Critical Design

These days, I seem to be explaining what critical design is to a lot of people. Goldsmiths and the RCA are the main players in the field of critical design, but recently I’ve come across people that could count themselves as critical designers but aren’t aware of it.

As I understand it, critical design is social commentary through designing. Calling it design rather than art leads viewers to believe that the design exists, or could really exist in the real world. Because of this, the response from the viewer is stronger, and their level of engagement can be greater. Critical design exists to throw up questions, often about ethical implications of current issues.

There are lots of good examples of critical design. Design duo Dunne and Raby pretty much founded the field. I often take their Evidence Dolls as a good example.

Image courtesy of Wellcome windows

Their explanation of the project is so good that I’m going to put it here in its entirety.

Evidence Dolls is a research project commissioned by the Pompidou Centre in Paris for the D-Day exhibition. It is part of an ongoing investigation into how design can be used as a medium for public debate on the social, cultural and ethical impact of emerging technologies.

The aim was to use hypothetical products as a way of exploring how one group in society felt biotech might impact on their lives. We focussed on young single women and their love lives as this provided a number of interesting perspectives on genetics — designer babies, desirable genes, mating logic, DNA theft. It is not intended to be scientific, but more a way of unlocking their imaginations and generating stories that once made public, trigger thoughts and discussions in other people.

One hundred special dolls were produced to contain material from a male lover from which DNA could be extracted at a later date. The dolls were made from white plastic (which could be annotated) and came in three penis sizes, S, M, and L.

A number of young single women were interviewed and asked to imagine how they would use the dolls. This led to more general discussions about the impact of genetic technology on their love lives. Graphic design group ?b?ke were asked to annotate the dolls with words, drawings and images based on the transcripts.

The final installation consisted of 25 dolls (with illustrated surfaces) sitting on a large table, 4 DVD players showing edited interviews with the women, and 55 blank dolls on shelves.

Image courtesy of Material Beliefs

The project Material Beliefs by the Interaction Research Studio at Goldsmiths (where I studied) includes a table which is essentially a mousetrap. The mouse is then fried to harness energy in order to power the mousetrap sensor. Often people are disgusted that a mouse would be killed in this way, yet the same people would put out poison if their homes were mouse infested.

Image courtesy of Material Beliefs

Jimmy Loizeau (who worked on the above project) also made a spy tooth, which I believed to be real for a few years. It’s actually called an Audio Tooth Implant, but I remember ‘spy tooth’ better. I remember seeing it during my Art Foundation in the book Spoon next to Ron Arad stuff and it blew my mind. The concept is that a spy could have a tooth implant which is really an information transmitter. Vibrations sent by the tooth could resonate through the jaw and the ear would understand the vibrations as normal sound. It turned out that Jimmy eventually became one of my tutors at Goldsmiths (lucky me!). I was disappointed to hear that it wasn’t a working tooth about a year ago, but by that point I was familiar with critical design so I wasn’t that surprised.

Image courtesy of

Julia Lohmann made a series of cow benches that were made from cows with their insides taken out. There is something disgusting about it, yet many of us often wear leather and eat beef. It forces people to requestion their ethical stance.

As with everything, once you know about critical design, you’ll see it everywhere. There were some really good projects that fall into the category at the RCA design show, the Central Saint Martins Jewellery and Textile Futures courses, and of course the Goldsmiths show. I hope to be able to put up some images in due course from these shows here, apart from the Goldsmiths show, which I’ve covered to death on our main blog.

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Filed under Art, Designers, Ideas

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