A few years ago, I served as a visiting critic at a small art college to review senior graphic design projects. I individually critiqued a group of self-determined, semester-long theses that showcased students’ interests and abilities. As is usually the case, all the projects demonstrated a level of merit in subject, concept and execution to sustain a reasonable, affirmative discussion.
Overall, it was a fairly routine, anodyne experience. The terms of engagement on both sides were familiar and rehearsed. I could make an overarching critique that as commendable as the work was, it hardly challenged my faculties or broke us out of what could be termed a Crit™. But to do so seems uncharitable. The work was agreeable and so was I. The students appeared satisfied and I felt I was giving the school its money’s worth.
However, one meeting broke the otherwise pleasant but rote exercise. It was for a project that was distinctly more ambitious in scope and execution than the others. This student offered an extensive identity system for an entire fantasy U.S. sports league. He had devised names for every team (there were at least a dozen) and designed hand-rendered logos for each. The level of detail was impressive, as was the execution. He had mastered the particular look of contemporary pro sports graphics while contriving his own distinct variant. It was undeniable big league design work. Any smart art director would punch his ticket.
And my subject knew it. His demeanor was one of quiet confidence, at times lapping up against but never spilling into cockiness. He wasn’t particularly fluent but he wasn’t inarticulate either. Every teacher or reviewer can attest that a facility with form often doesn’t translate to the spoken word. Many students and professionals insist they’re mutually exclusive talents. That the work does the talking was a major reason they got into design in the first place. In Crit™, students frequently seem as if it’s the first time they’ve encountered their own work. The nervous, inarticulate stammering better fit a scenario of a hostage situation, with subjects dragooned into explaining this graphic oddity under duress.
My reviewee didn’t have to say much and, especially, he didn’t feel he had to. It was all right there. The entirety of his commentary was describing his formal challenges—the stock ingredient of Crit™. The presentation only lacked a denouement, which was obviously for me to provide: the praise. In terms of practical, commercially relevant form—in other words, graphic design’s near exclusive concern—the piece was beyond reproach. I might fuss about details but I knew I’d be just making taste judgments. And I knew that he knew that, too.
What he didn’t know was, for me, a fatal flaw at the heart of his project—a concern that was obviously nowhere on his radar. My respectful silence during his prologue was due to me churning over how to phrase what was sure to be a blindsiding. When he wound down, I asked, as neutrally as I could, “Do you realize that you’re employing stereotypes some people could find offensive?”
At least two or three of the team names and their attendant images were recognized ethnic or racial slurs. They were also, unfortunately, prevalent identifiers in all sports from school teams, little leagues to majors. In virulence, they were along the lines of dubbing your team the “Redskins” and portraying a glowering Native American.
It was apparent there was no intentional malice on the student’s part. At the most, it demonstrated that he hadn’t done his research. Or that the research he’d done only involved exploring potential representations. This is fairly common amongst students, who even when directed to explore the meaning of terms they employ, and consider how their images might be “read”…still collect pictures solely for formal play.
For this student, these were just what teams were named. In our back and forth, he could, and did, cite examples. I allowed he was right—but it didn’t change matters. But what simultaneously relieved and surprised me was his ultimate plaint. I’d worried he might infer that I was calling him a racist. My points were all couched with earnest disclaimers to that effect—ones that fell on deaf ears. Not because he found them insincere but because they were irrelevant: “I thought this was going to be a graphic design critique.”
To claim his comment was a complete surprise would be disingenuous. I took the visiting critic gig with an agenda founded on expanding design’s single-minded absorption with matters of form and commercial viability. Here was just more evidence. I insisted to the student that this was a graphic design critique. He and designers everywhere were responsible for the meanings they introduced and perpetuated in society. He wasn’t convinced.
Our time up, the reviewee departed, radiating a polite yet palpable frustration. What was that about? I’d nullified his home run by throwing a flag for illegal man downfield. Often, it’s a struggle just to get students to concede to the necessity of criticism, even on their expected terms. Here I’d gone and turned it into a session of “Calvinball.”
Of course, design criticism is nowhere as anarchic as that. But it’s the perception. Such as it exists, criticism’s problem is its predictability. It’s determined by an ongoing, profession-centric perspective, constrained by Modernist rationales in a permanently postmodern reality (sorry, friends, by its nature, postmodernism can’t be over). Just as my student had patterned his suspect logos on extant examples, he’d modeled the profession’s wary attitude toward criticism.
There’s also a tangible sense in the field that criticism itself is not just unsportsmanlike but turning on your own team. It’s not so much traitorous (though some can’t rule that out) but undermining. Though the field celebrates design’s increasing public recognition, it will probably always feel embattled and unappreciated.
I’m always bemused by my students’ reflexive feelings towards, for instance, clients. Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority is yet to have a client, they can readily channel a seasoned professional’s jaundiced mindset about them. Of all the design lessons I want the profession to instill—like meeting deadlines—these are ones they effortlessly absorb.
Sharp critical commentary isn’t wholly absent in the field but it’s almost exclusively directed at design’s scrubs and role players. Going after the stars is out of bounds—as your teammates will alert to you immediately. Or, as I’ve found, the luminaries might contact you directly, asking, “Why do you hate me?” The particulars of the criticism are immaterial.
The details, of course, are what make a criticism salient. Criticism is impersonal but much of the resistance to it is very human. It’s awkward to call out your classmate or conferee. Though our roles may fluctuate—referee, coach, player-coach—design educators are in an ideal position to advance criticism. We do it by performing it in the classroom and on the field, along with continually articulating why it’s good for the sport. And, always, keeping up an exacting self-criticism. In the meantime, Go Design.
Kenneth FitzGerald is a member of the AIGA Design Educators Community Steering Committee and Professor of Art at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. More of his writing can be found at his site Ephemeral States, and book Volume: Writings on Graphic Design, Music, Art, and Culture (Princeton Architectural Press).