Transdisciplinary Design

What the Hell is Critical Design?

Posted on November 14, 2013 | posted by:

During the recitation half of my Design for This Century course, I discussed the difference between critical design and critical art with my classmates. Not fully understanding the theory of critical design, I found myself arguing that it was rather egotistical in its effort to separate itself from the world of art. Many forms of art have been created to make a statement by criticizing an issue or idea. Why is critical design any different and rewarding of a unique title? After all, the said pioneers of the critical design movement, designers Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, say that critical design “provides a critique of the prevailing situation through designs that embody alternative values.” Art does this too, doesn’t it? What is an example of critical design then?

“What about the digital number display facing Union Square that shows the increasing U.S. debt?” I asked. Politely, someone informed me that the Metronome, is actually a digital clock display that provides the number of hours, minutes, seconds, and tenths of a second that have passed since midnight in a day on the left and mirrors the same structure remaining in the same day on the right. According to the artists (or designers) of Metronome, the clock reveals the fractions of a second of time and thus of a human being on earth. “Well in any event, it is still critical, and provokes us to think about time in a way we never would have” I responded. “No,” they explained, “it’s critical art, not critical design.” Alright, another example. I thought about a project presented by a guest speaker in my TransD seminar course. “Ok, how about this?”

The project was Dronestagram, created by writer and technologist, James Bridle. (He made it very clear in his presentation that he is not an artist.) Bridle explained that he had become infatuated with drones. Drones, or unmanned combat air vehicles, are used for military operations that do not require the physical presence of a pilot, are undetectable by satellites and targets, and drop bombs with the luxury of surprise. In addition to an Instagram account for the project that displays photos of targeted sites by the U.S. and British military, Bridle created life-size, white outlines in public spaces that mimic the very familiar and unsettling outlines of dead bodies at murder scenes. “The project is clearly criticizing the use of these vehicles by our militaries,” I explained. “Yes, but,” they said, “it is still critical art, not critical design.” (Sorry James.)

In my third attempt I responded, “Hmm, Ok. What if Bridle had proposed instead, that a toy company manufacture and sell toy drones to children? These drones would be controlled remotely, undetectable and quiet as they are in real life, but smaller of course, toy-sized, and drop balloon-bombs of red paint on unsuspecting victims.” My classmates’ faces lit up. “Yeah.” Now we’re speaking the language of critical design.

“More could be learnt from fine art where there is a history of critical strategies for asking questions through objects and stimulating debate in engaging ways.” But critical design is a combination of this and the aspects of relation and shock. Critical design “takes as its medium social, psychological, cultural, technical and economic values, in an effort to push the limits of lived experience not the medium.”

Imagine if the toy drones really existed. Imagine a child hiding in the bushes, choosing an unsuspecting target, launching his or her drone, narrowing in, and #@$%#@%! The victim, drenched in blood-colored paint, has no clue who or what has just violated him. The child scurries away, undetected, free of any accountability. The idea is crazy but is not out of this world, a world in which digital glasses do the thinking for us instead of our brains.

“Questions must be asked about what we actually need, about the way poetic moments can be intertwined with the everyday and not separated from it. At the moment, this type of design is neglected and regarded as secondary. Today, design’s main purpose is still to provide new products – smaller, faster, different, better.”

In their list of Frequently Asked Questions, Dunne and Raby were asked why critical design was not art. They said, “if it is regarded as art it is easier to deal with, but if it remains as design it is more disturbing, it suggests that the everyday as we know it could be different, that things could change.” This is why critical design is critical design, with its own unique title and justified ego.

Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby, Design Noir: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects (Birkhäuser; 2001).
Dronestagram by James Bridle
Metronome in Union Square Park
Critical Design FAQ by Dunne & Raby