26 May 2021
Writing about Design
By Hailey Bachrach
I’ll confess: I’ve used the dreaded phrase ‘simple yet effective’ in a review. As one of the least visually-minded people on earth, writing about design has always been my weakness as a critic—but as many designers will tell you, I’m far from alone in that shortcoming. Designers are used to be being ignored, having their work misattributed, or being dismissed with the dreaded ‘simple yet effective’ in reviews. Most of the time, if design is done well, it blends in so smoothly and serves the story so seamlessly that it seems impossible that the show could have been designed any other way… which is exactly when the design deserves the most praise. What steps can critics take to train themselves to write about design more effectively?
Describe what you’re seeing and hearing.
This may seem obvious… but effective writing about design can really be that simple. Is the lighting warm or cool? Is the set pristine or shabby? Is the sound naturalistic or expressive? Just noticing and describing the look and sound of the stage in addition to the acting and the script is an acknowledgement that these visual and aural elements are an essential part of the storytelling, and key to convey if you want to give the reader a full sense of the show you’re writing about. And it needn’t be intimidating or filled with jargon: just say what you see.
“If you can’t work out what to say about a show’s design, start with how you feel.”
Remember everything is intentional.
It’s easy to overlook design elements that feel natural or inevitable—but that perfectly matched set of chairs or even those multi-purpose white cubes didn’t just wander onstage by themselves. Nothing onstage can be just taken for granted.
Attribute your feelings to something onstage.
If you can’t work out what to say about a show’s design, start with how you feel. We’re used to working backwards from a feeling to think about how acting or the script or the directing have caused that feeling… so just work design into your considerations. If a character makes you uneasy, it’s probably partly the acting and writing, but probably also what they’re wearing, or what happens to the light or sound when they enter. If a sequence is disorienting, how do clashing visual and aural elements contribute to that sensation?
“We as critics can collaborate, too. If you’re offered a plus-one, consider taking a designer or visual artist as your guest to your next show and talk to them about what they noticed.”
Everything onstage is the result of a collaborative process, and it’s easy to just attribute everything to the director. But think carefully about who was responsible for the individual elements you’re shouting out. Yes, the director is overseeing the overall vision of the piece, but that doesn’t mean that individual design elements were their idea. Remember to think carefully about who you’re giving credit to.
We as critics can collaborate, too. If you’re offered a plus-one, consider taking a designer or visual artist as your guest to your next show and talk to them about what they noticed. They might notice things you didn’t, or can help you better articulate the things you did see.
Giving proper credit to designers isn’t about glory. Designers remain chronically overworked and underpaid, and this is partly due to the fact that even people within the theatre industry don’t recognize the full value of what they do. If critics can talk more confidently about design, and help their readers understand more clearly that design is an essential element of onstage storytelling undertaken by skilled professionals whose names we should recognize as readily as we do directors or actors, it will be an important step in designers gaining the recognition, working conditions, and compensation their skills deserve.
Hailey Bachrach is an academic and reviewer based in London. More of her writing can be found here
In addition to Hailey’s wonderful advice we asked some designers for their own top tips:
Listen to Chip Kidd’s TED talk from 2012 called ‘The hilarious art of book design’. He’s a cover designer for Penguin Random House. His job is to absorb a story and represent it’s meaning in one image. It’s exactly the same thought process as design and he’s an enigmatic speaker and snappy dresser too.
As well as looking at the overall arc of a production, which in turn may lead to the presumption there’s one overall name behind it, split it up & reconsider it as a series of moments. For those moments that stay with you, consider what are the ingredients that make them work, why they link up. Imagine the whole company, including the director, sitting in a circle and exchanging equal amounts of ideas.
If you don’t know how a particularly effective design moment was created, there’s a chance it could be video. Not all video looks like footage and sits on a screen. It often mixes in with the palette of set, lighting, sound and choreography.
Also, if there is no room to credit the designers within your word limit, consider doing what some publications do (i.e. The Stage) and having a separate column that lists the credits.
Odinn Orn Hilmarsson
Sound and music affect us on a very instinctive and unconscious level. It is less about what it makes us hear but more about what it makes us feel. You could work backwards from how you felt about the show overall to determine whether the sound and music helped or didn’t help you reach that conclusion.
If you’re writing about any aspect of the design then do please take the time to name check the relevant designer as you would the actors. It demonstrates that you’ve understood the collaborative process between director and designers and are crediting the right person. As a designer it’s always exciting to see your name in print!
One of my favourite things anyone has said to me when I was deciding to train as a costume designer is that “fashion is about clothes and costume is about people”. There are layers of intimate psychology throughout the costume design process combined with creativity and concept. A costume designer should know the character they are costuming as intimately as the actor performing the role. So if you notice a nicotine stained pocket or a torn cuff, the designer is probably responsible for that.
Additional thanks to Simeon Miller and E.M. Parry for their contributions to the research.