Critical Mass

For the past few months I’ve been working on a 100-page feature of IDEA Magazine called Critical Mass, an inquiry into contemporary critical practices in graphic design. Critical Mass features interviews with Mark Owens, Zak Kyes, Jon Sueda, Brian Roettinger, Daniel Eatock, Scott Ponik, Michael Worthington, Yasmin Khan, and Metahaven; looks at the books Forms of Inquiry, Wonder Years, and Iaspis Forum on Design and Critical Practice: The Reader; and new essays by myself and Los Angeles-based designer/writer Randy Nakamura.

This new issue will be released shortly. Here’s a sneak peek at one of the pieces within, an essay called Subterranean Modernism: A Critical Retrospective that I co-authored with Randy Nakamura:

The idea of “oppositionality” is mostly anathema to graphic designers today. Designers may speak of “criticality” or “inquiry” but the notion of rejection is absent. Designers prefer the idiom of choice and preference. If one had to choose a ground zero for a prototypical critical design practice for the past decade it would have to be the Arnhem-based Werkplaats Typografie (WT). Part school, workshop and meeting place, the Werkplaats sees itself as fostering a kind of critical design practice “by the position which the designer adopts in relation to the world at large – the social, political or technological developments taking place in contemporary society.”

The origins of this kind of design practice might be found in a variety of modernism that is a bit more underground and quieter, a “subterranean modernism”. It emerged from the post-World War II era, but its proponents were not the European emigres in New York City or canonical modernists of the International Style in Europe. They were the more peripheral and less well known British designers Norman Potter (1923−1995) and Anthony Froshaug (1920−1984). Both are less ideological than their predecessors, in many ways they can be understood as an inflection point between modernism and postmodernism. They had a preference for process, the subjective, and the local. There was an assertion of the poetic, not through the unconsciousness or deliberately nihilist assaults on aesthetics and society, but by an attention to reason, craft, and materiality. The spheres of design were not advertising agencies or large corporate studios, but print shops, schools, museums and cultural clients. A distinct bias can be seen towards the typographic, the book, and the reader. They were more communitarian in spirit than reformist, sustaining certain traditions, but far from hidebound. It was the reign of the idiosyncratic, not the revolutionary. If this was modernism, it was a modernism devoid of master narratives, though inflected with a way of working that are humanist and craft-centered…