When the most radical thing you could do is just stop

or, why the doyens of ‘critical’ design are the problem with critical design

matt kiem
4 min readMar 12, 2014

Who do ‘Critical’ Designers like Tobias Revell think they are to declare that they are now making ‘political commons’ and 'creating debate'? This is yet another display of hubris from an academic constituency that shows contempt for any political discussion that does not fit within the bounds of what they have decided is important.

This was shown quite clearly in a recent dialogue between James Auger, Ahmed Ansari, Cameron Tonkinwise and myself, the results of which were well summarised and valuably extended by Luiza Prado and Pedro Oliveira.

Throughout this discussion, Auger was given several opportunities to acknowledge the limits and exclusions of critical design but chose instead to completely dismiss questions of privilege and political accountability.

Commenters Tobie and Scott Denison later attempted to rationalise the critiques put to Auger as problems of representative examples (as though the problems were about not having seen or read enough) and claims that Critical Design is emergent and needs more time work out its issues. Neither checked the patronising stance of Auger or addressed the questions at play, indicating that this is clearly not an issue of examples or time but a refusal to acknowledge stakes and confront complicity.

This response makes it clear that Critical Designers like Auger et al have already created a commons that is designed for themselves and their own conservative interests. Their purpose is to reject whatever threatens their privileged status, meaning that uncomfortable questions around class, racism, patriarchy, and heteronormativity are either dismissed or distorted into self-serving representations.

This same pattern is reproduced in Revell’s article. Here he claims that critical design is ready to create change. On what basis has he decided this? What constituencies have Critical Designers consulted with in order to assess the value of their work? What constituencies would even be interested in the work of Critical Design?

Section of a 1837 map of the Colony of New South Wales ‘Exhibiting the Situation and Extent of Appropriated Lands’, designed by Surveyor Robert Dixon and engraved by J. & C. Walker. Published in London, this map allowed prospective settlers to speculate over which portion of Aboriginal land they would claim and occupy.

Revell claims that Critical Design is for plotting trajectories 'outside the market' in order to 'project into uncertainty'. This is a ridiculous attempt to found some pristine space outside of capitalism. As Angela Mitropoulos argues, dispersing risk and uncertainty in ways that protect capital is precisely why (and how) the infrastructures of borders, contracts, insurance, hedging, suburbia, prisons etc have been built. The notion of thinking 'uncertainty' in terms of design is neither new, 'outside the market', or critical in any way.

Revell's claim that protest has been 'locked down' appears to be based on a restrictive sense of 'protest' that excludes recognition of the myriad forms of social struggle that have occurred around the globe over the last 50 years. Some of the more recent of these include industrial struggles in China, South Africa, Bangladesh, and Cambodia, as well as wider political struggles in the Arab world, Brazil, Greece, Spain, and this is only to name a few. Revell’s claim that this occurs 'mostly on Facebook' suggests that Revell is clueless about the actual work of social struggle.

Revell makes reference to the work of Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network (AWMN) as a 'political solution to a political problem', but in doing so reveals the irrelevance of Critical Design. AWMN is not speculative in the sense that Critical Design tries to trade on, and it is the uselessness of Critical Designers speculations (to anyone other than themselves) that marks the limits of how 'viral' it will become. Certainly they may find an audience in a privileged, capital rich, technophile crowd. But as Ansari, Oliveira and Prado have explained, much of the work of critical and speculative design is of little value or interest to the majority population of the world who are already living the various negative consequences of past speculations.

The idea that Revell's version of Critical Design could be politically impactful in a progressive sense is delusional. Given their apparent inability to take on actual critique it would be far more radical for the likes of Dunne, Raby, Auger, Revell et al to just stop altogether and give the space and resources they take up over to those who actually have something at stake in these issues. In the interests of the kind of design-as-politics ‘we’ actually need, the restricted, privileged, and ultimately conservative commons that Critical Design attempts to practice is something I am quite happy to refuse.

Much of the critique expressed here reflects recent lessons learnt from working with Alana Lentin, Angela Mitropoulos, Liz Thompson and Sanmati Verma in the context of a crossborder solidarity campaign.

I’d also like to acknowledge the invaluable assistance and perspectives of Ahmed Ansari, Pedro Oliveira, Luiza Prado and Cameron Tonkinwise in putting this piece together.