vendredi 18 juillet 2014

The Everyday.

When people encounter the term critical design for the first time, they often assume it has something to do with critical theory and the Frankfurt School or just plain criticism. But it is neither. We are most interested in critical thinking, that is, not taking things for granted, being skeptical, and by always questioning what is give. All good design is critical. Designers start by identifying shortcomings in the thing they are redesigning and offer a better version. Critical design applies this to larger more complex issues. Critical design is critical thought translated into materiality. It is about thinking through design rather than through words and using the language and structure of design to engage people. It is an expression or manifestation of our skeptical fascination with technology, a way of unpicking the different hopes, fears, promises, delusions, and nightmares of technological development and change, especially how scientific discoveries move from the laboratory into everyday life through the marketplace. The subject can vary. On the most basic level it is about questioning underlying assumptions in design itself, on the next level it is directed at the technology industry and its market-driven limitations, and beyond that, general social theory, politics, and ideology.



Without an intellectual framework it is very difficult to advance the practice of critical design; lots of projects happen but many simply repeat what has been gone before. We need some criteria that make it possible to advance this form of design through reflection and critique or at least get a sense of how the area can be refined. Conventional design's success is measured against how well it sells and how elegantly conflicts among aesthetics, production, usability, and costs are resolved. How is critical design's success measured?

Design as critique can do many things - pose questions, encourage thought, expose assumptions, provoke action, spark debate, raise awareness, offer new perspectives, and inspire. And even to entertain in an intellectual sort of way. But what is excellence in critical design? Is it subtlety, originality in topic, the handling of a question? Or something more functional such as its impact or its power to make people think? Should it even be measured or evaluated? It's not a science after all and does not claim to be the best or most effective way of raising issues.

Critical design might borrow heavily from art's methods and approaches but that is it. We expect art to be shocking and extreme. Critical design needs to be closer to the everyday; that's where its power to disturb lies. A critical design should be demanding, challenging, and if it is going to raise awareness, do so for issues that are not already well known. Safe ideas will not linger in people's minds or challenge prevailing views but if it is too weird, it will be dismissed as art, and if too normal, it will be effortlessly assimilated. If it is labeled as art it is easier to deal with but if it remains design, it is more disturbing; it suggests that the everyday life as we know it could be different, that things could change.

For us, a key feature is how well it simultaneously sits in this world, the here-and-now, while belonging to another yet-to-exist one. It proposes an alternative that through its lack of fit with this world offers a critique by asking, "why not?" If it sits too comfortably in one or the other it fails. That is why for us, critical designs need to be made physical. Their physical presence can locate them in our world whereas their meaning, emboddied values, beliefs, ethics, dreams, hopes, and fears belong somewhere else. This is where the critique of critical design should focus, on crafting its coexistence in the here-and-now and yet-to-exist, and when done successfully, providing what author Martin Amis has called "complicated pleasure".


Using design as a form of critique is just one use for design, as is communication or problem solving. We believe that some design should always question prevailing values and their underlying assumptions and that this activity can sit beside mainstream design rather than replace it. The challenge is to keep evolving techniques that are appropriate to the times and identifying topics that need to be highlighted, reflected on, or challenged.

In Envisioning Real Utopias, Erik Olin Wright describes emancipatory social science "as a theory of a journey from the present to the possible future: the diagnosis and critique of society tells us why we want to leave the world in which we live; the theory of alternatives tells us where we want to go; and the theory of transformation tells us how to get from here to there - how to make viable alternatives achievable".

For us, the fulfillment of this journey is highly unlikely if set out like a blueprint. Instead, we believe to achieve change, it is necessary to unlock people's imaginations and apply it to all areas of life at a microscale. Critical design, by generating alternatives, can help construct compasses rather than maps for navigating new sets of values.


By acting on peoples' imaginations rather than the material world, critical design aims to challenge how people think about everyday life. In doig this, it strives to keep alive other possibilities by providing a counterpoint to the world around us and encouraging us to see that everyday life could be different.

Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby, Speculative Everything, MIT Press, 2013, p.35, 43-45.

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