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Making design criticism matter: A chat with Allison Arieff

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The design critic’s work is being honored by AIGA

From the devices we wear to the cities we inhabit, Allison Arieff has championed design that serves people.
Photo by Tupungato

Whether she’s pondering a smart toaster or safer streets, Allison Arieff has become a vital voice in the conversation about the role that good design should play in our daily lives.

This week, Arieff, alongside digital creator Maurice Cherry, will be honored at the AIGA gala with the Steven Heller Prize for Cultural Commentary, named for the industry’s most prolific design critic.

A former editor-in-chief of Dwell, Arieff has written about design and architecture for a wide range of publications including GOOD, Sunset, California Sunday, the MIT Technology Review, Dialogue, CityLab, and The New York Times, where she’s had a column since 2006. She’s currently the editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, which is based in San Francisco.

As noted by Design Observer founder Jessica Helfand, who served on the award’s jury, Arieff has moved beyond simply providing design commentary to championing real-world solutions. “Critic, pundit, urbanist, ethicist—Allison brings the rigor of good scholarship to the practice of good citizenship,” said Helfand. “She’s witty and she’s wise, and the world is a better place because of it.”

I caught up with Arieff after her recent trip to Japan to talk about the changing landscape of design criticism, what it’s like to work on solutions for the Bay Area’s housing crisis, and why we should plan cities for people—not cars.

So first of all, congratulations! Can you tell us more about the award and your reaction when you found out you’d won?

Thanks! Design Observer’s Jessica Helfand called to tell me and of course I was thrilled. Steven Heller is the most prolific and curious and wide-ranging designer and critic; he’s a marvel. So to receive this award is just wonderful. Also, I’m bringing my 12-year-old daughter who has it in her head that this is something on the order of the Academy Awards so we are prepared to go big on April 20.

Arieff at a cafe during a recent trip to Japan.
Courtesy Allison Arieff
I mean, it is basically the Academy Awards of design. I think I interviewed you for UnBeige—OMG—about 10 years ago… right after you left Dwell. How has the landscape of design writing changed in that decade?

RIP UnBeige! OK, first I want to be positive: Look at what a format that didn’t exist then—99% Invisible [the design podcast]—has done. Roman Mars and his team really created a whole new way to talk about design. And have found a way to fund it. Amazing. Avery Trufelman’s episode on the kidney-shaped pool may be one of my favorite design stories of all time.

That said, look how few design publications are left standing now and how the budgets have dried up for those that still exist. A few weeks ago, Khoi Vinh published an essay asking why there were no design critics. I, sort of, flippantly tweeted back “because there is no way to get paid to be one.”

A major publication just last week offered me 70-cents a word and a five-day turnaround for a piece. (I declined.) The per-word rate for writers, already pitifully low in the 2000s is the same or worse or zero. This doesn’t suggest that writers—design or otherwise—are valued very much in our culture. So the challenge is not just to develop better funding models (kudos, by the way, for Wired and others for reintroducing paywalls) but to also figure out ways to make the design conversation feel more essential.

I don’t have the answer; I am always looking for smart models of funding design—and any!— journalism. I wish I could be more optimistic about that landscape, but when even investigative journalism needs to crowdfund, it’s hard to be.

I recall my uncle, a career journalist at Reuters and others, tried to dissuade me from entering the field when I was in college, so I realize every generation has its share of pessimism. In the era of fake news, however, things seem exceptionally dire and fragile.

When I asked you to chime in about architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne’s departure from the Los Angeles Times, I felt like you had such a good answer, “Now more than ever we need smart thinkers to help us all make sense of the rapid changes happening in cities today.” Is that what you feel your own role as a critic has evolved into?

I’ve been talking with the writer and researcher Scott Ferenstein about deliberative democracy and one the ideas he’s exploring is this: The only way to get an informed citizenry is to pay them to be informed.

Leaving aside the very real concerns I have about that idea—what’s to stop the Koch brothers, for example, from being the ones paying to inform?—there is one idea he put forth that I found very intriguing:

“Journalists put out info and they assume people will read, digest it and think about it critically and integrate it into their belief system. I think that’s wildly unrealistic. Writing the only story is just part of the job. A bigger part is figuring out how to get people. Journalists can take on a role as civic teachers in our society. They get people to think about policy and how they can influence elected officials. In the dream scenarios you are literally paying people cash to sit down with journalists and learn something.”

I would love to have that job! And I think it’s a super interesting way to think about journalism. I think a real challenge in writing about just about anything, really, is how rarely you have the option to follow up later. And that follow up could really be beneficial. Way too much design journalism celebrates the launch but never goes back to see what happened after. I wrote about the “launch” of Hyperloop in Vegas two years ago; the CEO told me they’d be up and running by 2019. Seems unlikely.

I love when I can write about something really inspiring, like the recent piece I did about Cooper Hewitt’s Access + Ability exhibition but I’m most proud of a piece like “Solving All the Wrong Problems,” a critique of the Internet of Things which I felt wasn’t being written and was long overdue—and thanks to an endless stream of “innovations” like this Bluetooth-enabled toaster, I could keep writing about it forever!

Okay, now that you brought it up, I also have to ask the obligatory Elon Musk question (sorry). Where in cities would you want tech leaders to actually focus their energy—and startup capital?

Don’t try and disrupt everything. Focus on actual problems. The six guys you ate lunch with don’t count as “user research.” Recognize that the pace of tech is inherently different than the pace of government/building/infrastructure and seek to solve problems to help close that gap—basic working tech for government agencies, for example.

I’m all for moonshots but the disconnect between the problems of San Francisco and Silicon Valley and the problems that the companies located there are trying to solve is so over the top. The challenge is that not all urban solutions are going to make a profit. There is this notion of the public good whereby we collectively have agreed to provide basic services like public transit and clean water without the expectation of making money from it. This is really the core dilemma for me and I’m not sure how to advance past it.

I can say that there needs to be a place for the public sector; leaving everything “to the free market” (a sentiment I hear all the time) is not going to work. But hey, focus energy and money not on wheel reinvention but on investment in things that work and would work even better with more capital—there are plenty of precedents for mind-blowingly great high-speed trains (I just got back from Japan so this is much on my mind). I’ll vote for Shinkansen over Hyperloop any day of the week.

Apple Park was one of several Silicon Valley tech campuses criticized for its anti-urbanist design by SPUR’s report.
Dan Frommer
Amen. You’re currently the editorial director at SPUR. What’s it like doing research and policy at the frontlines of the city’s housing crisis?

Bleak? Talk about a need to cover the rapid changes happening in cities today! I think I know too much about what is—and isn’t—happening to help solve this crisis. Some days it’s just devastating.

It’s a good example of what you just talked about—going one step beyond writing about solutions in order to influence people. Can you give us an example of something you do see working—where those leaders are listening?

I give a million props to Scott Wiener—who was my district supervisor in San Francisco before heading to the Capitol. He is a bold, brave, and smart guy who is proposing and pushing for solutions that could actually help. [Editor’s note: Wiener’s transit housing bill SB 827 was defeated in the California Senate this week.]

While at SPUR you also authored an excellent report about sprawling suburban campuses of Silicon Valley. Did you hear from any of the worst offenders? Do they want to change?

Well, I don’t know if Jonny Ive saw the report but he sure made his attitude clear with this quote about Apple Park: “We didn’t make Apple Park for other people. So a lot of the criticisms are utterly bizarre, because it wasn’t made for you!”

His attitude may characterize some of his peers—who believe a giant building like that can exist free of context, that in its making it shouldn’t pay attention to that context—but not all of them.

Apple Park may be the architectural equivalent of an Apple product, but not even it exists in a vacuum. That building is in a town that is absolutely feeling the impacts, good and bad, of its presence, so that quote… oy.

SPUR’s “Rethinking the Corporate Campus” report highlights a few shining examples of the corporate campus done right, companies that really are trying to do the right thing, like the cloud storage company Box, which located in downtown Redwood City, minutes from Caltrain, or Samsung, which commissioned NBBJ to design a tall (for San Jose) building that shows innovation can happen vertically (in contrast to the massive single floor plate trend). Samsung is unusual in that it is located on transit, has open-to-the public ground floor retail, and even an open-to-the-public cafeteria.

But even with the best intentions, the corporate campus issue is a challenging one. Even companies who want to do the right thing have to deal with parking minimums or NIMBYs or the unfortunate truth that transit service in Silicon Valley is not keeping pace with need and demand.

Doing better will require effort from not just the companies themselves but local and regional governments, and from residents of the region, too. It’s an issue about housing, transportation, regionalism, and demonstrates that planning for growth, rather than going through all this pain to deal with its effects, would be a smarter strategy all around.

Image from the New York Times op-ed “Automated Vehicles Can’t Save Cities,” illustrated by Olalekan Jeyifous.
New York Times
You’ve authored a lot of very :fire emoji: New York Times op-ed columns, but I have to say your “Automated Vehicles Can’t Save Cities” piece kind of broke the internet. How did it come about?

Thanks! I love that one. In talking to so many people in many different fields about driverless cars I was really getting the sense that people had sort of forgotten why we should have them in the first place. It often feels like people are focused too much on how to make cities work for AVs rather than making AVs work for cities…which would result in everything that went wrong with the automobile repeated, only this time with driverless ones. So the exhortation to “Design for People, Not Cars” seemed pressing.

The New York Times’ Opinion’s Visuals Team was experimenting with a new format and my editor asked if I had any ideas. I’d been wanting to do another piece on AVs for a long time so I proposed that. We went back and forth trying to finesse the text, which started at about 800 words and ended up being published at what, 250? Writing short is really hard and I really wanted to get this one right. The Opinion team—Stuart Thompson and Jessia Ma—started looking at sketches but I didn’t have much of a sense of what shape it was going to take until the last couple weeks. I was beyond excited by the amazing illustrations Olalekan Jeyifous did and then the whole thing just came together.

It was also an incredibly timely tool with the fatal Uber crash happening a few weeks later. I found myself showing it to people to help them understand the challenges the industry needs to confront. Do you also think the format helped to hit home the ideas in a new way?

So often when talking to people who work in various aspects of the industry, I’ve asked about the “people” question and usually the response is “Yeah, yeah, but we’ve got to get the tech right.”

I don’t think you can get the tech right without considering the people part, yet the funding and focus is definitely on the former not the latter. I think the Uber crash really demonstrated how much we can’t afford to ignore it.