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Ed. note: This article was originally published on Mitch
Goldstein’s MFA blog and has been modified slightly for this forum.
Dear Future Mitch,
This is Mitch (you) in graduate school. As I write this we are in our
first year of the MFA in Visual Communications program at Virginia
Commonwealth University, and I am writing you this letter to remind you
to think about your role as a designer, educator and critic. I recently
finished Sandra Wheeler’s “Survey of Design Criticism” seminar, and she
suggested I do this. Sandy says hi, by the way.
It is time to consider a big question: How are you going to wear all
three hats of designer, educator and critic? In some ways they are
nearly the same thing, and in other ways they are vastly different. You
need to decide what it is to be a design critic who is also a practicing
designer and a design educator. In that seminar class we read many
things, written by many critics: from the greats like Walter Benjamin
and Herbert Muschamp, to the newer voices like Rob Giampetro and
Alexandra Lange. It is time to ask ourself: What are these critics
doing? What are they contributing? This is what we wrestle with—the
difference between talking big and doing big. By definition a critic is
someone who expresses a value judgment. A critic is someone who casts an
opinion on someone else’s work. It is in a critic’s very nature not to
create, but to judge. Is this a valuable activity? Is the ability to
critique work as valuable as the act of making it? Do you have to be a
designer in order to be a good design critic?
It is easy to say that a critic is simply a person with an opinion
and a medium with which to broadcast their judgment, but criticism is
more than that. Good critics, valuable critics, critics who have
something to say that is of significant interest, are far more than just
people with egos and big mouths. A good critic has a depth of knowledge
and an understanding of context that makes what they say not just a
personal opinion, but more of a researched, scrutinized thesis about
that which they critique. For example, look at something as common as a
movie review. There is a tremendous difference between your roommate who
hated the latest Judd Apatow film, and a critic such as Roger Ebert,
who has such an immense depth of knowledge about film and culture that
his opinions are not just his, but are a result of the opinions of
everyone who has ever come before him. Ebert is merely the current
mouthpiece of a long history of film and cinema. Without Muybridge,
Eisenstein, Capra, Hitchcock, Coppola, et. al., Ebert would simply not
exist. A critic like Ebert is a person with a very well-informed
What about making? Ebert could not make a brilliant film any more
than Muschamp could design a building, yet their voices are important in
their fields. I think of them as the control, the surface against which
the makers bounce off their ideas. Critics provide the accountability
that is needed to make good work better and see bad work more clearly.
The value of a critic of this caliber is not one of doing it better
oneself but of helping those who do, do better. Through
critiques by Michael Kimmelman and Daniel Mendhelson, we can understand
what is good and what is bad, what is working and what is not, what is
engaging and what is vapid, what is yes and what is no. There was a time
when I felt that only those who make have a right to judge that which
is made, but I have changed this opinion. You see, Mitch, some of the
best critiques you and I have received as a design student have not been
by excellent designers, but rather by excellent critics of design.
You wear two more hats, Mitch: you are also a designer and teacher.
How does integrating criticism into your professional work change the
game for you? Think back to our seminar class, what were many of the
discussions about? Complaining. Intelligent, interesting complaining
based on thought and reflection, but complaining nonetheless. We are all
aware of the shortcomings in our profession. You and I have written
about it more than once—remember that whole @AngryPaulRand thing we did?
Unlike a Steven Heller or a Rick Poynor, in that seminar class we simply
did not have the breadth of knowledge or the research to be really,
truly informed critics. Our criticism—good and interesting as some of it
may be—came down to a personal opinion based on a small amount of
anecdotal evidence. We did not have a thoroughly researched, deep
vertical knowledge of the subject. And like everyone else, we like to
complain more than we like to praise, and complain we did.
However, you and I have something the big-name critics do not: the
talent and skill to make design. This puts us in a very interesting
position because we can criticize through our making. We can approach
design and the process of creating with a critical perspective. How we
look at what we make, how we make design decisions and how we interact
with other designers and clients can be a critique of the profession
itself. What we are not doing in graduate school is the same thing we
did before graduate school. We are looking to infuse our investigative
and introspective attitude of thinking into the work we do. Being
critical is a part of that. We manifest our opinions of design through
our designs. How exactly do we do this? I am just starting to try to
figure that out. I do know that I approach design now in ways that are
conscious and intentional. You and I have never just “let stuff happen”
even if we like to think we did. No… we have always created the
conditions to help make stuff happen. We have written about best
practices of good design and designers, and these ideas are always in
the back of our head when we sit down to start making, affecting what we
And what about education? The students we teach are individuals, and
we do not want to merely push and evangelize our own ideas onto them.
Criticism is born of an opinion, and we ask students to have opinions of
their own. We push students to take a critical stance on their work and
their education. A large part of what we are developing during graduate
school and beyond is a refinement of our own ideas and opinions. We
become more informed, gain deeper knowledge, and provide our students
the same. What is really important—the thing to keep in mind during and
after graduate school—is to constantly develop and refine our opinions.
We cannot be one-dimensional. Being a rule-breaker just for the sake of
breaking the rules is one of our biggest fears, and a quality we do not
want to pass on to our students. This is why in our role as an educator
we relish the opportunity for research. Remember one of your favorite
lessons from graduate school: you do not want to be critical just for
the sake of criticism itself, so you need to intimately know what you
are reacting against.
Mitch, maybe our role as a designer, educator and critic is to be a
dissenter. We have found, time and again, that taking risks—going
against the flow, asking the unasked questions—has always paid off.
Unfortunately, just being different is no longer good enough for us. Now
we need to find out why being different is beneficial to us as a
designer. Deep reflection on how and why we choose to disagree with
design is one way we will act as a critic in our profession. Maybe this
analysis of design will provide the very basis for our thesis research (you
know what we did for our thesis; right now I do not).
The catch is, I do not know how to do any of this yet. Maybe by the
time you read this you will have it all down, but right now I am excited
and more than a little frightened about where I am heading. Discomfort
aside, I know that design is something we care about deeply, and much
like John F. Kennedy’s attitude towards heading to the moon. We are
designers not because it is easy, but because it is hard.
Thanks for listening,
Graduate Student Mitch
What does it take to complete a design program and get the most out of
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