‘critical design’ is a term coined by designers anthony dunne & fiona raby (today respectively prof and head of the design interactions program at the royal college of art in london, and prof of industrial design at the uni of applied arts in vienna) to indicate an approach to industrial and interactive design that considers the social implications of modern day technologies. it was introduced in 1999 by dunne through a collection of essays published under the title ‘hertzian tales’, where he reflected upon the possibility for the industrial designers of the industrial electro-sphere to shape man’s personal experience of the artificial environment in which he lives while acting on the aesthetic blueprint of commercial products (eg. user-friendliness, instrument versatility, and so on - think of ipods, or, on the public front, of projects relating to smart cities).
the power of aesthetic design to both reflect and affect the way human artifacts are used has turned design into interaction design, in the same way in which it shaped self-conscious architecture, from gothic churches, through bauhaus, to rem koolhaas’ ‘theory of bigness’.
still, in his preface to the recent MIT edition of ‘hertzian tales’, dunne observes that to our day
“design is not engaging with the social, cultural and ethical implications of the technologies it makes so sexy and consumable.”
in response to this lack of concern, critical design by definition does not aim at producing useful objects in itself. it doesn’t design things that are. instead, it picks up from these deeper reflections on the proper function (and effects) of industrial design and comes up with ‘props-as-statements’ which are directed at policy makers, scientists and philosophers, and intended to thought-provoke them on how things should - or should not - aim to be. critical design in this way speculates on the technology-driven world of the present, and on man’s capacity to direct scientific research, and the applications of the deriving new tools and new realities (such as the networked environment), towards a self-aware responsible construction of the world. below is a photo of dunne & raby’s faraday chair, a typical example of critical design applied to house furnishing and utilities, intended to provide families with a domestic shelter from electronic radiations at a time in which electromagnetic fields are increasingly invading our homes.
the humanist underlying idea of dunne & raby is of course that technology should be designed to serve the human being, and not the other way around. their concerns appear to me particularly urgent when applied to the institutional design and policy-making which relates to what yochai benkler of the harvard berkman center refers to as the post-industrial ‘networked information economy’. the british journalist and novelist john lancaster has rightfully observed to this purpose, citing ideas first expressed by karl marx in ‘das kapital’, that
“the idea of labour being hidden in things, and the value of things arising from the labour congealed inside them is an unexpectedly powerful explanatory tool in the digital world.”
when we start looking for this working mechanism on the net we can just about see it everywhere, often in the form of surplus value being created by the web’s users and the clients of web-based service providers. user ratings and reviews of all sorts, as used most prominently by companies such as amazon, ebay and couchsurfing, ae the best examples of this. today’s citizens of the social web manufacture much of the web’s content - to the point of more or less actively contributing to the enrichment of the services of which they are themselves customers.
the future of open source software and wide-spread creativity and contribution, amongst other things, lays in the hands of a careful preservation of the web as an unparalleled space for the creation and exchange of information and technological progress. ray bradbury died today. he was 91. he was hardly the first ‘critical designer’ to present technology and science as a mixture of potential blessings and abomination.