Out for lunch with a friend one afternoon, I happened to mention the term ‘critical design’. To my surprise she laughed and asked if I had made it up. This lead me to thinking about what critical design actually is and how can it be used to inform design thinking.
What is critical design?
Anthony Dunne first mentioned the term ‘critical design’ in his 1999 book ‘Hertizan Tales’. He introduced it as a form of design thinking in which design itself is used as a medium to stimulate discussion around the cultural, social and ethical implications of emerging technologies. Since then the term has continued to grow in popularity and inspire various projects.
Many of you probably already use this design method. When we speak of critical design we touch upon basic critical thinking skills and the importance of asking questions. It is only through asking questions that we can constantly evolve as designers, challenging our own perceptions and assumptions about the world around us. The world which we have a hand in creating.
One of critical design’s roles is to question the limited range of emotional and psychological experiences offered through designed products. Design is assumed to only make things nice, it’s as though all designers have taken an unspoken Hippocratic oath, this limits and prevents us from fully engaging with and designing for the complexities of human nature…”Dunne & Raby
Lets take a look at some examples:
Onion Card, 2000
Part of a larger project at IDEO, the Onion card is a new twist on an old idea – the business card. The onion card takes into consideration the complex world of networking today.
The card is split into information levels, allowing the recipient access to certain levels as approved by the site owner. For example, upon meeting a new business connection you may tear off all personal information, leaving access to professional information only. The Onion card allows us to edit the information we give about ourselves depending on whom we are giving it to.
I’m not entirely sure how this would work in real live. For example: Imagine a group of friends is sitting at a table. One friend turns to the other and asks, “do you have Jim’s number? This friend doesn’t have Jim’s number and says so. The rest of the group fumbles to retrieve Jim’s Onion card. An audible gasp fills the room as the friends realize they do not share the same access. It is clear the Jim trusts some of them more than others with full access to his information. Oh dear.
Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby
The Technological Dream Series, 2007
This project explores a future in which robots are a part of our everyday lives. They pose the robot not as a simply as a super smart machine, but rather as a technological companion. The robot pictured is particularly needy, intelligent yet unable to move without the help of its human companion. Dunne and Raby use artifacts such as these to stimulate discussion and envision what the future might be like.
Characteristics of critical design:
- It is a design method that drives us to think, to get out of the box and into a space of speculative design proposals
- It challenges our assumptions about the roles products play in everyday life
- It allows us to look at the way we are, the ways we interact with the world around us and the ways that we live
What can critical design offer us?
- It makes us think
- It allows us to look at design and explore all of the possibilities, not just the models and patterns we see in popular design– but those that are yet to be imagined
- It provides us with richer, more creative outputs and deliverables
- It teaches us to look outside our current design patterns and critique our design decisions
- It promotes the production of conscious design outputs
- Through applying critical design thinking we can begin to unravel the complex relationship we have to technology and the world around us
At this point your head may be spinning. If you are experiencing critical design vertigo let me show you a picture to illustrate the process (or at least how I view it).
From critical design we can learn to look beyond our commercial outputs and think more deeply about our design actions. I believe this involves considering more than the users immediate needs and desires. It involves thinking more holistically about the social, cultural and ethical implications of our design decisions. I encourage all designers and design thinkers to explore critical design thinking. Who knows, you may surprise yourself with what your imagination is capable of.
Paola Antonelli – Design and the Elastic Mind
Anthony Dunne – Hertizan Tales
Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby – Design Noir
John Thackara – In the bubble: designing in a complex world