The following provocations will be our point of departure for a panel discussion about Critical Design at the Better World by Design conference, September 25–27. The panelist will include:
1) Can you help us orient critical design within the broader context of critical theory? Assuming that critical theory is relevant to our conversation about critical design, can you help us trace a line that perhaps begins in the 19th century with the dialectics of Hegel and the commodity fetishism of Marx? This arc continues into the 20th century with further elaborations by the Frankfurt School, who developed a cultural critique that took the form of a dialectical negation against capitalism, expressing the commodification of art and culture as a problem, in part, because it obscured an awareness of class consciousness, but which also established art and design as mediums for making apparent that which is usually obscured in our daily interactions with the quotidian objects of our material culture.
As educators, theorists, and practitioners who have inherited the legacies of these critiques, how should we think about opportunities to design affordances for critical awareness? Or, can you comment more generally about how we might think about the ways designers conjure attention; the ways that affordances for awareness frame how we understand, question, and critique the world around us?
Affirmative design is problem solving, with design framed as a process that provides answers in the service of industry for how the world is.
Critical design, on the other side of the page, is characterized as problem finding, with design framed as a medium that asks questions in the service of society for how the world could be.
How should we orient ourselves within and beyond the constraints and affordances of Critical Design as presented in opposition to Affirmative Design? Is Affirmative Design to be taken seriously as a viable project, or is it a strawman meant to call into question the way we, as designers, contribute to the unreflective status quo of material culture? What do terms such as Discursive Design, Speculative Design, and Design Futuring add to the conversation? Do they help us find a way out of the dialectical constraints of critical and affirmative offered by Dunne and Raby?
3) How might we productively critique the critique? What kinds of critique are now possible and necessary? Can we speculate about the kinds of critique that might be necessary in the future? For example, if we accept the premise outlined above that the primary mode of dialectical critique we have inherited has been largely critique by negation (e.g. against capitalist modes of production, against reification, etc), which is predicated on a logic of exclusion, then what other strategies might we consider to expand our understanding and bring awareness to that which might otherwise be obscured? What is left out?
If critique by negation and opposition is also an act of exclusion, then how might we reorient ourselves to other critical strategies; if not of affirmation, then perhaps of synthesis? To chose either this or that excludes all other possibilities. To chose both this and that is inclusive of all possibilities. In keeping with the themes of inclusion and access for the conference this year, can we consider a critique that moves beyond negation towards a synthetic critique? Is a critique that both excludes and includes possible?