Design’s Public Discourse: Critique, not Criticism.

An Interview with AIGA Chicago’s Amy Schwartz

Thomas Jockin
Sep 25, 2016 · 15 min read

Core to TypeThursday’s mission is constructive critique culture. This week, we sat down with Amy of AIGA Chicago. We discussed the public discourse on design, the difference between criticism to critique, and how Amy is building space spaces for design in Chicago.

TypeThursday: Amy, thanks for being here for TypeThursday.

Amy Schwartz: Thanks for having me.

TT: I’m excited to have you here with us for TypeThursday because I ran into you via a Fast Company design interview. I was interested in your thoughts on design criticism and building community. You had, to paraphrase one section of it, you spoke about how when people review major design decisions such as a new logo or branding direction, you had comments about people not understanding the bigger picture of how that project was successful or not. Could you expand more on that thought?

AS: Absolutely. It’s something that I think about a lot, both in the public sphere as a designer who’s reading media and seeing these, but also as someone who’s leading design in a small organization and what it means to have a thoughtful critique. It’s great that people who aren’t designers, who are just people going about in the world have opinions about design. It means that they are using their eyes, and they understand that design influences things. I do think it’s harmful when individuals in the graphic design community who are visually literate echo the opinions of those who aren’t visually literate and can’t see the bigger picture.

A notable example could be the Airbnb logo. They didn’t like the rebrand. It’s okay dislike a rebrand. But the only criticism I heard was that it looks like tits or it looks like balls. And it’s like, “Yeah, I guess I could see that.” But it also looks like a letter A. It also has this whole system behind it. Let’s talk about the full picture. Why do you think they went that way? How are they using this motif? And also when you have just a one-sided conversation that you’re missing out on the deeper process of it and what goals they’re trying to achieve. I would love to know what happened with whoever designed that logo. I’m not sure if it was internal Airbnb or if it was an outside agency, but what was the process? What happened in between to get them to that point? What was the user research they did? What are they trying to evoke? And also how has that helped Airbnb since then? Such as metrics and all that garbage that we tend not to care about because we’re cool design kids, and we don’t care about money. But we do. We’re in the service industry, and we’re helping people who we hopefully respect make money. That’s what we do. So it’s interesting to think about what we’re fulfilling in that business sense. And that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t look like body parts, but there’s more to that picture and more in the way that we evaluate what’s successful or not.

The design criticism I’ve seen lately is because people are afraid to let go of these precious logos made by their precious designers of the past.

TT: To summarize what I understand you’re saying, you’re saying that generally, one, the more mass media conversation about design is a good thing. It’s great to see people who are not designers consider design. Would that be fair to say?

Image from Brand New

AS: Yes. It’s great that people notice these things because they influence their lives in a small way or maybe a bigger way in a weird capitalist picture. We’re making these things to market towards those people. They are our target audience. Maybe not for Airbnb, but that person is our target audience. Someone’s making things for them. I also feel the design criticism I’ve seen lately is because people are afraid to let go of these precious logos made by their precious designers of the past. Like, “How dare you touch the American Airlines logo!” Whatever. Some guy made it. Yeah, that guy did some pretty great stuff, and I’m purposely not saying his name, but whatever. It’s not 1960 anymore. It’s a different time. I personally really like the American Airlines rebrand; it’s fresh and it is bringing us into a new century of air travel. Just because some dead white guy everyone likes made it doesn’t mean we need to keep it for fucking ever.

…our culture of critique also piggy-back[s] on our digital culture of attacking people with beliefs that are different than ours.

A Lack of Depth in Public Conversations

TT: Design practitioners — the ones who are trained as designers, you’re frustrated with a lack of deeper clarity of their intentions about why they’re criticizing things or their considerations, would that be fair to say?

AS: Yeah. It’s okay to have a one-handed opinion and write on Twitter, “Oh, that logo’s not great.” Or talk to someone in Slack. But if you’re going to be vocal about your opinion, you should consider it more. Have a richer conversation. I miss the conversations I would have in — this is going to be the stupidest statement ever — I miss the conversations I would have in graduate school because that’s what everyone’s there for and you’re talking about it deeply, and you have the time to consider it. You have a group of people to work it out together. And it’s hard to replicate that online. When you’re with a group of people, you can think about something. You can say, “Well, maybe it’s this.” And if you’re wrong, people will reply, “Well, maybe, but maybe it’s that.” And if you’re online, and you say something wrong, you have 500 people with egg accounts screaming at you saying that it’s not appropriate.

My feelings about our culture of critique also piggy-back on our digital culture of attacking people with beliefs that are different than ours or aren’t fully formed yet or are slightly misguided. An example of that is I have a friend who is transgender and he made an icon set to go on bathroom doors that showed what facilities were in there like a urinal, a mirror, a baby-changing station. And he posted it online like maybe this is an approach to signage for bathrooms that’s non-gendered. And a more prolific designer started attacking this person going, “You’re doing nothing!” Voicing their opinions. I’m not saying that those aren’t a valid critique of the problem. However, there’s a difference in saying, “Hey, I saw what you’re going for and did you notice that you put the baby-changing station on the one without the urinal, which maybe implies that women and people who would use that bathroom are the ones who take care of children. Maybe you’re reinforcing a stereotype.” But that’s not the conversation that happened. It was more in the direction of, “Fuck you!” Is that helpful? How do we grow when we’re just yelling at each other about being wrong and not lifting each other up and having conversations that allow people to grow.

How do we grow when we’re just yelling at each other about being wrong and not lifting each other up and having conversations that allow people to grow.

Building up vs. Tearing Down

TT: You’re speaking about instead of the tear-down rejecting people versus the idea of contributing to add to something together. That’s for you a very significant difference how critique should be handled.

AS: Yes. You need to critique the ideas and critique isn’t just criticism. Critique is understanding and offering feedback, adding your insights, pulling in context, and ultimately helping the people that you’re in dialogue with coming out with a better understanding or better solution to fix the thing you’re making. And the attack culture is: “I’m smarter than you on Twitter. I made you mad.” Where does that go?

TT: Well, nothing toward the work itself.

AS: Yeah. Then people just abandon that project because they feel like shit because someone who has more followers than them and gives a talk at Creative Mornings tore them down.

TT: Applying that use of authority to discourage them. Or the ramifications of that was that they got discouraged. Would that be fair to say?

AS: Yeah. They got discouraged, and they moved past it, but that’s a real bummer, especially when it comes from someone that you admire. And to be clear, I — The person on the other end of it is still someone whose work I admire and who engages in critical thought a lot. It’s just the tools that we have to communicate with it’s so easy to take the easy way out and dive into criticism rather than critique.

TT: For you, criticism is this negative attitude of having a position and proving you’re correct through rejection of another person. Contrasted to critique, which is more an additive. People coming together to come to a mutual understanding to solve a problem.

AS: Absolutely. And critique naturally has some disagreement, but that’s a good thing. That’s where you get a fuller picture of it.

TT: Because people might value different things, correct?

AS: Yeah. And some things there’s no right answer. When you critique a work of design that functions more like a work of art or art itself. You could critique it, but no one is going to have the comprehensive perfect understanding of an abstract painting.

TT: You’re very passionate about this topic of conversation. You brought up before that you had constructive critique in grad school. And you miss that environment post graduation. Is that something you feel is crucial?

AS: Yes. And that’s why I started running Liminal Space events, because I missed the spirit that I was able to participate in in graduate school where it’s people together learning, making, and having a thoughtful conversation. And that doesn’t have to exist within academic institutions that have a high barrier to access due to cost and facilities. My whole goal with Liminal Space was to find ways to bring people together from diverse backgrounds to talk or work on a topic. And all of the events were either free or five dollars. Everything was as cheap as can be because I don’t want to have pay-walls behind growth and conversation. I was lucky enough to spend two years at a weird school learning, and I’ll be paying for it for the next thirty years. But that’s a decision that I’m able to do. And not everyone can. What was working in schools across the country and why people have those experiences because people are there together. And it’s not just online. Not to say that you can’t have those online if you’re using the right tools. But there’s something about being in the same space as someone and talking it out and working on a problem and having someone physically move a pen to draw a line on something. You just can’t fully beat that. And I don’t know if it’s the practicality of it that it’s nice when someone can draw on your letter and show you why a letterform is wrong and how to improve it. Or if it’s just more of a biological connection we feel when we’re right next to someone, and we’re engaging, and it’s hard to get that online. It helps create a space of trust. People need to be able to trust each other, and that helps with critique as well. You want to know that the people who are giving you feedback are on your team.

TT: What kind of events have you been doing in Liminal Space?

My goal with Liminal Space was to find ways to bring people together from diverse backgrounds to talk or work on a topic.

Participation, not Spectator

AS: So I haven’t had any events in a while because I’ve been rethinking it, which I can get to soon. But a lot of events we had at the beginning were skill-based workshops. I started Liminal Space with a grant I received from AIGA Chicago, which I love deeply. The grant was the What’s Next Grant, and it was to help a graduating student carry on a project post-graduation. And I kind of feel I cheated because I was the only grad school student who applied, but I got it, which is great. And I used the money to buy a risograph duplicator and used all the other funding for events. So I had risograph workshops for people who were interested in learning the process. One of the people who was in one of the workshops now bought their Risograph and ran a whole press in the city that prints things for people, which is exciting for me. Not to say that this person wouldn’t have done it without me, but I made it just slightly easier for them to learn how to use it before they bought one, which is cool. And now they’re helping comics artists and people who make zines print things for cheap in the city and distribute it. And it’s handmade and beautiful. So that’s an exciting thing to come out of it. So it’s skill-based workshops.

I used some of the funding to throw a gallery show, a one-night-only exhibition of design work called “Up and At ‘Em.” The rule was that it had to be people who had never exhibited in Chicago or had never had their work exhibited in any show ever. It was mostly people from Chicago, but we had a few applicants from Minnesota, someone from Japan, a few others from around the country. And we just included them. And it was fun. It was a lot of work. I underestimated how much effort it would be to hang up work in one night and tear it down again. But that was great. Because people showed their work, people came in and checked it out. I just think it’s really important to show how interesting and diverse our community is here in Chicago. We have some very talented people and those people tend to get the bulk of the speaking opportunities and are always in the same exhibitions. Those people are worthy of that attention.

There are ways to make platforms that show other people as well. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. But we can create spaces to fill the type of voids that we want to see. I wanted to see the weirder work. It was all experimental stuff. It doesn’t have to be polished. One person is a designer and a developer, and he used a time-tracking software used for tracking hours for work to track every half hour block of his life, maybe it was a 15-minute block of his life, between sleep, work, eating, fun. And he mapped it out on giant graph paper, floor to ceiling, 8-feet wide, all with a pencil. And it was diagramed in a way. And that’s stuff that most people wouldn’t show as a finished work of graphic design, but that’s so amazing, and I think that was my favorite piece in the whole exhibition. So that was one. And we had some panel discussions. Same idea.

I wanted to bring in people who aren’t always getting the speaking bits to be in dialogue with each other and with the audience. So I would moderate, but we relied very heavily on audience questions. There’s something special about it being more of a group dialogue than “we’re the people on stage who know the stuff, and you’re just there to listen.” And sometimes Q&As at the end get cut short or are awkward, and if you try to build it in naturally, I think everyone walks away feeling they’ve shaped something they’re happy with it.

TT: The idea of participation in a community versus being a spectator, would that be fair to say?

AS: Yes.

TT: What’s the next step for Liminal Space?

AIGA Chicago chapter is very vibrant and real and feels like Chicago.

Amy’s work with AIGA Chicago

AS: I just joined the board of AIGA Chicago as the Vice President of Member Experience and my feelings towards that are AIGA Chicago as a local chapter has done a lot for me personally. I went to school here in Chicago for undergrad, and that’s how I felt like I wasn’t just a student, but was part of a community. The people there were welcoming. The events are great. They run an amazing mentor program that’s open to people from all around the area, and you don’t have to be a member and it’s so accessible for young people who don’t have the money to have a membership to get the best parts out of it. And everything, I mean that connection, that team feeling, people that care about you, the ability to grow. And the chapter is really good at that. AIGA national tends to come off a little more formal and business. And that’s okay. We’re a professional organization, and the AIGA Chicago chapter is very vibrant and real and feels like Chicago. And I’m excited to be on the board because I can help get my ideas across on a bigger platform with bigger funding and more people behind it, which I’m very excited about. So I see it very much as a continuation of what I was doing with Liminal Space. It’s also exciting to be in the membership position because I have my hand in helping plan events.

The people who can benefit from these the most have the hardest time going. That shouldn’t be the case

But also the broader picture of what it is to be a member and make it a more welcoming space for people, whether that’s people who aren’t quite the standard trend web designer, but people who are interested in more of a niche or something related such as video art, to bring them into conversations and make the experience broader. But also I have friends who aren’t members for other reasons like they haven’t felt welcome based on their identity, and that’s bullshit. I don’t want that to happen, and I want to actively change that. Because this is an organization, that’s supposed to be here for everyone. And also make events more affordable, which is a big barrier for the people who are starting off their career. The people who can benefit from these the most have the hardest time going. That shouldn’t be the case. So that’s what I’m doing event-wise and community-wise.

I want people to think critically about what they’re saying and give it time.

Liminal Space’s Future

I don’t want Liminal Space to stop. I feel like it got to a point where we had some events that kept becoming the same thing over and over. And I’ve taken a break to figure out why that is and what the restructuring could be. I’m changing the format away from an event series and more into a printed journal of other people’s thoughts and solicit ideas from people that I don’t even know, but I’ll find them somehow from friends of friends and searching online. And publishing ideas related to design or experimentation. And also publishing their works of design as well.

So my rough plan now is that I’ll risograph it and offer it online and also have all the content in the non-printed form online as a blog. The nice thing about owning a risograph and having some paper is that this is a thing I could totally do for free, and I could give it away to people for free. And can enjoy those long-form reads in a place that aren’t just meeting. I don’t want people to share their ideas where you can’t comment on it and if you want to reply you have to write your essay in response. Like a chain mail. Something a little more considerate. I want people to think critically about what they’re saying and give it time. I want there to be opinions and people to want to respond. I want the things that people are saying to either, not offend, but just strike something in someone to where they have to write something back.

TT: You have a lot planned. It’s exciting to hear all this idea about design or helping to organize help as it is with AIGA Chicago. I’m looking forward to seeing what you do with all of this.

Amy, this has been a great conversation. Thank you so much.

AS: Thank you so much.

Type Thursday

A meeting place for people who love letterforms.

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