Questioning Design: A Strategy for the 21c

In his 1973 edition of Design for the Real World, Victor Papanek calls out advertising designers for persuading “people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have”, and industrial designers for creating unsafe, unnecessary, “tawdry idiocies” to be “hawked by advertisers”. Papanek pulls no punches, accusing design of putting “murder on the level of mass production”. As evidence he points to the industrial process and product-use that create exorbitant waste material, pollute our air and water, and are capable of causing injury and harm to a cross-global population.

It is at this point that I wikipedia Papanek and discover, to my great disappointment, that we can’t bond over whiskey and our shared design-related crankiness.

Web sites, while not the outcome nor the mass producer of industrial design, enable production, distribution, purchasing, and obsolescence of designed objects on a scale that does not have its equal in a physical counterpart. Take as an example. In 2014, Amazon reported almost US$89 billion in net sales (Statista 2015), with almost 114,000 total office and warehouse units, 181.12 million unique monthly visitors, and 305,258,547 unique products.

While Amazon is not responsible for manufacturing all these products, the company and its web site do provide unprecedented access to them in terms of availability and lower cost, with little substantial information regarding the products’ origin or value. If I wanted to know which specific sheep helped to make my sweater, for example, I would be out of luck.

Furthermore, consumers gain little insight as to the consequences of their purchase. A 300 pixel image of a product says little about the extent of its packaging, the impact its manufacture has had on the environment, the wage of and community impact on its workforce nor, frankly, about its quality. We rely on fellow customer reviews for some of this information, but few are critically written and, those that are, are not tagged for reference or easy access.

Design as Politics

Central to this critique is the notion of design as an inherently (whether or not consciously or intentionally) political activity:

[d]esign is political because it has consequences, and sometimes serious ones” (Winhall 2006).

With the development and implementation of user-centred design methods and tools, designers have acknowledged our responsibility (and accountability) for the consequences of our design efforts. Furthermore, we suggest that we have the capacity to design things with consequences— intentionally — different from the status quo.

I suggest that designers, as active participants in the creation and/or the survival of design, begin to treat every design as a kind of cultural object, or in Derrida’s terms a “text”, that can be read and analyzed. Such reading and rereading will provide us with valuable insights into how a design may, subsequently, be read and understood by its others.

Design Critique

Reading and rereading is somewhat similar to critique — a practice that is fairly common to design. However, consider this a call for a more rigorous, visible, transparent, systemic, and iterative engagement with design criticism.

Criticism, or critique, in design most often takes place within the process of creation, partnered with the practice of design iteration. In iteration, designers cycle through making-thinking-remaking until either they become reasonably satisfied with the emergent result or they, simply, run out of the time that has been allocated for the project (hopefully the former). Too often, however, critique and iteration are used to make incremental adjustments to existing artefacts, too narrowly focused on the functionality or the aesthetics of the object, rather than to enable substantial challenges to or shifts away from the status quo.

In the place of design critique, I am proposing the use of critical design theory, which provokes designers to reflect on and critique existing cultural values, mores, and practices.

We have the opportunity to inject interpretation, questioning, and rigorous critique into every design instance, if we consider each one as an iteration (whether or not that instance has been made “live” or public).

Models for serious, expert-led critique abound in philosophy, film, literature, architecture, and even culinary studies. But, web and graphic design have tended to shy away from public critique not because, according to Steven Heller, they are “inherently uncriticizable, but because designers have neither a critical vocabulary, nor the means to address work in a public forum”.

I call upon designers to set a higher bar for our discipline. Not only should the artefacts we have a hand at creating be held subject to rigorous critique, but we should as well.

Commenter asks why the photographer or creative director are not treated as people who should be held accountable for the outcomes of a design project.

Too often designers become invisible, standing behind the companies who employ them, the clients who pay for their work, or the marketing team. When the work is considered successful, it may receive awards or accolades in design annuals; when it is bad, the work may be shamed, but the designer can simply move on to another client or project. Yes, a designer’s reputation may suffer, and we are still primarily employed on the basis of the strengths demonstrated through our portfolios, but the judgment we receive comes from a very small, specialized community, with little actual recognition for the origin of work that may be harmful.

I do understand that, often, the larger the project / campaign, the greater the number of cooks. I also understand that a designer or a creative director may not have the final say in the nature of a design outcome, independent of the size of the project or its budget (I’ve been there).

There are many potential benefits to accountability, aka rigorous critique. Some have been already outlined by Jeffrey Bardzell: “informing a particular design process, critiquing and innovating on design processes and methods more generally, developing original theory beneficial to interaction design, and exposing more robustly the long-term and even unintended consequences of designs” (“An Introduction to the Practice”, 604).

I believe that accountability allows us to add credibility to our discipline. Even more importantly, we can be of useful — and much needed — service to our communities by critically and with justification celebrating the good and condemning the harmful.

{Originally published as: Radzikowska, Milena. Looking for Betsy: A Critical Theory Approach to Visibility and Pluralism in Design. Diss. University of Alberta, 2015. Print.}

Still Curious?

I teach, design, and research as a feminist scholar, usually located in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. You can see some of my work, or find out more about me, at I am on twitter as @candesignlove.