The Absence of Objects in Design Criticism

In the past two decades, there has been an ever-widening effort to develop forms of graphic design criticism. There are new programs, new writers, new curators, and unusual vehicles and formats.

To someone like me, who studied graphic design before that, it is an unbelievable profusion. A sign of that abundance is that most of the discussion pivoted from making design criticism possible to what constitutes “real” design criticism – in contrast with superficial, crude, uninformed, unethical, amateurish criticism. In other words, the object of much of this new criticism seems to be criticism itself. 

Any critical endeavor entails some degree of self-reflexivity, but these ruminations seem all-encompassing in the case of design. It is relatively rare to find graphic design criticism centered on objects. Even practice-based modes of criticism, such as critical design, tend to use objects as vehicles of reflection about more significant societal issues or design’s professional, institutional or political problems, and not so much as reflections on objects themselves.

This shortage of object-centered criticism is perhaps best demonstrated by the brilliant peculiarity of Revue-Faire magazine. Each issue focuses on a single object – most often, a literal object, sometimes only in an epistemological sense (an author, a trend, or a concept). It is such a novel critical concept: instead of nagging about the sorry state of design criticism or the design profession, just simply doing it! Choose an object and write about it.

It makes a lot of sense because when we look at the larger picture, there has also been a “return” of the object in philosophy, with trends such as Object-Oriented Ontology, New Materialism, or Joan Bennett’s Vibrant Matter. Much of it has been applied to design in general, though not so much to graphic design. Here, the primary focus remains the graphic design profession, its practitioners, and institutions.

So, it was very refreshing to read Aggie Toppins“We need graphic design-histories that look beyond the profession,” where she recommends the application of Ontological Design to this area. Developed by Tony Fry and Anne-Marie Willis, Ontological Design proposes looking at design itself as an independent object with its own agency, separate from individual designers.

Reading Toppins’ essay, it occurred to me why applying critical frameworks imported from art, literature, architecture, cinema, or music tends to fall flat. I think that happens because design history and criticism, as Toppins remarks, focus primarily on design as a profession. By comparison, the professional aspects of art, literature, or architecture play only a tiny part in those disciplines’ criticism.

I only have a minor disagreement with her text. Though it’s a common accusation to classify Meggs’ history as a formalist graphic design history that prefers to “analyze the visual and material aspects of objects,” it never manages to do just that. There isn’t that much visual or material analysis, and most of Meggs’s history reads like a chain of narratives regarding practitioners and institutions with few concerns about Form. For Meggs’ history to be formalist in any art-historical sense, its main drive should be Form – how it evolves, how forms connect, etc. 

A formalist history or criticism sees Form as having its own agency, which strikes an interesting parallel with the idea of design having its own agency. In a way, it’s a formalist-adjacent notion. Graham Harman, one of the proponents of Object-Oriented Ontology, argues that formalism can emphasize an object’s agency by isolating it from human concerns.

For design criticism to overcome its professional bias, some measure of formalism should be employed – I attempted to complicate design’s relationship to formalism elsewhere.

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