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Criticism at the gates of a landfill

Is there still a role for the design expert in defining what good design is? Almost a year ago the Dutch Design History Society invited Alice Twemlow to speak at its Annual Symposium. In her talk she addressed the current effects of participatory curation and distributed design criticism on the concept of a design canon. What’s the status of the professional critic when Amazon’s user review section seems to provide the most influential platform for design criticism today? Alice Twemlow, head of the master department Design Curating and Writing will further discuss the impact of such developments with several graduates and tutors in The Arena today.
By Alice Twemlow
Etymologically, the term “canon” can be tracked back to the classical Latin for a “measuring rule,” and to the Greek for “any straight rod or bar; standard of excellence.”1  The notion of a design canon became fused with the concept of “good design” and its partner, “good criticism,” propounded by establishment institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Council of Industrial Design in the UK in the mid-twentieth century.2  A canon of good design indicated an implicit consensus about what the measurements on this rule were, and the presence of a supporting infrastructure that included a belief in professional expertise and the desire and means for a shared central conversation. 
Clearly, in those terms, the design canon would seem to be an anachronistic impossibility in today’s world of cultural relativism, the democratization of media, amateur enthusiasms and niche interests. On You Tube alone, there are 38 million videos devoted to the topic of design.3  It’s unlikely that the notion of an authoritative list of exemplars of design, with the critic and curator as gatekeepers to this list, still holds. Design history came of age as a discipline in the late 1970s right when establishment values such a design canon, which had tended to privilege a Western, male version of design excellence, were being questioned and reframed through the lenses of gender, post-colonialism, popular culture, and environmental impact. And yet, as the title of this conference of design historians attests, we still refer to it.4
So where is this canon exactly? Perhaps its still at the MoMA, somewhere amongst the thousands of objects in the museum’s design collection, which was established in 1932. Or maybe it’s at the Stedelijk Museum, which has been collecting design since 1934. And yet, both these institutions, among others, are discussing the closure of their design galleries. Today you have to search out design from in amongst the art and, as the Stedelijk’s website tells us, in the museum store.5  Younger design museums are turning to their audiences to help fill out their collections, and strangely it’s here we see the design canon surfacing. 
For the inaugural exhibition at London’s newly re-opened Design Museum, people were asked to contribute their favorite designed objects to make a Crowdsourced wall.  What’s striking about the display of 200 nominated objects from 25 countries, is not how radical, tasteless, or anti-canonical these examples are, but rather how seamlessly they fit into the museum. Retailer and Design Museum founder Terence Conran has been grooming his consumers to his vision of design since the 1960s (when he opened his first Habitat stores) and his museum-goers since 1981 (when he and Steven Bayley initiated the Boilerhouse Project in the basement of the V&A museum and which grew into the Design Museum in 1989). He should be pleased with the results of the Crowdsourced wall since so many of the objects we see here, pinned like prize butterflies, reflect back the values of a Conranian canon. In the Wilkinson Sword orange scissors, the box of Swan Vesta matches, and the bulldog clip we see a continuation of his celebration of humble household tools and a particular brand of everyday British modernism. Meanwhile the Chemex coffee maker and the Exacompta green marbled document file are descendants of the more sensual and exotic accessories Conran sourced from Europe. Together they represent the enduring legacy of what a profiler of Conran characterizes as the “aesthetics of utility.”6 
Of course, the Design Museum shaped the public input with their leading questions, such as “Of the objects you own, which do you feel is the most practical?” and “What object do you find most beautiful?”7  And it has displayed the results on a unifying white grid of tiles, thus de-emphasizing the heterogenous potential of such contributions, and both returning them to the graph paper of the drawing board—to their perfect embryonic states—and to the graphic grid of the double page spread of a magazine where box-freshness is celebrated as a virtue. But even so, it is remarkable how many of these publicly nominated objects are design establishment approved, and have been at least since the 1980s: Items on show include a Sony Walkman, a Coca-Cola can, and the Olivetti Valentine typewriter, all of which had been presented in 1980s Boilerhouse exhibitions. The Design Museum display doesn’t seek to understand why people chose these things and what they might look like in use, in the wild, but rather the museum has sought to neutralize any difference between them and what is already in the museum—or the shop for that matter. 
And this is typical of other crowd-sourced exhibitions and publicly voted competitions, which, as they are currently configured and presented, tend to echo the values of those that are curator-led and juried by experts (just like the musical definition of canon, where a melody is imitated by one or more voices at fixed intervals of pitch and time). Seeking to engage with the “crowd” is an admirable ambition for today’s design museums, but true public participation, where the results are unpredictable and potentially unassimilable, remains largely untapped; design museums, it seems, are still clinging to their canons. 
So what about the written word on the screen? Is there more to be gleaned from the online media landscape where we don’t have John Pawson buildings to demarcate separation between crowd and curator, and where boundaries between them and us, good and bad, are much more fluid. Here, colorful commentary on the designed environment, ranging from consumer products to playgrounds, golf courses, prisons, and public plazas written by consumer-citizens on sites like Yelp and Tripadvisor, exist within the same continuum as those published by professional design critics. 
The reviews that go beyond the standard fare are those that evoke worlds in which absurd products, like a laptop tray that attaches to your car’s steering wheel or a banana slicer, make some kind of sense. The author Geoff Dyer has given the label “imaginative criticism” to the mode in which he wrote a collection of semi-fictional riffs on the lives and works of jazz musicians. Instead of merely describing saxophonist Lester Young’s “wispy, skating-on-air” tone, for example, Dyer paints a picture of everything that he imagines having led up to that tone: the untouched plates of Chinese food in Young’s hotel room, the non-ringing phone, the gins with sherry chasers, his porkpie hat and cologne bottles on the bedside cabinet, and the condensation on the hotel window as he gazes across Broadway at Birdland. In the preface to his book But Beautiful, Dyer writes:
Before long I found I had moved away from anything like conventional criticism. The metaphors and similes on which I relied to evoke what I thought was happening in the music came to seem increasingly inadequate. Moreover, since even the briefest simile introduces a hint of the fictive, it wasn’t long before these metaphors were expanding themselves into episodes and scenes. As I invented dialogue and action, so what was emerging came more and more to resemble fiction. At the same time, though, these scenes were still intended as commentary on either a piece of music or on the particular qualities of a musician.8 
Here are three examples of Amazon product reviews that exemplify the principles of imaginative criticism, as described by Dyer:
First up is a self-washing, self-flushing cat toilet. Moved to share his experience of the product with other potential customers on Amazon, NA “Cat Lover,” from Tampa, Florida, began his review like this: “Cat Genie takes the small unpleasantness of daily cleaning the litter and it saves it up and releases that unpleasantness as one big unscheduled, unpleasant inconvenience every week or two. You may be pleasantly awoken in the middle of the night by the repeating three beeps of ‘there’s poo and hair in the hopper.’ You will become more familiar with your cat’s feces every day as the cat genie gently fills your home with the aroma of baking excrement.”9 
Next is a T-shirt adorned with three airbrushed wolves howling at a spectral moon. The reviewer, B. Govern, exploits our familiarity with the traits of the demographic he supposes would be likely to wear such a T-shirt: “This item has wolves on it which makes it intrinsically sweet and worth 5 stars by itself, but once I tried it on, that’s when the magic happened. After checking to ensure that the shirt would properly cover my girth, I walked from my trailer to Wal-mart with the shirt on and was immediately approached by women. The women knew from the wolves on my shirt that I, like a wolf, am a mysterious loner who knows how to ‘howl at the moon’ from time to time (if you catch my drift!).”10 
And this is the unfortunate Bic product “Pens for Her” which has generated a whole slew of deliciously acerbic feminist reviews. One, by Jessica Trapp, begins: “My husband bought a box of these for me. I was SO excited that, finally, I would be able to write after watching him do it for all these years. My excitement turned to tears when I realized that they do not come with paper-for-her. Please, BIC, consider making some feminine paper products so I can use my new pens.”11 
Even though it functions as a bustling bazaar, visually the Amazon site is devoid of any images of people, or the circumstances in which its goods might be used. User reviews, like the ones above, provide the disembodied objects with human context—verbal mise-en-scènes—in which they can be imagined more vividly. The reviews use satire, characterization, and scene-setting to entice the reader into a very particular world and then, by providing enough convincing detail, they persuade the reader to stay. The detail reassures the reader that the authors have actually used and reflected on the product in question—that they actually care. In the case of the CatGenie, it is the way NA Cat Lover notes the three beeps of the machine’s alarm; with the T-shirt, it is the accumulation of brands and entities that accessorize the T-shirt wearer’s lifestyle—Mountain Dew, Wal-mart, crystal meth, and the courtesy scooter. And with the pen, it’s the author’s mention of the dots above the i’s manifesting as hearts.
Online product review software also includes a function that allows a user to rank other people’s reviews. On Amazon ranking is determined only with the criterion of “helpfulness,” a quality that was clearly selected for the way in which it impels one to practical action—and specifically, the act of consumption—rather than contemplation. On Yelp, the choice is “useful, funny, or cool,” a triumvirate abbreviated to “UFC” in Yelp-shorthand.
Terms like “usefulness” and “helpfulness” can be seen as a descendants of a modernist, instrumentalist stock of vocabulary used to evaluate design, which include such terms as “utility,” “function,” and “purpose,” and which have, over time, seeped over into the evaluation of design criticism itself.
The readers of online product reviews are also invited to comment on them and to add their own reviews in response, creating a kind of self-aware metadiscourse around the practice of online reviewing. The Three Wolf Moon T-shirt review has garnered thousands of responses and new reviews that emulate the style of the original. And a narrative poem that channels Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” written about Tuscan Whole Milk 1 gallon, has spawned its own meme of reviews. One reader remarked: “After reading a few hundred, I had to compose my own. I still check the site for new reviews.”12 
In some ways, the work of these online reviewers represents not a deviation from the true enterprise of professional design criticism but, rather, a logical extension of a democratizing impulse that, for many of its pioneers, has always been at its core. Ever since the early 1950s, when product design criticism emerged as a genre in its own right alongside the industrial design profession, design critics have said that one of their main goals is to enable their readers to perform their own criticism.
In fact, in at least one case, it worked out exactly like that. In 1958, Judith Ransom Miller, an Industrial Design magazine reader and mother of four boys with large feet, sent in a manuscript of an article about the experience of being a consumer of socks via the Sears Roebuck Catalog. Ralph Caplan, who was editor at the time, published the article and later hired her as the magazine’s West Coast correspondent. In framing her socks article in the magazine, Caplan observed:

Here was a consumer who had something to say to designers, and could say it. In the belief that consumers should be heard as well as sold, I.D. dispatched a letter saying, “OK, you win. Who are you?” The answer: “I am a catalog consumer with a clinical turn of mind, interested in catalog merchandising as a means of modifying the design of some industrially produced goods, and as a vehicle for influencing the quality of consumership.”13 
The British design critic Reyner Banham, writing in general-interest magazines such as New Society and New Statesman, made his subject matter accessible and his critical process visible, as a way to “carry the discipline down from Olympus into the market-place,” as he would later put it, and with a view to empowering the casual observer to comment on their own designed environment.14  In a 1983 essay, “O Bright Star,” about the design of a sheriff’s badge, for example, he described his research and evaluative process step by step, from the moment the decoration of the badge excited his curiosity, and he identified “the problem of who designs sheriffs’ stars,” through his dogged tracking of the source of its design and manufacture via libraries, police authorities, a factory’s pattern shop; and finally to his realization, as the result of an overheard telephone call, that the badge was, in effect, designed by the Acme Star and Badge Co. secretary.15 
Another writer committed to the transparency of the critical process and the democratization of design criticism was Jane Thompson, who coedited Industrial Design magazine in the late 1950s and pragmatically analyzed washing machines, cutlery, and cars, drawing as much from her experience as a user of these products as from her connoisseurial training at Smith College and the MoMA. Thompson believed her critical writing of the period was about “trying to explain something so that the other person can have an opinion or evaluate it as well as you.”16  This desire to open up the mechanisms of design criticism has contributed to its current precarious and contentious position on the blurred continuum of online media.
Design criticism is, by necessity, more self-aware of its proximity to the marketplace, its complicity with commerce and consumerism, than are other critical genres like art or literature. Amateur design criticism, located at the heart of the biggest online marketplace, illuminates and typifies many of the issues that are now central to the ways in which criticism’s status and identity is being reshaped in the early twenty-first century. They include the differences between review and critique, recreation and professionalism, populism and elitism, instrumentalism and contemplation, production and consumption, as well as the role of ethics, consumerism, the nature of work, and time. 
Today, design criticism is uncertain about how and where to gather its publics, and for what ends. Professional criticism’s relevancy as a gatekeeper has been usurped by the irreversible realities of an instantaneous publishing landscape where, as Clay Shirky tells us, “everyone is a media outlet.”17  Now that our reading predilections are monitored so relentlessly, we signal our endorsement of certain pieces of design criticism, and the worldview they represent, not just with each comment, “share,” and “like,” but also with each page view, and even with our search terms. We trawl our daily streams, retrieving images, messages, tweets, videos, and links, and reconstructing these fragments into customized and personalized feeds. We aggregate our customized design criticism from the millions of users’ perspectives on products, appliances, interiors, and services as well as from in-depth, reporting-based essays about designers and design ideas, from documentaries, podcasts, from lectures, community meetings, protests, and from scholarly peer-reviewed papers, for example. Despite the eclectic sources of this new reading-viewing-listening-participating experience, ultimately its distinctions are smoothed over and flattened, a tendency which MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte had in 1995 prophetically dubbed the “Daily Me,” and which results, troublingly, in our being exposed only to content we are already inclined to agree with.18 
Our ability to discern the various textures of the authors’ voices, the political and ethical worldviews of the commissioning agents, and the contexts of ongoing conversations and reference points—which were once all more evident when criticism came in a publication-shaped package—has been traded in for the seemingly ideal conditions of instantaneous, accessible, popular criticism currently being conducted across three billion interconnected personal microcultures. 
In my conception of design criticism, critics operates at the very brink of the landfill site, salvaging some products from its depths, but also hastening the descent of others through its condemnation or indifference. Like the contractors and scavengers who amass, and comb through, Victorian London’s rubbish heaps in Our Mutual Friend—hoping to find treasure in the “Coal-dust, vegetable-dust, bone-dust, crockery dust, rough dust and sifted dust,—all manner of Dust,” so design curators and critics amass and comb through the looming detritus of contemporary society, temporarily arresting the progress of products, on their journey from factory to junkyard, and diverting them toward a spot-lit, white plinth or a glossy, double-page spread.19  As the creators of the 2014 “Landfull” project remind us, the value of a product is always in flux between appreciable, transient, and rubbish states. Two practices—sorting and extraction—which are highlighted in their video, that imagines an alternate near future in which people comb the tideline flotsam and jetsam gleaning for worth, become the essential skills of our time. 
Today, therefore, just like Dickens’ dust mound denizens, and the many design critics that have followed them—Victorian design reformists, post-war taste anesthetists, environmentalists and Drop City communitarianists, junk merchants, urban beachcombers, bloggers, American Pickers, and Yelpers—it is we, the public ourselves, who must be the sifters, and not just of designed products, but also of what Brian Thill calls our “endlessly accumulated tabflab,” the constantly updating, linking, tagging, and streaming piles of our daily digital detritus.20
As we are increasingly charged with the responsibility to create and curate our own canons, based not just on excellence and aesthetics, but also taking into account new and more urgent measurements such as repairability, sustainability, and social impact, we must be critical of the algorithms that seek to determine our preferences. On our screens but also well beyond them in our streets, schools, studios, museums and meetings, it is important that we, as critics, curators, and members of crowds, continue to make, identify and use the kinds of design criticism with the potential to enrich the ways we think about design, to diagnose symptoms of harmful and wasteful practice, conduct informed salvage missions, and then illuminate paths to recovery. 
(This text was published in DAE’s Graduation catalogue 2017.)
1, (accessed January 14, 2017).
2 “Good Design for 1949,” Interiors 108 (December 1948), 114. Press release, June 22, 1951, Museum of Modern Art and Merchandise Mart, 1.
3, (accessed January 14, 2017).
4 “From De Stijl to Dutch Design: Canonising Design 2.0.” Annual Dutch Design History Society Symposium, 9 December, 2016.
5 “The Stedelijk is also a design museum, and our collection traces the history of design from 1900 to the present with furniture, ceramics, posters, jewelry, and other objects. Among our most cherished pieces are examples of Italian and Scandinavian design and, of course, work by Dutch designers. And if you’re eager for more, drop in at the museum shop, where you’ll find the latest work by Dutch designers for sale at prices to suit all budgets. There’s something for everyone.” Stedelijk Museum Website,  (accessed January 14, 2017).
6 Profile, Terence Conran, Design Museum website, (accessed January 14, 2017).
7 Crowdsourced Wall, Design Museum website, (accessed January 14, 2017). 
8 Geoff Dyer, But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz (New York: Picador, 1996), vii.
9 NA Cat Lover, “An Expensive Way to Smell Poo,” Amazon, (accessed April 23, 2016).
10 B. Govern, “Dual Function Design,” Amazon, (accessed April 23, 2016).
11 Jessica Trapp, “There’s a glitch,” Amazon, 2012, (accessed January 14, 2017).
12 B. Smith, “Forum,” Amazon, 2008, (accessed April 23, 2016).
13 Ralph Caplan, introduction to Judith Ransom Miller, “The History of Boys’ Socks, 1947–1957,” Industrial Design, June 1958, 54.
14 Reyner Banham, Preface, Design by Choice, (London: Academy Editions, 1981), 7.
15 Reyner Banham, “O Bright Star,” New Society 63, no. 1068 (May 5, 1983), 188–189.
16 Jane Thompson, personal interview, July 30, 2007.
17 Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody, (London: Penguin Books, 2008), 55.
18 Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital, (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1995), 153.
19 Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, (accessed October 20, 2016).
20 Brian Thill, Waste (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 25.
Published: 28-Oct-2017 11:34

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