Spring 1995

After dark I’m a design critic

Looking Closer: Critical Writings on Graphic Design

Edited by Michael Bierut, William Drenttel, Steven Heller and D. K. Holland
Allworth Press/ AIGA

In the last decade, a body of graphic design criticism has begun to take shape. The anthology Looking Closer: Critical Writings on Graphic Design, edited by Michael Bierut, William Drenttel, Steven Heller and D. K. Holland, includes selected texts on design and typography taken from American publications such as Print, Emigre, I.D. and the AIGA Journal, as well as from books, exhibition catalogues and Eye. As the title suggests, Looking Closer gives us the opportunity to reappraise and compare essays and critical accounts of the burgeoning design field, and through this process of re-evaluation to question the place of design criticism and its usefulness as an analytical tool.

In his introduction, Steven Heller states that more than ‘200 articles from a dozen publications were originally considered’. Only 48 essays made the final cut, representing the disparate viewpoints of 42 writers, designers and educators. The result is that we no longer have to thumb frantically through back issues of magazines and professional journals searching for seminal essays such as Tibor Kalman, J. Abbott Miller and Karrie Jacobs’ critical account of graphic design history, ‘Good History/Bad History’, or Frances Butler’s ‘Reading Outside the Grid: Designers and Society’.

What remains noticeably absent from Heller’s introduction, however, is an adequate explanation of the criteria used for the editors’ final selections. With any anthology of critical essays, the material that’s included should reflect the editors’ viewpoint, but although Heller writes that Looking Closer is a ‘status report on contemporary design as well as a keen look at contemporary design criticism’, the reasons behind the inclusion or ‘sampling’ of essays are never clear. Are the essays considered influential contributions to an ever-evolving series of debates within the graphic design profession? Or have they been selected to represent the wide range of views in America?

What is also left unclear is the book’s intended audience. If it is directed primarily towards graphic design students, then a high proportion of its readers will be unfamiliar with many of the essays included, and some guidance is needed to show them how the anthology might be used. Are the essays meant as prompts for seminar discussions, and in generating debate, or as inspiration for design work? Within this context, the absence of imagery in Looking Closer is all the more surprising. The editors clearly assume their audience’s familiarity with the subject matter, the imagery used in conjunction with the original texts and the context of the publications in which they first appeared. Ellen Lupton’s essay, ‘Low and High: Design in Everyday Life’, for example, may well stand on its own but its explanation of the term ‘vernacular’ is greatly enhanced by the photographs which originally accompanied it in Eye no. 7 vol. 2. Only for an informed audience can the texts exist independently, without illustrations. Does the abstraction of this anthology’s approach suggest a new path for graphic design criticism?

Heller probes for an acceptable definition of graphic design criticism, explaining that it is still in its early developmental stages and that the ‘rough edges have not been smoothed out’. The selection of essays included in Looking Closer suggests that criticism is about promoting methodological variety. Chuck Byrne and Martha Witte investigate the implications of the complex theoretical constructs of Derrida’s deconstruction for graphic design, while Paula Scher gives a personal account of her views as a woman in the design profession. The anthology structure allows direct comparisons between such design methodologies, writing styles and theoretical and historical constructs, and provides multi-perspective accounts of contemporary debates and issues.

Appropriately, Looking Closer is divided into sections that reflect the general categories of design issues: ‘Modernism and its Malcontents’, ‘Languages and Dialects’, ‘Surface and Style’, ‘Form Follows Function’, ‘Sex, Lies and Stereotypes’ and ‘In the End, It’s Education’. Essays are included which are intentionally thought-provoking and which encourage designers to question their own positions within the context of certain debates. Gerard Unger’s ‘Legible?’ reflects the debate surrounding legibility in typography, for example, while Jeffery Keedy’s ‘I Like the Vernacular … Not’ questions the appropriation of the vernacular style. These essays appear alongside more prosaic and individualistic writings such as Massimo Vignelli’s Modernist stance in ‘Long Live Modernism’ and Jon Barnbrook’s detailed rationale of his work in ‘Typeface Designs and Text’.

Despite the inclusion of texts by recognised historians and design theorists such as Philip Meggs, Frances Butler and Sharon Helmer Poggenpohl, Looking Closer presents itself as a celebration of writing extracted from the ‘popular’ design press. You will not find essays from ‘academic’ journals such as Design Issues, Visible Language or the Information Design Journal.  Positioning graphic design criticism in academia is one way of formalising the graphic design profession – academia provides a ‘legitimate’ forum for furthering and exploring issues of both commercial and non-commercial nature – but Heller appears to argue instead for an independent ‘industry’ of graphic design criticism rooted in journalism. He states vehemently that ‘the ability to earn money is … key to the development of healthy criticism’. He does not elaborate, fortunately or unfortunately, and thereby raises more questions that can be addressed in this review.

As well as Vignelli, Kalman, Keedy and Scher, other contributors to Looking Closer include Milton Glaser, Dan Friedman, Lorraine Wild, Leo Lionni and Katherine McCoy – all of whom are practitioners, intimately familiar with the pragmatics of typography and design. Heller argues that ‘most [graphic design critics] are self-taught, and engage in critical writing as a sideline to their design or teaching practices’.  The practitioner / critic presents the problem of objectivity. It is important that designers provide not just informed criticism of the design progression, but also descriptions of their own work and methodologies, and Heller is right to argue for independent criticism.

He hazards a definition of the design critic but soon finds himself see-sawing between the standards of design academia and design journalism. He ponders which sphere is appropriate for the design critic, eventually preferring the journalistic, and calls on designers to support professional design critics. If the design profession fails to do so, he says, it risks ‘noodling its own navel’.

Despite such unresolved arguments, Looking Closer remains an important book which seeks to emphasise the need for graphic design criticism. It presents a useful ‘report’ on the current condition of design criticism and highlights the demand for a new set of voices and critical platforms. These may well be found in viewpoints and methodologies taken from outside the design profession, such as those in cognate disciplines including sociology and psychology, or even from the related academic areas of cultural studies and design history. Let us hope that the next generation of design anthologies provides us with new voices and fresh material.

Teal Triggs, senior lecturer, Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication, London

First published in Eye no. 16 vol. 4, 1995

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.


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