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Critical design takes a critical theory based approach to design. This kind of design uses design fiction and speculative design proposals to challenge assumptions, conceptions about the role of objects play in everyday life. Critical design object plays a role of product design, but emphasizes on neither commercial purpose nor physical utility. It is mainly for sharing a critical perspective and carrying debate to the public, to increase awareness on social, cultural, or ethical issues by asking questions to the public. Critical design is popularized by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby through their firm, Dunne & Raby.
The term Critical Design was first used in Anthony Dunne’s book Hertzian Tales (1999) and further developed in Design Noir: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects (2001). Its opposite is affirmative design: design that reinforces the status quo. It is more of an attitude than a style or movement; a position rather than a method. There are many people doing this kind of work who have never heard of the term critical design and would describe their work differently. Naming it Critical Design is simply a way of making this activity more visible and emphasising that design has other possibilities beyond solving problems.
Design as critique is not a new idea. For example, Italian Radical Design of the 1960s and 70s was highly critical of prevailing social values and design ideologies. Critical design builds on this attitude, to make critical concept and ideologies in design approach. This design uses designed artifacts as an embodied commentary on consumer culture. Both the designed artifact (and subsequent use) and the process of designing such an object causes reflection on existing values, mores, and practices in a culture. Humour is important in critical design but the satire is the goal. For a success of Critical design the viewer need to make up their own mind.
A critical design object will often challenge its audience's preconceptions and expectations thereby provoking new ways of thinking about the object, its use, and the surrounding environment. Its opposite is affirmative design. Objects made by critical designers frequently employ classic design processes—research, user experience, iteration—and apply these working processes to conceptual scenarios intended to highlight social, cultural, or political paradigms.
Nevertheless, Critical Design is discussed as an approach in Design Research, as a way to critique social, cultural, technical and economic controversies through designing critical artefacts. According to Sanders Critical Design involves also probes as "ambiguous stimuli that designers send to people who then respond to them, providing insights for the design process." Uta Brandes identifies Critical Design as discrete Design Research method and Bowen integrates it in human-centered design activities as a useful tool for stakeholders to critically think about possible futures.
In recent years, FABRICA, a communication research center, owned by Italian fashion giant, Benetton Group, has been actively involved in producing provocative imagery and critical design. FABRICA's Visual Communication department, under the leadership of Omar Vulpinari, actively participates in critiquing social, political and environmental issues through global awareness campaigns for international magazines and organizations like UN-WHO. Some young artists producing critical design at FABRICA in recent years are Erik Ravello (Cuba), Yianni Hill (Australia), Marian Grabmayer (Austria), Priya Khatri (India), Andy Rementer (United States), and An Namyoung (South Korea).
To attribute to design practice, critical design broadens the vision in design from traditional practice. It is no longer limited to highlighting the physical function in product design, though this causes some ambiguities in the discussion of critical design's function as it maintains in design area. Matt Malpass addresses Larry Ligo's classification of five different types of function: Structural articulation, Physical function, Psychological function, Social function, as well as Cultural-existentical function in his article, with a further discussion of how Modernism leaves a narrower understanding of physical utility when we think about function, which leads to the ambiguity in Critical Design's function. As critical design focuses on present social, cultural, and ethical implications of design objects and practice, It mostly emphasizes on social and cultural impact from its function.
In addition, critical design object has a lot of potentials to contribute to testing ideas during the process of the development of a new technology. As Dunne and Raby express their concerns about always lacking of communication between the specialists and the general public to form a two-ways discussion of a new technology. It always limits to one-way flow from specialists to the public. Critical design provides a stage to give scenarios, completes the dialog between specialists and the general public and helps to collect feedbacks from the public for further refinements before the idea is going too far for any changes.
The concept of critical play has also come into vogue in recent years. Researcher Mary Flanagan wrote Critical Play:Radical Game Design in 2009, the same year that Lindsay Grace started the Critical Gameplay project. Grace's Critical Gameplay project is an internationally exhibited collection of video games that apply Critical Design. The games provoke questions about the way games are designed and played. The Critical Gameplay Game, Wait, was awarded the Games for Change hall of fame award for being one of the 5 most important games for social impact since 2003. The work has been shown at Electronic Language International Festival, Games, Learning & Society Conference, Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems among other notable events.
As critical design has gained mainstream exposure, the discipline has been itself criticized by some for dramatizing so called 'dystopian scenarios,' which may in fact be reflective of real-life conditions in some places in the world. Some see Critical Design as rooted in the fears of a wealthy, urban, western population and failing to engage with existing social problems. As an example, a project titled Republic of Salivation, by designers Michael Burton and Michiko Nitta, featured as part of MoMA's Design and Violence series, portrays a society plagued by overpopulation and food scarcity which is reliant on heavily modified, government-provided, nutrient blocks. Certain media responses to the work, point to the "presumed naivety of the project," which presents a scenario that "might be dystopian to some, but in some other parts of the world it has been the reality for decades."
In recognition of their formalization of the field, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby were presented with the inaugural MIT Media Lab Award in June 2015 with director Joichi Ito pointing out that "[Dunne and Raby's] pioneering approach to Critical Design and its intersection with science, technology, art, and the humanities has changed the landscape of design education and practice worldwide."
Conceptual art practice has a very similar role as critical design, since both of them are sharing critical perspectives to the public and being commentators to issues, the public may get confused to understand these two different fields. However, Matt Malpass points out that critical designer still applies the skills from the training and practice as designer but re-orienting these skills from a focus on practical ends to a focus on design work that functions symbolically, culturally, existentially, and discursively. Critical design objects are made precisely based on the design principles and carefully follow the design and design research process. Also, critical design objects always stay closely to people's everyday life. They tend to be tested on real people and get feedback for further developments. Conceptual art usually associates with gallery spaces, and mostly tends to apply the artistic media in the process.