MFA in Design Criticism

The School of Visual Arts in New York is now offering an MFA in design criticism. Though the program is oriented primarily to traditional design areas–urban planning, product design, and fashion–I think what they are doing should also be something that people in HCI should care about. Pointing out the primary role of design in both culture and commerce, the site notes that writing about design is ubiquitous, and yet “there is a crucial need for more intellectually rigorous approaches to design criticism.”

As is typical for me, I have some quotes I want to share. I’ll start with a short blurb about the program from their Web site:

The School of Visual Arts MFA in Design Criticism – the first of its kind in the United States – seeks to cultivate design criticism as a discipline and contribute to public discourse with new writing and thinking that is imaginative, historically informed and socially accountable.

I find it important to see the notions of “rigor” (previous quote) juxtaposed with the key goals of the program: imaginative, historically informed, and socially accountable discourse. In the engineering and social science dominated field of HCI, “rigor” is typically tied to empirical evaluation, rather than critical thinking. Let us consider each of these three areas of value and their presence in HCI.

Social accountability is increasingly mainstream in HCI, from Scandinavian “political” approaches to HCI to the meteoric rise of sustainable interaction design (such as the work of my illustrious colleague, Eli Blevis). Imagination is something, IMO, that HCI is not particularly good at. I don’t mean to say it’s not there–there are lots of people in HCI with plenty of imagination. But does HCI have a stable way to think about, evaluate, or teach imagination with “rigor”? I think not. As to the third value–being historically informed–HCI is only now starting to confront its own historicity (e.g., Bodker’s essay on the three “waves” of HCI). What one rarely sees is any writing in the field that treats the history of a design artifact as historical, as having a history, a genealogy, or precursors. Yet this sensibility is absolutely basic to criticism, from literary and film criticism to design criticism.

OK, enough of that. This next quote is a treasure. It comes from Linda Cooper Bowen’s article, “Teaching Design Criticism,” which is in the May/June issue of Communication Arts magazine, which is how I found out about this new MFA program in the first place.

Aside from acquiring an appropriate critical vocabulary and a professional perspective, a professional critic needs to have a distinct individual voice, be passionate, witty, provocative, angry or possibly ambivalent, but always, unequivocally, well-informed. Critics need the courage of their convictions since they may express a point of view that is not popular…. Yes, one can be taught to write well, learn design speak and the history of every area of design, but cannot be trained to express why design matters culturally and socially. The primary role of critical writing is to create attention to areas of design that are commonly accepted without question.

There’s a lot going on here, but I want to cut right down to the core. In this formulation, the critic is unique. She or he is not representative of the user. She or he is not performing a replicable and established research methodology. Instead, the critic is someone with a unique voice and a special capacity to call attention to details that are simultaneously overlooked and that also get right at the sociocultural significance of the design. Critics offer an individual point of view; this individual perspective is not a liability and critics don’t attempt to strip it away in the name of objectivity. And far from being dispassionate, they are passionate, angry, ambivalent. The point of view is the eyes through which the critic sees (here I’m echoing Gadamer a bit). This point of view can be “unpopular,” which again means that the critic is not a barometer or predictor of user or public satisfaction, but someone who gets at something deeper and more significant than the users themselves are aware of. And for all that, it can be done with rigor.

The last quote, also from Bowen’s article, is from Alice Twemlow, chair of the program. It expands on the significance of history in design criticism.

It is somehow overlooked that one needs to know that there is a whole history that led up to this point in … design. When I am looking for good critics I am looking for good historical writers. We will be devoting 30 weeks of the first year to design history classes.

Of course, 30 weeks, for those readers who are safely out of academia, is an entire academic year. I’ll let this last quote speak for itself.

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