Excuse Our Enthusiasm, But We Like Alexandra Lange

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Design journalist Alexandra Lange takes online media to task in a thoughtful piece for Design Observer titled “Design Blogs: The Vacuum of Enthusiasm” and sets our cold, black hearts aflutter. The writer who recently brought New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff to task for “slippery,” opinion-free criticism is begging for some spice with her design porridge, and not to be overly enthusiastic, but we have to agree. So how did design writing get to be so nice? And how can constructive criticism be incorporated into online discourse? After the jump, hear some of Lange’s suggestions and read as we weigh in on some design topics du jour.

Lange argues that with the imminent demise of print-publishing-as-we-know-it comes a dearth of “insta-criticism, research, and product testing to comment upon,” causing “less good writing and less history” over the long run. The argument places the experiential over the reactive, in three main categories:

Criticism

“Be meaner. The internet creates much more opportunity for short and shallow and funny (as well as long and thought-provoking and serious). Love doesn’t mean you have to love everything.”

History

“Along with slideshows with more work of individual artists, I’d like to see more slideshows showing the evolution of a type, or a product, or an individual’s work. Could we make it harder for designers to be reduced to a single image? It need not be all history lessons, all the time, just a judicious sprinkling of fiber.”

Experience

“Design and architecture are not seen, or used, or made in a vacuum. How can we have design criticism, even design journalism, having never touched or used or experienced the design? We can’t. All we can be is enthusiastic.”

Naturally, we’re as guilty of these charges as anyone, from cutesy design porn champion Design*Sponge to green design purveyor Inhabitat. Pretty pictures do well and on a platform that encourages scanning over reading, it’s the most efficient way to transmit an idea. (In fact, this post should probably have a few more images for visual impact, no?)

Here’s one design gripe, handily illustrated for your blog-reading benefit. Though we hold a special place in our (cold, black) hearts for Washington DC’s Harry Weese-designed metro system, which comprises 86 stations built in the Brutalist aesthetic with domed concrete ceilings, the Metro’s interactive design sucks. Since metro fares differ according to distance traveled, there is no common price for a ticket, and users are required to figure out the toll (adding $0.10 to what’s listed on the chart on top), enter a numerical value, and go through several other steps to obtain a ticket. The picture above illustrates how the various steps are delineated in horizontal fashion, but from a vantage point of standing six inches in front of the machine, it makes little to no sense. Luckily, DC metro riders have more patience than their New York counterparts.

We could go on “fugging” design but figure it’s more constructive to consider better ways of covering the topic. One idea: perhaps it’s a matter of quantifying, not just qualifying, good design. Take, for example, the news that The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay is switching its standardized computer font from Arial to Century Gothic, which uses 30% less ink and will save the college a ton of money on printing costs. That is compelling from a design angle (fonts! we love ’em!) and has real-life utility.

For more Lange, read her archived articles from New York magazine, ranging from Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion houses to the Betsy-Tacy books.