Fictionaries, or Fictional Dictionaries?


In my last meeting with Tanishka, we discussed this brilliant toolkit developed by Lesley Ann-Noel, called The Critical Alphabet, which was something Tanishka had also used in the classroom. She asked students to use this as a tool for critically analysing their designs, and also suggest additions that the toolkit overlooks.

This alphabet was first designed as a deck of cards to introduce designers and design students to critical theory and concepts to help them reflect on their design process. Each card introduces theory under that letter. Then the cards introduce a question or comment to help make a connection to the theory and design practice.

This led me to think of a potential direction for the project.

Critical Vocabulary?

A critical vocabulary is a formal terminology related to one or more branches of critical theory. (Wikipedia)
While we might not recognize it as such, design criticism is everywhere, underpinning all institutional activity—design education, history, publishing and professional associations. The selection, description and reproduction of designed artifacts in books and magazines, for instance, is the work of theory. Objects are represented to make a point—even if the point is as simple as “My, isn’t Rick Valicenti a genius”—and that is a critical position.

Writing has a profound effect on Institution Design, the elaborate apparatus that surrounds design production. Design work is exchanged intra-professionally, through publishing, lectures, promotional material and other written forms. Publication may lead to speaking engagements, workshops, teaching invitations and competition panels—all of which in turn further promote certain aesthetic positions. At the same time, an historical canon is perpetually generated, a canon of that will influence the next generation of designers by indicating what work is of value, what is worth saving, what is excluded.

So the relationship between practice and theory is symbiotic. The 40-year expansion of the post-war design industry has been both critiqued and promoted through writing.

I believe that contemporary design discourse is too promotional in nature. Building up on Erik Carter’s editorial for Walker, graphic design seems to have gotten caught up in the social media race of instagram aesthetics and archetypes- with “feedback” limited to “looks awesome”, “very cool”, “dope visuals, check out mine!” flooding the comments sections of “blogs” that “curate” “Content”. 

If design utilised a critical volcabulary to the extent art and architecture do, we could come up with frameworks to describe work beyond the “cool” and “awesome” social media tropes, and even go beyond the more ideologically resolved “problem solving” approaches, and make meaningful inquiries on what it means to design, and to be a designer. 

Platforms like the Critical Design Tumblr tend to convey these ideas through humour, but the message gets lost in scorn and bitterness. On the other hand, meme pages like @NeuroticArsehol @freezemagazine and @screensaviors use the humorous meddium of memes as a tool for critique.

The drive to gleefully whitewash complex issues with absurdly simple (but graphically stunning!) ‘solutions’ is permanently received by design with open arms. It focuses on the individual, in a carefully packaged universal formula that can be marketed and thrive on a superficial layer of promise and deception. Promise and deception. Promise and deception. Promise and deception. Promise and deception. Promise and deception. Promise and deception. Promise and deception. Promise and deception. Promise and deception. Promise and deception. Promise and deception. Promise and deception. Promise and deception. Promise and deception. Promise and deception. Promise and deception. Promise and deception. Promise and deception. Promise and deception. Promise and deception. Promise and deception. Promise and deception. Promise and deception. Promise and deception. Promise and deception.
Modes of Criticism No.3, Design & Democracy

SO what do we do??!!

Bloomsbury Academic Publishing has done a series of books called “Visual Dictionaries of Design”. Here’s what they say about it on their website:

The Visual Dictionary Design Box Set provides readers with an enhanced understanding of over 1000 professional design terms, illustrated with historical and contemporary examples throughout. These four books represent a comprehensive compendium of design terminology and will be useful to all designers, visual arts lecturers and students. The variety of illustrations and photographs serve as a source of inspiration, as well as an ideal memory stimulus for visual learners. The box set comes neatly presented in a slipcase and contains four Visual Dictionaries - Pre-press and Production, Typography, Graphic Design and Illustration. From 'linocut' to 'lithography', 'pilcrow' to 'kerning' and 'crop' to 'creep', The Visual Dictionary Design Box Set will prove a fun and useful resource to design enthusiasts.

This series seems to list down words from commonly used/specialised terms that are “essential”  for a graphic designer. However, these seem restricted to “practical” technical terms- objects, tools, and sometimes techniques. Intent, implications, and context seem less-discussed here, and in most other design books.
“One of the biggest faults of the professional discourse is the failure to thoughtfully examine the real-world ramifications of graphic design. One of the explicit effects of branding is that it can elevate products without outlining their true implications. A change of font in a logo can increase worth of the product it’s selling, but it can also deny access from people who may need it or trick people into thinking it’s something it’s not. Graphic design can do more to intensify income inequality, even if it’s in a passive way, than it can to reduce it. Blogs such as Brand New celebrate logo redesigns and tend to talk more about the font and color choices than what the companies actually represent. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are raised on Kickstarter for reissues of corporate design manuals when perhaps graphic designers could support more timely projects instead of throwing money at these fetishized monuments of capitalist nostalgia. Often times, if graphic designers feel a sense of civic duty (or want people to think that they do), they virtue signal and try to fundraise with enamel pins and tote bags. Civic engagement in a local community could go miles farther without perpetuating consumerism and contributing to designer-as-celebrity.”
In “Do You Want Typography, or the Truth”
The Gradient Magazine
Walker Art Centre, 2018

How about a future where they’re making dictionaries of design? With the critical vocabulary that they want you to have. Wait, who are they?

 The government?
 The resistance?
 The corporates?
 The design schools? (who do they serve though?)
 Critical designers?
 Conventional designers? (wait, does convention has anything to do with convents?)

Who are you? The design student.

We use Leslie Ann-Noel’s Critical Alphabet as a base.
Make this participatory.
Invite designers to small workshop sessions to populate an A-Z list of design terms and see where they fall.

Kitne saare references, kitna chhota idea?


We use the survey responses to come up with the background for the scenarios. The “design” category responses become the indicators for what design mught evolve into, in the future. This can be further fleshed out into a detailed narrative, which will form the scenario for the project. 

Then we make things participatory, in a workshop format:
In an ideal setting, a wall of post-its, but perhaps on the internet- a collaborative google doc or MIRO board. People contribute with as many responses as possible for each letter of the alphabet. 

Then we study the responses to see what scenario each word could respond to, or be a part of, and categorise them. 

This becomes source material to create dictionaries as diegetic prototypes.

 A Dictionary of Government Approved Design

 A Dictionary of Design by the Resistance

 A Dictionary of Capitalist Design

 The Design Student’s Dictionary

 A Dictionary of Design Fictions

 A Dictionary of Good Design (heheh what is Good?)

The dictionaries can then be accompanied by other materials like posters, newspapers, news spots, videos etc. which contextualise the scenarios. Together, all of this can form an exhibition of sorts, to function as the site of discourse.

Follow through on the work-in-progress on this idea here on Google Slides.