Critical design

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Critical design takes a critical theory based approach to design. This kind of design uses design fiction and speculative design proposals to challenge assumptions and conceptions about the role objects play in everyday life. Critical design plays a similar role to product design, but does not emphasize an object's commercial purpose or physical utility. It is mainly used to share a critical perspective or inspire debate[1] while increasing awareness of social, cultural, or ethical issues in the eyes of the public. Critical design was popularized by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby through their firm, Dunne & Raby.


The term Critical Design was first used in Anthony Dunne’s book Hertzian Tales (1999)[2] and further developed in Design Noir: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects (2001).[3] Its adverse 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. Many practitioners of Critical Design who have never heard of the term itself, and/or would describe their work differently. Referring to it as Critical Design simply garners more attention to it, and emphasizes that design has applications beyond problem solving.

Design as societal critique is not a new idea. For instance, Italian Radical Design of the 1960s and 70s was highly critical of prevailing social values and design ideologies. Critical design builds on this attitude by creatively critiquing concepts and ideologies using fabricated artifacts to embody commentaries around everything from the #MeToo Movement to consumer culture. The process of designing such an object, as well as the presentation and narrative around the object itself, allows for reflection on existing cultural values, morals, and practices. Humor is important, but satire is not the goal; For a project to succeed in Critical Design, the viewer must be mentally engaged and willing to think beyond the expected and ordinary.

A Critical Design object challenges an audience's preconceptions, provoking new ways of thinking about the object, its use, and the surrounding environment. In making such an object, critical designers frequently employ classic design processes—research, user experience, iteration—while working to conceptualize scenarios intended to highlight social, cultural, or political paradigms.[4]

Regardless of its processes, Critical Design is often discussed as a unique approach in Design Research, perhaps because of its focus on critiquing widely held social, cultural, and technical beliefs. According to Sanders, Critical Design probes an "ambiguous stimuli that designers send to people who then respond to them, providing insights for the design process."[5] Uta Brandes identifies Critical Design as a discrete Design Research method[6] and Bowen integrates it into human-centered design activities as a useful tool for stakeholders to critically think about possible futures.[7]

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 projects. FABRICA's Visual Communication department, led by Omar Vulpinari, actively participates in critiquing social, political and environmental issues through global awareness campaigns for international magazines and organizations like UN-WHO. Several young artists who have produced critical design projects 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).


To attribute to design practice, critical design broadens the vision in design from traditional practice. It is no longer limited to highlighting the physical function in product design, though this causes some ambiguities in the discussion of critical design's function as it maintains in design area. Matt Malpass addresses Larry Ligo's classification of five different types of function: Structural articulation, Physical function, Psychological function, Social function, as well as Cultural-existentical function[8] in his article, with a further discussion of how Modernism leaves a narrower understanding of physical utility when we think about function,[9] which leads to the ambiguity in Critical Design's function. As critical design focuses on present social, cultural, and ethical implications of design objects and practice,[1] It mostly emphasizes on social and cultural impact from its function.

In addition, critical design object has a lot of potentials to contribute to testing ideas during the process of the development of new technology. As Dunne and Raby express their concerns about always lacking communication between the specialists and the general public to form a two-way discussion of new technology. It always limits to one-way flow from specialists to the public.[10] Critical design provides a stage to give scenarios, completes the dialog between specialists and the general public and helps to collect feedback from the public for further refinements before the idea is going too far for any changes.

Critical play[edit]

Researcher Mary Flanagan wrote Critical Play:Radical Game Design in 2009,[11] 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 by some for dramatizing so-called 'dystopian scenarios,' which may, in fact, be reflective of real-life conditions in some places in the world. Some 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.[12] Certain media responses to the work, 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."[13]

Critical acclaim[edit]

In recognition of their formalization of the field, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby were presented with the inaugural MIT Media Lab Award in June 2015 with director Joichi Ito pointing out that "[Dunne and Raby's] pioneering approach to Critical Design and its intersection with science, technology, art, and the humanities has changed the landscape of design education and practice worldwide."[14]

Distinctions with Conceptual art[edit]

Conceptual art practice has a very similar role as critical design since both of them are sharing critical perspectives to the public and being commentators to issues, the public may get confused to understand these two different fields. However, Matt Malpass points out that the critical designer still applies the skills from the training and practice as designer but re-orientates these skills from a focus on practical ends to a focus on design work that functions symbolically, culturally, existentially, and discursively.[9] Critical design objects are made precisely based on the design principles and carefully follow the design and design research process. Also, critical design objects always stay close to people's everyday life. They tend to be tested on real people and get feedback for further developments. Conceptual art usually associates with gallery spaces and mostly tends to apply the artistic media in the process.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Malpass, Matt (2013). "Between Wit and Reason: Defining Associative, Speculative, and critical Design in Practice". Design and Culture. 5:3, 333-356.
  2. ^ 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 978-1-874175-27-8.
  3. ^ Raby, Fiona (2001). Design Noir: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects. Basel: Birkhäuser. ISBN 978-3-7643-6566-0.
  4. ^ "MoMA - Talk to Me".
  5. ^ Sanders, Elizabeth B.-N. (September 2006). "Design Research in 2006". Design Research Quarterly. 1 (1): 1–8. ISSN 0142-694X.
  6. ^ Brandes, Uta (2009). Designtheorie und Designforschung (in German). Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink. ISBN 978-3-7705-4664-0.
  7. ^ "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.
  8. ^ Ligo, Larry. The Concept of Function in Twentieth-Century Architectural Criticism. MI: UMI Research Press.
  9. ^ a b Maplpass, Matt (Spring 2015). "Criticism and Function in Critical Design Practice". Design Issues. 31 (2).
  10. ^ "Towards a Critical Design". Dunne & Raby. 2013.
  11. ^ Flanagan, Mary (2009). Critical Play: Radical Game Design. Cambridge: MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-06268-8.
  12. ^ "Republic of Salivation (Michael Burton and Michiko Nitta)". 19 December 2013.
  13. ^ luizaprado (4 February 2014). "Questioning the "critical" in Speculative & Critical Design: A rant on the blind privilege that permeates most Speculative Design projects".
  14. ^ Lab, MIT Media (16 July 2015). "Introducing the Media Lab Award".

Further reading[edit]

  • 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

External links[edit]