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In Which I Write a Letter to Myself in the Future From Myself in the Past

Dear Future Mitch,

This is Mitch (you) in graduate school. Right now, I am in our first year of the MFA in Visual Communications program at Virginia Commonwealth University, and I am writing you this letter to remind you to think about your role as a designer, educator and critic. I recently finished Sandra Wheeler’s Survey of Design Criticism seminar, and she suggested I do this. Sandy says hi by the way.

It is time to consider a big question: how are you going to wear all three hats of designer, educator and critic? In some ways they are nearly the same thing, and in other ways they are vastly different. You need to decide what it is to be a design critic who is also a practicing designer and a design educator. You read many things in that seminar class, written by many critics from the greats like Walter Benjamin and Herbert Muschamp, to the newer voices like Rob Giampetro and Alexandra Lange. It is time to ask ourself this: what are these critics doing? What are they contributing? This is what we wrestle with: the difference between talking big and doing big. By definition a critic is someone who expresses a judgement of value. A critic is someone who casts an opinion on someone else’s work. It is in a critic’s very nature not to create, but to judge. Is this valuable? Is this valuable to the same extent the creation of work is? Do you have to be a designer to be a good design critic?

It is easy to say that a critic is simply a person with an opinion and a medium to broadcast their judgement, but criticism is more than that. Good critics, valuable critics, critics who have something to say that is of significant interest, are far more than just people with egos and big mouths. A good critic has a depth of knowledge and an understanding of context that makes what they say not just a personal opinion, but more of a researched, scrutinized thesis about that which they critique. For example, look at something as common as movie reviews. There is a tremendous difference between your roommate who hated the latest Judd Apatow film, and a critic such as Roger Ebert, who has such an immense depth of knowledge about film and culture that his opinions are not just his, but the opinions of everyone who has ever come before him. Ebert is merely the current mouthpiece of a long history of film and cinema. Without Muybridge, Eisenstein, Capra, Hitchcock, Coppola, et all, Ebert would simply not exist. A critic like Ebert is a person with a tremendously informed opinion.

What about making? Ebert could not make a brilliant film any more than Muschamp could design a building, yet they are both important critics in their fields. I think of them as the control, the surface against which the makers bounce their ideas off of. Critics provide the accountability that is needed to make good work better and see bad work more clearly. The value of a critic of this caliber is not one of doing it better themselves but of helping those who do, do better. Through critiques by Michael Kimmelman and Daniel Mendhelson, we can understand what is good and what is bad, what is working and what is not, what is engaging and what is vapid, what is yes and what is no. There was a time when I felt that only those who make have a right to judge that which is made, but I have changed this opinion. Some of the best critics you and I have had as a design student have not been excellent designers, but rather excellent critics of design.

You wear two more hats, Mitch: you are also a designer and teacher. How does integrating criticism into your professional work change the game for you? Think back to our seminar class, what were many of the discussions about? Complaining. Intelligent, interesting complaining based on thought and reflection, but complaining none the less. We are all aware of the shortcomings in our profession. You and I have written about it more than once — remember that whole @AngryPaulRand thing we did? Unlike a Steven Heller or a Rick Poynor, in that seminar class we simply did not have the breadth of knowledge or the research to be really, truly informed critics. Our criticism, good and interesting as some of it may be, came down to a personal opinion based on a small amount of anecdotal evidence. We did not have a thoroughly researched, deep vertical knowledge of the subject. And like everyone else, we like to complain more than we like to praise, and complain we did.

However, you and I have something the big-name critics may not: the talent and skill to make design. This puts us in a very interesting position because we can criticize though our making. We can approach design and the process of creating with a critical perspective. How we look at what we make, how we make design decisions and how we interact with other designers and clients can be a critique of the profession itself. What we are not doing in graduate school is the same thing we did before graduate school. We are looking to infuse our investigative and introspective attitude of thinking into the work we do. Being critical is a part of that. We manifest our opinions of design through our designs. How exactly do we do this? I am just starting to try to figure this out. I do know that I approach design now in ways that are conscious and intentional. You and I have never just “let stuff happen” even if we like to think we did. No… we have always created the conditions to help make stuff happen. We have written about best practices of good design and designers, and these ideas are always in the back of our head when we sit down to start making, affecting what we do.

And what about education? The students we teach are individuals, and we do not want to merely push and evangelize our own ideas onto them. Criticism is born of an opinion, and we ask students to have opinions of their own. We push students to take a critical stance on their work and their education. A large part of what we are developing during graduate school and beyond is a refinement of our own ideas and opinions. We become more informed, gain deeper knowledge, and provide our students the same. What is really important — the thing to keep in mind during and after graduate school — is to constantly develop and refine our opinions. We cannot be one-dimensional. Being a rule-breaker just for the sake of breaking the rules is one of our biggest fears, and a quality we do not want to pass on to our students. This is why in our role as an educator we relish the opportunity for research. Remember one of your favorite lessons from graduate school: you do not want to be critical just for the sake of criticism itself, so you need to intimately know what you are reacting against.

Mitch, maybe our role as a designer, educator, and critic is to be a dissenter. We have found time and again that taking risks, going against the flow, asking the unasked questions has always paid off. Unfortunately, just being different is no longer good enough for us. Now we need to find out why being different is beneficial to us as a designer. Deep reflection on how and why we choose to disagree with design is one way we will act as a critic in our profession. Maybe this analysis of design will provide the very basis for our thesis research (you know what we did for our thesis, right now I do not). The catch is that I do not know how to do any of this yet. Maybe in your time you have it all down, but right now I am excited and more than a little frightened about where I am heading. Discomfort aside, I know that design is something we care about deeply, and much like John F. Kennedy’s attitude towards heading to the moon, we are designers not because it is easy, but because it is hard.

Thanks for listening,

Graduate Student Mitch

This essay was originally published on the AIGA website.