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Reading Critical Design: Supporting Reasoned Interpretations of Critical Design

Bardzell, J., Bardzell, S., Stolterman, E. (2014). Assessing critical designs: Supporting reasoned debates about critical design. Proc. of CHI’2014. ACM: New York

This paper offer some methods to analyse and assess Critical Design Practice which can be used to help formulate approaches to producing critical design. The paper outlines the field and give two key examples which are then used as testbeds for performing analysis. The paper makes concrete claims about Critical Design and outlines the mode of practice or production which has been cloudy in some other research.

The paper argues that any critical judgement of a design or artifact is informed by culturally constructed expectations and norms, and a critical design is no exception. The audience interpretation of the design is part of a dialogue with existing expectations, tropes and industrial norms. A critical design comments on, subverts or twists these expectations to skew or inform the interpretation. By this note the critical design is always in a reflective dialogue with other forms of design. The paper offers incite into best practice for Critical Design and although the assessment process is very linear and process driven, it draws heavily on the humanities in its approach such as Bogosts work in Unit Operations.

Useful Quotes

“’rejects how things are now as being the only possibility, it provides a critique of the prevailing situation through designs that embody alternative social, cultural, technical, or economic values’ [Dunne & Raby 2001, p.58). Malpass characterizes critical design as ‘a move away from commercial design towards a conceptual, discursive, inquisitive and often provocative role […] where the object and medium of design are used as a form of inquiry’ (Malpass 2010, p.2). Mazé and Redström write that ‘design, amended as ‘conceptual’ or ‘critical’, may counter conventions of utility and efficiency, profit and taste’ (Maze & Redstorm 2007 p.3) ” (p. 1951)

“Critical designs challenge existing assessment schema and even if intrigued we may find it difficult to have a serious and insightful discussion about their potential value, meaning, and role.” (p. 1951)

“Critical design is often characterized as an art-based approach to design research, because it is genealogically connected to art movements (e.g., the situationists and conceptual art), often resembles contemporary artworks in form and meaning, and is frequently exhibited in showrooms in the style of, and often within the walls of, art museums. As with art, the social function of critical design is characterized as engendering debates and changing perspectives about important social issues.” (p. 1952)

“In short, surrounding an art domain is a fluid and dynamic hermeneutic community that performs curatorial, educational, and interpretive functions that shapes how the community as a whole understands the art domain (obviously ith plenty of debate) as well as how individuals come to enter that community (e.g., as students, apprentices, and hobbyists). This community and its practices amount to a kind of intellectual infrastructure enabling the continuation, innovation, and dissemination of its art form.” (p. 1952)

“the unit of analysis is usually taken for granted to be the design as a completed product. This second assumption runs counter to criticism as it has been practiced for millennia. For instance, we talk about the use of metaphor separately from the narratological structure of a novel; we talk about screenwriting distinctly from cinematography.” (p. 1954)

“By opening up critical interpretation of critical design to different units of analysis, it becomes possible and more or less inevitable that conflicting judgments will be made about the same design. For example, a subset of a design’s total functions might be read as critical, while the design as a part of a collection may be read as affirmative. We view the possibility of conflicting judgments about the same design as desirable and a crucial refinement to the present literature, because it would bring critical design assessment more in line with related critical practices, e.g, of interaction criticism and even film and digital media criticism.” (p. 1955)

“insofar as they are critical, critical designs also comment on, subvert, reinterpret, exaggerate, juxtapose, or otherwise introduce one or more twists (also known as tropes) on the standard design.” (p. 1955)

“In short, reading a critical design, once its unit of analysis has been clearly identified, involves two steps. First is to classify it in relation to everyday design languages, and second is attending specifically to the tropes that make it a critical design.” (p. 1955)

“Interpreting the criticality of a design depends, therefore, on how a given analyst in a given situation with given practical needs activates the hermeneutic skills of focusing on one or more parts of the design and considering them in relation to a set of extant conventions and norms.” (p. 1956)

“a design research project may be judged “critical” to the extents that it proposes a perspective-changing holistic account of a given phenomenon, and that this account is grounded in speculative theory, reflects a dialogical methodology, improves the public’s cultural competence, and is reflexively aware of itself as an actor—with both power and constraints—within the social world it is seeking to change.” (from Bardzell & Bardzell 2013)

Further Reading (on critical design)

Bardzell, J. (2011). Interaction criticism: An introduction to the practice. Interacting with Computers 23(2011), 604-621. Oxford University Press.

Bardzell, J., and Bardzell, S. (2013). What is critical about critical design? Proc. of CHI’13. ACM Press.

Bardzell, S., Bardzell, J., Forlizzi, J., Zimmerman, J., and Antanitis, J. (2012). Critical design and critical theory. Proc. of DIS2012. ACM Press.

Blevis, E. (2012). The PRInCiPleS design framework. In J. Carroll (ed.). Human-Computer Interaction Series (1)20, 143-169. Springer.

Bowers, J. (2012). The logic of annotated portfolios: Communicating the value of “research through design.” Proc. of DIS2012.

Coyne, R. (1995). Designing Information Technology in the Postmodern Age: From Method to Metaphor. MIT Press.

DiSalvo, C. (2009). Design and the construction of publics. Design Issues 25(1), 48-63.

Koskinen, I., Zimmerman, J., Binder, T., Redstrom, J. and Wensveen, S. (2011). Design Research through Practice. Burlington, MA: Morgan Kaufmann.

Malpass, M. (2010). Perspectives on critical design: A conversation with Ralph Ball and Maxine Naylor. Proc. of DRS’10.

Mazé, R., & Redström, J. (2007). Difficult forms: Critical practices of design and research. Proc. of IASDR’07.

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