A talk with Alice Twemlow, co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts.
You don't go to art school to learn to write, right? Wrong. These days, art departments are as interested in writing as any liberal-arts institution. Certainly, designers must communicate to an audience, and most audiences receive messages through words and pictures—or type and image. So it should come as no surprise that design departments in art schools are ramping up on verbal and written literacy.
The School of Visual Arts in New York is one such institution. That's where I co-chair the MFA Designer as Author and Entrepreneur program, but also where four years ago I co-founded the MFA Design Criticism (also known as D-Crit) program, devoted to teaching writing, research and critical thinking to help students develop their respective voices. The program chair and other co-founder, Alice Twemlow, is a Ph.D candidate at the Royal College of Art and Design, London, researching the history of design criticism. She believes that writing design criticism has broad implications for a 24-hour information cycle culture. I recently spent time talking with her about the benefits that come from learning to write critically about design.
Decades ago, few people wrote critically about food outside of restaurant reviewers and cookbook authors. Now there are dozens of food memoirs and analyses. Do you see design writing moving in that direction?
"How does a writer like Alice Munro captivate the reader in such a short span of pages? The same techniques of engagement apply to non-fiction."
The more people cotton to how interesting design is and the extent to which it affects their lives, the more they will write about it. That's exciting. And while I'm all for generating new design fans and new design writers, it can be wince-inducing to read some of the unsophisticated, "Hey, isn't design cool?" responses to design on blogs (probably the closest things we have to actual design memoirs thus far). I advocate for more and better writing by experts in the field, which may include D-Crit graduates, that is both richly researched and speaks in a personal and engaging voice. This is what we should be blazing the trail with.
How difficult is it to teach critical writing, particularly about design?
There's a lot of ground to cover. First you have to cover J-School basics: We teach students how to research, interview, and investigate, and how to write and edit in different genres. Then you switch to Law School through teaching students how to advance and sustain an argument and how to develop one's judgment. Oh, and then there's design. Some students come to us with a rudimentary knowledge of design so we need to immerse them in the history of design, introduce them to key issues in contemporary design, and the main controversies shaping urban planning, as well as exposing them to the history of design criticism so that they have a sense of their own lineage. Ultimately the process of becoming a critic is life-long project.
Say your students were writing a design book aimed at a general (or at least not professional) audience, what would it be about? Or better yet have any of your students done that already?
About to be published this fall by one of our graduates, William Myers, is Bio Design: Beyond Biomimicry (Thames & Hudson and MoMA). Other students have identified really rich topics through their thesis work, many of which are geared towards a general audience. Some of them are: Barbara Eldredge on the absence of firearms and other morally loaded objects from museum design collections; Derrick Mead's investigation of repair culture—why it's so hard to get a small appliance repaired; Angela Riechers's exploration of the ways in which people memorialize their departed loved ones through designed objects; and Kim Birks's scrutiny of the design (and lack of design) of children's playgrounds. These are topics I think we can all relate to.