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Safe Words

June 20, 2016 / By Kenneth FitzGerald

Critiques are torture. Student or teacher—if you’re not instantly agreeing with that statement, it probably means you’re well into summer and the memory of year-end reviews has sufficiently faded. But excruciating as it may be for both sides, we return to the process. However, it’s as a necessary pain, not to relive the joy.

Devising the actual form of the activity and gauging how much is enough is an ongoing effort. One of my classroom tropes is to declare it’s like Christmas for me—all these gifts! Of course, that’s immediately undermined when I say more than “thank you!” and offer comments more detailed than “I love it!” upon presentation. Plus, in the face of uncertain and equivocal response from students, I’ve pressed critique points to an extent that makes me wince in memory (though likely not as much as the students flinched at the time). My students and I would have benefited from an agreed-upon cessation code.

To their credit students regularly support the idea of the necessity and importance of critique with little prompting. And if it doesn’t play out enthusiastically in an actual review, theory and actuality frequently mis-align. We can only hope that a desire to undergo substantive critique carries over into practice.

However, in professional practice, to invert the words of Frank Zappa, the torture never starts. In this realm, there’s also a constant hum of how designers should seek out and embrace critique. At last year’s AIGA national conference, the affinity session “How to Survive Critique” quickly drew an overflow crowd. Are we not modeling behavior too well or not well enough?

By nature and practical necessity, designers must compare, contrast, and evaluate. If designers prefer to work first and ask questions later there’s always the desire to be vocal about their activity. Substantive critique in word and voice remains elusive. Still, there’s a lot of chatter. Had design found a way around the dilemma of being philosophically in favor of critique but emotionally unenamored?

Endlessly inventive—and evasive—graphic design indulges in a way to talk about graphic design without really talking about graphic design. Across the discipline, a longstanding, robust substitute conversation proliferates. It gives the impression graphic design is under consideration. But, at best, it’s a synecdoche—a part standing in for the whole. The purpose is ultimately avoiding a full accounting. What is this substitute conversation? Typography.

Type, and discussions about type, has never been more widespread. While the claims of a mainstream awareness and appreciation of graphic design overall are still suspect, “font” is firmly in the popular lexicon (though technically misused).

Forums and discussions about typography continue to proliferate. Since typography is the unique aspect of graphic design practice (reading and opining on imagery can equally, if not more prominently, be found in photography) it’s reasonable to have a healthy compliment of font fora. As general interest journals on graphic design have shriveled or struggle, platforms to talk type are ever popular.

Discussions about typography have long served as microcosms or proxies for a broader designer discourse. And many well-known design writers and critics enter from typography and maintain it as a primary emphasis (e.g. Jeffery Keedy). And it’s also served as an ultimate bonding experience, no matter the sensibility: we can all disdain Comic Sans or curse Papyrus’ prevalence.

But more and more, the part is replacing the whole. It’s a curious inversion: a trees for the forest situation. If you’re looking for on line compendiums of graphic design writing, often you’ll find them under the umbrella of typography.

Of course, proliferation doesn’t equate to greater quality. Ironically in this context, type critique has suffered. According to Stephen Coles of Typographica: “With the aid of accessible tools and sales platforms, the rate of new fonts released increases every year; many of them are half-baked, landing on the shelf with gobs of hyperbolic promotion and no critical commentary.” As is often the case, typography discourse mirrors that of the wider design discussion.

Something needs to be reflected, however. Typography overall remains simpler and safer to discuss. The elements in play are more limited than in a critique of an artifact when type is just one component.

And emphasizing type and elevating its discussion draws attention away from the larger void in our discourse. This de-emphasis has led to revisionist histories of prominent critical voices. A major example is how Emigre magazine is often categorized as a journal of typography or primarily a showcase for their products.

Certainly, articles on type topics were regular components of the magazine, as were demonstrations of Zuzana Licko’s creations. But assigning the many critical writings set in her faces secondary status, or dismissing them entirely, when characterizing the magazine distorts the reality of the project. Tellingly, figures that downplay or erase Emigre’s content often were at odds with its critical stances.

Design’s concentration on type talk may actually be a sign of that long-anticipated wider, popular interest in design. As the PC brought an amateur influx into design making that chilled designers’ souls, the Internet has promulgated a vast, untrained criticism. Design is lamenting and searching for its authority in a pluralized discourse. One direction to reclaim authority is inward, into minutia.

This, by no means, suggests that discussing type or typography is inherently evasive or illegitimate. It’s a signal enthusiasm I celebrate in students; a marker that separates the design dilettante from the devotee. Letterforms are seductive, it can’t be denied. What also can’t be denied is that they can be strung together to form compelling ideas. That those concepts are about design seems only fitting, if not type’s utmost use.

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