It‘s been almost 20 years since the term critical design has first been coined. And Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby are the elephant in the room at the conference Critical by design?, a two-day international conference on the capacity of design as a mode of critique held at the School of Design and Art in Basel. Criticality in industrial design wasn’t a new thing when Anthony Dunne used the term critical design for the first time in his book Hertzian Tales (1999). The postmodern impulse to question modernitie’s claim to universality was apparent in italian and german radical design during the 80s. But re-conceptualizing it as a new approach within design that was supposed to be the counterpart to so called „affirmative design“ was new. Maybe one could even attribute this to what at the time had become of the first wave of radical design: superficial and environmentally unfriendly plastic pop. The life affirming impulse against behaviorist concepts of design approaches had turned into a sugarcoated best selling mass product. And even though Dunne‘s critical design hasn’t had that commercial success quite yet (which of course doesn’t tell you anything about the impact critical design linked to his name has had); here we are 20 years later debating whether design actually has the capacity to be critical.

At the very beginning of the first talk by Jeffrey Bardzell we jump right into the problem: there seems to be a normalization of crisis surrounding us and no design approach, whether critical or not, has had the stabilizing effect, the dealing with uncertainty that we so desperately need. So we know that critical design hasn’t kept its promise of changing the way we design. We know it’s not working. What we don’t know is: can we make it work? Has critical design lost its drive?

Another question that quickly arises is what criticality actually means in the different fields of design. When it comes to our tools of communications, our interfaces and the human computer interaction, we see that most design enforces a standardized structure, formalizes the way we interact with the algorithms and hides all the technicality behind a seamless user experience. Moritz Greiner-Petter points out  that criticality in interaction design is an approach quite similar to critical cinema. An approach that doesn’t try to hide it’s mediation but exposes and reflects upon its conditioned frames and makes them visible. But is interaction design that actively obstructs a seamless interaction still interaction design?

One of the most memorable examples given at the conference is a menstruation cup from taiwan called Formoonsa. It’s not a particularly revolutionary invention–not even a new one. But it set a real revolution of thoughts in motion in Taiwan’s society. As Shaowen Bardzell explained, an intact hymen is something of the highest value for an unmarried woman in Taiwan. It’s the oldest tale of patriarchal dominance and control of a woman’s reproductive capacity. There is no physical alteration to a young man when he loses his virginity. It’s even celebrated as a step into adulthood. And here comes the funny part: as recent scientific research has shown, there is not necessarily alteration in a women when she loses her virginity. Penetrative intercourse doesn’t puncture the hymen. Small tears can but don’t have to happen but the shape or form of the hymen is no indication for a women’s virginity. Nonetheless this tale is still a reality for most women in asian countries and they even go so far as to reconstruct their hymen surgically. This quest for a socially constructed concept of purity also prevents most women in Taiwan from using tampons during their period. And this is where Formoonsa comes into play. This menstrual cup wasn’t just an unknown product in Taiwan. It was the idea of a rebranding of what it means to be a woman. First and foremost inserting the cup went against common beliefs held by taiwanese society of the hymen being able to be torn. But also laws had to be changed for Formoonsa to be allowed onto the market. Early petitions made this link between a environmentally more friendly product and the women’s rights campaign. The cups design also includes measuring marks to break the stigma of the menses being disgusting and unclean. To summarize the goals this little product set out to achieve: get rid of the idea that a woman’s worth has anything to do with her virginity and that her bleeding makes her in any way unclean or dirty.  The cup’s commercial success speaks for itself.

It’s striking to see the effects that this little product has had just by being a product. But what also hit right at the core of the problem were the first question addressed to the presenter: where is the criticality in that product? Wasn’t it the feminist discourse, that came first, and the product merley build on that? How much critical analysis has gone into the process of making it or was it just a wish for change? How critical is it to just apply ideas of emancipation on to an everyday product?

This isn’t just a nitpicky question. And the design critic (not to be confused with a critical designer) Alice Twemlow addresses this very directly: doesn’t critique imply a sharpness and directness that needs to be made explicit in language? Considering of course that there is room for misunderstanding and vagueness in language, too, I still sympathize with this understanding of critique. In an age of neo liberal agendas, where the designer has to jump in where the state fails, critique must be aimed at the structures and those responsible. It’s not supposed to be just another project. Furthermore critique is something that in its explicitness should rely on the most abstract form of equality: a shared language, an ability to make and express sense. Designers are highly skilled experts and design (especially product design) is a very exclusive and costly practice. Of course critical theorist are highly skilled experts, too. But the accessibility of the expressive nature of language isn’t something that can simply be translated into materiality. Even though participatory approaches were mentioned by many speakers, those approaches remain risky and cannot escape structuring through framing and different levels expertise. In the best cases this participatory processes lead to a critically informed design and to better practices one could also call critical. But the design itself is more than often unsatisfyingly banal.

During my attendance of this conference I’ve been trying to make sense of the different topics surrounding criticality and design, this strange connection to a particular proposal, that its makers most recently have replaced themselves with so called speculative design, and my own peculiar point of view. So here comes a different proposal for an understanding of criticality in design, that might not be coherent yet and definitely still requires some work. But here it is:

Design itself is a critical practice, but rarely in the form of critique. Therefore critical design is a tautological term, if we understand it as a complete separate practice–like Dunne and Raby suggest with their infamous A/B List. Nonetheless as much as critique requires involvement it also requires a certain kind of distance. And here I think lies a potential for critical design. What critical design than means is to take a step back from the inner workings of design and reflect on them critically. It is a certain kind of design that is critical of design itself and not a critique by design. Even though critical design has to maintain the reflective relation to design, it cannot itself be a design practice purely relying on design‘s tools and concepts. Irritation, making things strange and unfamiliar, or to make something explicit, to qualify and to quantify, breaking out of context and the common without seeking to be innovative, and–most importantly–criticising: those are all tactics foreign to design. Like Dunne and Raby have suggested design has to cross over to other disciplines to reflect upon its own core values and expand its boundaries. And here old rivalries come into play. A designerly disdain for the perceived freedom and irrationality of the arts, an impacicane with the slow and overthinking ways of philosophy, and finally the functionality driven and rigorous approach of science (which at first doesn’t seem to be a big opposition at all). Nonetheless critical design has to step out of the mindset of what can we make?, how can we improve it?, what can be done? and most definitely of  how can we sell it?–but designers involvement in the everyday practice of design makes them ask those questions. Maybe Dunne and Raby weren’t that wrong in removing their objects out of everyday circulation and handing them over to a different kind of circulation by putting them into a gallery.

But–and this is a big but–distance should not imply separation. It’s not an outside position to design. It’s a hybrid position. As a critic one is always already involved in the things one is critiquing from a certain perspective and a specific point of view. This involvement has to be made explicit. In the case of critical design, that seeks to establish a distance from the inner workings and entanglements of design, this means that the critique is aimed at questioning design through the means of other disciplines–and not becoming a different discipline separate from design. This is a dialectical distance, that seeks to come back to its start but will be surprised at its return. The departure from design will ultimately affect it and we find it changed. Dunne and Raby had a point in their explanation of critical design: a design that questions the status quo. It’s just not the the status quo of society as a whole but a reflection on the status quo of design itself by means of other disciplines from within design. It’s going beyond the dichotomy of inside/outside and start looking for the fuzzy borders and the messy frontiers. It most certainly also involves unearthing a criticality, that is part of every design and that makes a distinction of critical design–as if all other design is purely uncritical and affirmative–highly problematic: the practices that are linked to its creation, the creative potential of alternation and the practices that will be affected by it.

This leads me back to the question that this conference posed: can design be critical? Can design be a materialized version of critique? The answer must be: kind of.

Design itself is a critical practice. Not in the sense of a grand gesture of a distance to society but as always already being a formative part of it. An empathic understanding of design does not neglect the beauty of it all, the style and the look–like so many speakers of the conference suggested (“It don’t care if the design is ugly as long as it creates a more beautiful world”). Design as style has its own critical potential even though it’s often used to gloss over our modern day contradictions and incredible inequalities. Even if we value participation over perfection, imagination over artifice and engagement over aesthetics, design as design still means that it does matter how things look, how they appear to us in the end. Because by exposing themselves as designs–as being designed–they are also showing us that they can and must be designed; and probably in a different way. There is no design without a re-design. Design itself has this potential even though admittedly latent. In this sense all design is a critical reflection on the status quo and in its core a speculative operation. The question is how to reflect on that. Critical Design must be a reflection on that potential, an exaggeration of the tension between functions as social constructs and forms as their irreducible counterpart, their appearance in the world. Critical design can demonstrate the crucial part that design has to play in modern societies. Not more, but also not less. So what’s needed is not a new discipline of design as critique but a more sophisticated and public form of a critique of design. For this we need better categories to separate good design from the bad.