Sorry I am so late to the party folks. I have been working a ton the past two weeks. Quite honestly, I was rather overwhelmed when I opened Google Reader and saw all the posts that you have added. Part of me felt an obligation to read everything else before I got started in order to make sure I wasn’t overlapping things that have already been stated. I finally got to spend a bunch of time last night reading through your insightful posts and comments. Really good stuff and I am rather sad that I wasn’t engaged in some of the conversations that have already gone on. I did not feel that there was much more that I could say on many of the discussions so I will start with this general brain dump of my thoughts and feelings from the past two weeks or so.

I know we all process the things we are learning in different ways. I am seeing some of you go very deep into some topics. Personally, I tend to focus on the macro quite a bit, especially when we are getting hit with words and subjects that I do not know much about yet.

The title of this post is influenced by an excerpt from Kael’s article “The Idea of Film Criticism”:

He is a good critic if he helps people understand more about the work than they could see for themselves: he is a great critic, if by his understanding and feeling for the work, by his passion, he can excite people so that they want to experience more of the art that is there, waiting to be seized….He is a bad critic if he does not awaken the curiosity, enlarge the interests and understanding of his audience. The art of the critic is to transmit his knowledge of and enthusiasm for art to others. [Emphasis is mine.]

We are all critics. Whether you agree with me or not, you prove my point! I think we are genetically hard-wired to question and test stuff. It is how children learn. Telling an eight year old not to play with matches because it can hurt them often leads to a critique of that statement by the child in the form of checking out the matches themselves. Rules, boundaries and limitations are tested by critique. Of course, when we were children it was called something else like disobedience or not respecting your elders. Either way, I think criticism stems from an innate desire to gain better understanding and this concept is encapsulated in the quote from Kael that is listed above.

I really connected with the phrase describing a great critic where the critic’s understanding, feeling and passion for the topic or issue can excite people so they want to experience more! I immediately thought of so many examples where this is played out. In the classroom – what makes for a great professor? In sports – what makes for a great commentator? On the job – what makes for a great co-worker or boss? What makes for a great leader? I began to see why Jeff has devoted so much of his time and energy to bring the language of critique and aesthetics into the world of interaction design. It is the strategy for evangelizing HCI/d, IXD, UX, IA (whatever!) to the rest of the world.

This is what led me to the thought about living in the gray area. That is where the excitement is. The black and white – the so-called “obvious” – does not appeal to the hearts (feelings, emotions) of others. How does a chemistry professor make chemistry exciting? By regurgitating the obvious? I don’t think so. How many of you ever went to a science museum where the put a banana in liquid nitrogen and then hammered a nail with it? Not that was cool stuff to a 12 year old. I wanted to do that! Black and white, in and of itself is BORING! Of course, I am sure Jeff can give us some examples of fashion designers that have done an amazing job with just a black and white palate. I am pretty confident that what will make it amazing is how they used the colors – not the colors themselves. (I don’t know what I am talking about here, so I will move on.)

It’s the gray area that is exciting. The places we have never gone before. The stuff that is not obvious to us. Great critics take us to the gray area and get us excited about it in the process. So this leads me to the next question/issue and that is the understanding that in order to be a great critic the reservoir we will draw upon is our knowledge and understanding of the topic. The device we will use to deliver that criticism will be our ability to communicate the enthusiasm, passion and energy we have for that topic. We cannot rely on either one alone. I have listened to people talk about topics where they are one of the ten most educated people on the planet about said topic and it was boring as dirt because they could not convey their enthusiasm (if they even had any) for the topic. On the other hand, I have watched people who were very passionate, articulate and enthusiastic but when it became obvious that they had no idea what they were talking about because their knowledge base could fit in a shot glass then I was done listening to them.

So, here are a few examples. [Before I give you my list, I want to make an appeal for a Sports category because I can give sports analogies as they relate to aesthetics and criticism almost as much as Jeff can for fashion and film.] OK, here you go.

Favorite/Least Favorite Critics

  • Football: Favorite – John Madden. Least Favorite – Tony Kornheiser.
  • Basketball: Favorite – Bobby Knight. Least Favorite – Dick Vitale.
  • Food: Favorite – Alton Brown. (Bobby Flay is a close second) Least Favorite – Paula Deen.
  • NASCAR: Favorite – Darryl Waltrip. Least Favorite – Michael Waltrip.
  • American Idol: Favorite – Kara Dioguardi. Least Favorite – Paula Abdul.

There you go. Post #1 in the books. Tell me what you think.