Critics and Creators

in Design

I’m reading The Design Way by Harold G. Nelson and Erik Stolterman for my Interaction Design Theory class, not-coincidentally being taught by Erik Stolterman himself. It is giving me a lot of food for thought, along with yet more reasons to resent the continuing influence of Greek philosophers on Western intellectual traditions.

During the pre-Socratic period in Greece, the defined understanding of wisdom or sophia, was the knowing hand. Sophia was an integration of thinking and action, as well as reflection and production. However, during the time of the above-mentioned philosophers, sophia was divided. In the philosophic writings of Aristotle, wisdom (sophia), became primarily the concern for first principles and causes—thus cleaving it from practical wisdom and productive action. Sophia was further divided into knowledge of ideals and the capacity for practical actions. Sophia was not only divided into separate parts, but the resulting components were placed at the extremes of a hierarchy. In Plato’s Republic, those who thought about things were elevated to the pinnacle of society, while those who made things were positioned at the bottom of the social hierarchy. This hierarchy can be seen even in today’s world. Polarities between people, such as white collar and blue-collar workers, management and labor, thinkers and doers, continue to play out this division in sophia. The split widens further in the polarization of ideas, like rigor versus relevance, feeling versus intellect, thinking versus doing, or abstract versus concrete.

I don’t like this split! I’ve seen some discussions recently of the “critic vs. creator” debate, from a writer friend. But I think the only way to be a really good designer is to be both critic and creator, thinker and doer. Obviously thinking is not synonymous with critique; after all, creating anything intentionally requires some kind of thought. But in the words of my professor, “every design is an act of critique.” It’s an implicit statement that the world as it is (existing designs) is not good enough, in the form of a plan for what the world ought to be like. If the designer had not made a critical judgment, there would be no new design.

Clearly it’s different in art, where there is not (always) such a strong sense of intent to create practical change in the world, but I think every successful creative work can be seen as a kind of implicit statement about what the creator believes is valuable to create, and consequently how that value can be achieved. A piece of art has to start with the feeling that something is worth doing and has not been done before, ideas that I think most people tend to put squarely in the realm of “thinking” and “not-doing.” I believe that most great artists pay a lot of attention to the art of others, and even if they don’t publicly critique it, I think they spend time thinking about what those other artists are doing, and whether it’s worth doing, and whether they’re doing it successfully. Any great artists who want to weigh in on the debate, please do correct me if I’m wrong here, but I just don’t know of any important artists who have worked in creative isolation. And I have a strong feeling that if you’re an artist who is consuming other people’s art, you’re also thinking critically about it.

And by successful here I mean any work that the creator is willing to take responsibility for and publicly acknowledge as not a failure. I was going to say “satisfied with”, but another way art is like design is that there’s no such thing as a “perfect” piece of art, and most everyone creating knows that they could do something better or different and if it weren’t for things like deadlines and needing to pay bills and the sheer futility of it we’d all sit around fiddling endlessly. Well, I’m sure there are people out there who create a thing and are just wonderfully impressed with it and pronounce it the best they could create, but I don’t talk to any of them, and my impression is that in the world of artists they are a minority.

I guess the real debate to me lies in the value of criticism that comes from someone who doesn’t do, and I think that is a tough question. usually when it comes to my own work I’d prefer critique from someone who has experience in the doing, but I don’t think the fact that I’ve never written a novel means I can’t form valuable judgments about a novel, for example. I just offer a different kind of judgment than the person who has written one. I believe I am absolutely competent to talk about the ideas about the world embedded in a novel in a critical, informed way. But I wouldn’t begin to start critiquing the narrative structure, or plot, or things like that, things more intimately connected to the act of creation. And really, a usability test is a way to elicit critique from someone unconnected to the design process. It’s a very structured sort of critique, because the tester has very specific kinds of goals, but its entire purpose is to learn something about a non-doer’s reaction to the creation. You can’t design in isolation, and I always, always want feedback about a design. My usual problem with asking non-designers for feedback is that they’re not critical enough! It’s understanding specific problems that is most helpful for improving my future work.

One final thought I think is important is that for me, critique is absolutely not a way to say that a thing should not have been created. Maybe that varies by critic. But I would never offer or agree with a critique that claims a work should not have been created that was not based on serious ethical grounds (I’d be pretty happy if most tools of mass killing had never been created, for example). To me, the basic idea of negative criticism is simply: “you can do this better.” Because everyone can. None of us can create something truly perfect. So, you can do better. You can, and you should, and I will be happy when you do.