Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

An Anatomy of Uncriticism

In June, when Apple unveiled its donut-shaped, spaceship-suggestive headquarters in Cupertino, California, I took to my Design Observer blog to critique what I saw as its retrograde suburbanism. Companies have been plunking big geometric shapes in the countryside since the 1950s, simulating urbanism for their employees with cafeterias and bike shares, bowling alleys and snacks color-coded for health. For Apple to “think different,” I argued, the company would have to spend its dollars making Cupertino a more sustainable and urban place for all, not just the 12,000 with company IDs. Commenters immediately wrote back, accusing me of East Coast snobbery and, worse, irrelevance.

The first is living legends: the power of excellence. If you do beautiful work for more than 20 years, indeed, why should anyone take notice of a few lesser projects? In this category I would put Vignelli himself, along with Chermayeff & Geismar, Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, and organizations like the Museum of Modern Art and Oxo. They are our collective influence, which makes it difficult to stand apart from them and critique. Their best work is already in the books, so their worst work is immediately dropped from the historic record, or assimilated into the narrative as a stepping-stone on the way to more success. Consider how NeXT was typically discussed in the career of Steve Jobs (not a designer, but still a design-world legend); we talk about its software influence, not its market failures. In fact, I couldn’t even remember what a NeXT computer looked like, as its image has been replaced by Paul Rand’s celebrated logo.

One can become a legend for a single paradigm-shifting product. Bill Moggridge has worked on hundreds of projects. But when we see him in Objectified, or read his bio, the first tag is “the creator of the first laptop.” Does he need to do more? He can never be anything less than that. Maybe he took on his current challenge as director of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, in an attempt to do something equally paradigm-shifting for the 21st-century museum, since it’s hard to top the laptop as a product. You might ask what the point would be of critiquing legends’ efforts, besides being an obnoxious upstart. But if they are still working, they are still questing, and there are lessons to be learned from where (or when) our institutions fall short.

There’s also fame, and being famous outside the design world in particular. I think of Chip Kidd, whose appearance at the last AIGA conference was greeted, at least on Twitter, by a revival-meeting level of enthusiasm. He has the excellent work, but he also has the name recognition. New York’s High Line park is sort of an urban equivalent: It’s an example of contemporary design that is also popular. Except at its current level of popularity, it’s an unpleasant experience.

A second category is those too good to be criticized: the power of intentions. When the work in question is meant to improve lives, save the environment, or even just educate, who are we as critics sitting in our comfy ergonomic desk chairs to criticize? After I wrote one of the few negative reviews of the director Gary Hustwit’s documentary Urbanized, he tweeted at me, “The film will get millions of non-experts more involved in urban issues.” This isn’t really an argument about its merits, and yet it stills many voices. Of course I want more people interested in urban issues. Exhibitions like MoMA’s “Small Scale, Big Change” and the Cooper-Hewitt’s “Design with the Other 90%” are often evaluated purely on the “goodness” of their content and the publicity they can bring to issues, with few critics questioning their criteria for inclusion or evaluation, or even the effectiveness of their presentation. There was a good back-and-forth around Bruce Nussbaum’s Fast Company essay “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?” although his use of the word “imperialism” jumped the discussion past such reasonable first- and third-world questions as: Does it work? How well?

A few “good” projects can act as critical camouflage for an entire practice. What do we know Yves Béhar for? Probably his design for the light, bright, sturdy XO computer for One Laptop per Child. Such humanitarian design is not the largest part of his portfolio, but he now has the platform of a designer who is above colored consumer plastics and mobile headsets. The last line of Béhar’s CV: “In 2009 Yves Béhar was one of two industrial designers invited to speak at Davos.” Without the XO, he’d be one of the other 99.9 percent.

Originally published in Print magazine