“And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?” — David Byrne
A few years ago, after being invited to serve as a critic for final reviews at an MFA graphic design program, I found myself riding home with two designers and an architecture critic. Each designer had an MFA from a different program, and the architecture critic was working on a PhD. I have a BA. All of us teach at the graduate level while working actively in the profession. After catching up a bit with one another, our discussion returned to the critique. “Why do the students talk about their personal lives so much in explaining their work?” the architecture critic asked. “What do their biographies have to do with it?” While it is certainly valid to question the place of personal histories in a professional context, to talk about ourselves and our stories, it nevertheless seems a persistent inclination among designers to so. We hardly know weʼre doing it — look, I’ve opened here with an anecdote drawn from my own life story.
Perhaps part of this is that there is no one else to write these stories for us. Whether overtly biographical or simply self-referential, design remains even today in the peculiar position of having its history and criticism written largely by and for its own practitioners. Since most of us are involved in making things, we write quite naturally of the hows and whys of making them in a collective effort to evaluate a design’s production. But what’s gone into our own production? How are designers produced?
From a fantastic article in this month’s Frieze by Ronald Jones about how designers are adopting (and adapting) some of the strategies used in Conceptual art:
In 1981 the art critic Robert Pincus-Witten differentiated for the first time between two kinds of Conceptual art: between what he called ontological Conceptualism and epistemological Conceptualism. Acknowledging the distinction between these two fundamental methodologies alters what one sees in the rear-view mirror, but it also opens up the opportunity to look forward, towards the emergence of a new discipline called “experience design.”
When you’re finished, I also recommend this MoMA Podcast [MP3], a panel discussion on the Conceptual publications of curator Seth Siegelaub, with Siegelaub himself as well as artists Robert Barry and Lawrence Weiner and art historian Alexander Alberro. Alberro’s book on Siegelaub, Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity, looks to be a pretty interesting read.