Alice Twemlow | Essays

Some Questions about an Inquiry

Opening night of the “Forms of Inquiry: The Architecture of Critical Graphic Design” exhibition at Casco, Utrecht, January 2008

The Audio-Tooth Implant receives digital signals from radios and mobile phones and transmits the sound along the jawbone to the ear. The conductive foam Electro-draught Excluder can be used in the home to deflect stray electromagnetic fields. The purpose of both of these hypothetical products is not to perform a function in the conventional sense, neither as a product nor a source of information. Rather, they are intended to be provocations or hypotheses through which their designers can collect the responses of the people who use them.

“Critical design,” as outlined by its key proponents, the interactive designers and educators Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, is design that, through its form, can question and challenge industrial agendas; embody alternative social, cultural, technical or economic values; and act as a prop to stimulate debate and discussion amongst the public, designers and industry.

The growing interest in critical design can be seen in a number of exhibitions dealing with this emerging genre — last year’s crop included “Don’t Panic: Emergent Critical Design” in London and “Designing Critical Design” in Belgium. Strangely, neither addressed graphic design. And the practitioners associated with it, such as Elio Caccavale, Noam Toran or Martí Guixé, come from product, industrial and interactive design backgrounds. As critical design gathers momentum, where is graphic design?

The “Forms of Inquiry: The Architecture of Critical Graphic Design,” exhibition was held at London’s Architectural Association last fall, and is now on its way to further venues in Europe and the U.S. Curated by Zak Kyes, art director at the AA, 19 graphic designers each submitted a representative example of their work along with a new piece — an “inquiry” into an aspect of architecture. While the explicit aim of the exhibition was to explore the intellectual and formal crosscurrents between graphic design and architecture, its subtext is the notion that the practice of graphic design itself can be “a specifically critical activity,” as the catalog essay puts it. So far, so interesting, but what exactly do the exhibition’s organizers mean by the term “critical” and, beyond the confines of this particular exhibition, does this represent a viable new direction for graphic design?

Manuel Raeder’s inquiry into flexible and ephemeral architecture, “Forms of Inquiry” exhibition

John Morgan’s inquiry into the 1946 Bill-Tschichold debate over the future of Swiss design, “Forms of Inquiry” exhibition

“Forms of Inquiry” does not reference Dunne and Raby explicitly. Yet in several respects the exhibition syncs with their ideas about “critical design” as something unfettered by medium and existing in parallel, and sometimes opposition, to regular industry-driven design practice. Graphic design in this exhibition is a contingent, shifting and insubstantial entity. The designers create unsolicited proposals for unspoken problems and, where they use formats that are recognizable as typical graphic design, things like magazines, newspapers and posters, none of them functions as one would expect. The posters, for example, don’t promote anything—one, by the German designer Manuel Raeder, is completely blank and another, by John Morgan, contains the text of two whole articles, making them almost impossible to read. Rather than being public and overt, here graphic design verges on introspection and obscurity. And that doesn’t mean that it’s art, although some of the participating designers do also practice as artists.

“Forms of Inquiry” exhibition at Architectural Association, London, October, 2007

“Forms of Inquiry” exhibition at Casco, Utrecht, January 2008

In the catalog essay Kyes and his co-author Mark Owens choose the word “inquiry” in connection with this exploratory work, rather than another word such as “research.” “Research,” they say, is associated with the “paradigm of scientific data-gathering and problem solving.” “Inquiry” fits their purposes much better since it “suggests an almost anti-methodological methodology — posing questions and pursuing paths without necessarily knowing where they will lead.” That the authors prefer the term “inquiry” over “research” is perhaps a matter of semantics. That they prefer modes of investigation that are “intuitive,” over those that are “analytical,” is less straightforward.

What exactly is an intuitive investigation anyway? It seems to me that intuition is an important component of all kinds of research. Having a hunch about something is the motivating force that gets things going, but it isn’t enough to sustain an entire program of research. And yet the organizers of this exhibition give short shrift to practices that are pivotal to actual research — practices such as data gathering, analysis and interpretation. They are more interested in another meaning implicit in the word intuitive, which has to do with knowing things or finding things out through making. Can the practice of graphic design itself be an investigative tool?

Metahaven’s inquiry into the collapse of Building 7 on September 11, 2001, “Forms of Inquiry” exhibition

The members of the Dutch-Belgian collective Metahaven (Daniel van der Velden, Vinca Kruk and Gon Zifroni) are extremely interested in the concept of research — their full name is Metahaven: Design Research. What began as a side project grew in importance for Van der Velden: he quit his day job as partner in a successful Amsterdam design firm, precisely so that he could concentrate less on client-commissioned work and more on self-propelled research. Metahaven is inspired by architecture’s capacity to make models and proposals as entities in themselves, independent from actual buildings — what is known as “unbuilt” architecture. This approach is most famously exemplified by avant-garde 1960’s and 70’s collectives such as Superstudio in Florence, whose anti-architectural practice took the form of photomontages, sketches, collages and storyboards.

Metahaven is curious to see if they can apply the qualities of “unbuiltness” to graphic design. Using a range of media associated with both architecture and graphic design, including models made of Pringles tubes and books and the paraphernalia of nationality such as stamps, flags, and passports, Metahaven produces proposals, which reflect on the iconography of power in a globalized society. Their contribution to the “Forms of Inquiry” exhibition focuses on Building 7 of the World Trade Center complex. This building also fell on September 11, 2001, but without being hit by a plane, giving rise to all kinds of conspiracy theories about its collapse being the result of a controlled demolition. Paradoxically the non-descript building only gained iconic status through its destruction. Metahaven made a long two-sided poster-like proposal, tall and thin, in the proportions of the building. Each side presents an intricate composition of logos and data concerning the building, representing the intersection of what they call the “logosphere” and the “infosphere.” On the second side the image of the building is missing, its shards, some in the shape of countries, almost obliterate the underlying collage of data.

The key to Metahaven’s work, they say, is “the connection between architecture, iconography and the political.” Whereas some of the pieces included in the exhibition merely refer to their subjects rather than actually researching them, in Metahaven’s case, it’s clear they’ve done the legwork. The piece certainly makes one question the function of a poster, and consider the odd circumstances of the destruction of Building 7. On paper, at least, graphic design appears well suited to the task of critique. It seems as if it would be much easier to pose a critical question through a poster than through a piece of furniture, for example. But when it comes to obtaining responses to a question or hypothesis, product design seems to have the lead on graphic design.

Critical design in the form of objects and devices may lack precision, but the results can be specific, idiosyncratic and poetic. Because product design exists in physical space, it forces participation, or at least a reaction, from those who encounter it. When Dunne and Raby inserted eight objects, that resembled furniture but that also contained various sensors, into eight different homes, they were able to monitor their new owners’ responses to them through photography, diaries and interviews. Observing peoples’ reactions and responses to a question posed in the form of graphic design, on the other hand, is much harder. So, as critical graphic design evolves, its inquiries broaden, and the conversation moves beyond the gallery, one of the challenges remaining for graphic designers is to find new ways to understand and incorporate the responses of their viewers.

Posted in: Graphic Design, Theory + Criticism

Comments [29]

I had a difficult time navigating through this article. However, I do think it is worth exploring the potential for graphic design to be used as an investigative tool. Analyzing viewer response to graphic design may be helpful in revealing certain trends and patterns or it may dispel of certain presumptions.

*On a separate note, is anyone else as interested as I am in the two people who are nose to nose in the first photo??
Julie Africk

I appreciated the spirit of this piece, especially the Metahaven group with their very annoying website and its popups. I give Metahaven points for exploring the nature of windows and interactivity, but most people have no patience for browser windows with a life of their own. I suppose you can't do interactive research without breaking some browsers.
Jason A. Tselentis

Rather than being public and overt, here graphic design verges on introspection and obscurity. And that doesn’t mean that it’s art, although some of the participating designers do also practice as artists.

The obvious response to this statement is, of course, why not -- that is, why shouldn't "graphic design" that verges on introspection and obscurity be considered fine art? Is because they're using the poster as a medium? (If you can call these one-of-a-kind pieces "posters" in the first place.)

There are many, many examples of conceptual art that uses the vernacular of graphic design to explore introspective and obscure realms of meaning. In fact, the most recent Foster Prize winner, now in the ICA/Boston's permanent collection, qualifies neatly within that category.

Alice, was there more to that thought?
Jose Nieto

The obvious response to this statement is, of course, why not -- that is, why shouldn't "graphic design" that verges on introspection and obscurity be considered fine art?

I was thinking the same thing; the statement hinges on a slanted definition of art. I cannot accept a definition of art that excludes a visual response to research when it is produced by a designer. Such a definition is self-serving, crafted to artificially separate critical design from art, thus preserve the notion that this is something new and original, and not just something that artists have been doing for centuries.
james puckett

Julie Africk, you are not alone

The article is very complex, but I would like to focus on the small portion of it concerning the design exhibition, how it almost cross the realm into fine arts once it has become more abstract.

David Carsons said it best in an interview in one of his book (I am paraphrasing): don't act as if fine artists don't have to communicate.

These days fine art and graphic design cross path in a way that is... sort of unfavorable to graphic designers. In Thailand where graphic designers are mistreated and labeled as someone who has to do whatever the client say, no question asks; the really good design job with a lot of freedom and ability to add meaningful message into the design are most often given to famous fine artists.

Yes, we are now living in the days where fine artists are doing corporate identity and graphic designers have gallery exhibition.

How can that happen? Art and Design is never that far apart in the first place, although the more fine art drift into self serving abstraction the further it is from the corner that is closer to design. You say art is more personal, but you have to remember, Paul Rand, my design god, signs all his work. In truth, design and fine art isn't really all that different. Its differences are in the way people view them.

Even by usage. How many people have "used" Mona Lisa to communicate a message?

I have recently picked up Graphic Design History (not that recent one, this one is quite old) and it started with middle age print making, and head on to Gutenberg's bible. Along the way, in the middle of the book, I found Picasso. Is it really all that surprising that sometime in the future... or even now, fine arts will make it way in and out of design world again, over and over? Or has it always been the same world.

A Bob Johnson ( a made up name ) can stare at a blank canvas, and the moment he put something on... or doesn't even have to, it could just remain blank... he is saying something.

We are all trying to put meaningful message behind our designs even if we know some people will not look for them, and yet, all fine arts viewer do is trying to find meaning, even if the artist may not have one. That's where the "I get it" and "I don't get it" comes from. That's the people trying to insert characteristic of design, into self-serving and sometime meaningless fine art.

Bad designs are everywhere, I often elbowed my friends when I saw one. But bad fine arts are everywhere too, however for those I kept to myself.

Panasit Ch

I purchased this book a couple of months ago, and while I find much of the work very appealing as individual pieces, I have to say that I'm not convinced by the overall curatorial framework.

From an introductory piece by Brett Steele, Director, AA School:

"Forms of Inquiry, edited by Zak Kyes and Mark Owens, is based on a stunningly simple and beautiful concept: instead of seeking architects' opinions regarding graphic design (isn't there enough architectural opinion already these days?), it turns the tables and brings together some of the world's most important critical voices in graphic design to ask them for their view of architecture."

Is 'opinion' more important than fact or proof? Is a professional grudge a strong enough basis for a show? Wouldnt the encouragement of successful collaboration and interdisciplinarity be more interesting than 'turning the tables'? While there are a few examples of this kind of collaboration, they are very few. Engagement with urbanism is present in a few pieces, such as Metahaven, but isnt the point of paper architecture the fact that now, many of its practitioners are actually making buildings? And is the use of narrative forms (writing, film, magazines, and websites) to analyze architecture anything new?

As it is, the book remains another reference of interesting names and visual tropes in contemporary graphic design. The work is used to support a curatorial rationale that is an attempt at professional self validation.


Man, that tooth thing would give me a headache. Could you turn it off? Could you imagine the molarSpam you'd get in the middle of a passionate kiss?

What if you bite down on foil? *wince*


ps Julie Africk, it was the first thing I noticed in the picture. No, you are not alone. Maybe they were communicating through tooth-to-tooth.
Tom Froese

That is no foto that is the davinci code of fotos.

You don't see it?

the tooth as transmitter thing was on alias years ago, wasn't it?

Made me paranoid about every single crown that last dentist put in my mouth.

the reason you notice the couple in the corner is probably because of the yellow line leading your eye there and the same color of the person's coat. you should have equally noticed the complementary purple sweatered girl on the opposite side of the picture, as purple being the complement to the yellow (limish tinge), which then pulls your eye to the two people looking her way.

there is an art and design term for this kind of line, imaginary maybe?

and there are three points of blue that form a 30-60-90 triangle. the purple lady being at the midpoint of the shortest leg.(1) a red cap being at the mid point of the hypotenuse(2) and the blond being slightly off center of the longer leg (square root of 3)

anyway they look to be cousins: army green jacket person and purple sweater person, but that's just the shape of the nose and style of the hair that i am imaginaing such. Kinda wonder that the hair on most people there is so, so, so dark. Not at all what I remember about the Netherlands.

Can't tell if they are still so tall. Are the Dutch still eating so many dairy products? Speaking of height, those cousins kinda look Dinarian anyway.


Jose, I’m responding to your question rather late since, appropriately enough, I was at an art historians’ conference. You’re right: this statement of mine is rather flip. What I meant was that just because these examples of graphic design verge upon art, doesn’t mean that they should be automatically be relabeled as such. This project was intended to question the limits of graphic design both as a discipline and as a critical tool. When you get out to the fringes of design things inevitably get murky. From what I understand of “Forms of Inquiry,” however, the designers involved consciously used the methods and processes, or what the authors call the “building blocks,” of graphic design to construct their inquiries. I think it’s important that the curators and designers themselves have positioned these inquiries as design rather than art. Expanding the boundaries of design expands its possibilities; labeling it as art, on the other hand, seems to enforce the existing boundaries.
Alice Twemlow

Expanding the boundaries of design expands its possibilities; labeling it as art, on the other hand, seems to enforce the existing boundaries.

To me this seems like playing semantic games to aggrandize graphic design. Why not just label it art, admit that graphic design can be art, and that graphic design has all of the potential that art does? I cannot think of many people who attribute boundaries to art.

Hell, why not just drop the phrase “graphic design” and go back to using the term “commercial art” where appropriate? Designers have shed so many other conceits of the modernists, maybe “graphic design” is one big conceit that still needs to go.
james puckett

LOVE the idea of the return to commercial art. As the ancient Firesign Theatre used to intone, "Forward...into the past!"

While the young may lust over the status of art over design, they forget that art is not a monolithic thing. There is Ed Ruscha and there is the painter whose work is only shown at shopping centres. There is Jean-Michel Basquiat and 10,000 wannabes. Just like design, 10% of the output of artists is wonderful, and the other 90% pure crap. The designers of the Inquiry are clearly aiming for the top, but good luck to them producing art outside the existing system of curators, institutions, etc., though that is only part of it. (and I am sure they will deny their ambitions toward the conventional hierarchy of the art world but whether or not one chooses to believe that is up to...the audience).

Just how compelling their works are will judge whether this sort of thing is a real challenge to the existing heirarchies, or simply self-aggrandizement. I would feel more sanguine about their efforts if they were not accompanied by an attitude that is betrayed by the tortured language of their presentation. If they are so interested in carving out an independent existence, why depend on rhetorical devices borrowed from conceptual art of the past, to just cite one obvious source?

Graphic design had always had a critical praxis

From Adbusters; the French organization, Ne Pas Plier, to Design for Democracy; graphic design has been "design that, through its form, can question and challenge industrial agendas; embody alternative social, cultural, technical or economic values; and act as a prop to stimulate debate and discussion amongst the public, designers and industry" .

As a design anthropologist, the value-add of graphic design to any social endeavor for me is its ability to make critical values and perspectives -- sharpened through iterative editing and evaluation to the clearest and most concise message -- tangible to people at a level of experience that is both intuitive and rational.

In the case of activist collectives like, Ne Pas Plier, graphic design makes tangible to others the critical perspectives of the people through signs that make you feel, think, and hopefully act to mitigate social and economic injustice.

Exemplified in Adbusters, graphic design makes the critical perspectives of our engagement as designers in commerce tangible to us as well as provide models on how to subvert and hack our participation in the industrial systems.

To me, one of the most powerful uses of a critical graphic design to use it to elicit people's critical experiences of deeper social processes. For example, on a project with a government health agency billing and payment policy, the research (not inquiry) participants were people who started off not very articulate about what was wrong with the system. It was when I placed a set of brochures, forms, and signs from a proposed new information system in front of them that they could easily express how "cheap" the institution was that they would use an orange color, or how a confusing layout reflected the lack of professionalism of the institution. We could use that same feedback not just to improve the materials but to go back to the government agency and say that this is how your practices need to change to match the desired experiences of the people as represented in these materials.

To me, the iterative process of designing, based on a human-centered design process, has been a power tool for critical design in the hands of designers and researchers who have a critical perspective and are willing to use it advocate for others.

So perhaps, it is not a matter of creating something new, but rather excavating and promoting what already exists in the hearts, minds, and hands of graphic design and its collaborators.

Well said, Dori. But how do we inculcate a culture that appreciates, and even desires, critical graphic design as opposed design that offers easy, inoffensive answers?
james puckett

Right on, Dori: the work of a group like Ne Pas Plier is about elucidation through alternative means, not the creation of an alternative market (or means of support). This seems explicit and communicative, just like graphic design should be. Leave "not knowing where those paths will lead" to art, and invest in what design can do. Then this critical design will find it's audience, rather than becoming another sub-catagory of an art practice operating in its own small vacuum.

Expanding the boundaries of design expands its possibilities; labeling it as art, on the other hand, seems to enforce the existing boundaries.

Why not just label it art

Why not label art design? Why must the definition of art by limitless and design not?

kai salmela

If I knew that, I would be running for President. LOL

But in all seriousness, I believe it is bringing more people as co-participants into the design process any chance that you get.

Whenever I've done concept or usability evaluation with everyday people and clients, they leave with a deep appreciation for how design affects their understanding, their unarticulated feelings, and even their decision-making. When people are exposed to the complex problems that design can clarify and simplify, and when this process happens in the context of government policy, voting, or even consumer advocacy then people will change (do change) and thus culture will change as well. I am much more optimistic about people wanting a design that offers difficult, vexing, but clearly and simply communicated answers.

John Emerson's booklet above in the "Observed" is a good approach as well.

Why not label art design? Why must the definition of art by limitless and design not?

I think it goes back to the contemporary origins of the terms in early twentieth century modernism. To me the word art seems to have been opened to just about any form of expression around the time Picasso made a bulls head out of bicycle parts. But the term design seems rooted in the ideas post-WWI Europe, especially Germany, and to me it implies the idea of creation within externally imposed limits. I see these definitions as expressing the notion that art is application of creativity in service to self, whereas design is the application of creativity in service to the needs and desires of others. It is those others who apply the limits.

Of course, there’s no good reason for me to assume that my definitions are right; or that even if I understand the terms correctly that they can not change.
james puckett

As it is, the book remains another reference of interesting names and visual tropes in contemporary graphic design. The work is used to support a curatorial rationale that is an attempt at professional self validation.

Manuel is spot on.

Jelena's reposting of an excerpt Manuel's spot on posting–

As it is, the book remains another reference of interesting names and visual tropes in contemporary graphic design. The work is used to support a curatorial rationale that is an attempt at professional self validation.

–is exemplary of the curatorial rationale that the designer/artist in question should aspire to.
Karen Elliot

I think the idea behind this exhibition is quite interesting and has great potential. For me I could care less about the question "is it Art or design?" but more so the question were they successful? is there really substance here?

The introduction reads "a shared impulse to reframe the circumstances surrounding contemporary graphic practice by using intuitive modes of investigation to probe the boundaries of the discipline and to explore the mutual exchange and shared lineage between graphic design and architecture."

But none of this is really defined. To me, it is shrouded in vagueness. The word intuitive makes it too touchy feely, and implies it is done without conscious reasoning.

As I browse at the collection of posters online, I struggle to find the relationships between the graphic work and architecture. Is taking one sentence from A Pattern Language really doing this kind of investigation justice. Or would it best be served if the designer attempted to do what Christopher Alexander did and go about finding/developing a pattern language for print, web, or other "graphic" medium.

I struggle to find the connection between Diller+Scoffidio's Blur building and Michael Worthington's poster. To me it follows the same working method of the rest of his song based posters. The blur building which turns all of our expectations of what a building is supposed to be upside down, Worthington did not turn my expectations of design on its head. Perhaps this is what the blank folded poster did, although Diller+Scoffidio's conducted similar inquiries with folding and ironing a button down shirt.

I don't truly see a great connection (loose at best) to architecture or the theory and methods of architectural practice, which to me would be the fertile ground to explore the connection. But then again, I can only judge by what is online, and maybe I missed something. The exhibition is ambitious, the work is good, I applaud the curators for doing this. As a profession we need to be doing more of this.

The debate of whether it is art or not is a tired one, lets move past that and start analyzing the content, and ask ourselves is it critical enough? if not keep trying to make work that really pushes the boundaries.

@Dori, Plakaboy, and James Puckett:

I think this:

Then this critical design will find it's audience, rather than becoming another sub-catagory of an art practice operating in its own small vacuum.

betrays some sense of angst on the part of designers; we seek not to be marginalized by society, as we perceive that artists (whether conceptual or not) have been ignored.

But I think it is slightly dangerous to entirely shun ambiguity and leave that to the "artists." At least as it applies to me as an American designer (you may not be), my feeling is that the entire American spirit (and the Western ideal) is about inculcating independent critical thinking through ambiguity. Up until the past ten years, our school system prided itself on turning out citizens who could parse data and information and come to conclusions on their own. We have not been a nation of rote learners since the end of the war, and (to use business parlance) that's our nation's competitive advantage.

By making things sharp and clear, I fear that we're contributing to the trend of mental docility, of the easy read (even when what's being read is tough). To me, the perfect expression of this zeitgeist is the language of global warming; for many, it's some bugaboo that raises its head whenever people talk about hurricanes or peculiar weather patterns. It does not exist beyond the end result, and that's what I fear when designers create pieces that clearly spell out critical messages rather than allowing some sort of thought process, some sorting through of ambiguous ideas.

Aesthetically, there's also a case for ambiguity. Michel de Certeau comes to mind as a perfect example of the expansiveness of ambiguity versus the limitations of crisp clarity. The way in which people navigate and mold modern structures of society seems so more interesting than the structures themselves. Ambiguous space is so much richer in feeling, content, and aesthetics than the sharp angles that mold that space. I think a lot of designers take de Certeau and use him in a peculiar way; we've started to create work that allows for change by its viewers, but within a very strict, almost suffocating framework.

The New Museum's identity strikes me as one recent example of a misguided use of de Certeau. Yes, it's been fairly lauded by the graphic design community, but it feels so contrived, especially when you compare it to that wonderfully peculiar building that it's housed in now, and the wonderfully peculiar art inside. When I look at the identity of the museum, I don't get the sense of wonder, of fun, of interestingness that I do when I go inside the museum or when I look at the museum. I see a straightjacket. That's my fear -- of a design that is informed so definitely by clarity that it shows no sign of life.

I'm with the critique of the New Museum identity from Clarence, but I think that that sort of design comes right out of this moment that we are at where tropes of conceptual art are used...systems, language games, etc.,...as a way of generating design. When the hip young designer of 2008 looks at art, it's not Franz Kline he is lusting over (or Thomas Kinkade) but any number of strategizers of the 60s and 70s, like Weiner, Bochner, etc. Default meets no-fault.

But I disagree with Clarence's exigesis against clarity. Must we deal with black and white? I think clarity is the wrong term: Cannot we say that designers take a respnsibility for merely decipherable (strategized!) messages that address the big wide world (or a tiny micro-audience), whereas when one is in "art" mode one is released into the undefined audience for the possibly personal and internalized message? If we cannot make the slightest distinction between the two modes, where does that leave us? So it's not clarity at all, but purposefullness (maybe?)

Why do you all talk like this? Do art majors not take writing classes?
"There are many, many examples of conceptual art that uses the vernacular of graphic design to explore introspective and obscure realms of meaning."

Are you kidding me? Are people so high on themselves that they think art or design: 1) needs to be described with such hyperbole or 2) really moves society forward THAT profoundly

Wrong site for that lament, hdubs! (One would think that anyone wanting to read about something called "Forms of Inquiry: the Architecture of Critical Graphic Design" might want to check their sensitivities toward the abuse of langauge at the door, know what I mean?)

Funny that you use me as an example, hdubs -- I'm probably the only one posting here who's not an art major. (I do have a masters in English, ironically enough). In my defense, the phrase "introspective and obscure" came from Alice's article; "realms of meaning," sadly, is all mine.

By the way, thanks Alice for your thoughtful response to my comment.
Jose Nieto

We want to thank Alice Twemlow for her generous discussion of Forms of Inquiry and offer a brief reply by way of clarification. It is telling that Alice's remarks are framed by a comparison to the work of industrial designers Dunne and Raby and that many of the subsequent responses move quickly from her comments to a rehearsal of the time-worn distinction between design and fine art. Because it seems to us that both of these lines of argument risk missing the point of the exhibition, which is to offer an exploration of the productive intersection of graphic design and architecture presented under the auspices of the AA, itself a school with a rich tradition of critical, speculative, and experimental work.

Perhaps more so than any of the other applied arts, architecture has managed to stake out a disciplinary space in which critical investigations of various stripes, from hard data to pure fantasy, even "introspection and obscurity," are considered a legitimate, integral part of studio practice. By highlighting the ways graphic design can both engage collaboratively with architecture and borrow from its expanded critical and methodological toolkit Forms of Inquiry seeks to open up and question, not close off or mandate, what can count as critically-engaged graphic design. 

That said, it is worth asking whether an online forum is the best place to pursue such questions. The work in the exhibition suggests that the studio and the outside world might be better ones. Forms of Inquiry thus encompasses a number of decidedly offline spaces for exchange and production, including an exhibition, lecture series, reading room, and accompanying publication. By thereby presenting alternatives to established modes of graphic design practice and offering a hedge against the middlebrow homogenization of graphic design criticism it is a gesture that, while sometimes difficult, is, we feel, nevertheless welcome and much needed.

Mark Owens & Zak Kyes

“As critical design gathers momentum, where is graphic design?”

“… what exactly do the exhibition’s organizers mean by the term ‘critical’ and, beyond the confines of this particular exhibition, does this represent a viable new direction for graphic design?”

“Can the practice of graphic design itself be an investigative tool?”

I’m surprised, especially given Ms. Twemlow’s academic appointment at the School of Visual Arts (home to the Designer as Author MFA Program), that her essay doesn’t acknowledge that much of the philosophical foundation of ‘critical design’ resides in the theories of graphic design authorship advanced over ten years ago.

Unfortunately, Ms. Twemlow is not alone in failing to do her homework, which is why I will present “From Graphics to Products: Critical Design as Design Authorship” at the New Views 2 conference in London this July.

It’s also remiss that in mentioning exhibitions of critical design, Products of Our Time, curated by my colleague Daniel Jasper, assistant professor of graphic design at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design, was not among them. The show, up in September 2007, presented work by an international group of designers and artists who comment on the current environmental, economic, cultural and political landscape using products. The exhibit included several graphic designers, or perhaps it’s best said – the work of designers communicating graphically.

My own published writings on design authorship are consolidated here, starting with the essay on the Designer as Author exhibit poster from 1996, in fully searchable form: http://www.episodic-design.com/episodic-writings.html – I recommend a perusal.

Steven McCarthy

Hmmm, the word 'pomposity' jumps to mind at this point.
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