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Is design criticism dying? Will it disappear alongside print media and its love for longer, well-researched articles? Or does the Internet offer new opportunities? 

By Gabrielle Kennedy /asdf 19-12-2013

This subject of design criticism is being heavily debated, also in the Netherlands.  Recently writer Marit Overbeek invited colleagues to debate the issue on Dutch blog De Architect.

The challenges real design criticism face only get bigger as serious print media struggles to survive.  The latest design victim here in the Netherlands is Items magazine.  The Internet offers a lot of pretty and highly stylized images of design objects, but too much of the accompanying text is little more than superficial commentary devoid of any hard-hitting intellectual debate.

Complicating this is that designers have to be commercial. They make a decent living thanks to the increased media attention for lifestyle.  It can be described as “design porn”.  In her recent essay on the subject Overbeek posited the question, “Are designers actually interested in a critical discourse?”

She invited several writers and critics to discuss the future of design criticism. Writer Marianne van Dodewaard, of NRC Handelsblad, Renske Schriemer (Designpress), and Timo de Rijk, professor Design Cultures at the University of Leiden and TU Delft. Design.nl was also on her list but was unable to attend.

Timo de Rijk gave a damning evaluation of the current situation: “There hasn’t been any real design criticism for years. [Glossy monthly] NRC Lux is the voice of the lifestyle-industry. That’s not a problem per se, but these types of magazines give the impression that there is a lot written on design, but there is no critical discourse. […] and I’m not interested in the design books one finds in book stores as it’s all just pulp like “Interiors in Berlin” or “Hip hotels”. The Internet offers a tsunami of images but it’s all just design porn. There’s no criticism. Curators don’t do it either as they’re too busy luring visitors. Exhibitions are like NRC Lux: competitors in the tourist industry.”

That designers have a need to sell and have to focus accordingly isn’t the root of the problem, however. The problem starts when designers are no longer interested in any debate themselves. Product designers, says De Rijk, are only interested in tomorrow, not in any sort of real reflection on the past. While that’s exactly what academic theorists on design mostly do: debate the past.

Yet all the participants in Overbeek’s research agree that there is a debate going on – somehow, somewhere. The problem is that it’s completely fragmented and it takes a lot of effort to find interesting contributions.

The Internet has wreaked havoc on print publication and thus on the structure print brought to debate in the past. The flipside of this devastation is that the Internet also let’s “a million flowers bloom” so to speak. But these flowers bloom everywhere. Sometimes interesting discussions are to be found on blogs or Facebook, sometimes at events.

The concern, Overbeek stresses, is that there is no business model for these blogs. People don’t want to be informed about design in the same way that they want to be guided through the latest developments in art.  The design community itself wasn’t even willing or able to keep Items afloat.
Overbeek’s essay leaves readers believing that each voice she spoke with is still looking for the best way to participate in, and take note of, the current design debate. Should criticism for instance include more visuals to lure readers into discussions? Should video play a role? Or could a method like storytelling be better utilized?

Or does it just depend on the subject whether a discussion takes off or not? Marianne van Dodewaard refers to two recent debates that did create waves all over the regular media – and were also covered extensively on design.nl, albeit with a huge amount of interference and intimidation by management: the controversial Holocaust fence by Studio Job and the true value of a design “product” (that can not work) like the “Mine Kafon” by Massoud Hassani.

There are opportunities for critics, but the bigger question for writers and critics might be, as Renske Schriemer points out, whether they can survive the crisis caused by the demise of print.

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