in a three-part series. The first infers on criticism towards brands, the second probes into criticism towards design, and the last article contemplates the state of design criticism.)
In the first article, The Impulse to be Heard, the perception of criticism towards brands was discussed in relation to Internet anonymity and the prevalence of empty but destructive critique. The second article, A Design Battle Cry, continues by presenting two seemingly unharmonious areas currently in the red zone in the world of design: Crowd-smashing and crowdsourcing. The third and final part of the series (Less Agreement, More Argument) contemplates the current state of the oppositional activity in Singapore’s design culture and postulates possible reasons.
Design criticism is often considered the unpopular brother to graphic design, wherein the attention for verbal engagement remains sparse and its merits enigmatic. Its maturity and acknowledgement are made worse at an age of accelerated media growth (as observed in The Impulse to be Heard), amongst other economic, cultural and political conditions. Perhaps “made worse” is too pessimistic a term, but rather the way designers convey the printed word in the digital age may be too nebulous to be taken seriously by non-designer readers. To some extent unfortunately, even designers themselves are disposed of that privilege too, which brings to mind that whether articles such as “Good Design Is Invisible” by iA’s Oliver Reichenstein should relevantly expand its introspective to “Designers Are Invisible”.
It has to be said—exceptions granted—that graphic designers are not the type of people that would commit themselves to serious reading. Not because our creative education is lacking in theoretical writing and design history modules, but because designers in general are never fluent or interested in the critical language. One such example of this design language/history void is how most of today’s bookshelves are stocked with more visual content than theoretical and analytical publications. It is argued that partial blame be attributed to the development of the major arts scene as being one to culturally insult the design profession (e.g. the Portfolio-versus-Process school system and meager presence of humanities in the curriculum. If designers are weak in communication (written/verbal), then how would clients trust in their ideas?) An inherent reason for this literacy commitment deficiency can be taxed to how the industry is so perversely focused on the aesthetic appeal, heavy-weighting appreciation on ‘display works’ (award shows, trade magazines, exhibitions, etc.) than on critical writing achievements, while the other more glaring reason would be the social media era’s idea of empty discussion and juvenile online bickering. Ultimately, the prevalent consensus surrounding design criticism, offline or online, is that it requires a higher exertion towards investigating theory and design practice as compared to operating the outside day-to-day work of design, and with little audience to appreciate such effort, it is easily deemed not worth the endeavor.
Designers are in the business of show-and-tell. This is where the money rolls, what brings home the bacon. Criticism, however, is an unprofitable discipline of little substantial structures for intellectual exchange (other than the few critical platforms such as Blunt Conference, Counter/Point D-Crit Conference and the defunct Speak Up forum). This is not to say that the discipline is struggling—just that the immediate focus and high demand with today’s design industry being all about narrowly honing particular trade skills (letterpress, lettering, type design, etc.) together with ‘accomplishments’ (e.g. page views and Tumblr likes) to measure and validate its worth, briefly outweigh against expansive subjects (such as critical thinking) and highlights (unenthusiastically) the slow progress in the criticizing development. These illiteracy problems of the industry—coupled with the calls for criticism, thinking and writing—are just not pressing enough for designers to be either interested or be passionate about.
“The slow development of criticism within design may in fact be related to the very concept of “Good Design,” which traditionally has prioritized rationalism, functionalism, and aesthetics over a deeper recognition of the broader cultural and contextual implications of design. But the reign of “Good Design” may be coming to a close as the discursive floodgates open, fueled by design criticism graduates with new ways of thinking and writing about design.” via Core77
While the alternative reason of a Core77 article suggests that the period for criticism may be nearing with each graduating batch of design criticism graduates, the immediate question to pose forward is, “Where were the critics before, and where are they now?” If (design) communication is an exchange of tensions, provocations and challenges, then where are the people in these critical positions and what have they written so far? Have their texts faded with age or are the fruits of these literary labors literally that invisible to the public? Whether the opinions were unmemorable or that they could simply be bad writers, every attempt to list down current influential critics would only weave up the usual household names of Heller, Kalman, Bierut, and Poynor—an indication proving once again the benightedness of criticism, being outnumbered to say, a listing of influential designers.
Here in Singapore, is it possible for the development of critical platforms in a country without robust design backgrounds or theoretical study programs?
As it stands right now, Singapore has done well in terms of finding its design voice despite the history shortcoming, having been peppered with awards from D&AD to Cannes over the years, to witnessing a sizable growth in creative-led platforms sprouting up and about (Public Garden, Design Film Festival, CreativeMornings etc.). While it is not to the extent of owning a distinct ‘Singaporean graphic style’ like the acclaimed Swiss, the distance to a local pride and label, one where we can call ‘made-in-Singapore’, is certainly nearing. Although the enthusiasm for words and criticism has taken roots into the scene (The Design Society Journal) and proving the feasibility for design criticism to flourish, the real question here is the sustainability, because for criticism to thrive would require a flow of voicing platforms and critics, both of which clearly lacking in Singapore. Singapore has competent designers, but they must be equally good as thinkers and competitors if they yearn to see their industry flourish. Perhaps like any other occupation today and assurance of a comfortable life, the common people are more likely to be attracted to jobs that tangibly puts money into their accounts than to what seems like an insecure job for an ephemeral subject such as criticism.
Often thought to be a role fit for elitist snobs, it does not help further that part of a critic’s job is placing the critic himself out onto the firing range (basically asking for the ego to be ripped apart), hence making it a profession that invites negativity, amongst other complaints, prejudice, and personal attacks. Additionally, it is a little known detail that designers themselves can also be equally harsh critics, including the perception that they possess a “top-down” outlook over their intentions of creative work and understanding of design thinking, an egotism most commonly exhibited through logo bashing and criticizing adverts. Not many would understand the importance of contesting beliefs in an industry skilled in sugar-coating ideas and few would be willing to put themselves naked in defending their views, free to critic-bashing, especially when there is too much at stake (clients, friends, paychecks) for any designer’s career to be arguing against the industry that supports them. Surely a constant barrage of ‘no’s’ is more than damaging to the creative soul? Would a profession that vulnerable appeal to students? Will they be ready for the scrutiny, to attack and defend? Are WE designers even ready?
“The most obvious reason is that most design publications are trade journals. They exist to serve the design community and they depend on sales and advertising to survive. Their publishers and editors are reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them, so over time very few of these publications have tried to develop a culture of criticism, though occasionally an article with a bit more bite makes it into their pages. Unfortunately, readers in search of criticism often overlook these pieces because they are so unexpected. It’s ironic because on occasions when you hear designers discussing other designers’ work – at a design school crit or on a design awards jury – they can be really sharp critics.” – via Rick Poynor
Life is easier if designers agree, riskier to be blunt. And as critics, it is tough to be fearless (not prejudiced) and impartial at the same time. Either the honest local critics (if they indeed or still exist) accept the silent truth that not much can be done with the slow progress of debating design, or they had simply given up and retired on to greener design pastures, an industry without disagreements would only reflect an industry held stagnant. Regardless of the weak interest for debating, design criticism at where it is presently, should strive to be in the highlights of future local conferences. These conferences over the years have seen a fair share of creative directors and designers up on stage, and while that is constructive in bolstering the design enthusiasm among the industry as well as the general public, such conferences soon ran template formats of ‘show-and-telling’ creative works, designers canonizing other designers, and fixation for all things in the past (personal and/or studio origins). This sort of dialogue (where time, money and energy are spent in rehashing stories of the old) is but just of the one-way kind and it certainly remains to be seen if the attendees would feel any sort of empowerment enough to adopt something of value on their own.
“Maturity is not when we start speaking big things… it is when we start understanding small things.”
The standards of design (and criticism) will never be raised in a closed world of internal design discussion, which is why for design criticism to benefit its audience, it requires the open-mindedness and awareness of both local and international level of design industry workings and day-to-day social economics. Aside from lesser exhibitions affiliated to studios and trends, the best takeaway in any exhibition purpose is allowing the public to leave with a sense of agreement and engagement (see MUJI Product fitness 80, Hyundai Card Design Library, IDEO Make-a-thon Workshops, Design Film Festival). By being inclusive and opening design out to other occupations and disciplines, then can we see the buildup of structures in encouraging audience’s conversation and participation.
Design is forever a profession with two sides, never agreeing on just one. And that may be for the better, because more ideas are exchanged by locking pessimists together as compared to optimists. The time for design criticism as a cultural discipline in Singapore will eventually arrive when disagreements are heard and bandwagoning gone. Until designers are ready to stand in the firing line and to extract themselves from their shell, the critics should continue knocking hard and loud.
“Being honest may not get you a lot of friends, but it will get you the right ones.” – John Lennon