David Stairs

There is a concept in science, known as publication bias, that suggests editors of scientific journals prefer to publish positive test results over the results of failed, or negative tests. It’s human nature, one supposes, to prefer good news to no news, and it certainly is better for circulation. The only problem is, it makes for bad science. When a profession, take medicine for instance, is denied the knowledge that certain drugs did not perform the way their manufacturers claimed they would, doctors are less able to act in the best interests of their patients.

Now, suppose we could translate this situation to design? Imagine publications touting the positive performance of poorly designed devices, singing the praises of excessive buildings, or granting surplus column inches to ill-managed development projects, but denying access to publication of critical or contrary or unpleasant writing. If you can conceive of this, then you have put your finger on what ails design criticism.

First, let me say that for me criticism is a natural inclination, an itch, if you will, a thing that comes comfortably and immediately to hand, an urge to question before accepting. John Adams, second President, was described as one such person when compared to his chief rival, Thomas Jefferson. Where Jefferson was reticent, Adams was outspoken. Where Jefferson was vague and avoiding, Adams was explosive and in-your-face— sort of a natural agitator. That’s how it works with me. I’m more inclined to criticize than praise, or perhaps I see criticism as a low form of praise.

This is not the rule among design “critics,” let alone those trade and academic firms that publish what passes for design criticism today. There definitely exists a bias that strongly favors the new, the high-end, and the glowingly “positive.” Criticism that goes for the jugular, usually the best kind, is eschewed by these careful, judicious, predictable people, who tend to prefer safe praise masquerading as objectivity.

Stephen Chung’s Cool Spaces program on PBS comes to mind. In one episode, Chung evaluates public gathering spaces, focusing on Jerry Jones’ AT&T Stadium in Dallas, and the Barclays Center, new home of the Brooklyn Nets, in New York. One does not really need to mention that these clients have deep pockets; each project came in at over a billion dollars. This is ironic for, at one point in Chung’s interview with Greg Pasquarelli of SHoP Architects, the latter was positively gloating about how design software enabled them to determine how much or little corten steel they could employ on the decorative exterior curtain of the Barclays Center and still stay on budget. Here we have what, for want of a better term, can only be called “trophy criticism,” where AIA super projects are as untouchable as the developers who underwrite them.

Architecture is not my area of professional expertise, but looking in a direction more familiar to me I see much the same thing. Design for social impact has arisen in the last ten years partly because the design profession lost sight of the fact that most design has social impact. Too much design, like the Barclays Center, which needed a state ruling on eminent domain to condemn private property, or the AT&T Stadium, which needed hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks, has for decades piggy-backed on the public purse, which has an unsociable social impact.

More recently, designers have become better researchers and, one would hope, citizens too, but apparently not better critics. I remember quite clearly when Bill Drenttel criticized the Rem Koolhaus CCTV tower in Beijing because the design demanded an excessive volume of steel. But it was not a matter of public record that Mr. Drenttel also criticized a 2007 article of mine as “mean-spirited,” in part because I went after some of what I considered the soft-minded design initiatives of a Cooper-Hewitt exhibition.

History has a way of leveling the view of ideas. Projects breathlessly touted in the fashionable design press, like the Media Lab’s OLPC, or the seemingly unbeatable Play Pump, sexy and innovative at one time, have proven to be shallow and short-sighted. Their proponents are, for the most part, forgotten. But the breathlessness remains when discussing crowd-sourced projects like the Pebble digital watch or the SCiO pocket molecular sensor, gadgets that extend the public’s fascination with, well, gadgetry and the inalienable right to have more of it, but little else.

Whether the design press and trade publishing industry will ever assume a more balanced assessment of our over designed world remains to be seen, but I think it’s about as likely as the repeal of the Second Amendment. Criticism doesn’t sell magazines or ad space on design blogs, breathlessness does. A number of years ago a publisher’s rep stopped by my office to discuss publishing projects. When I told him my idea for a book about DIY African design he frowned and said it just wouldn’t sell. What they were really looking for was a new book on typography. As I quickly inventoried the fifty or more in print titles on that topic, I realized that I was probably in for a lot more coffee table books about Bruce Mau and Frank Gehry in the near future. And until I or someone else can make skepticism sexy, you can bet that they’ll be breathless.

David Stairs is the founding editor of Design-Altruism-Project.