Critical Design: What’s the point?

United Micro Kingdom (UmK) Exhibition at the Design Museum by designers and educators Dunne & Raby. Read more about it here.

I come from a background of biotechnology and economics. Moving from years of scientific facts and mathematical models into the world of art felt… odd. Not only do my teachers ask for my opinion, it’s considered almost unusual not to share them. Throughout my undergraduate degree, there were always strict guidelines. I didn’t have opinions about hemoglobin or chimeric antibodies, at least not in a way that affected my grading. I might hate how monoclonal antibodies are made but it doesn’t affect my marks or what I have to study. Interacting with the material in sciences seem so different than in arts. It is subjective in a way that makes me uncomfortable. Like working without a rubric. Drawing lines without a ruler. Driving without pavement markings.

It’s weird.

What is more befuddling is the world of design fiction and critical design. On the surface, they don’t appear to be particularly useful. They look like they exclusively belong in exhibits rather than a product I can use at home. What’s the point?

Matt Malpass, a research fellow in Critical Design at the University of the Arts London, acknowledges that the purpose of critical practice is undermined by becoming increasing ‘self-reflexive and introverted’. When I was first introduced to design fictions in class, I was also of the opinion that this is design for design’s sake. It isn’t client-driven; it’s art.

The Role of Critical Design

In the late 1960’s, Ettore Sottsass declared that design “is a way of discussing society, politics, eroticism, food and even design. At the end, it is a way of building up a possible figurative utopia or metaphor about life”. This definition of design, one that seemingly gives it purpose beyond the self-expressionism of art, seems to be a root of critical design. Critical design challenges the traditions, theories and opinions of today and presents alternatives that are not technologically or fiscally driven. This type of design focuses on exploring the impact, opportunities, risks and possible outcomes of new technologies on policies, society, culture and the environment.

The term ‘Critical design’ originated from Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, now professors of Design and Emerging Technology at Parsons School of Design.

Dunne and Raby’s Design for an overpopulated future. Watch the video here.

Critical design is the less angry descendant of 1970’s Radical Design that focuses on inspiring discussions on political and social issues.

Something that I picked up on early on was that most of these critical design projects focus on potential dystopian futures. In my earlier post on the design fiction of Gattaca, the focus of the movie is on the consequences of the diegetic prototype. Perhaps this type of thinking, that most of our possible futures are likely doomed, leads to more controversial and stimulating conversations. People are more strongly provoked into debate in the face of antagonistic ideas. Peter Linenfeld provides an insight on this aspect of critical design and says,

“One reason we have so little faith in the future is that the shape of things to come has never been so inadequately imagined. We tend to see utopia as relentlessly personal, while the apocalypse is one of the few shared universals. In other words, while we can posit a future for ourselves as individuals (and even as members of a family) we have little in the way of positive imagination for the realm of the social, much less the political.

I believe the most important take-away, as stated by Paola Antonelli in States of Design 04: Critical Design, is that critical design is not meant to lead to immediately useful products. Instead they are meant to stimulate discussions and provide direction towards a better future. In my first post on Human Hyenas, Paul Gong explores a potential solution to the problem of food wastage. While his project is unlikely to be an adopted solution, it raises questions about synthetic biology and how we can use it to solve major problems, how we value our resources and the growing problems around food and agriculture.

Critical designs are not the devices you see at home. They are the movies that you walk away from slowly. They are the exhibits that you talk about for hours. They are the ideas you don’t just tweet about but write medium posts.