Week 25: Critical Design

by wangtianchen

What if…

This week I read the first part ‘Beyond Radical Design’ of  Speculative Everything: Design Fiction and Social Dreaming by Dunne, A. and Raby F in 2013. Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, professors at London’s Royal College of Art, have been the most articulate proponents of the idea of “critical design”. Their concern is not to design products to be sent out into a slightly uncertain future but rather to imagine how that future might be entirely different. The result is a series of scenarios that help to illuminate moral, ethical, political and aesthetic problems. Designers are usually seen as problem solvers. Their function is to make a product better or more beautiful, or to make a process more efficient. But what if, instead of solving problems, they posed them? That is the premise behind Speculative Everything, the first book to look in detail at the kinds of results such an approach might throw up…


There are some key points I feel are important for successful critical design. One is to use design as a means of speculating how things could be – speculative design. This form of design thrives on imagination and aims to open up new perspectives on what are sometimes called wicked problems to create spaces for discussion and debate about alternative ways of being and to inspire and encourage people’s imaginations to flow freely.

Furthermore, the four cones fanning out from the present into the future.  Dunne and Raby are very taken by this imperfect but helpful diagram. The first cone is the probable, it describes what is likely to happen unless there is some extreme upheaval. The next cone describes plausible futures. This is the space of scenario planning and foresight, the space of what could happen. The third cone is possible, the skill is make links between today’s world and suggested one. A final cone is preferable, what does preferable mean, for whom, or who decides? Whatever speculative design or critical design, not trying to predict the future but in using design to open up all sorts of possibilities that can be discussed, debated, and using to collectively define a preferable future for a given group of people.


One more article called Questioning the “critical” in Speculative & Critical Design by Luiz Prado. The issue at stake was the presumed naivety of the project while dealing with a subject that might be dystopian to some, but in some other parts of the world it has been the reality for decades. During the — still ongoing — debate, one of the most pressing issues to emerge was the political accountability of Speculative and Critical Design.


I am going to summarise some of the problems associated with the contemporary critical design movement.

As a discipline theorised within the safe confines of developed, northern european countries and practiced largely within an overwhelmingly white, male, middle class academic environment, SCD has successfully managed to ignore, or at best only vaguely acknowledge, issues of class, race and gender. Instead, the vast majority of the body of work currently available in the field has concentrated its efforts on envisioning near futures that deal with issues that seem much more tangible to their own privileged crowd. Projects that clearly reflect the fear of losing first-world privileges — gastronomical, civil or cultural — in a bleak, dystopic future abound, while practitioners seem to be blissfully unaware (or unwilling to acknowledge, in some cases) of other realities. [1]

Speculative Design can only earn its “Critical” name once it leaves its own comfort zone and start looking beyond privilege, for real.



[1] Pedro, O. (2014). Questioning the “critical” in Speculative & Critical Design. Retrieved Aprl 06, 2015 from https://medium.com/@luizaprado/questioning-the-critical-in-speculative-critical-design-5a355cac2ca4