Interaction Criticism: How to Do It, Part 6

Four Directions in Academic Design Criticism

In Part 5 of this series (which more or less begins here), I sampled writings about designs from various design magazines to show examples of ways that people write about design. In it, I showed that people actually talk about design in some very diverse ways, and yet each of these ways was accepted and even used in more or less similar ways. For example, some people talk about the internal language of a design, while others talk about the design as an instance of a movement (e.g., modernism), while others describe the design’s effect on the user-viewer-reader. In saying this, I am repeating an idea developed in a paper presented this year at alt.chi that I wrote with Shaowen Bardzell, “Interaction Criticism: A Proposal and Framework for a New Discipline of HCI.” In it, we argued that criticism typically derives from one or more of the following core directions:

  • Designer-Centered Criticism: Explaining a design as a product of its creator.
  • Artifact-Centered Criticism: Explaining a design as possessing its own “internal language” or aesthetic/functional value, and explicating what that artifact means (in itself)
  • User-Centered Criticism: Explaining a design as a prompt that causes certain effects in the mind or experience of the user
  • Sociocultural-Centered Criticism: Explaining a design as a part of a broader sociocultural movement, such as “bauhaus” or “Soviet” design

What I’d like to do in this post is show some examples of this kind of criticism in “serious” design discourse, by which I mean academic essays (as opposed to the magazine reviews in Part 5). As always, a goal of this entire series of posts is to demonstrate that interaction criticism offers a point of view, a type of insight, a series of methods, and (more fundamentally) an epistemological stance that differs from a scientific one. I do not here need to privilege a scientific versus critical or “designerly” stance over the other. It is sufficient to show that they have different methods, ends, and standards of rigor. The historically scientific HCI community is now openly seeking more designerly ways of knowing, and I am simply responding to that request.

The Designer-Centric Approach

I have approached this topic in the past by looking at theories about professionals/designers, especially the work of Donald Shön and those who have developed his line of thinking in design, such as (full disclosure: my program director) Erik Stolterman. But I want to get away from theory and show some examples. So here I will talk about an essay by Michael Bierut on one of his mentors and former employers, Massimo Vignelli, entitled, “Massimo Vignelli’s Pencil.” As before, I will string some quotes together for you and then talk a little about them afterward:

Unlike many designers, he didn’t mind being imitated. On the contrary, he prided himself on creating solutions that could be replicated, systems that were so foolproof anyone could do them…. [He seemed to want to] enlist an army of disciples to design the world in his image….

[He was] [a]lways optimistic, never cynical…. Even creating something as simple as a business card … would require sketch after sketch as Massimo tried to coax a few trusted elements and a famously limited palette of typefaces into some surprising new form….

[His singular] passion is what many of Vignelli’s critics miss when they group him with a generation of designers dedicated to a sterile brand of modernism. To be sure, he always argued for functionalism and clarity. But the rationalism of modernism requires absolute self-control…. Instead, Massimo’s signature gestures–the expressionistic black stripes in the print work, the surreal contrasts of scale in the architecture, the inevitable intrusion of sensuality in the product design–were utterly intuitive, almost indulgent, and clearly as impossible for him to resist as breathing.

[Years later, the author revisits Vignelli’s studio, after Vignelli has left it, and decided to leave a note for him, on Vignelli’s desk, and using the master’s signature pencil.] I picked up the pencil to leave a note and the familiarity of the sensation shocked me: I had switched to easier to find (and easier to lose) cheap black pens a long time ago. And when I looked at what I had written, I noticed something funny about the handwriting. It looked just like Massimo’s.

This is a beautiful essay and I get goosebumps just retyping its closing words! What a lovely tribute! But that’s not my purpose here.

I’d like to say a few things about the rhetoric of this piece. It talks about Vignelli as a designer, saying a few things about his philosophy and personal style. It continues to talk about how he fit into the dominant design stylistic movements of his age (the business about modernism), the particular characteristics of his work (his expressive indulgence), and how he has affected the author as someone familiar with his work. In short, this essay hits on all four points of design.

I call this designer-centered criticism, though, because the designer trascends the other three categories. Yes, you can call him a modernist, the author writes, but he’s bigger than modernism; indeed, Vignelli transcends modernism exactly where modernism is itself weak. The designer stands as a critique to all of modernism. You can also talk about the particular features of his design–the expressive lines, the sensuality of its scale–but these are just signifiers of the designer behind them. He is not defined by these features; he, in his personality, biography, and beliefs, causes and defines them. Finally, the author goes so far as to suggest that he, and by implication his design work, is derivative of his former master. In other words, Vignelli didn’t merely influence the author; the designer gave the author his very voice, and the authors works are in some important sense also Vignelli’s.

Artifact-Centered Criticism

Here, I want to talk about a pretty well known essay in design circles: Richard Buchanon‘s “Declaration by Design: Rhetoric, Argument, and Demonstration in Design Practice,” originally written in 1985, and (sadly) only now having a chance to get its message into HCI. I cannot do this article justice here, because it features a multilayered argument about technology and design that is rich beyond what I can do in few paragraphs. So I will stick to its core argument: design is a form of rhetoric.

[R]hetoric is an art of shaping society, changing the course of individuals and communities, and setting patterns for new action…. The primary obstacle to [understanding the design of technology as rhetoric] is the belief that technology is essentially part of science, following all of the same necessities as nature and scientific reasoning. If this is true, technology cannot be part of design rhetoric, except as a preformed message to be decorated and passively transmitted…. However, if technology is in some fundamental sense concerned with the probably rather than the necessary–with the contingencies of practical use and action, rather than the certainties of scientific principle–then it becomes rhetorical in a startling fashion. It becomes an art of deliberation about the issues of practical action.

[Buchanan moves onto the nature of the design argument:] the designer [is] a speaker who fashions a world, however small or large, and invites others to share in it…. This article suggests that the designer, instead of simply making an object or a thing, is actually creating a persuasive argument that comes to life whenever a user considers or uses a product as a means to some end.

In a lengthy and well illustrated and exemplified argument that follows, Buchanan says that a design argument involves “the interrelated qualities of technological reasoning, character, and emotion, all of which provide the substance and form of design communication.” I paraphrase what he means by each of these below. (Incidentally, Buchanan’s division here is adopted fairly literally from Aristotle’s Rhetoric, which comforts me in its familiarity and authority, and concerns me in its, um, not-exactly-up-to-dateness.)

Technological reasoning is both the “how it actually works” of a design (from a spoon to a coffee grinder) to how the design communicates how it works (reveals, obfuscates, simplifies, metaphorically suggests, pseudo-reveals, etc.). A steering wheel gives me a sense of how a car turns, while the meaning of the “Publish” button on this blog software has a more distant relation to what happens behind the scenes when I click it.

Character reflects the designer, or more precisely, how the designer wants to appear in the design. Whether a design is playful, modest, utilitarian, ostentatious, user-friendly, avant-garde, etc., all get at its character. The difference between, say, a BMW and a Volkswagon is not merely a matter of engineering (the technological reasoning), but also the character the cars project on us.

Emotion (or pathos) refers to the way that a design connects to its user. Buchanan here emphasizes movement and lines and the way they beckon a user to touch, interact with, and relate to designs. He explicitly rejects exploitative or “coercive” emotion–such as (these are my examples) pictures of grotesque human corpses as a technique for engaging in the abortion or Iraq war debates. Instead, good designs serve practical human life in emotionally engaging and desirable ways.

Stepping back and looking at Buchanan’s argument, he is focusing entirely on design artifacts, claiming that embedded in these artifacts is an internal language that makes an argument to users to partake in its vision of practical life. Certainly, this reflects the intentions of the designer; the sociocultural contexts of design, distribution, and use; and the interpretation and appropriation of the design by its user. But all of these are secondary, in some important sense embedded in and a consequence of the design argument presented by the artifact itself.

User-Centric Approaches

I wrote quite a bit about this in Part 5 of this series. Indeed, I had something of a personal breakthrough, in distinguishing between empirical, historical, actual, flesh-and-blood people as “users,” and what I think I’ll call the “hermeneutic user,” that is, the “user” as a discursive construct created by the critic as a way to explore ways that humans deeply and subjectively respond to the experience of interacting with a design. This hermeneutic user is tied to notions of the “reader” from semiotics, which argues in some sense that a text not only contains “codes” that provide access to its content, but also “codes” that tell one how to be that text’s ideal reader.

This is akin to the approach taken by Ann C. Tyler in “Shaping Belief: The Role of Audience in Visual Communication.” She begins the piece by saying that she is continuing the rhetoric approach of Buchanan (described just above), but to me, she actually takes it in a different direction. Her essay emphasizes the interpretive process of the viewer of several posters. For example, she describes two 1972 airline travel posters, promoting travel to Asia.

The PanAm images are architectural in nature: the terraced land [of gardens in Bali] forms a contrasting figure/ground pattern; the two people standing with their backs to the audience become shapes against the sky. People and land become objects of beauty. Distanced from the scene through perspective and the lack of any reference back to the viewer, the audience thus remains “outside” a beautiful, tranquil scene. Landscape and people are frozen in time for the audience to view as they choose–as in a museum of artifacts. Both posters promise the audience an esthetic, non-participatory experience if they travel to these distant lands.

The rhythm of Tyler’s rhetoric is like that of a tide coming in. Back-and-forth it goes between talking about objective features of the artifact and the response in the viewer. But with each back and forth, it inches ever toward the meaning in the interpretation of the viewer. As I asked in the previous post, just who is this viewer? It is the hermeneutic viewer; she is not talking about a survey of actual viewers but is rather using a hypothetical viewer as a strategy to explicate what the artifacts mean in the phenomenal world of humans that see these posters (as opposed to the posters in-themselves).

Sociocultural-Centered Criticism

This last category is perhaps the broadest. Whereas designer-centered criticism is often biographic, and artifact- and user-centered criticism are often rhetorical or semiotic, sociocultural-centered criticism borrows much from cultural studies, including art criticism, literary criticism, Marxism, feminism, new historicism, and a host of others.

For this section, I’ll talk about an essay written by Tony Fry, “A Geography of Power: Design History and Marginality.” He begins the essay with a fairly theory-heavy frame:

Design history is understood here as various and competing explanatory models of design. As with other emergent and established forms of institutionalized knowledge and practice, it exists in and produces conditions of marginality. The aim of this paper is to explore such conditions in the context of the rise of design in Australia.

It is not particularly uncommon for sociocultural-centered design criticism to be theory-heavy, given the vastness and sheer complexity of its subject. Obviously, the scope of the semantics of a juicer arm and the that of the entire history and institutionalization of design in Australia are on a different scale. And, to be fair, this article of all of the ones I include in this post is the most theoretical. But it does contain sections of criticism. Here is one of them:

Design, even prior to the management of a design profession, intervened to undercut the formation of a modern Australia as a discordant bricolage. Appropriation [of imported design materials and processes from the United States and Europe] was organized but not within a systemic plan. There was neither total chaos nor directed order but a pragmatic falling together of fragments. The disparate arrival of Ford [Motor Company] and Fordism [the industrial assembly line] is one contained example of this history.

The first Ford car was brought to Australia in 1904. Commercial importing began in 1909 with the Model T. As sales increased, an ad hoc system of distribution became locally established. Because of corrupt and profiteering practices that grew up around this network, the Ford company refused to trade with it and set up its own local administrative and distribution system instead. Ford Australia was formed in 1925. Fordism, however, was an industrial system of mass production based on the in-line assembly of interchangeable parts, arrived in Australia a year earlier. A Sydney-based manufacturer of compressers introduced such a method to its factory in 1924…. Product design and advertised image (the symbolic forms) were drawn from the USA. Here, then, was a mixture of appropriation and imposition, order, disunity, and disorder, and the object (the car, its system of production and distribution, and its symbolic form) as a sign of modernity. All of this adds up to one example of a local sign of a particular conjuncture and paradigm of modernity–“Americanism and Fordism” in Australia.

In this passage, we are understanding design from the twin lenses of theory and history, focusing on the twenty year period in which Ford and Fordism–which had emerged practically simultaneously in the United States–spills into Australia in non-systematic, non-random ways. The historical circumstances, in this passage, appear to overwhelm the design. In other words, the intentions of any individual designers are so tiny that they don’t even register here. The product semantics of the cars and their reception by Australians are also dwarfed by the sheer cultural force of the assembly line and the Model T Ford.


I hope through these examples my readers, in particular those with scientific backgrounds who are hoping to appropriate more “designerly ways of knowing” (a phrase I keep using that also is the title of a wonderful book), are able to see how criticism both differs from science and yet has its own rigor. Obviously, Tony Fry had to master his history before he could develop his theory and criticism of Australian design history. Buchanan knew his Aristotle and yet had the intellectual creativity to appropriate it for design and make it mean something (not only is his essay great for anyone interested in design, but he also leverages it to offer a compelling argument for designerly approaches to technology). Tyler’s comfortable mastery of rhetoric and semiotics, though not explicitly shoved down the reader’s throat, is evident in her incisive ability to apply it so fruitfully in her interpretations of graphic designs. And Bierut’s reflective and articulate ability to tease out what made both his master’s and his own creative sensibilities tick is a model for anyone who wants to understand how designers analyze creativity, a rich mix of personal psychology, philosophy, anecdote, taste, and embodied gesture.

What started as a blog post is turning into a paper. I need to wind this down. I will post some readings here just to conclude it, but it may be a week to ten days before that happens. But the main argument, and my core purpose for beginning this, is, for better or worse, finished here. Thanks for bearing with its length and please share critical comments, because its next iteration will be peer reviewed! (One must make a case for tenure, after all!)

Some people can’t get enough! Part 7 is here. It contains an annotated and heavily commented bibliography.


  1. christian

    In our ever-evolving quest to understand the interplay between empirical science and things like criticism, i’ll throw the following into the mix:

    Would an overly-simplified but perhaps still productive way to describe criticism be to say that, where empirical science uses:

    observation=>experiment =>output=>review

    as the mechanism through which insights are produced, criticism instead substitutes the brain of the critic in place of the experiment, as follows:

    observation=>critic’s brain=>output=>review?

    Here i am using the word “observation” in the extremely broad sense of taking in information through visual, sensory, experiential, etc. means.

    This of course has some pretty large implications in terms of how the “review” is done for each, but the overall process seems to me seems to be functionally (though of course not formally or epistemologically) the same. In both cases, there is some sort of data being fed into the experiment or brain. For science, the data is going into the experiment. For criticism, the “data” is going into the head of the critic. From there, both do their thing and produce some sort of outcome. In both cases, the outcome is then subject to the rules of intersubjective verifiability (even with statistics!) as the community begins to review the output – ideally using the tools appropriate to the respective process.

  2. jeffreybardzell

    I don’t have any practical problem with thinking of it this way. As a philosophical phinickiness, I would point out, though, that epistemologically you have separated the critic’s brain from observation, as if the observation happens first in the senses, is transmitted to, and then processed by, the brain. This epistemology probably does fairly describe scientific ways of knowing, but critical modes would instead argue that observation itself is conditioned by (and conditions) the activity of the critic. Put more colloquially, in science, it’s correctly seeing what’s there (waiting to be discovered), while in critique it is in choosing what to look at in the first place.

    An interesting and relevant side note is that I never, ever intellectually used the word “data” till I came into the social sciences. We simply don’t have that concept at all in literary studies, though it is easy to see how it *could* be applied (e.g., to “the text itself”). But while critics rely on “evidence,” that’s not the same as “data.” The difference, I guess, is that evidence only signifies as part of an argument, whereas data “just is.” In other words, in science, data is treated as given (obviously, rigorous vetting is in place to ensure the validity of that claim), and then “valid” analysis strategies are applied to it to generate valid output. But literary or aesthetic evidence is usually something only the critic notices, not because the critic has perceptual super powers, but rather because evidence is only significant inasmuch as it contributes to a certain interpretation, and the interpretation begins from the critic, who then must argue that the interpretation and marshalling of evidence are both reasonable. Note the criterion of reasonability, rather than truth. Of course, “reasonable” seems to be (and is) a lower bar than “truth”, but it also must be defended much more philosophically.

    As a result, “rigor” is located in different parts of the process in the sciences versus the humanities. In the sciences, one generally produces a data set and offers an interpretation. Of the two, the former seems (to me at least) to be treated with much greater importance. The interpretation is formulaic, in the sense that it rests on a formal analysis guided by “proven” (i.e., formalized and stable) methodologies, such as statistical tests. In the humanities, the interpretation is what we care about. Any idiot can marshal evidence from a text (hence the long tradition of people using Biblical quotations to support every possible point of view in an argument). The hard part is to elaborate a reasonable interpretation that meets the standards of philosophical rigor (e.g., being able to withstand a challenge from someone confronting you with any quote taken from anywhere in the text, or any other related text).

    So my concern with formulations like yours is not that *I* have a problem with them, but rather that if I presented my work in that epistemological frame that a scientist not familiar with humanist rigor might misinterpret and suggest that my work simply lacks rigor. Indeed, I have had papers rejected precisely on these grounds, whereas rhetorical shifts that suggest different epistemologies get the same work accepted.

    The shorthand only works if one knows it is shorthand.

  3. jeffreybardzell

    Side note: This is *of course* an overgeneralization, schematized in order to make the distinctions more visible. But it is worthwhile, because I fell into many of these traps, and at different parts of my career I believed them.

    There were times (as a grad student) when I thought social science lacked rigor because its interpretation seemed wooden and unimaginative to me.

    Later, I started to suspect that I myself lacked rigor, because I could not prove that the data I was using were valid.

    Only confronting paper rejections, reflecting on my work and others’, and participating in scholarly dialogue with an open mind has helped me begin to have clarity on these issues. One lessen to be learned is that epistemological bigotry–the assumption that the methodology you use is the only one with rigor–is, in the end, just bigotry. Discovering the value in others’ writings, rather than spotting what you perceive to be its formal deficiency, is a mark of a mature scholar. (And according to Erik Stolterman, seldom found in Ph.D. students or assistant professors–which rules both of us out!)


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