The artist Donald Judd wrote an essay to explain why so few masterpieces were being created in the 20th century. I couldn’t help but draw parallels to the design practice.

The essay started as a letter to help Yayoi Kusama’s visa process (a fascinating story to begin with, and I cannot imagine a government officer reading an essay that dense). His argument boils down to two problems:

  • The majority of artists were imitators, working in the manner of the current artistic wave but offering little to stand on their own
  • He argued that serious criticism is directly linked to the fate of good art. And good criticism was lacking everywhere.

Artists like Yayoi Kusama or Jackson Pollock offered something new that advanced art and were worthy of criticism. The idea of progress, leaving the old for the new, was critical to Judd.

His two arguments about art have parallels with the challenges I see in designing today:

  • It’s now common to copy methodologies, styles, or entire experiences with little thought or consideration for advancing the practice towards new grounds or what is best for a given problem.
  • There’s little good criticism in the space. Most of the discourse centers around which methodology or approach is better than another to accomplish a given goal — competition of dogma.

Judd’s argument regarding ability and dogma is harsh, and I wouldn’t go that far for design. But I do see an atrophy in ability as we pursue more methodologies, more techniques in our design tools, and more sure ways to get something done. We’re so eager to find a formula — a dogma.

On rare occasions, engaging in criticism might make you perceived as a less capable designer. Or not advancing the Design’s ”seat at the table” agenda. I’m glad I still see these as rare instances.

Methodologies, experimentation, and tacit knowledge are crucial to the design practice, and I’m not arguing against them. But the best way I can explain is: both Yayoi Kusama and Jackson Pollock used the same brushes to create their groundbreaking work, and they’re nothing alike. And we’re still arguing as designers whose brush is best.

At some point, we’d need to envision what we want to create beyond the brushes we choose to use.