Interaction Criticism: How to Do It, Part 4

Produce a Critique, Or, What and How to Write

Continued from Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

I apologize that it has taken a week to resume writing in this series. Part of the problem was a very busy week, but another part of it was that I wasn’t quite as sure what I wanted to say for this segment. I have taught composition for years and have a lot in general to say about that, but that wasn’t really the right direction for this post. So, to be perfectly honest, I am a little less certain of what I am saying here, but it is a blog post, so I will put something out there, and perhaps later I will be able to iterate on it and make it better.

As a starting strategy, I decided to go back and read a bunch of criticism. Not theory (i.e., abstract philosophical reflections on interpretive strategies, such as “semiotics” or “new historicism”), but actual criticism, in which a critic talks about actual, explicitly named cultural artifacts. I started with Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, because, well, that collection of short critical essays on everything from soap to Greta Garbo’s face is kind of an intellectual comfort food for me. As fun as that was, I realized that Barthes pop culture criticism was a little too far away from design criticism, not in the artifacts considered, but rather in the gist of his criticism, which was to expose cultural “mythologies” (often bourgeois values foisted on everyone as if they were natural, with a particular emphasis on the role of language in making that possible), whereas design criticism is typically more focused on the aesthetic response of its intended audience/user.

So my next step was to go to Barnes and Noble and buy a bunch of design magazines: indesign, Objekt, I.D., Architect, and Case da Abitare (which also gave me an excuse to practice my rusty Italian). There were others (this was one pricey Barnes & Noble trip). So I wanted to see how design writers write about design. Where there were interviews, I wanted to see how the designers themselves explained their designs. The goal was to see, in simplified and clarified form, what design discourse looks like as a discourse. Who is it written for? How long is it? What does it talk about? What are its central themes? And above all, how does it differ (both textually and epistemologically) from social scientific writing?

HCI as a field traditionally writes within the social science paradigm. As HCI increasingly embraces design, and here I am opining a bit, it seems to me that HCI seems to continue to want the familiar form of social scientific writing but amplified with the new content/insights of design-oriented thinking. The thing is, and here is a rant for another day, the form of social scientific writing carries with it epistemological positions that are appropriate for social science, but not necessarily appropriate for design critique. To say this another way, if you want to see legitimate design critique, you (HCI community) have to develop literacy in another paradigm of writing. Because when critique is translated into social science (which is how most critical approaches to HCI get past the gatekeepers), while it may certainly have its own rigor, value, and contributions, it has become something other than critique.

Briefly, the classic social science publishable paper looks more or less like this: introduction and literature review, methodology, results, discussion, conclusion. There is nothing wrong with this structure and I am not attacking it. But it makes fundamental assumptions about the type of work being presented, and it foregrounds a certain kind of intellectual rigor (namely, formally executed empirical research). If, however, one brings to the table a different kind of intellectual rigor (say, criticism), one either must shoehorn the contribution into this template and thereby play to one’s own weaknesses (criticism is hard to explain in terms of a formal execution of a “proven” methodology), or one must resist the template and risk alienating an audience whose respect is best earned through excellent use of the template.

OK. So how did designers talk about their designs? How did design writers write about design?

Obligatory disclaimers paragraph! Obviously, the many critiques I read were diverse in their themes and approaches, so I’m simplifying. Also, note that magazine critiques are not academic and they are generally very positive (even gushing–I think one of their cultural functions is an intellectualized form of marketing and promotion, but I’m going to leave that alone for now).

Good design is not something one really tries to understand with empirical precision. Instead, designers and design aficionados “develop and eye for” good design, much like (to borrow an example from my colleague Erik Stolterman) a wine lover develops a taste for good wine, or a literature enthusiast develops a sense of what makes a great novel or poem. Now a good work of culture is often described as having a “je ne sais quoi,” an I-don’t-know-what, that is, something that you can’t express but which makes it good. A central problem of the social aspect of design (from merely expressing appreciation to developing product lines or teaching design in universities) is that good design is ineffable; it can’t be put into words. But to be socially useful, it must be put into words.

And so one of the core contributions of the critiques I read was to try to get behind this je ne sais quoi and try to explain rationally why a design has the aesthetic effect that it has. One article described a major house remodel. It described the original construction, including building materials, spatial form, historical context, and historical style. It described the new design, by explaining its process. For example, it talked about conflicts and the decisions (and their grounds) that led to a resolution. It spoke of both form and function, but more often than not about how they harmonized (blurring, rather than accenting, the distinction between them). It talked about the use of color, and the cultural associations of the colors (e.g., white = pure). It talked about the designer and noted that his designs recall the style/influence of an earlier designer. Here are the final lines of the article:

The house is still relatively modest in size…. However, for [the homeowners], the internal spaces, together with the garden, seem more than adequate. “Space is all relative. It’s not just the size of the space. It’s how they feel.”

From the point of view of positivist science, the last line, “it’s how they feel,” is cognitively empty. What could “it’s how they feel” possibly mean? And yet, it’s clear from its position (the closing words of the article) that it not only means something, but in fact it encapsulates all that has come before it and offers a satisfying conclusion. Now, I’m not advocating that design discourse should tolerate muddled writing. I am saying that aspects of the aesthetic response to design, which is shared by designers and design aficionados, are both ineffable and yet also shared.

So this blog series is subtitled “How to Do It,” and now I feel some pressure to say something fairly explicit and directive. I’ll try. One major strategy in design criticism is to attempt to rationally explain the je ne sais quoi of a design. To do so, one attempts to show how the design has (to borrow a phrase from literary theory) “organic unity.” Now, the origins of this unity are incredibly diverse:

  • Form and function
  • The cultural semantics of individual design elements, such as colors
  • The tendencies, history, and semantics of its materials
  • A design as a physical record of a process of decisions (like an exposed cliff shows the history of sediment that composes it)
  • A design as an instance of one or more styles
  • A design as an instance of a designer’s work (where the designer is also an instance of a history of designers and styles)

The contribution of the critique is to make these and similar issues visible and explain how they relate to each other to compose the organic unity of the design, which in turn presumably helps demystify the je ne sais quoi. And that in turn facilitates practical and useful communication about something (a design) that is difficult to put into words, because of its culturally embedded complexity and the wholly (and ineffably) subjective nature of an individual’s experience of it. To be able to perceive and analyze these different design issues or characteristics requires expertise and a certain kind of intellectual rigor (perhaps above all, an erudition of similar artifacts). But again, claims about any one of these issues (e.g., the meaning of a color, the influence of rococo on a given interior designer, the “feel” of “warmth” given off by a given material), let alone claims that assemble them together into an interpretation, would be daunting to evaluate as truth-claims, in the social science sense. They are not conclusions derived from data obtained by following a proven methodology; neither are they tightly derived inferences from the data itself. They constitute an expert’s interpretation.

Perhaps the skill of writing critique is also ineffable. Perhaps the best advice I can give is for anyone who wants to be able to add criticism to her or his interaction design research repertoire is to read a bunch of criticism! I hope that this post gives my readers an idea of what to look for when they read design magazines, London Times book reviews, and other criticism hot spots.

Continue on to Part 5, in which I explicate lots of quotes of actual design criticism.


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