Critical Thinking

January 16th, 2013 by Mat Dolphin

A recent article by Michael Bierut is currently causing a bit of a stir over on Design Observer. The piece ponders various aspects of graphic design criticism and raises a number of questions about the merits and pitfalls of online commentators appointing themselves as a critics. Bierut warns this continual increase risks becoming simply a ‘spectator sport’ rather than a constructive and productive means for comment and debate.

The lengthy piece is as well written as one would expect from Bierut and the points it raises have attracted a number of comments. Design industry heavyweights such as Rick Poynor, Marian Bantjes, Armin Vit and Paula Scher have got involved to share their opinions on the matter.

One of the comments, from British design writer Rick Poynor questions whether designers are best positioned to critique design in the first place;

“Designers don’t on the whole make good or lasting critics because they quite understandably can’t achieve the necessary detachment from the profession and the milieu to maintain a truly critical stance.”

It’s an interesting point and does make sense. Designers may be great at designing and the working practices that go along with it, but does this skill put them in a good position to offer critical opinions on the work of others? Perhaps not. Obviously a clear and informed understanding of design is essential to anyone wishing to seriously comment on the successes or failures of a piece of work, but being a designer may make you far less suited to playing the critic role.

One thing that’s always difficult for designers to remember is the fact that it’s highly likely that they’re not the person the design is aimed at. They may, in fact, be pretty ignorant as to the mindset of the target audience. Forgetting this is easy and we’re as guilty of it as anyone. We see a new logo unveiled on a design website and instantly react to it based on personal preference and taste. Having this immediate first impression isn’t necessarily a bad thing (and is unavoidable regardless), but bearing in mind that the design in question may not need to appease us is something that we should always bear in mind.

It’s no surprise that a designer seeing something out of context, which isn’t intended to appeal to them in the first place, is not always impressed. This certainly doesn’t mean that the design is ‘wrong’.

Whether the work is genius or shit, you can be sure that the designer being critiqued has put more time and consideration into the intended audience than the commentator giving their opinion after having seen a logo for 10 seconds on a website. Without knowing the bigger picture, criticism can often be based on insufficient information and become somewhat nearsighted. Filling in the blanks on a brief you’ve never read is fine, providing you don’t convince yourself you have all the information.

In addition to this, designers have a tendency to focus on the minute details. This is completely understandable, as it’s part of our jobs and the details do matter. But there’s a lot more to a full and rounded critique of a branding project than simply dissecting the kerning or colour choice.

Social media and blogs are now ingratiated into the way designers discuss design. It can be a genuinely positive thing and it’s certainly not going anywhere. The speed and efficiency at which social media platforms report on new work is both informative and entertaining, but it does mean that no branding campaign will ever be allowed to fully roll out before it’s been over analysed by the design press and commented on by under-informed, self-appointed experts. The savaging of the new ITV identity is a classic example of designers critiquing / attacking in a particularly designer-y way, with many arguments based on seeing only a single logo.

As it turns out, having seen more of the work including the idents which were unveiled this week, we still think the work is a bit pants, but not being ITV viewers, it’s clearly not us they need to keep happy.

The point to all of this? You’re not going to be able to appease picky, opinionated designers who are viewing your work out of it’s intended context. So there really is no point in trying. What you can (and should) do, however, is aim to create consistently brilliant, original and appropriate design work for your clients and their audiences. Design which speaks to the right people in the right places in the right way.

Easier said than done, but most worthwhile things are.

Thanks for reading

Tom and Phil


2 Responses to “Critical Thinking”

  1. Great read as usual. Valid and noteworthy points that I’m sure we have all been guilty of!

    Comment by Gary Thornton — January 16th, 2013 @ 3:12 pm |
  2. Really interesting post about an area of design that’s not going away any time soon. Also, I think a lot of designers are overly critical because they can’t help but measure their own worth against a particular project (myself included!). Because of this there are no half-way measures; either we love it (but are envious we didn’t think of it) or hate it (we could of done so much better!).

    Comment by Dan Sweeney — January 23rd, 2013 @ 12:58 pm |