Friday, November 5, 2004

(Non)Critical Design?

A new issue of Design Philosophy Papers is out, and Anne-Marie Willis asks why design researchers and academics on the PhD Design List aren't working on issues like design and cultural difference, design and sustainability, design and technology, or even user-centred design. She concludes:

"Avoidance of difficulty or unpleasantness; disavowal of extreme situations; retreat into distraction these appear to be the hallmarks of the fast-encroaching New Dark Ages. Anyone want to take this on?"

In response, John Thackara (in the November Doors of Perception Report) predictably slams academics and exalts, well, I'm not exactly sure:

"Academics are condemned by their business model to be inward-looking and self-referential - but, out in the world, a lot of exciting design creativity is bubbling up. We need to focus on that."

Since no one likes ivory-tower academics, they're a too-easy target. And surely intelligent and insightful non-academics like Thackara understand the value of using examples to make a point?

I can't be the only one who thinks hers is a valid question - where is the best of today's critical design?

Later in the same report Thackara points at the interesting-sounding Spark! Design and Locality book, as well as the System Disruption and Viper Basel events - all of which look like good candidates, and not lacking in academic involvement or interest.

UPDATE: Carl DiSalvo - a fabulously interesting PhD Design Candidate at Carnegie Mellon - writes to say "I think one of the problems in answering the question is that it is unclear what constitutes critical design. As you have pointed out in the past, much of critical design is not critical - it might be confrontational, it is often 'conceptual' - but not necessarily critical. That being said, I would vote for the obvious, Dunne and Raby. It would seem that academic design is the place for critical design, I just don't see it being a sustained practice in professional 'out in the world' practice. Also I'm not sure if issues like 'design and cultural difference, design and sustainability, design and technology, or even user-centered design' constitute critical design. These issues certainly are engaged in professional 'out in the world' practice, but not necessarily in any critical manner. For example, I'm reminded of seeing a well-known sustainable architect speaking about how he designed an eco-appropriate Ford plant in the Amazon, and being valorized by designers for his 'social conscientiousness' - it was baffling."

Good points. (I cringe when I think about someone being congratulated for building a Ford plant in the Amazon!) Carl's dissertation is "concerned with the roles and responsibilities of design in the distribution of agency between people and products" and he currently works with CMU's Project on People and Robots. In the past he was involved with the (critical-in-the-way-we-mean) Predatory Lending Garments performance.

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