Critical Practices of Design

Ramia Maze

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterProfessional


Design is often preoccupied by concerns of culture and capital – what is appealing and what is profitable. Such concerns are often foregrounded in design competitions, professional associations and in educations prioritizing aesthetics, functionality, usability, and, increasingly, business model, brand value, and market share. While critical socio-economic and political discussions take place within more established disciplines of art and architecture, such concerns are often treated as extraneous to design. Even claims of ‘democratic design’ in Sweden seem to be underpinned by a market logic (ie. mass production and price point). Nor are these preoccupations and priorities surprising. Design emerged as a profession in Western Europe during the Industrial Revolution, and design institutions, operations and pedagogies are entrenched within associated capitalist market logics, class structures and material cultures. As design has since grown and spread around the world, these concerns seem to have become the norm. This makes the widespread growth of and interest in so-called ‘critical design’ particularly noteworthy. During the late 1990s in the UK, Anthony Dunne’s doctoral research elaborated a design practice developed with Fiona Raby informed by the critical theories of Frankfurt School philosophers. Formulating this as critical design, they countered design norms in order to critique larger socio-economic structures. Neither efficient nor ergonomic, for example, Dunne’s ‘post-optimal’ objects were crafted to query design directed at merely reducing people to more rational, productive and ‘fit’ users within an industrial society. Dunne & Raby’s sophisticated aesthetic of ‘user-unfriendliness’ and ‘para-functionality’ is an application of critical theories, in which strategies of ‘defamiliarization’ and ‘estrangement’ should increase the ‘critical distance’ between a product and its user to disrupt unthinking ideological assimilation. Such critical design started a wave that has since grown and spread. And, while countering a norm, it has itself become normalized. The term ‘critical’, thus, must be situated. Critical of what and where? Critique by and for whom? For what purpose, whose benefit? Critical design cannot merely be copy-pasted, neither rejected nor accepted uncritically. Articulating her critique, Luiza Prado de O. Martins points out that a majority in the critical design wave are privileged and white, often male, and European, and, worse, blind to such privilege. Carefully positioning her own standpoint as a female designer from the Global South in her doctoral research, Prado’s term ‘critical’ is situated as a feminist and ‘decolonial’ design study and practice. She examines how design carries out colonial logics in controlling women’s bodies, identities and behaviors. While critical of critical design, Prado’s work can be understood in a continuum with Dunne’s and others. Perhaps this also signals momentum within a maturing discipline capable of examining and affecting its own intellectual and ideological foundations. Being critical is not only negative. Even critical design, and its Frankfurt School-inspired negative dialectics, produced material grounds for self-reflection and public debate. Other critical approaches are explicitly normative – feminist approaches do not only critique a norm but explicitly explore how things can be otherwise. Criticality is also constructive – critical approaches to design can destabilize the status quo, construct a common ground and explore alternatives. This is noteworthy in the Swedish context, which is characterized by particular norms as well as particular forms of criticality. Examples range from Marxist-informed practices of Scandinavian participatory design in the 1960s, ecological critiques and alternative lifestyles explored within the Scandinavian Student Design Organization (SDO) among others in the ‘70s, and, today, strong gender and intersectional standpoints in contemporary design and architecture. Criticality is necessary, both to examine and affect the disciplinary foundations behind future forms of design practice.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationNorm Form (exhibition catalog)
EditorsKarin Ehrnberger, Camilla Andersson, Maja Gunn
Place of PublicationStockholm, SE
Publication statusPublished - 2017
MoE publication typeD2 Article in professional manuals or guides or professional information systems or text book material

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