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On being a design critic 

One of the (many) reasons I was happy with receiving an award for design criticism lately, is that it gave me the opportunity to publicly explain what it is I’m actually doing as a design critic. 

Especially when I’m abroad, I always have to explain that I am _not_ a designer. This is thought odd on the assumption that if you don’t know how to cook, you should stay out of the kitchen. And looking at my ‘specialism’, graphic design, one has to conclude that the majority of authoritative voices in the field are designers, or were trained as such. I am an art historian which means I look with different eyes than a designer. 

There is often a condescending tone when the craft of criticism is mentioned. The critic is a wannabe artist of designer who masks his lack of practical talent by snapping at the work of the real practitioners. This is, of course, a caricature of the order of the cultural barbarian who states that his 3-year old daughter can do what Picasso did. But this ingrained cliché does contain a kernel of truth: that the critic is indeed no artist or designer. 

So what is he then? A servant of civil culture, that’s what he is. And that’s what the critic, the artist and the designer share — that they are not just products of a culture, but also its mirrors. If they do their respective jobs well, both critics and artists and designers help a culture to perceive itself. Whether this  perception results in delighted self-recognition or shameful insight is not the critics problem, nor that of the artist. Serving can be painful at times. 

The critic is an engaged outsider. Someone who knows enough of the trade to judge artworks or designs — which is not necessarily the same as the knowledge to make them — and to construct a wider context around them. Artists and designers mostly look (summarizing very roughly) at how a thing is made, and what for. I look at what it means, and why.

This is in my view the most important question a critic must answer: what does the thing he describes and scrutinizes mean, not just by itself, but in the context of the culture in which it functions?

Although I have just stated I am no artist, nor a designer, one could hold that constructing and developing an idea, an argumentation, is in itself a form of design. I’d rather look at it from the opposite point of view: each design is a form of argumentation. Therein the work of a designer resembles that of a critic. It is my task — at least that’s how I see it — to  test the argumentation which lies at the heart of a design. To test it and to re-formulate it. ‘Re-’, because when I look at a design I am concerned with more than the brief which directs the design. I look at how the design connects to the culture of which it is, from the moment of its conception, an integral part.

I admit this sometimes amounts to a sort of redesign: you take something apart and put it together again, and on the surface nothing has changed. Still, you have added things: context, insight, attention, understanding. The result is a construction around the design which you may call a design in its own right. Of course, I do that all the time, not only as  a critic, but as an editor, or commissioner: to formulate thoughts and arguments within which a design — for a book, an exhibition, a website, a magazine — can take place meaningfully.

At best, it is a symbiotic relationship: I feed my curiosity for and my reflection on visual culture with the designs which represent that culture. And if I’m doing my work, I help that culture of makers and users, of senders and receivers to look at themselves and the other with a critical eye. And I’m inclined to say, in all modesty, that that is what all participant in a culture do. Culture, after all, is a collective design.

If I may help to make you more aware of that — that you are participants, and not passive onlookers — I am doing my job, as a critic.

Max Bruinsma
Rotterdam, 21 December 2005

max bruinsma