On 19th October 2017 Gillian Harrison wrote:

Musings from Design Manchester

Every year I seem to ponder on the Carbuncle Cup – the ‘prize’ for the worst building (design) of the year. I am always torn: on the one hand there is the need for architectural criticism, to call out poor design, to reflect on the impact it has on people’s lives and, for many critics, to consider a seeming lack of effort from designers. On the other hand, when the ‘worst’ building accolade garners more mainstream media attention than that for the best – the imminent Stirling Prize, which is not even on TV this year and has in recent years struggled for sponsorship and prize money – then I start to get worried.

Seeming to converge with my musings on the subject of criticism, I attended the Design Manchester conference recently, where Louis Mikolay from North Design presented the work they had recently undertaken to rebrand the Science Museum Group; launched just over a week ago (read more here).

Louis’ presentation was structured around responding to online criticism levelled at the new identity his studio had created. Subjectively, it’s always OK not to like something, but is it OK to criticise aspects that you can’t fully understand? One commenter had questioned whether it was even ‘necessary’ and suggested it was a ‘waste of money’. In response, Louis gave us a whistle stop tour through more than a year of work, all originating from a desire to create a cohesive identity for the four museums in the Science Museum Group. I’ve been to all four and I had no idea they were a group… which does suggest that perhaps the new identity was necessary.

Behind almost every design will be a team of people who have worked (flipping) hard, responding to parameters and challenges that I would suggest most casual critics would have no sense of. The work is then released to the world to enjoy and the internet to criticise, it seems.

Creative criticism is important; we should all constantly review what we do and strive to improve. Earlier in the day, Jane Murison from the BBC had reminded us of the corporation’s mission statement, including the remit to encourage critical thinking in its audience. Jane cited Strictly Come Dancing as the perfect example of this: four experienced and informed judges who see different things, don’t always agree and through whom, we the audience, gradually learn a bit more about what makes a good tango. I haven’t done my 10,000 hours, I can’t ‘dance’, but I have come to know enough to understand what’s good, as well as what I like (which might not be the same thing, but that’s OK too). And I get a handy montage of just how much effort and training has gone into producing the routines.

Good criticism (am I now critiquing the critics?) is refreshing, engaging and genuinely entertaining – I’m thinking here of Kermode and Mayo's Film Review show, and the contributions of its audience (also cited by Murison), as well as the work of publications like Creative Review (Patrick Burgoyne of Creative Review curated the conference).

So if, like me, you were taught that ‘if you can’t say something good’, maybe we should all at least consider the effort, the training, the brief, the budget, the hurdles, the blood, sweat and tears, before we ‘say anything at all’.

Louis Mikolay’s presentation was included in the Design City Reframed conference as part of Design Manchester, whose programme continues until 22nd October.