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

Design critique, much like any criticism nowadays, falls into two opposite camps – and neither is constructive.

I have a confession to make: I’m a hater. I’m the first person to raise my hand with feedback and frequently start my sentences with “well” or “but.” My particular flavour of hating is a lifelong affliction; a product of pattern-spotting and obsessive thinking (as well as some unearned over-confidence in my own taste) that ultimately results in a compulsion to zig when everyone else zags. Being a hater is often misunderstood or maligned – perceived as mere tactless negativity – but it has its upside. That’s because you can’t be a hater if you’re not a lover, too. A lover who loves everything is insincere. A hater, on the other hand, is merely someone who is picky about what they love. Hating isn’t an action; it’s a state of mind. To hate is to selectively appreciate, and to commit to holding out for something better. Unfortunately, you can’t be a professional hater. So I settled for the next best thing: becoming a critic.

I picked a bad time to become a critic. Critics are not popular right now! One needs only to look at the state of the music industry for evidence: from Ariana Grande’s “Yes, And” music video, which positions the critic as a self-serving snob (nay, a hater), to Paste Magazine’s anonymous review of Taylor Swift’s new album, an editorial choice made due to the number of death threats against a critic that a prior negative review generated.

The state of critique in graphic design and commercial art isn’t faring much better. In one corner, you have the keyboard warriors of X-née-Twitter sharing unsolicited feedback on rebrands in the form of what-abouts (“I would’ve used a sans serif”). Their drive for virality and relevance means that many are happy to be the bad guy so long as it garners attention, leading to critiques focused more on generating clicks than giving thoughtful analysis. In the other corner, you have the toxic positivity of the corporate design press circuit, an echo chamber of effusive PR-tinged praise where Linkedin design influencers advocate for the eye-rollingly simplistic adage of “if you don’t have something nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all.” While I try to Let-People-Enjoy-Things as much as the next person, this overabundance of positive, feel-good commentary inevitably has a distorting effect: when the balance of discourse leans too far towards praise, genuine critique becomes identified as harsh. The result? Even well-intentioned design critics begin to shy away from negative feedback, terrified of being branded the villain or getting ensnared in ‘cancel culture’. As this cycle continues, the landscape becomes increasingly dominated by fluff pieces, further eroding the space for meaningful, honest critique. The ongoing collapse of advertising revenue within the creative media landscape certainly exacerbates the issue, with publications forced to rely on reader subscriptions, sponsored content, or pay-for-play coverage to fund their platforms – two out of three of which limit any negative feedback almost entirely.

At present, critics in contemporary society seem to be perceived as one of three things: jealous failures, petty tyrants, or elitist arbiters of taste. Any less-than-positive commentary is perceived as a personal attack against the maker – and those critiqued and their fans increasingly lambast their critic in return. A recent example of this parasocial defensiveness was the scuffle between art critic and gas-station coffee lover Jerry Saltz and AI artist Refik Anadol, kicked off after Saltz described Anadol’s work for MoMA as “a half-million-dollar screensaver”. Anadol's fans responded by accusing Saltz of irrelevance, claiming, “no one remembers a critic after they die” (Roland Barthes would like a word). Yet, this outsized reaction shows the curious role true haters play in culture. Haters test the resilience and depth of a creator and their followers’ love for a piece of work. As Kate Wagner, architecture critic at The Nation and creator of the blog McMansion Hell, says in her excellent essay for The Baffler, many people “do not want to think critically about the things they consume” and feel that “if they absorb any criticism about the things they consume it will magically ruin their enjoyment of them.” When we chatted about the role of criticism on a (fun, lightly gossipy) video call this month, she added that saying a piece of art is bad isn’t saying it’s morally bankrupt. “Saying you don’t like something is not saying ‘you’re stupid for liking it’.” Nor does a critic saying the TV show Bridgerton is low stakes mean she hates women. Being unable to endure seeing something we make or enjoy disliked or dismissed simply reveals underlying insecurities about our own commitments and beliefs (see also: the use of the term “hate watch”).

While the principles of giving constructive feedback are somewhat universal across all creative fields, assessing design presents admittedly unique challenges. Unlike fine art, where personal expression and process are at the forefront of the work, design prioritises external demands and practical constraints over intent and methodology. As Travis Ladue, principal at Denver-based Studio Mast, describes it, “art is a direct product of the artist's personal stimuli – in design, the stimuli comes instead from the client, the brief, the meetings, the rounds of feedback, and so on.” In art, process is often as valued as the final piece; in design, process is valued mainly for how effectively it serves the final outcome. "When you visit an art gallery, you're going to be there for a while. You’re gonna look at a piece, and read the placard,” Ladue explains further: “In design, especially identity design, the work has to create intrigue within milliseconds. The backstory of client interactions and detailed process, no matter how intense, rarely matters to the viewer. The end result just has to be good."

Nonetheless, innovation within commissioned design work typically faces more significant hurdles than self-initiated design work due to bureaucratic processes and lack of personnel imagination, especially when developed on behalf of large organisations. Should design critiques be more lenient towards such projects? On one hand, acknowledging constraints and process when assessing work is part and parcel with the type of deep engagement we ask of art critics. On the other hand, a designer’s job is not simply to make something that looks good or solves the right problem – they must also have the skills to manage and shepherd good work through to completion despite tight timelines, convoluted feedback, and bad client taste. While context matters, it shouldn’t excuse mediocrity. The shopper at the supermarket certainly doesn’t care how a redesigned cookie box ended up looking the way it did; they only know whether they like it. Much of commercial design exists to catch the eye of as many people as possible, or at least the target audience, in the hopes that they’ll buy something. As such, the effectiveness of a design is predominantly judged by its reception among the majority – whether the collective audience deems a piece of design successful, and how much consensus there is on the assessment. The design critic then, should aim to serve as a sort of proxy for this audience, even at times when doing so is in conflict with their own personal aesthetic preferences or knowledge of the complex production required to make a piece of work.

Though the overly harsh critic and overly kind one exist in opposition to one another, they’re two sides of the same coin: both are the product of a truncated critical ecosystem. The constant churn of content on social media leaves little room for comprehensive discussion; works are judged and forgotten without the time necessary for deeper engagement or understanding. Architecture critic Wagner argues that to avoid this, good working critics should engage in interrogative reporting and research that is either academic or journalistic in scope. Basically, a critic is just a hater who reads – or as Wagner put it: “are critics haters? Who cares!” The best critics strive to understand the context in which work was created (work doesn’t fall out of a coconut tree!) and ask thoughtful questions to guide their understanding. In doing so, they also demonstrate the value of question asking itself, supplying a model for the general public to follow in forming their own inquiries.

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 Ratatouille, states, “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.

Wagner takes a “have-you-ever-noticed” approach to criticism, offering that critical practice is embedded in even the most mundane experiences. “Going on a walk can be a critical practice. Going to the museum can be a critical practice,” she says. One of my favourite critics, John Berger, takes a page from this same book; his iconic 1972 BBC mini-series Ways of Seeing argues that any act of looking is at once profane and profound. He believes that looking always reaches beyond simple observation or enjoyment – it challenges us to see deeper connections and truths about our society. To Berger, art is never just about expression or function; it’s also about our awareness of our own potential and place in the world.

When it comes to critique, it may in fact simply be human nature to assess and judge the world around us. But only when done with care can that engagement reveal the deeper impact that creative work leaves on society and on us as individuals. In other words, everyone’s already a critic (nay, a hater) – we might as well start doing it on purpose.

Goodspeed at your speed

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About the Author

Elizabeth Goodspeed

Elizabeth Goodspeed is It’s Nice That’s US editor-at-large, as well as an independent designer, art director, educator and writer. Working between New York and Providence, she's a devoted generalist, but specialises in idea-driven and historically inspired projects. She’s passionate about lesser-known design history, and regularly researches and writes about various archive and trend-oriented topics. She also publishes Casual Archivist, a design history focused newsletter.

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