Writing Is Design, Too

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A talk with Alice Twemlow, co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts.

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Thesis projects from the MFA Design Criticism at the School of Visual Arts in New York (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.

What determines a solid piece of critical writing?

One that is authoritative and insightful, resting on a foundation of rigorous research, deep knowledge and considered judgment. But I'm not sure if I want all critical writing to be "solid" however. I'm also interested in more experimental, imaginative approaches to writing that take risks with form and language.

Everything has a story—animal, mineral, vegetable and designed object. How does a writer determine what that narrative might be?

This is the crux of it all isn't it? It's what emerging writers struggle with the most: how to weave a tale. I think good fiction is sometimes the best resource. How does a writer like Alice Munro, for example, captivate the reader and take them on such a complex emotional journal in such a short span of pages as one of her short stories? The same techniques of engagement apply to non-fiction. At D-Crit we have Akiko Busch to teach a wonderful class called Reading Design in which she has students reading all kinds of fiction as a way to help develop their personal voice. And this kind of decision-making is key to the Researching Design class, where students are charged with creating a narrative around an anonymous object that will bring it to life.

We know about scholarly versus general writing, but within the design world are there levels of accessibility?

I'm not sure about levels. But there are all kinds of genres. With the recent explosion in online and on-demand print publishing, there's a home for every kind of writing, from semi-fictional manifestos to long-form essays, and from punchy news-driven design commentary to poetic ruminations on the meaning of design. I try not to make too a big division between scholarly and popular approaches to writing. Everything D-Crit students write would feel as if it has the depth of scholarship, should one want to dig down, but also the approachability of a friend taking you into their confidence.

Must one be a designer to write about design?

No. Designers do bring special insight to the page, through their instinctual and physically felt knowledge of the design process, for example. But a writer who really loves design will immerse themselves in the design process and learn to approximate this natural familiarity with the various facets of form-making.

Must one have an "eye" to critique design?

Yes. And this doesn't get talked about much because it's to do with taste, a notoriously prickly subject, encompassing issues of class, social, economic and cultural capital, and identity. I do think you can learn to see, however. It takes hard work and application, in seeking to discern what makes something culturally significant or beautiful. The best method is to tail someone who you believe to have a great eye and try to see things as they do. More important than the eye, perhaps, is the nose. Having a nose for a good story and being ready to capture it is absolutely key.

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Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program. More

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program. He writes the "Visuals" column for The New York Times Book Review, "Graphic Content" for T-Style's "The Moment" blog, and The Daily Heller for Print magazine. He is the author or editor of over 140 books on design and popular visual culture.
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