Jeffrey Bardzell, Shaowen Bardzell
In recent years, interaction designers and researchers have shown a rising interest in practices in which designers create designs not to be sold in the marketplace, but rather to interrogate possible futures, critique the (designed) present, develop design concepts, and/or explore people’s attitudes toward and needs for future designs. Some terms that have been introduced to describe different aspects of this strategy include critical design, adversarial design, speculative design, constructive design, design fictions, and research through design.
As these practices continue to gain traction, some basic questions emerge. For critical design, for example, we might ask: Is this design a critical design? If so, is it a good critical design? Who gets to decide? (Note: We will use critical design as our running example throughout this column.)
Even a quick attempt to confront such questions almost immediately recalls similar debates about whether a work is a piece of art, and if so, whether it is good art, and who gets to decide. In short, these sensible questions seem to lead very quickly into philosophical quagmires that seem anything but practical.
Yet we all have to make choices. Designers prototyping critical designs need some way to know which prototypes are more critical than others, or how they can or need to be improved. The design community needs some way to identify exemplars (e.g., for teaching). Funding agencies need to decide which projects to support.
So how should we understand and make choices about these designs?
The Intentional Fallacy
One approach is to talk to the designer and ask her or his intent: Is this design intended to be a critical design?
However, such an approach leads to a number of difficulties.
Perhaps the most obvious is that designs can have critical effects even when the design was never intended to be critical.
For example, LilyPad Arduino appears to have had qualities that can reasonably be judged to be critical. It offers a formal critique of traditional circuit boards, proposing that they can be beautiful as well as functional, and it has had unusual success among women and girls who might not otherwise have taken up Arduino computing. And yet there is little documented evidence that Leah Buechley explicitly intended LilyPad to be a particularly “critical” design.
Conversely, it is also easy to imagine a designer intending to create a critical design, engaging in critical design processes, but then creating a design that is not actually critical.
A more basic problem is if a designer has a private intention to create a critical design, how are we to find that out?
If we know the designer, we can ask, but even such privileged knowledge turns out not to give us much more than we have without it. This is because the designer intending to create a critical design can hardly be satisfied with making a design that is critical in her or his opinion only! Surely, the designer intending a design to be critical intends for an appropriate public also to find that design critical. And for that, we need to turn to that public, not the designer.
Likewise, if designer intentions are made publicly available (e.g., by titling or describing the work as a critical design and/or placing it in a collection of critical designs), such aspirations are sensible in the first place only if titling and description conventions and meaningful collections already exist and are commonly understood as such by both designers and appropriate publics.
To understand whether a design is critical, we will have to figure it out ourselves using publicly available resources.
Figuring It Out for Ourselves
How should the design community judge the criticality of designs? We begin with an important distinction: Some designs are presented to us as critical, and some designs are not.
Designs can be presented to us as critical by virtue of their titles and descriptions; their inclusion in certain collections, catalogs, articles, or books; the prior reputations of their designers; and so on. Such presentations can be provided by any combination of the designers themselves and others, such as curators and researchers.
The implication of this presentation is that a collection of norms, expectations, conventions, and so forth are activated for us before we have really even seen the design. In other words, these norms, expectations, and conventions mediate our first perceptions of the design.
For a critical design by London-based design studio Dunne & Raby, such expectations might include that the design will be a science fictional proposition embodied in a provocative reinterpretation of a familiar object, with a spirit of play, outstanding production values, and subtly menacing undercurrents.
Because designs in this group are presented as critical in the first place, we can and often do pragmatically skip the philosophical question of whether it is or is not a critical design. Instead, we jump into interpreting it in relation to the norms, expectations, and conventions that are already available to us.
Other designs, like the aforementioned LilyPad Arduino, are not presented as critical. LilyPad is more likely to be presented as an innovative work of digital fabrication, the Maker movement, or wearable computing.
But we might interpret such designs as critical anyway. To do so, we construct arguments about the ways in which the design serves critical purposes even if they weren’t intended.
How are such arguments to be made? Once again, they are typically made by describing the design in relation to the very same norms, expectations, and conventions that guide our interpretation of designs presented to us as critical.
In short, it is these norms, expectations, and conventions that ultimately shape our judgments about critical designs. And these are both public (i.e., they are available in the public domain) and resources (i.e., they make it possible for us to make sense of difficult objects such as critical designs).
Public Resources, Public Meanings
Public resources that can help us interpret and make good choices about critical designs are commonplace, but we preempt their use if we simply appeal to designer accounts of their own intentions.
Obviously, public resources can include documentation of designer intentions (e.g., as reflected in titles and descriptions or published interviews and papers). They also can include curatorial choices (e.g., the inclusion of individual works in collections).
But even without this help, we all still have access to the public universe of design as all the context we need. This universe includes common vocabularies about design history (e.g., Bauhaus, Arts and Crafts, postmodern), a common theoretical vocabulary (e.g., form and function, affordances, ideology, beauty), common types of design (e.g., graphic, fashion, interior), and above all a common sociocultural competency (e.g., of everyday signifying conventions, genres, and styles, such as those found in films, fine art, and magazine ads).
Indeed, it is the relations we can establish between the individual work and the public universe of design that are the most compelling. A designer’s intentions may not match the design’s effects. A curator can make a bad judgment. Standards of expectation change, so a curator’s good judgment today can seem bad tomorrow.
The practical challenge for the interaction design community, then, is not to get hung up laying out the necessary and sufficient conditions of critical design. Nor is it to interview every designer about whether their design is critical.
Rather, our practical challenge is to clarify our understandings of the norms, expectations, and conventions that we commonly associate with (and use to define) critical designsand to critique and change them, as needed, to make them more fruitful.
We would like to thank Erik Stolterman, Amanda Williams, Bill Gaver, Lone Koefoed Hansen, and Carl DiSalvo for challenging conversations around these topics.
Jeffrey Bardzell is an associate professor in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University. His research interests include aesthetic interaction, design criticism, and creativity.
Shaowen Bardzell is an associate professor in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University. Her research interests lie in HCI, design activism, critical theory, and human sexuality.
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