Critical Design takes a critical theory based approach to design. Popularized by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby through their firm, Dunne & Raby. Critical design uses designed artifacts as an embodied critique or commentary on consumer culture. Both the designed artifact (and subsequent use) and the process of designing such an artifact causes reflection on existing values, mores, and practices in a culture.
A critical design object will often challenge its audience's preconceptions and expectations thereby provoking new ways of thinking about the object, its use, and the surrounding environment. Critical Designers generally believe design that provokes, inspires, makes us think, and questions fundamental assumptions can make a valuable contribution to debates about the role technology plays in everyday life. Objects made by critical designers frequently employ classic design processes—research, user experience, iteration—and apply these working processes to conceptual scenarios intended to highlight social, political, or cultural paradigms.
Design as critique is not a new idea. For example, Italian Radical Design of the 1960s and 70s was highly critical of prevailing social values and design ideologies. Critical design builds on this tradition.
The term Critical Design was first used in Anthony Dunne’s book Hertzian Tales (1999) and further developed in Design Noir: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects (2001). Its opposite is affirmative design: design that reinforces the status quo. It is more of an attitude than a style or movement; a position rather than a method. There are many people doing this kind of work who have never heard of the term critical design and would describe their work differently. Naming it Critical Design is simply a way of making this activity more visible and emphasising that design has other possibilities beyond solving problems.
Nevertheless Critical Design is discussed as an approach in Design Research, as a way to critique social, cultural, technical and economic controversies through designing critical artefacts. According to Sanders Critical Design involves also probes as "ambiguous stimuli that designers send to people who then respond to them, providing insights for the design process." Uta Brandes identifies Critical Design as discrete Design Research method and Bowen integrates it in human-centered design activities as a useful tool for stakeholders to critically think about possible futures.
In recent years, FABRICA, a communication research center, owned by Italian fashion giant, Benetton Group, has been actively involved in producing provocative imagery and critical design. FABRICA's Visual Communication department, under the leadership of Omar Vulpinari, actively participates in critiquing social, political and environmental issues through global awareness campaigns for international magazines and organizations like UN-WHO. Some young artists producing critical design at FABRICA in recent years are Erik Ravello (Cuba), Yianni Hill (Australia), Marian Grabmayer (Austria), Priya Khatri (India), Andy Rementer (United States), and An Namyoung (South Korea).
The concept of critical play has also come into vogue in recent years. Researcher Mary Flanagan wrote Critical Play:Radical Game Design in 2009, the same year that Lindsay Grace started the Critical Gameplay project. Grace's Critical Gameplay project is an internationally exhibited collection of video games that apply Critical Design. The games provoke questions about the way games are designed and played. The Critical Gameplay Game, Wait, was awarded the Games for Change hall of fame award for being one of the 5 most important games for social impact since 2003. The work has been shown at Electronic Language International Festival, Games, Learning & Society Conference, Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems among other notable events.
As Critical Design has gained mainstream exposure, the discipline has been itself criticized for dramatizing so called 'dystopian scenarios,' which are in fact reflective of real-life conditions in many places in the world. Many see Critical Design as rooted in the fears of a wealthy, urban, western population and failing to engage with existing social problems. As an example, a project titled Republic of Salivation, by designers Michael Burton and Michiko Nitta, featured as part of MoMA 's Design and Violence series, portrays a society plagued by overpopulation and food scarcity which is reliant on heavily modified, government-provided, nutrient blocks. Certain media responses to the work, however, point to the "presumed naivety of the project," which presents a scenario that "might be dystopian to some, but in some other parts of the world it has been the reality for decades."
- Dunne, Anthonny (1999). Hertzian tales : electronic products, aesthetic experience and critical design. London: Royal College of Art computer related design research studio. p. 117. ISBN 1-874175-27-6.
- Raby, Fiona (2001). Design Noir: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects. Basel: Birkhäuser. ISBN 978-3-7643-6566-0.
- Sanders, Elizabeth B.-N. (September 2006). "Design Research in 2006". Design Research Quarterly 1 (1): 1–8. ISSN 0142-694X.
- Brandes, Uta (2009). Designtheorie und Designforschung (in German). Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink. ISBN 978-3-7705-4664-0.
- "Crazy ideas or creative probes?: presenting critical artefacts to stakeholders to develop innovative product ideas". Proceedings of EAD07: Dancing with Disorder: Design, Discourse and Disaster. April 2007.
- Flanagan, Mary (2009). Critical Play:Radical Game Design. Cambridge: MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-06268-8.
- Jahn, Gwyllim, Thomas Morgan and Stanlislav Roudavski (2014). 'Mesh Agency', in Design Agency: Proceedings of the 34th Annual Conference of the Association for Computer Aided Design in Architecture (ACADIA), ed. by David Gerber, Alvin Huang and Jose Sanchez, pp. 135–144 PDF
- Dunne & Raby
- Noam Toran
- Crispin Jones
- Elio Caccavale
- Elseware Collective
- Martí Guixé
- Natalie Jeremijenko
- Jurgen Bey
- Auger Loizeau
- Critical Gameplay Project
- Designing Critical Design, part 1
- Designing Critical Design, part 2
- How should we critique ‘Critical Design’?
- Critical Design and nanotech
- Don't Panic by Roger Ibars (article)
- Review of Don't Panic
- Critical Design F.A.Q