Craving criticism.


Tonight, while listening to playlists of design presentations and lectures at conferences I am convinced I will never be able to afford, YouTube autoplayed a video of Khoi Vinh’s presentation at Awwwards in 2017. Titled, “Things We (Don’t) Talk About When We Talk About Design,” he waxes poetic about the bleak reality of criticism (or lack thereof) in our field and it was like a lightbulb went off in my head.

As a designer with an MA in Graphic Design and a BA in Art History with an emphasis in Museum Studies, I have a deep love for academia, art theory and criticism, and art history. Yet it wasn’t until watching Vinh’s talk that I was given the words to describe what I’ve been feeling—that I have been incredibly disappointed by the lack of proper critical thought in design. I’m not talking about market research, hot takes on a rebrand, or design Twitter on a rampage, I’m talking about serious criticism that places the work we create within the canon of design and challenges us to be better than we are right now.

My view of creative work has always been a careful balance between accessibility and critical standards. Yes, I believe that art and design should be accessible to others and yes, I believe that criticism can often lead to elitism. And in a society where so many already work against uneven odds, I do think that adding another gate to pass through seems counterproductive. However, I also believe that it is possible to have critical voices that hold the field to a higher standard without making those voices the only valid perspectives. I also think that careful consideration of what critics we listen to is also incredibly important. Put the thoughts of women, queer folks, and POC at the center, and just think of where design could be 10, 15, or 30 years from now.

Since entering the field about five years ago, I have made some rather frustrating observations—not least of which being we spend too much time in digital echo-chambers and not enough time trying to create something of our own. Hop on instagram or Dribbble and the most “celebrated” designs are a desert of flat illustrations with purple gradients and geometric shapes all trying to one-up the other in a hall of digital mirrors. But taking that a step further, I have realized I’m hungry for critical reflection and a field that truly wants to better its work, not just sell itself. I suppose that’s the nature of the beast when our work feeds the capitalist machine—we’re bred to compete, to sell, to commodify.

Maybe it’s because I have a college degree in how to talk about art and how to put it in historical, political, and artistic contexts; or maybe it’s because I still hold a bit of an elitist perspective on how we should push ourselves and hold ourselves accountable; or maybe it’s because everything has started to feel too casual, too homogenous, too much like the only design we celebrate is white bro design… Whatever the reason, the deeper I go into our field, the more I want to burn it down. (To build something better of course.) My goal for this year is to get back to the roots of our work. I want to read the texts that our predecessors penned, I want to learn analogue design techniques, and I want to work on not feeling obligated to create the same kind of work as everyone else around me. (That last one seems to be easier said than done though…)

Take a listen to the video that sparked this whole monologue here:

Khoi Vinh, Principal Designer at Adobe, where he is a lead contributor to Adobe XD is a veteran of design's transformation into a key element of modern business over the past two decades. Here he looks at the gaps in how we discuss and think about design, explains why criticism is so important to the future of our craft, and proposes ways forward to correct the situation.