Towards Critical Autonomy: Design in the Age of Design
Andrew Blauvelt

It would be an understatement to suggest that the 1990s were an important decade for design. Not only were the technological transformations of the desktop publishing and personal computing revolution of the 1980s fully absorbed, but so too were the lessons of formal experimentation that had developed in the academies and the marketplace. The 1990s also witnessed the realization that design mediates real social spaces populated by individuals marked by difference. This shattering of idealized conceptions of the audience along with the interrogation of linear communications models paralleled the rise of micro-marketing strategies and demographic profiling. The oft-promised "audience of one," whether delivered by tailored messaging strategies or mass customization, was eclipsed by the uber-marketing strategy of the nineties: branding. The desire for personalization, not simply the compiling of one's consumptive preferences, has been supplanted by branding's quest for personal corporate allegiance - encoded in euphemisms such as MyYahoo or MyMSN.

While design was undergoing its internal transformations and struggles, the subject and actions of design arrived center-stage in the general culture. There are numerous markers for such an arrival, including: Frank Gehry's design of the Guggenheim Bilbao which inaugurated the phenomenon of spectacle architecture; the introduction of numerous self-consciously designed products such as Apple Computer's I-Mac; the proliferation of brand stores led by the likes of Niketown; the so-called democratization of design in mass retailers such as Martha Stewart for K-Mart or Michael Graves and Philippe Starck for Target. Meanwhile "starchitects" such as Rem Koolhaas, when not satisfied with building, were plying their trade far outside the static confines of architecture proper, reimagining the likes of Prada, the Condé Nast publishing empire, and even the European Union. Indeed Koolhaas and company represents the synthetic merger of academic research, business strategy, and cultural pursuits. All of these milestones seemed to culminate in a Time Magazine cover story on the new design. While most of these examples were architectural or product design in origin, they are fundamentally exercises in the design of images and identities. What used to be achieved through packaging or an advertising campaign must now be made manifest in things - all things: buildings, products, and consumers.

These high profile examples tell the real story of the decade, one which placed design in a leading role in transforming the economy from its post-industrial condition, which was after all only a symptom, to its more synergistic guise - what economists Gilmore and Pine have famously termed the "experience economy." In an experience economy products are merely props in the staging of memorable moments of consumption. In economies of the past we understood the function of goods in terms of exchange value or use value. The experience economy represents the systematic deployment of what Jean Baudrillard once referred to as sign value. Like a medieval cosmology, nothing represents itself in the world of experience economies: sneakers are signs of wellness, competitiveness, and prestige and coffee is no longer just a drink but the nexus of social conviviality and a barometer of lifestyle. The experience economy suggests that things are merely pieces of a larger web of references and connections in which consumptive desires, patterns, and actions are central. This more intangible web of consumer-oriented effects also defines a major shift for design as it moved outward from discrete objects to play in the messy reality of social effects - entering what might be called design's ethnographic dimension.

Not only was design being rewritten internally and engaged economically, its social function was being redefined from essentially an adjective - think designer jeans or designer furniture - to a verb - as a form of all-encompassing actions for planning, programming and strategizing. Although it appears that all of culture now looks to business, adopting its practices, models, and values, in fact, business has learned most of what it now knows from culture, and for better or worse, has taken most of its strategies from design. If the current and future business model is predicated on "better understanding users" then the cultural field will increasingly be the site of contestation and investigation. This is why I'm constantly amused by some segments of the design field that are so desperate for business approval. Businesses understand the value-added notion of design in a world filled homogenous and interchangeable goods and services. Design's ability to articulate difference ensures its centrality in the new economy. Whether or not this design is undertaken by designers as we have known them is unclear.

In his new book Design and Crime, cultural critic Hal Foster considers the role of design in squeezing out what little space for resistance might have existed in the quasi-autonomous realms of art and architecture. While his pessimistic assessment of design is rather bleak, Foster does ask an important question:

"There is no such resistance in contemporary design: it delights in postindustrial technologies, and is happy to sacrifice the semi-autonomy of architecture and art to the manipulations of design. Moreover, the rule of the designer is even broader than before: it ranges across very different enterprises (from Martha Stewart to Microsoft), and it penetrates various social groups. For today you don't have to be filthy rich to be projected not only as designer but as designed - whether the product in question is your home or your business, your sagging face (designer surgery) or your lagging personality (designer drugs), your historical memory (designer museums) or your DNA future (designer children). Might this 'designed subject' be the unintended offspring of the 'constructed subject' so vaunted in postmodern culture? One thing is clear: just when you thought the consumerist loop could get no tighter in its narcissistic logic, it did: design abets a near-perfect circuit of production and consumption, without much '‘running room' for anything else." (Design and Crime, 18)

To answer Foster, once subjectivity was to be constructed, it is only a small step to understand that such a construction could, therefore, be designed. Of course, it's much more complicated than the instrumental process that Foster makes it out to be. More importantly, the room he refers to is necessary not only for artistic practices or architecture but also for design. Impossible as it may be for Foster to imagine, there are designers who also seek to operate with "running room," space to maneuver, the ability to imagine alternatives, or even the possibility to resist the consumerist loop, if for no other reason than to temper its recent intensification.

If design's social function or destiny is to create difference in a world of increasing sameness, then why does it feel like the world of design itself lacks distinction and direction? Just as Foster sees contemporary design as responsible for a commensurate leveling of cultural distinctions between the aesthetic and the utilitarian, there is a corresponding demise within the discipline of many of the features that seemed so vivid just 10 years ago.

Today, we can reflect fondly on those impassioned debates about the merits of computer-aided design, the limits of readability and legibility, design authorship, the end of print, the naiveté of whether we needed only 10 typefaces or the unbridled enthusiasm of the Internet. These issues and many others formed the basis for much graphic design discourse in the first half of the nineties producing a new generation of voices debating the merits of these changes. Slowly the debates subsided. Any tension that may have existed among the factions eased and the marketplace and academy embraced the eclecticism of difference. The globally interconnected and highly disseminated design scene, which really came into the fore in the nineties, could now transplant even the most provincial tendencies in a matter of months. Dabbling in the vernacular "imagescape" of contemporary Los Angeles used to seem like a case of what Kenneth Frampton called "critical regionalism," but now one can find this strategy on view in such far-flung places as Zurich or Bangcock.

Hal Foster's comments, not about design, but about the pluralism of the eighties art scene some 20 years ago, could be easily applied to graphic design today:

"Art exists today in a state of pluralism: no style or even mode of art is dominant and no critical position is orthodox. Yet this state is also a position, and this position is an alibi. As a general condition pluralism tends to absorb argument - which is not to say that it is does not promote antagonism of all sorts. One can only begin out of a discontent with this status quo: for in a pluralist state art and criticism tend to be dispersed and so rendered impotent. Minor deviation is allowed only in order to resist radical change." -(Hal Foster, "The Problem with Pluralism," 1982)

Significant debates have been superceded by consensus; not a fight over which style but agreement on all styles. The fundamental principal of pluralism asks not in what style we should design, but rather that we design stylishly. A plethora of these benign styles exist to mix or match according to the logic of the marketplace. Once style was a defining gesture, unapologetically ideological, and a signal that differentiated and codified its subject. Today style has been reduced to a choice, not a matter of conviction but one of convenience.

This leveling process has also transformed the few avenues and forums for graphic design. Professional organizations, publications, schools, and even competitions used to be distinct. If they are not now defunct, they are pretty much interchangeable. Graduate programs, whether celebrated or scorned, were once seen as the source of "the problem," now dutifully reproduce their progeny. This situation of academic and marketplace pluralism as well as a dearth of critical discourse - are actually related phenomena, each reflecting the condition of the other. Slowly, but surely, any critical edge - either real or imagined - to design has largely disappeared, dulled by neglect in the go-go nineties or deemed expendable in the subsequent downturn. However, the reason seems not a factor of cyclical economies, but rather the transfiguration of a critical avant-garde into a post-critical arriére-garde.

It is no wonder that design today feels like a vast formless body - or in the parlance of contemporary architecture, a "blob" - able to absorb any blows delivered to it - lacking coherency and increasingly dispersed. This absence of a critical mass or resistant body is at the heart of the current malaise. One might argue that graphic design today no longer exists in the form, or material body, we once knew it. So scattered and destabilized are its constituent elements that any attempt at definitions becomes meaningless. The expansion of graphic design beyond its roots in print is simply one symptom of this crisis. Even a broad moniker such as "communication design" loses cohesion in the face of a multitude of providers producing all sorts of "communications" for divergent media, be it print, television, video, film, or the Internet. Lacking the specificity of a medium, graphic design tends to be identified more through its varied products than any sense of disciplinary practice. Thus graphic design is too often reduced to and taught as its commodity form - simply a choice of vehicles for delivering a message: ad, billboard, book, brochure, typeface, Web site, and so on. Implicit in this reductive understanding is the denial of design as a disciplinary practice and with it the possibility of critical autonomy.

A search for what makes graphic design distinct in the face of such dispersals should not, however, be equated with the modernist quest for medium specificity. Such a notion relies on a unique material attribute to define itself. That debate, which really took place in the eighties and early nineties, was a conservative gambit to preserve the essence of graphic design within the medium of print in the face of emergent properties of multimedia, interactivity, and the connectivity of the Internet. Instead, an alternative philosophical approach would understand graphic design not as materially specific but as a constitutive heterogeneity - which is to say that it constantly differs from itself: not a matter of essences, but one of differences. The aggregation of distinct properties found in contemporary design, including the integration of many distinct practices in the formation of any large-scale project, demonstrates the futility in locating a medium specific role for graphic design.

The late eighties and early nineties produced an assault on the conventions of graphic design through an intense period of formal experimentation. Those inquiries were a desire to rethink prevailing assumptions, principally the legacy of modernism, which succeeded in breaking the link between modernism and the avant-garde. Up to that point, since the late nineteenth century onward, an avant-garde in design existed within the rubric of modernism. Indeed those experiments demonstrated that it was possible to produce a design avant-garde independent of modernism. But just like other modernist avant-gardes these experiments were premised on the notion of inventing new formal languages without historical precedent, or re-presenting historical styles and motifs as pastcihe. Paradoxically, much of the theoretical discourse that formed the basis of these experiments espoused a philosophy that dispensed with such notions as originality altogether. Nevertheless these experiments soon conflated the avant-garde with individual expression (the ultimate "origin" of the designer), as if guarding against the looming specter of anonymity found in the figure of the desk-top publisher. Today, we have become so invested, both professionally and educationally, in quest for new formal languages that the subsequent pluralism that it has wrought goes essentially unchallenged.

The results of most eighties/nineties formal experimentation moved quickly from polemic to profitability. Both within the marketplace and the academy the consequence was not to invent wholly new languages but rather develop variations of styles. The critical reflexivity that had been the genesis of such experimental work was pushed aside as the promotion of individual expression became paramount. It is no coincidence that the proliferation of design styles corresponded to the increase of the number of brands and the demand for product segmentation in the marketplace. The academy reacted with similar misrecognition by seeing formal experimentation as end in itself; whereby the exercise of individual expression (more commonly called "personal style") is considered experimental. The situation created successive generations of work that had all the look and feel of the experimental without actually being experimental. This should be contrasted with the possibility of experimentation that is itself contextual—tied to the continuity of a historical discourse of design, for example, or one that questions not so much the form of design but the possibilities of its practice.

We need to imagine a historical language of design that transcends styles and is embedded in the continuity of discourse. This requires more than what currently passes for graphic design history—a tiresome parade of images devoid of analysis and packaged like seasonal trends from Pottery Barn. The present-tense nature of the nineties all but erased historical memory, leaving students and practitioners unable to chart a course for tomorrow - like a person without a past who has no identity and therefore no future. This traveling amnesiac finds its design guise in the idiot savant with a camera, documenting seemingly endless examples of a romanticized vernacular landscape, whether charmingly unschooled typography or dreary generic wastelands. We don’t need another book of David Carson's - or is it David Bryne's? - travel snaps, but rather more penetrating examinations of themes, issues, and debates that can be understood over time.

As one of the more interesting, albeit rare, examples of historical work, is the publication The World Must Change: Graphic Design and Idealism published in the Netherlands in 1999. The fact that it is not constructed as a history accounts for part of its allure. Cross-generational in its perspectives, the work considers the role of idealism as it plays out in Dutch design, from the trajectory of early modernist utopian projects through the increasing rationalization of design in the 1960s and 1970s to more recent developments that contest the viability of such notions. The authors explore a concept over time drawing connections among different generations of designers. Such an approach gets beneath the various period styles and formal affectations resplendent in Dutch design to explore a perceived tendency within the practice in a varied way, from the historical to the theoretical to the personal.

An important way out of the current conditions of a commensurate pluralism is for graphic design to reclaim a position of critical autonomy. By autonomy, I do not mean a wholesale withdrawl from the social or the kind of freedoms the fine arts claim. Graphic design, precisely because it is an instrumental form of communication, cannot divorce itself from the world. Rather graphic design must be seen as a discipline capable of generating meaning on its own terms without undue reliance on commissions, prescriptive social functions, or specific media or styles. Such actions should demonstrate self-awareness and self-reflexivity; a capacity to manipulate the system of design for ends other than those imposed on the field from without and to question those conventions formed from within.

A newly engaged form of critical practice is necessary, one that is no longer concerned with originality as defined by personal expression, but rather one dedicated to an inventive contextuality. Uniqueness should be located in the myriad circumstances and plethora of social and cultural contexts in which design finds itself. Too much time and energy is devoted to the object culture of graphic design, its production and processes, and too little on its effects. We need more why and less how, as the late Tibor Kalman once remarked.

So, what is critical design and what role does education play in its development? Not surprisingly critical design is hard to find. By its very nature it will always be in the minority. By way of definition, I resort to one provided by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby who, conveniently, teach in the Critical Design Unit at the Royal College of Art. Dunne + Raby teach and practice product design outside the norm, constructing an alternative vision through projects which utilize design objects they create in order to probe the conditions and social effects of electronic products on our culture. A recent work entitled Placebo Project consists of eight seemingly ordinary objects that they had, in effect, been put up for adoption. The objects included, for instance, a wooden table embedded with compasses that reacted to the presence of electromagnetic fields or another with GPS technology that would flash an indicator reading "lost" if it was unable to establish contact with an orbiting satellite. In their work, the creation of the object is merely one step in longer process to tease out the social dimensions of design. As Dunne + Raby explain:

"[Critical Design] differs from experimental design, which seeks to extend the medium, extending it in the name of progress and aesthetic novelty. Critical design takes as its medium social, psychological, cultural, technical, and economic values, in an effort to push the limits of lived experience not the medium." (Design Noir, 2001).

This concept of critical design must be differentiated from the kind of ethnographically framed practices undertaken by design consultancies such as IDEO. While both may be concerned with how people engage with products, IDEO chooses to operate within a framework affirmative to the traditional agenda of product development. In other words, people are subjects to be studied in order to create new products, not necessarily test social mores or contest public policies.

While Dunne + Raby work within, alongside and against the field of product design, their notion of critical design could easily apply to graphic design. Critical design is non-affirming, that is to say, it refuses or at least is skeptical of the conventional role of design as a service provider to industry. Critical design is polemical, it asks questions and poses problems for the profession and users alike, which is opposed to traditional notions of problem-solving; and it eschews the singularity of a medium in favor of the multiplicities of social agency and effects.

The point is not to invent a neo-modernist avant-garde and inherent all of its problems. Rather the purpose is to stake a claim for autonomy, which, like an avant-garde, is already a separation from the social demands that limit graphic design to its most marketable features. Autonomy also gives coherency to graphic design in order to resist the dispersal it currently suffers by defining the conditions and terms under which it seeks to operate. Most importantly, a space of autonomy for design affords an opportunity to engage in a more critical examination of its practice, assuming that it does not lapse into a convenient formalism or cannot escape the ideology of expressionism.