Conversely, it is also easy to
imagine a designer intending to
create a critical design, engaging
in critical design processes, but
then creating a design that is not
A more basic problem is if a
designer has a private intention to
create a critical design, how are
we to find that out?
If we know the designer, we
can ask, but even such privileged knowledge turns out not
to give us much more than we
have without it. This is because
the designer intending to create
a critical design can hardly be
satisfied with making a design
that is critical in her or his opinion only! Surely, the designer
intending a design to be critical
intends for an appropriate public
also to find that design critical.
And for that, we need to turn to
that public, not the designer.
Likewise, if designer intentions
are made publicly available (e.g.,
by titling or describing the work as
a critical design and/or placing it
in a collection of critical designs),
such aspirations are sensible
in the first place only if titling
and description conventions and
meaningful collections already
exist and are commonly understood as such by both designers
and appropriate publics.
designs need some way to know
which prototypes are more critical
than others, or how they can or
need to be improved. The design
community needs some way to
identify exemplars (e.g., for teaching). Funding agencies need to
decide which projects to support.
So how should we understand
and make choices about these
The Intentional Fallacy
One approach is to talk to the
designer and ask her or his intent:
Is this design intended to be a
However, such an approach
leads to a number of difficulties.
Perhaps the most obvious is that
designs can have critical effects
even when the design was never
intended to be critical.
For example, LilyPad Arduino
appears to have had qualities that
can reasonably be judged to be critical. It offers a formal critique of
traditional circuit boards, proposing that they can be beautiful as
well as functional, and it has had
unusual success among women
and girls who might not otherwise
have taken up Arduino computing.
And yet there is little documented
evidence that Leah Buechley
explicitly intended LilyPad to be
a particularly “critical” design.
In recent years, interaction designers and researchers have shown a
rising interest in practices in which
designers create designs not to be
sold in the marketplace, but rather
to interrogate possible futures,
critique the (designed) present,
develop design concepts, and/or
explore people’s attitudes toward
and needs for future designs. Some
terms that have been introduced
to describe different aspects of
this strategy include critical design,
adversarial design, speculative design,
constructive design, design fictions,
and research through design.
As these practices continue to
gain traction, some basic questions emerge. For critical design,
for example, we might ask: Is this
design a critical design? If so, is it
a good critical design? Who gets to
decide? (Note: We will use critical
design as our running example
throughout this column.)
Even a quick attempt to confront such questions almost
immediately recalls similar
debates about whether a work is a
piece of art, and if so, whether it is
good art, and who gets to decide.
In short, these sensible questions seem to lead very quickly
into philosophical quagmires that
seem anything but practical.
Yet we all have to make choices.
Designers prototyping critical
Indiana University, Bloomington | firstname.lastname@example.org
Jeffrey Bardzell is an associate professor in the School
of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University.
His research interests include aesthetic interaction,
design criticism, and creativity.
Indiana University, Bloomington | email@example.com
Shaowen Bardzell is an associate professor in the
School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana
University. Her research interests lie in HCI, design
activism, critical theory, and human sexuality.