As designers, we are given too many definitive heroes. We are so often told who we should like, who we should admire, who we should deify. One of the more prevalent criticisms of architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff is his adoration of some of the big name “starchitects.” An adoration that blinds him to their shortcomings. This kind of hero worship is prevalent in all design disciplines, not just architecture, and I think it is a problem.
The best and worst part about design is that it is at once so abstract and so concrete, so intellectual and so visceral. Paul Rand once said, “Design is so simple. That’s why it is so complicated.” This tremendous ambiguity allows nearly anyone to become the next totem of admiration for the design masses since there are no clearly defined metrics to good and bad. This is also part of what makes design so great, but I digress. In school you are taught whom to like and whom to appreciate. Moholy-Nagy, Lissitzky, Cassandre, Kalman, Glaser, Vignelli, Scher, Sagmeister, Lupton, Bierut, et al… these names and those like them are defined by your teachers as “the greats” and you as the student are expected to worship them. In many ways they are beyond criticism, they are only to be accepted as brilliant.
I have a problem with this for the same reasons I have problems with numbered lists of inspiration: there is no intimacy. You, the student or designer, are not required to know why these people are on a pedestal beyond what you are told. You do not have to date them. You do not have to see their dirty underwear and smell their bad breath in the morning. You only see the truncated, edited, spit shined pasteurized results of a portion of their work. To really understand and appreciate a designer you must know what is in their head; you must know the work they have done that is not in the books; you must know their worries and fears. You need to see the cracks in the armor to fully see how a designer gets to the great moments in their work.
I am far from immune to this disease of worship; I have many design heroes who were defined to me as such when I was a student, and my habit of limited criticism of their work has stuck. Like a smoker who knows they need to quit but lights up another, I know it is bad for me, but I do it anyway. However, I do try and be aware that there are no pedestals. There are no sacred chambers of unflawed brilliance in design. Every designer has, if not flat-out bad work, then at least much less good work that we are not seeing. Unfortunately, sometimes it is the much less good work that is being portrayed as genius.
Of course there is a catch to all of this: some work out there really is extraordinary. And sometimes the extraordinary work is being done by the starchitects and the starchidesigners. My concern is one of blind hero worship, especially to the highly impressionable undergraduate design students. I have always encouraged my own design students to get in touch with any living designers they admire—everyone has e-mail today, so why not? Find the person behind the print. It is important for design teachers today to be less evangelical and more measured in naming names and showing work. One of my favorite things about graduate school so far is a more neutral attitude towards precedent: Here is a name of a designer. You may like him. You may not. Go look him up and decide for yourself.
I fully respect that you may admire someone’s work. I am not telling you not to. I am only asking you to know why you admire them, and “because my teacher said so” is not a good enough reason.