Do I have an opinion about critical design?

For the course Critical Reading I was asked to read five articles about Critical Design critically. During class we analysed these articles further and discussed them. Together with two fellow students we discussed three articles in detail, where we each tried to defend the author’s position. Now, the next assignment is this blog post you are reading right now in which I’ll try to explain my own opinion on Critical Design. In short: I don’t think it should be the only school of design.

What is Critical Design

As far as I understand it, Critical Design is a design method that tries to solve future problems by acting on assumptions. An important part of Critical Design seems to be the question what if? It’s also part of a bigger discussion on the role of design in solving the world’s problems.


One powerful critique on critical design is this transcript of a talk by Ahmed Ansari. Ahmed is a designer from Pakistan who now teaches and studies at Carnegie Mellon University. He calls the Critical Design school a frivolous exercise for an intellectual, liberal progressive white middle class elite. When he discusses some critical design work with his students (in Pakistan) they have a hard time identifying with many of the projects. During the discussion in class I tried to defend Ahmed’s argument. I said that we should try to solve urgent issues first. First make sure people are not dying, then create a dishwasher that sings a lullaby when it’s done.

But …

But it’s not binary. The area between death and frivolous nonsense is a vast gradient. There are things that can be solved that will simply make life nicer for many. Like well designed tax return forms. Another example: there are issues for marginalised groups of people that need to be solved. These issues can be seen as non-critical since they are not directly about life and death. But often these marginalised groups are ignored in poorer countries. For instance a cousin of mine in Greece with the Down Syndrome lives a very isolated life. There are no special schools like we have here in The Netherlands, there is no specialised daycare. Would an educational or a social program trying to get people with the Down Syndrome (and their families) out of their isolation be considered frivolous? Where do you draw the line? And who decides?

Good and evil

Another point of critique points out that the idea that design can solve everything is too simple and naïve. The world is too complex to solve all its problems with a whiteboard, some sticky notes and a marker. It also assumes that all designers agree on what a better world means exactly. Design can worsen the problem if the situation is not understood well enough. And design can play an active and deliberate role in causing problems as well. These are the two things Ruben Pater says in this essay about the role of design in the refugee crisis. It can be used for good and evil, and sometimes it doesn’t work as intended.

Any conflicting ideas

I have some conflicting ideas about this Critical Design thing. On the one hand I do think that designers should try to improve the world. And I strongly believe that this should be done with a humanist world view.
But on the other hand I do not think that creativity should only be used to create stuff that’s measurably useful. Some things are hard to quantify. And if we could only create things that are measurably useful, there is no room for art, no room for science, no room for fun, for play, for disagreement, for surprises, for wonder, for fantastic tales of past failures, and no room for nonsense. And if there’s no room for those things, there’s no reason for anything.