Examples and Explanations of Design Criticism Writing
First, I’d like to revise something I wrote in the last edition:
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).
It remains true that most of what I am writing about comes from magazines, and not peer reviewed journals, so I don’t want to lose sight of that context. That said, the “gushing” I referred to was not quite right. After flipping through a bunch of magazines again, I realized that I needed to distinguish between features and reviews.
Now, feature articles do lots of gushing. I think their underlying claim is, “this is an exemplary design, which everyone in the field would probably appreciate as an excellent example.” Of course, identifying and being able to make use of excellent examples is a very important aspect of being a designer and a design critic, so there is nothing particular dubious about this stance.
That said, I’ve seen lots of more negative writing, and that is in the review sections. Not all magazines have reviews, but those that do critique design in a much more traditional sense, as in the following excerpt from a review of a new type face, called Emmy, written by Step Inside Design magazine’s Hermann Puterschein:
Emmy isn’t elegant, certainly isn’t sophisticated, and it’s not even very pretty. It does, however, have an honest, childlike charm.
Obviously, this–and most of Puterschein’s and others’ reviews–is not gushing!
I will continue to maintain, though, that design features and design reviews, though they tend to differ in tone, both commonly orient themselves to offering rational explanations of the je ne sais quoi of a design, its organic unity, its chic + useful innovation, and so on. One difference, though, and this is visible in the Puterschein quote just above, is that reviews critique the extent to which a design achieves these goals, and the extent to which in (not) doing so it is (not) of use to designers; in contrast, the features tend to take the affirmative as a given, and explicate how so.
So, to try to get a closer look at specifically critical language, I suspended feature articles from consideration and focused exclusively on reviews. I highlighted passages that struck me as interesting, in one way or another, from the point of view of importing design criticism into HCI. Put another way, I tried to find things that a design critic might say that (a) is of some value to me as a designer and (b) is something a social scientist practicing social science probably would not say. In that way, I could start to tease out contributions from criticism that can complement (but not replace) contributions from social science.
This post presents a number of those quotes and the reasons I found them interesting.
I’ll start again with Puterschein, this time on a type face called ITC Intro:
Its tall ascenders and sweeping descenders give the design an elegant and sophisticated aura, but there’s also a brushy, almost dashed-off quality to the script…. The design abounds with distinctive character shapes, from the unusual tail of the q to the baseline curve of the I to the loosely curved stroke of the g…. [The type face] has energy and movement, as if the brush that drew it was just lifted from the page…. Its sinuous capitals could easily double as initial letters; combine them with an Old Style text face and the results will be striking…. Also, because it is unusual, Intro should be used sparingly…. Use Intro for brief headlines or for a handful of words on an invitation or poster.
There are a number of different types of statements here. Some get at a very subjective reaction on the part of the critic; “aura,” “almost dashed-off,” “energy and movement”–the critic is interpreting the type face. His interpretation would be difficult to validate empirically, and yet any of his readers seeing the type face would at the very least understand where he is coming from. He does substantiate his interpretation by pointing to very specific elements of the artifact, such as descenders and baseline curves. Finally, he orients the review to design, by prescribing ways that designers can use this type face (and presumably ones like it) well, that is, in their own designs, which themselves aspire to organic unity, gestalt, a je ne sais quoi, etc. Thus, in spite of the different sorts of statements, none of them ventures far from the orienting goal of offering a rational, though not empirically validated, explanation of one’s subjective, yet expert, response to the artifact.
Such strategies are not anomalies, but in fact are quite common in design writing. Here is Daniel Jewesbury writing a review of an exhibition of Darren Almond’s photography, this one from Source magazine.
Darren Almond’s series of moonlit landscapes, which suggestively reference … prehistory and mythology, are made using long exposures under the light of a full moon…. In fact, they’re not straightforward “moonlit” scenes at all…; in these brightly-illuminated views, both time and space are made strange…. Most obviously, the details of his images are rendered soft by the exposure time…. In certain cases, the image looks as if it might have been made through gauze, and the softness is reminiscent of painting…. There are also unexpected shifts in the colour spectrum….
This passage (and I obviously edited it down quite a bit) shows a relentless to-and-fro between an ineffable visual effect Jewesbury is trying to describe, and the production technique used to cause it. At the interpretive extreme are global metaphors: myth and prehistory. We then have specific explanations of a photographic technique. Finally, we have intermediary metaphors, which help bridge between objective technique and subjective interpretations: made as if it was shot through gauze or maybe like painting. This attempt to rationally explain a culturally complex subjective interpretation is at the heart of criticism.
So far, my examples have emphasized relationships between the form of a design and its meaning. Indeed, this is a common strategy in all criticism that I have ever seen; doing it well requires expertise in both the formal realm of the design (especially technique) and the cultural significance of that artifact’s whole field of design.
But there are other strategies, such as this one, written by Nancy Roth (also in Source) about an exhibition of photographs by Hans-Peter Feldman featuring 101 photographs of people, one each at 6 months, 1 year, 2 years, 3 years … 100 years old.
The photographs are hung in a single horizontal line, in order of increasing age, so that a visitor looks at them one after the other, at a tempo that generates the idea of a biography. And suddenly, it becomes clear that the specific details of these photographs matter much less than their success in building, out of such simple materials, the very abstract idea of “a life.” More generally, one begins to wonder whether in fact Feldman uses photography to propose mental events–to re-enact the process of building complex concepts out of many concrete instances.
I spent a long time on this passage. I originally marked it as an example of criticism focused on the user (in this case, the viewer). That is, the whole passage is not based on the artifacts themselves, nor does it tell us about the photographer. The orientation of this passage is the mental process of the viewer. As someone trained in comparative literature, I have written many passages about the effect of XYZ on the reader, and what the reader realizes as she reflects on Proust’s use of X, or the depiction of Y in Milton’s Paradise Lost. etc. This form of criticism is very familiar to me.
What gave me pause, having spent a couple years among social scientists, was this: just who is this viewer that is having this mental process Roth describes? Is Roth suggesting that these photographs cause this particular sequence of thoughts in viewers? If we interviewed 100 viewers of this exhibit, would a statistically significant sample of them describe their thought processes like this? Because if the answer is no, and it surely is no, isn’t this just the kind of fuzzy and muddled thinking that social scientists so stridently object to? Taken literally, Roth’s statement probably is borderline nonsense. To “restore” it as legitimate knowledge in the scientific sense, we probably would need to do a hundred interviews (indeed, this is exactly what Czikszentmihalyi and Robinson did in their work on the psychology of aesthetics).
But there is nuance to this; Roth is writing in a short-hand that people trained in design and the humanities recognize. Roth is not talking about a sample of viewers. Roth is talking about herself, but she is doing so in a special way. She is not talking about herself as an ordinary human being, with parents, perhaps children and siblings, favorite colors, fetishes and phobias, and so forth. Rather, she is talking about her reaction as a professional critic, as someone who is highly trained in interpreting cultural artifacts, such as art photography. She is saying something like this: “Someone with a background in photography and criticism, who is immersed in this culture, who knows its history and has seen thousands of similar examples, might have the following chain of thoughts when experiencing, appreciating, and reading this collection of art: …” That’s cumbersome, hence the rhetorical stand-in of the hypothetical “viewer” who has all these thoughts.
What I’m saying is that Roth is modeling the act of reading these photographs. She is not representing an empirical state of affairs (e.g., the “content” of the photographs that she has “decoded”); she is showing us a way to think productively about a complex cultural artifact, which (once again) ties objective characteristics of the design (such as the number of paintings and their linear arrangement) to the subjective yet productive (critical, inspirational) responses and readings that afficionados and professionals have to these.
So far, I have shown lots of artifact-centric examples, and a non-empirical user-centered example, all of which are common in design, art, literary, and music criticism, if not HCI. Here is an example of a different type of strategy, a socio-cultural strategy, from David Evans, reviewing an exhibition by Alexander Rodchenko for Source magazine:
[The Rothchenko collection in this exhibition] is a Postcommunist perspective not in the sense that it seeks to divorce aesthetics and politics, but in the sense that it assumes, like Eric Hobsbawm, that the Soviet era is well and truly over. Only now, it seems, can Rodchenko be appreciated as a specifically Russian master.
I don’t know enough about 20th century Russian photography to say anything sensible about this argument itself. But I will point out a formal characteristic: artifacts here are interpreted as belonging to a corpus of an individual photographer, and he himself is interpreted vis-a-vis his participation in historical cultural styles that are themselves entangled with each other: Communist style, Postcommunist style, and Russian style. Don’t ask me what distinguishes these three (except the fact that in Communist style, aesthetics and politics are apparently “married”), but each style is a lens through which to interpret certain photographers, and through them, their works. When making this kind of argument, the elements that make up a photograph (e.g., the article cites his subject matter, captions, and subtitles) are meaningful not in themselves, but rather as typical or atypical of a socio-cultural-historical movement–in this case, the tension between communism and Russian national identity during the twentieth century. The viewer is not foregrounded here–the viewer hardly exists at all! So again, we have a different lens for criticism by looking at designs and designers as symptoms of a particular era or cultural context.
I have one last example to share. This is from Colin Graham’s review of an exhibition by Irish photographer Bill Doyle (Source magazine):
Doyle’s gently photojournalistic eye looks at Dublin, over several decades, with an urban lyricism that tends to see the best even in the worst of the city. His Aran Islands are a spare, heroic, masculine place, and are treated with reverence.
Doyle’s street photography is recognisably in the tradition of European photography, though the sharpness and self-reflexivity of, say, Cartier-Bresson’s irony, is not readily apparent in Doyle’s work. Perhaps a more important influence on his work is early- to mid-twentieth century American urban photography in the vein of Strand or Walker Evans….
The approach here does not closely read individual photographs, nor does it particularly emphasize production technique. Instead, talks about a collection of photographs’ collective style. This style, though, itself is described less as a set of explicitly named formal features, and instead is described as the embodiments of individual photographers’ oeuvres. If you, like me, don’t know what Cartier-Bresson‘s irony looked like before you read that paragraph, you’re not any wiser after reading it, either. Here, Cartier-Bresson isn’t an historical individual, who was born in such-and-such a year; Cartier-Bresson is shorthand, the name of a style.
So in this type of critique, design is made by individual artists, and these artists participate in networks of other artists. The artists themselves embody (and give name to) certain styles. If you know those people and their styles, then these sentences probably are quite meaningful.
I also want to point out the opening sentence, which I’ll repeat here: “Doyle’s gently photojournalistic eye looks at Dublin, over several decades, with an urban lyricism that tends to see the best even in the worst of the city.” What exactly does “gently photojournalistic eye” mean? How about “urban lyricism”? What is the “best” and “worst” of the city? How can, as the next sentence asserts, an island be “masculine”? Taken literally, this sentence is nonsense. I certainly would not want those as coding categories for a visual analysis of a collection of Flickr images. Perhaps they could be operationalized in a way that would make such a study possible–but that operationalization is not offered here! Instead, what is offered is an educated, subjective response, and then a string of rich associations, metaphors, and comparisons, which to the right audience (in this case, I’m afraid I’m not really in it) is evocative and ultimately verbally expressive of the most subtle and nuanced aspects of this art.
Evocative descriptions are certainly a contribution to our understanding of these design and/or art works. And evocation can come from many places–the artifact itself and its internal language, the history of production and design choices, the genealogy of design styles, the interpretive process of a work’s community, and even the national origin, gender, race, or ethnicity of the designer, the critic, and/or the viewer. Their contribution is to expand our own capacity to appreciate the cultural, semantic, formal, emotional (etc) complexity of human interaction through and with art and design–and not just appreciate it, but begin to articulate it.
If we can’t, or don’t bother to, articulate these responses, how can we evaluate, teach, or improve design beyond easily measurable features, such as usability, and get at what we ultimately care about most, which is human experience, enlightenment, social bonding, identity and belonging, magnanimity, and empathy, to name a few?
Continue to Part 6.