“I picked a bad time to become a critic” – Elizabeth Goodspeed on the collapse of design critique

While critics sometimes have good taste, criticism doesn’t particularly focus on utilising it either. Critique isn’t about saying “this is good” or “this is bad”—it’s about articulating what one has observed and why it matters. It’s easy to voice an opinion (opinions, assholes, we all have one, etc.) – it’s harder to explain what led you feel a certain way, and to connect those instincts to broader issues within our creative processes or society at large. Wagner suggests that “the goal of a critic should be to reconcile what people make with the world we live in,” while also noting that she would never position herself as some kind of “hallowed tastemaker” as a result of that aspiration. Instead, she says “I write for the public and I consider myself a part of the public. I want to expose the truth about architecture and help others to make the kinds of political and societal connections that aren’t necessarily immediately apparent to them. To me that is a public good.”

As to the oft-hurled insult that critics are simply jealous, I would say that “if you can’t make art, critique it” is just as inane as “if you can’t do, teach”. One doesn’t have to be a designer to be a design critic (though I would certainly be the first to say that being a graphic designer myself has made me a better critic!) One only needs to have a deep connection to the field they critique – a status accomplished via experiences as broad as an on-the-ground career, academic or personal study, or just good old fashioned obsession with a subject. Just as teaching a subject typically calls for more dimensional knowledge than learning it does, critics usually benefit from being a secondary actor. Distance from a field makes it easier for the critic to step back, or step forward, in a way that makers themselves often cannot. Critics are adept at seeing larger patterns between one or many artists’ works, or identifying impactful micro-decisions made by the artist. A good critic functions as a bridge between the artist and the public – not by bestowing a definitively correct assessment, but by modelling the process of discovery.

When people sit down to judge design, they often lack a clear purpose. How is this feedback helping a studio improve? How is it helping others understand the work better? While it’s easy to focus on the end result of a piece, the best critics are more symbiotic than predatory with their subjects. To borrow Ariana Grande’s very treatise against critics, a good critique is “yes, and.” Ladue believes that even a negative critique should be read as generous so long as it’s well-informed; after all, a thoughtful critique takes time, effort, and research (a process not entirely conducive to the fast-paced nature of the internet economy, nor to getting anyone hired to do more graphic design). To spend the time generating such a critique is “a gift that should be seen as a contribution to someone’s growth, not an attack”. This symbiosis is particularly important when it helps bolster new or up-and-coming artists against a critical world. As the fictional critic, Anton Ego of Ratatouillestates, “there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defence of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.” In these instances, critique becomes an act of advocacy, supporting innovation and providing protection to nascent voices that might otherwise be stifled. That said, Ladue notes, if you’re going to put anything, particularly something negative out there, make sure you can back it up. We all need the “shit sandwich” (positive comment, negative comment, positive comment) sometimes – it’s vulnerable to put work out into the world, and critique should reflect that understanding. “You can’t always say the quiet part loud!,” he says.

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