1 My perspective on “critical practice” is of a kind of “criticism from within” design – i.e. based on and carried out by design means, by designers and by means of their own practical and operational modes. Of course, there are “critical practices” in literature, art, the sciences, etc., which take different forms. I have traced tendencies in such critical practices historically: “speculative design” and “critical design”, as recognized in product, industrial and interaction design today, are just parts of longer and larger tendencies.
I am interested in the forms, effects and uses of the kinds of criticality that take the form of design processes and artefacts. What tangible and material forms may critiques of societal/environmental/technological phenomenon take? Critical practices can take forms that are critical of phenomena within design itself or they may take forms that are critical of phenomena outside of design. An obvious example is hacking – hacking can be understood both as a specific method or skill, engaging a critique of design methods and skills through those very same methods and skills. Hacking can also be understood as an ideological and political stance in relation to issues of ownership and authorship, for example, as a critique of proprietary systems, industrialized production or media hegemony. Designers may be critical of many things, therefore, the important questions imply: “Critical of what? In what forms?”
I relate to “criticality” as a kind of intellectual and ideological foundation within a discipline (I have written about this in an article together with Johan Redström titled “Difficult Forms” and, in fact, Dunne & Raby’s book Design Noir also argues for this). In this, theory is mobilized for inquiry within the discipline (“outside in”, i.e., theories from the social sciences or humanities applied to design) or for design to relate/criticise wider social phenomena (“inside out”).
However, the most urgent questions for speculative and critical design today are: “Critical for whom? By whom?”, the questions that Luiza Prado, among others, asks in order to reveal the biases and politics embedded in design.
2 There is a range of diverse perspectives in contemporary design that counter traditional views on what design is and what it should be about – e.g. “critical”, “conceptual”, “speculative”, “relational”, “radical”, “(h)activist”, etc., design. Perhaps this is not surprising – design today must redefine the premises and purposes of the discipline beyond its Industrial Age inception and logics, e.g. mass-production, market consumption, economies of scale, corporate protectionism, etc. Today, designers are operating within the academia, art world, public realm and developing world claiming a place for design in relation to a range of “other” people, practices, values and futures than those traditionally served by design.
My perspective is oriented towards “criticality” as it is developing across a range of design disciplines, including vivid discussions in graphics, fashion, architecture, etc., design and a long history of related terms and practices. I argue for the term “critical practices” (rather than the niche term/genre of “critical design”) to characterize what I understand as a more substantial and growing development of “criticality” across design.
3 Increasing reflexivity is especially at stake for “post-industrial” design. Design today engages in society in unprecedented and powerful ways, yet our traditional education is still based on the Industrial Age concerns about material production and consumption. Engaging “other” people, practices, values and futures demands different foundations – which is the responsibility of design education and research to build. This will open the space for asking “for who”, raising questions about who does design, who participates in design, who benefits from design, as well as other issues of power, class, ethnic, global, and gender dimensions involved. Reflexivity in design is not about intellectualizing or navel-gazing, but about an increased engagement in aspects of design practice (including its consequences “outside of” design). Design practices are not neutral – there are always critical-political issues, others, alternatives and futures involved.
Critical practices, design roles in society and educational foundations are at the heart of my current activities as Professor of New Frontiers in Design at the Aalto University in Finland.