The Small Crit

Essays by Steven Heller
854 words5 min read

Ever since its inception graphic design has been above criticism. Not because it is inherently uncriticizable, but because designers have neither a critical vocabulary, nor the means to address work in a public forum. The majority of trade magazines showcase rather than analyze individual design. And while informal crits (teacher to student and client to designer) are routinely carried out in the privacy of a classroom or office, substantive criticism is rarely presented before a larger audience, no less a broader public. Therefore the current issue of Critique, which probes the functional, formal, and aesthetic values of contemporary work, provides a service if only raising fundamental questions about the nature of, and the audience for, graphic design criticism. However, questions like what is criticism? What is worthy of criticism? And who are the beneficiaries? have yet to be satisfactorily answered.

The conventional graphic design competition is the closest thing the profession comes to having a critical mechanism. And yet a common lament about competitions (whether selected by a single judge or multi-person jury) is that they are beauty pageants — at best exercises in default criticism, which is like having no criticism at all. When the wheat is separated from the chaff what remains is consensus (at times compromise). Real questions of function, form, and aesthetics are subsumed beneath subjective judgments of like and dislike. Individual jurors may base their decisions on personal determinants, such as originality versus cliché, fine execution versus poor execution, hip versus unhip, and so on, but biases are never fully explained. Indeed the work included in competitions is presumably good, but no one really understands what constitutes bad work because there is no provision for comparison. A ‘best of show’ or gold medal may distinguish the exceptionally good from the merely good, but rationales for these distinctions usually go unexpressed. As a record, competitions are valuable, but as criticism inclusion and exclusion is not the answer.


Even with the increase in serious writing about design issues, the objects of design are not being astutely analyzed within, and definitely outside, the design community. The question, therefore, must be asked whether designers are ready for the scrutiny commonly given to art, architecture, and product design, not to mention books, film, theater, even cuisine. But more important, is graphic design weighty enough to invite and sustain serious criticism of the kind devoted to the above? Maybe graphic design is just so ephemeral that serious criticism has no place. Maybe graphic design simply doesn’t warrant public interest. After all, not all fields and professions are so examined.

Graphic design may indeed be a cultural force, as Rudy VanderLans once described it, nonetheless it is an invisible presence. Although recently the graphic design profession has had its share of coverage in the mass media, usually in the form of trendsetter profiles — i.e. Carson, Barron, Kalman, and Brody — ghettoized in the ‘style’ sections of newspapers and magazines, but never have individual works been singled out for critique in the press in the same manner as a current exhibition, film, or for that matter, advertising campaigns. But why should it? Graphic design is an arcane sub-specialty of the broader popular art. It frames ideas rather than initiates them. and follows the zeitgeist rather than ignites it. Even mainstream journalists with a penchant for graphic design complain that aside from the incidental story about momentary fashionable graphic conceits, it is truly difficult to pitch and get accepted a serious article on graphic design as a cultural force, no less get a critical perspective into print. Ironically, those disciplines that are critically reviewed in the mainstream in which type and image are active ingredients — such as books, records, film titles — graphic design is totally ignored as though it was a disposable wrapper.


Yet graphic design is a viable subject for practical and theoretical criticism. Viewed through different lenses, beauty pageant criteria are not the only applicable standards. Understanding what fails is just as important as knowing what is good. For what is good is not always successful, and this determination is what makes graphic design criticism interesting. Context, function, activity in the marketplace should be looked at when criticizing a particular graphic design. Models for this kind of criticism are in place: Advertising is a perfect example of how scrutiny of concept, aesthetics, and performance can be used to critique superior and inferior work. So what should be critiqued: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Anything that is in the public arena is appropriate and fair game. Of course this has implications for designers who are chilled by the cold eye. A viable design criticism, whether conducted in or out of the professional journals, demands that designers accept both favorable and unfavorable commentary.

And where this magazine provides a real service is its Critique feature, where three peers comment another’s work. It is not the answer, but it sets the stage and helps prepare designers for what this field needs the most: Astute critical commentators and penetrating criticism that informs as it inquires.

  • Art director of the New York Times Book Review and founder and co-chair of the School of Visual Arts, New York MFA/Design Program. He is the former editor of the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design and author or editor of over 80 books on popular culture, graphic design history, and political art. His most recent books include The Graphic Design Reader, Allworth Press, The Education of a Design Designer, Allworth Press, and Counter Culture: The Allure of Mini-Mannequins, Princeton Architectural Press. His forthcoming books include: From Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Progressive Magazine Design of the 20th Century, Phaidon Press, Cuba Style: Graphics From the Golden Age of Design, Princeton Architectural Press, and Graphic Humor: The Art of Graphic Wit, Allworth Press.