Reference Work Entry

Design Dictionary

Part of the series Board of International Research in Design pp 96-97


  • Rosemary O'Neill

Criticism is a genre of reflective writing on design generally characterized by a detailed description and comparative assessment of a product or system in relation to like products, function, stated intentions(s), or the process/realization in relation to a specific social context. The dissemination of design criticism in diverse (→) publications such as newspapers, popular magazines, design, and art magazines, online reviews, professional publications, academic journals, blogs, and other print, media and online outlets is indicative of its present scope, varied modes of writing, and unpredictable standards. One of the primary missions of criticism—informing and shaping public views and opinions—has been broadened as this traditionally journalistic form of writing has been transformed into a hybrid of popular, poetic, promotional, and academic discourses. This development within criticism has opened up the field to disciplinary perspectives such as history, sociology, philosophy, visual and popular culture studies, urban studies, film studies, gender studies, and others fields beyond art, design, social sciences, and humanities. Design criticism must also take into account an even broader context since the role of design work and process is integrated into technological, business, and economic systems that rely on (→) innovation and (→) transformation. Because of its breadth, design criticism is an expanding and emergent field of reflective writing, one that is indicative of the current understanding of the design mission and process itself. Design criticism often requires specific expertise about the systems, organizations, and spaces within which designed work functions, and it must take into consideration strategies of (→) communication and relationships with the intended users. This combination of disciplinary expertise and trans-disciplinary flexibility has enabled new ways of thinking about the role and significance of design in contemporary debates (Discipline).

Criticism published in specialist journals is most often geared to an academic or professional audience with dissemination of current design issues limited as a result. Newspaper criticism, by contrast, is often written as a means to educate and influence the public about specific design projects. One of its central goals is to generate debate with a public audience conversant with the issues raised by the design work.

Beginning in the 1990s, the relevance of criticism and its mission became the subject of debate among critics themselves. Some fundamentals of these arguments are the all-inclusiveness of contemporary criticism, allowing both cursory descriptive reviews and academic writing to inhabit the terrain; and the shift in criticism away from opinion or judgment as one of its primary ends. Increasingly, criticism is written by designers, artists, and curators who are themselves, at times, the subject of criticism. This interchangeability of roles has further challenged any residual suggestion of objectivity or critical distance from the subject. Criticism is often aligned with the mission and audience of the newspaper, magazine, journal, or online sites where the writing is published. But generally, criticism about design draws, at least in part, on the methodologies of the disciplines themselves; this may include formalist writing, iconographic analysis, contextual analysis, and postmodern perspectives on identity, gender, and postcolonial theory, for example.

Criticism as a distinct form of writing has taken shape within Western cosmopolitan cultures, often written by generalists who surveyed art and design within the broad cultural milieu. As a developing form of writing, it emerged from the intellectual inquiries of Enlightenment, the culture of urban centers, the development and growth of cultural venues and markets, and the availability of print and other media outlets. With the expansion of interest in contemporary design globally, criticism outside the West has tended to follow a similar trajectory with academic criticism often informed by sociology, anthropology, and contemporary social theory.

Critique, Research, Theory

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© Birkhäuser Verlag AG 2008
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