1 Critical design was popularised by the interaction design duo Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, following Dunne’s PhD at the Royal College of Art and the subsequent book Hertzian Tales (1999). Rebelling against an established view of design as a tool of seduction and to fuel economic interests, they argue for a more critical role of design. By this they mean the need to develop a disciplinary ethos, which aims to question culture and social habits, rather than affirming market and consumer trends. But this approach to design, which gained momentum from the mid-2000s onwards, revealed several flaws.
First of all, while design as criticism is relatively new to product and interaction design, it has a rich history not only within architecture but also graphic design. This is often overlooked and this mode of approaching design is recurrently presented as novelty. Secondly, “critical design” became synonymous of a vague “what if” mode of design predominantly practiced by white, middle-class Europeans, generating predictable dystopian visions of the world dressed as visionary that were—and are—already a reality in the Global South (as researchers Luiza Prado, Pedro Oliveira, Ahmed Ansari and Matthew Kiem have been arguing). It was not interested in producing critical arguments towards preferred futures, but indulging in technology-infused, portfolio building in rarefied environments as art museums. Finally, with the publication of Dunne and Raby’s Speculative Everything (2013), “critical design” fully embraced a convenient interchangeability with “speculative design” to form an ambiguous, unaccountable umbrella under which designers can produce work that is of limited value and inaccessible to society at large.
The emergence of these terms happened in a particularly uncritical period of the design discipline, and they can and should be used to contest and problematize its methods and the discipline itself. In this sense, they are a contribution to design discourse and practice. As researcher Cameron Tonkinwise appropriately notes in Just Design (2015), “designing that does not already Future, Fiction, Speculate, Criticize, Provoke, Discourse, Interrogate, Probe, Play, is inadequate designing.”
2 Design as a unique discipline capable of contributing to—and generating— new knowledge, needs urgent, rigorous and critical investment. Within graphic design, for example, the (still slow) transition from authorship to the designer as researcher in the pursuit of autonomy, points in this direction. However, there is a difference between the use of design as an investigative and emancipatory tool, and the production of objects for exhibition. In other words, there is a recurrent gap between producing design for self-directed learning and for public display. It presupposes different criteria and concerns by the designers. On the one hand, debates around these terms and issues they deal with are important to happen within the closed circles of design (or the club, if one focuses on graphic design). They contribute to the re-politicisation of the discipline. On the other hand, they also indicate often-limited interaction outside the forums that have already accepted such a capacity and legitimacy by designers.
Speculative design’s predominant role is establishing and reverberating sig nature-style artefacts, generating an unaccountable, looping debate that is very rarely capable of being inclusive or addressing issues at an infrastructural level. That is to say, political. Speculative design that is not contextual, does not consider race, class or gender and proposes only generic universal formulas can only be myopic and cannot contribute with substance to what other disciplines are producing in response to the struggles of our time.
3 A meaningful educational model has to be politicised and promote an awareness of power structures, developing methods, theories and strategies that challenge the world’s most pressing issues. Students should be able to design knowing that their options prevent or impede other people’s options. In this sense, a decolonial approach to design can be fundamental in constructing an educational model that breaks free from the North Atlantic axis that controls and monopolises design practice, but especially discourse. At the time when the neoliberalisation of design education is expanding fast, models that respond to pressing world challenges should seek decentralisation of education, flexibility of curricula, understanding of ideology and politics, and increased responsibility for students so they can collaboratively shape their education.