Critical Differences

Movements, history teaches us are a reaction to something that came before. When people discovered a new medium, they tend to tinker with it, get to know it better and then use it to say something, articulate an argument or solve a problem. Critical making is the coming of age and maturing of new media and design in conjuncture with technology. What is considered critical depends on which part of the world you come from as it is closely related to the cultural priorities of that place.

In India, design solves problems. My entrance exams into design schools asked me if I was a problem solver and I knew enough to say yes. I got in. They didn’t ask if I was any good at it, just that I did it. I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant at that point — doesn’t everyone solve problems in some capacity at some point in their life? The Eames and the India Report gave this daily act of existence a higher meaning that the Institutions caught on to and passed to us their students. But in a country of Jugaad [1] culture and improvisations, everyone is a problem solver. For example, Arunachalam Muruganantham [2] — a man who started a business making low cost sanitary napkins. He made it for his wife to start with, and then saw a larger need and expanded it into an enterprise. In a world where this was considered a social taboo, he went through the acts of user testing his product on himself. He was successful and applauded. Richard Turere [3], a thirteen year old Kenyan cattle herder built a lighting system to guard his family’s livestock at night from lions. He saw a need and built himself a solution. There are many such tales of individuals and achievement. They know and practice design through making without being told of it and solve real everyday problems.

In contrast, critical design is a western development. Anthony Dunne [4] of Dunne & Raby talks of design “that focuses on asking questions rather than providing solutions. (He says that design) is not to narrow things down and solve things but open up spaces for discussion. Studying what those questions might be, what is it worth questioning, how design can pose questions, are all worthwhile investigations.” Design demands a purpose — it asks to improve a condition, and for something to be critical, it needs to be of value to people beyond you. The purpose of design here is to facilitate discussions to predict future worlds or problems that are given a form, structure or function.

The differences in design practice vary greatly from the east to the west. The east looks to improve the current, and the west, the future. Thought one may seem more tangible than the other, both are equally valid or critical to the worlds they come from. A design practice would do well to include both these understandings of criticality and their respective approaches to the act of designing.

[1]jugaad n. an improvised or jury-rigged solution; inventiveness, ingenuity, cleverness.

Written as part of Critical Frameworks. Critical Making course led by Dr. Garnet Hertz at Art Center College of Design

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