Criticism = Design = Criticism

Here are some juicy quotes by French New Wave filmmaker and critic Godard on the relationship between criticism and filmmaking.

As a critic, I already thought of myself as a filmmaker. Today [1962, after he started directing films] I still consider myself a critic, and in a sense, I’m even more of one than before. Instead of writing criticism, I make a film, but that includes a critical dimension. I consider myself an essayist, producing essays in the form of novels or novels in the form of essays: only instead of writing, I film them.

All of us at Cahiers [Cahiers du Cinéma, a film magazine especially important in the 1950s] thought of ourselves as future directors. Frequenting cine clubs and the Cinémathèque was already a way of thinking cinema and writing about cinema. Writing was already a way of making films, for the difference between writing and directing is quantitative not qualitative.

Godard’s influence on film is undeniable, but he has also seen his share of controversy. Be that as it may, he is hardly alone in the sentiment that criticism and artistic/design activity are two sides of the same coin. One of the greatest literary critics of the nineteenth century was also one of its greatest poets: Samuel Taylor Coleridge (who wrote “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and whose criticism coined the phrase, “willing suspension of disbelief”). Epic poetry is seen as essentially a critical endeavor since Virgil’s Aeneid, which “rewrote” Homeric epic for Augustan Rome; likewise, Ovid, Statius, Dante, Milton, and Joyce likewise rewrote Virgil and their epic forebears for their own national literatures (ancient Roman, late Roman, medieval Italian, Renaissance English, and modern Irish, respectively). Legendary critic Harold Bloom developed an entire theory, dubbed the “anxiety of influence,” and developed in two books, in which he argues that poets’ relationships with their literary precursors–and their need (a psychoanalytic “anxiety”) to distinguish themselves from them–shapes their writing.

The criticism/design argument has two parts:

  • Criticism is design, because the critic, in saying how things should be made, or by assigning the criteria by which things should be judged (which has direct and strong implications for how things should be made), is acting like a filmmaker or scriptwriter.
  • Design is criticism, because the designer, in implementing the particulars of a design, implicitly states that this is how it should be done, and to make this (material) argument, the designer necessarily references and critiques earlier designs in similar categories.

(Incidentally, I have some personal misgivings about this, especially the first bullet, since it seems to suggest a design is mentally preconceived and later materially implemented, which in turn seems to take away the significance of the artist’s or designer’s engagement with materials. Godard himself famously avoided this problem by writing actor dialogue the day of the shoot, which put the actors in the interesting position of not knowing their own characters’ story arcs.)

Here is another quote making a similar argument, from Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, and it actually pulls material into the equation:

Japanese philosophy … compares poorly with the brilliantly organized constructions of Western philosophy and criticism. On the other hand, the Japanese are extremely accomplished at interpreting the world by means of concrete things, as is evident from Japan’s rich tradition of exploring reality by arranging and applying objects in meaningful and unique ways. To me, the tea room is this mode of analysis in its ultimate form; the tea ceremony is the act of analysis itself.

I build tea rooms to critique the use of concrete as a building material.

That last line is quite thought-provoking, isn’t it?

But there is a point to sharing these quotes, beyond curatorial interest. The work of artists and designers is shaped by the works of earlier (precursor, to use Bloom’s phrase) artists and designers. So much is obvious. But what is more important here is the fact that this shaping is broadly considered a critical activity. Influence isn’t a simple matter of impression, as if a little bit of Italian neo-realism was rubber stamped onto Godard and now that influence is just “there.” Rather, the influence is there because of his thoughtful engagement with the works of Italian neo-realism, his careful study of the relationships between their formal techniques, their meanings, and their social contexts. To this analysis he fused a similar engagement–his “readings” of Hollywood films. In many important ways, Godard’s distinctive style is his thoughtful juxtaposition of the “serious” Italian art film and the Hollywood pulp film.

And his films are, literally and materially, a thoughtful response to the earlier films. A video essay on the second disc of the Criterion Collection edition of Breathless shows, for example, side-by-side how a scene in Godard literally reworks a scene from an earlier film, but in a way that sports with and extends its meanings. In a way, Godard creates a dialogue between himself and his Italian and American precursors (situated within a critical rejection of his French precursors). This dialogue features both agreement and resistance–and that is the sense that the works of the artist or designer are shaped by external encounters (with earlier artists or with materials–such as concrete or English iambic quatrameter). Is this so different from the worthwhile innovation that happens on YouTube?

Innovations are made possible through these encounters, and indeed literary and art histories are often the tracings of them over large periods of time and national boundaries. Of course, they are not the only source of innovation. But they have proven to be a powerful source of some of the most celebrated innovations in human history. As the notion of “designerly ways of knowing” continues to enter HCI (borrowing a phrase from Nigel Cross), I want to stress that criticism = design = criticism is one of those ways of knowing. Interaction designers should practice it, and interaction design educators should teach it.


  1. Minwei

    I definitely agree with your opinion on criticism=design=criticism. As a student, I should keep that in mind.

  2. David Locke

    Criticism=art, so if you are designing art, you get criticism. If you design in the engineering sense, you do not get criticism you get mathematical optimizations. But, you can always turn things into art by criticizing them. You might get a population to belive in the critical framework. If you manage that, you’ve created a culture, because others will not pay any attention to your critical framework. And, you will want to enculture them, as per your later post.

    Consider that the anthropology-based advertising people that rushed into web design. If you were a programmer before the web, you could do web programming, but getting hired to do web design, regardless of your capability was impossible, because the art culture rejected the tech culture, so they remained separate for a very long time.

    Rosfield’s Information Architecture book goes very far to say that only people like him can do IA. This cultural exclusion created a market for people who focused their skills on IA. IA is much more indigenous. There was IA before the web. There was information design before the web. Thesd days you have graphics designers saying that they create information design, but it doesn’t meet the criteria laid out by Worman so long ago. Tufte is a critic, not a practitioner. But, even his criteria a missed by the neuvo ID practitioners.

    When the ID organization tried to define ID for EU tax purposes, they had to focus on the esthetic, rather than fitness for use. So it is about art, and it has a critical framework, which by in large means that it is just whatever you say it is.

    Everyone designs. Regardless of criticism.


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