context we need. This universe
includes common vocabularies about design history (e.g.,
Bauhaus, Arts and Crafts, post-modern), a common theoretical
vocabulary (e.g., form and function, affordances, ideology, beauty), common types of design (e.g.,
graphic, fashion, interior), and
above all a common sociocultural
competency (e.g., of everyday
signifying conventions, genres,
and styles, such as those found in
films, fine art, and magazine ads).
Indeed, it is the relations we can
establish between the individual
work and the public universe of
design that are the most compelling. A designer’s intentions may
not match the design’s effects. A
curator can make a bad judgment.
Standards of expectation change,
so a curator’s good judgment
today can seem bad tomorrow.
The practical challenge for
the interaction design community, then, is not to get
hung up laying out the necessary and sufficient conditions
of critical design. Nor is it to
interview every designer about
whether their design is critical.
Rather, our practical challenge
is to clarify our understandings
of the norms, expectations, and
conventions that we commonly
associate with (and use to define)
critical designs—and to critique
and change them, as needed, to
make them more fruitful.
We would like to thank Erik
Stolterman, Amanda Williams, Bill
Gaver, Lone Koefoed Hansen, and
Carl DiSalvo for challenging conversations around these topics.
Copyright held by authors
To understand whether a design
is critical, we will have to figure it
out ourselves using publicly available resources.
Figuring It Out for Ourselves
How should the design community judge the criticality
of designs? We begin with an
important distinction: Some
designs are presented to us as critical, and some designs are not.
Designs can be presented to us
as critical by virtue of their titles
and descriptions; their inclusion
in certain collections, catalogs,
articles, or books; the prior reputations of their designers; and so
on. Such presentations can be provided by any combination of the
designers themselves and others,
such as curators and researchers.
The implication of this presentation is that a collection of
norms, expectations, conventions, and so forth are activated
for us before we have really even
seen the design. In other words,
these norms, expectations, and
conventions mediate our first
perceptions of the design.
For a critical design by London-based design studio Dunne &
Raby, such expectations might
include that the design will be
a science fictional proposition
embodied in a provocative reinterpretation of a familiar object, with
a spirit of play, outstanding production values, and subtly menacing undercurrents.
Because designs in this group
are presented as critical in the
first place, we can and often do
pragmatically skip the philosophical question of whether it is or is
not a critical design. Instead, we
jump into interpreting it in relation to the norms, expectations,
and conventions that are already
available to us.
Other designs, like the aforementioned LilyPad Arduino, are
not presented as critical. LilyPad
is more likely to be presented as
an innovative work of digital fabrication, the Maker movement, or
But we might interpret such
designs as critical anyway. To do
so, we construct arguments about
the ways in which the design
serves critical purposes even if
they weren’t intended.
How are such arguments
to be made? Once again, they
are typically made by describing the design in relation to the
very same norms, expectations,
and conventions that guide
our interpretation of designs
presented to us as critical.
In short, it is these norms,
expectations, and conventions
that ultimately shape our judgments about critical designs.
And these are both public (i.e.,
they are available in the public domain) and resources (i.e.,
they make it possible for us to
make sense of difficult objects
such as critical designs).
Public Resources, Public Meanings
Public resources that can help
us interpret and make good
choices about critical designs
are commonplace, but we preempt their use if we simply
appeal to designer accounts
of their own intentions.
Obviously, public resources can
include documentation of designer
intentions (e.g., as reflected in
titles and descriptions or published interviews and papers).
They also can include curatorial
choices (e.g., the inclusion of individual works in collections).
But even without this help, we
all still have access to the pub-
lic universe of design as all the i n