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Wednesday 02|28|01
AIGA Looking Closer Conference

2/24 Thoughts on the AIGA: Looking Closer Conference
I have spent the last two days immersed in discussions and discourse around Graphic Design Criticism and History. It has been extremely stimulating and encouraging.

The event: Looking Closer: AIGA Conference on Design Criticism and History
The place: New York City

The range of speakers included Elvis Mitchell (New York Times film critic), Rick Poyner (former editor of Eye Magazine), Ellen Lupton (curator of the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum), and a lawyer specializing in copyright and fair use law.

The first day was spent discussing Criticism and its role in Design and the practice of Design Criticism. It was a very interesting range of discussions - much of it centered around the role of the critic and the need to practice critical analysis and critical journalism surrounding our practice. Many of the issues around this role revolve around the fact that many of the practicing design critics are peers to the designers whose work they critique or analyze. Much was said about the need to separate the act of analysis of the work from the person. I believe that much of the problem is that many of the people writing critically are also friends with the designers whose work they analyze. Perhaps the next wave of critics need to have a layer of removal from the center of desing practice. Or designers really need to grow up and realize that the work is not them and that criticism and analysis of the work doesn't reflect on them as a person and speaks only of the work. If we don't have crititcal analysis of our work, how are we ever expected to grow and stretch as designers?

I also think that not enough was said about the role the client and the context of use of the work. The role of the client in the creation of the work often bends and moves the work away from the designer's orginal intent - sometimes for the better and often for the worse. The contextual use of the work also needs to be taken into account. The analysis of the work in a vacuum leaves us wondering if the work was successful in its intended use. I think that often, the work and anlysis - critique - that we see in the journals and books, leave out the contextual use of the work or the end results of the work. I believe that that use and the gauge of its success to the client should be a factor in the discussion of the value of the work. I would think that a piece that is super successful in its original mission is more successful than a piece that may be brilliant to other designers but failed in its original mission.

Naomi Klein spoke about the concept of Brand Boomerang - a phenomenon of activists and artists and protesters using branding and corporate brand to expose the issues behind the product the brand stands for. The idea is that the current state of the brand - clean and homogenized and safe - does little to expose the realities behind how a company makes the products that we all covet. I think many people were questioning some of what she presented in terms of its context to the subject at hand - Design Criticism, but I think that she was illustrating an alternative way that people disect design and react to it, albeit with a slightly different agenda than a traditional design critic. In some ways this approach is more approachable, because it is an example of design reaching the average person and these "average" people in turn use design for their own agenda.

Michael Beirut spoke about the style of critical writing and how the words can be compelling and interesting and tell a story at the same time dissecting and analyzing the work. He illustrated his point be referencing a passage from the book listed below about the songs, the song writer and the singer - Sinatra. He read the passage, then played the song and I was left wanting to read more. The author of the book used a compelling style to tell the story that sucked me into the narrative.

One of the most interesting presentations of the day was by Steven Johnson. Johnson, one of the creators of Plastic and SlashDot, presented the concepts of the technology behind Plastic. The software uses algorythms and filtering to enable postings to rise to the top for its readers. The idea that the site uses the software and a collective policing model to filter quality writing and allow it to bubble to the top is extremely intriguing. As a User Experience designer and a person specifically interested in Community, I found this presentation most interesting. The core philosphy of the site should be able to transferred to larger more commercial sites with similar success. The moderating of the postings is spread around and earned by posters so that the contributors share in reponsibilites of the quality with the original site creators. This was the only presentation that specifically dealt with the internet.

Some reference material to look up from this day:
Deadline at Dawn - Judith Williamson [out of print]
No Logo - Naomi Klien
Arts & Letters Daily
Revolution in the Head - Ian MacDonald
Twice, NEST - printed journals
One Market Under God - Tom Frank
Sinatra! : The Song Is You : A Singer's Art

Coming tomorrow - commentary of today's events on Design History

Posted by erin at 09:15 AM | in Conference Review


So, two related distances: the one between critic and designer, and another between the designer and his work. Are critics afraid they're going to hurt their friends' feelings by saying 'bad things' about them and their work? If they are, such 'personal' critiques can be defused by wider understanding of theories about how society and creativity (think of ideas like 'originality') work, ala the individual's and group's doings are a soup of interior and exterior forces, so the blame/praise can be distributed as warranted. What use is criticism if it doesn't collide with a person's soul? How would we improve as individuals and as a profession? Rock stars, divas, and plebians, keep your wits about you! Hehe - everyone will be getting blame and praise they didn't even know they deserved, or knew existed.

Critics want to see what's happening with both the masses and the elite, the consumers and producers, so closeness or access is crucial for research, whether you're going up or down.

Also, since you're concerned about it, I thought I'd point out that the contextual use of design is at the heart of Naomi Klein's critique. Her argument is that 'goodness' should first be judged on the intentions of a design's use, not just on how well that use is met. A successful first degree murder is badder than an unsuccessful surprise birthday party.

Posted by aizan at July 25, 2003 05:40 AM

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