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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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This week for COPIM we are reading Bardzell, Shaowen, Jeffrey Bardzell, Jodi Forlizzi, John Zimmerman, and John Antanitis, ‘Critical Design and Critical Theory: The Challenge of Designing for Provocation’, in Proceedings of the Designing Interactive Systems Conference, DIS ’12 (Newcastle Upon Tyne, United Kingdom: Association for Computing Machinery, 2012), pp. 288–297 <>. This paper is on the challenges of translating ‘critical theory’ into a design research practice.

First, a quick query: what do the authors here mean by ‘critical theory’? Certainly, in this paper, it is not confined to a reflexive discussion of the materialist dialectic, as it was in first-generation Frankfurt School thought. Instead, here, the term is meant to represent a diverse set of theoretical/philosophical paradigms: ‘critical theory is a massive tradition spanning at least a dozen major academic disciplines, including literature studies, sociology, women’s studies, and media studies among others’ (290). As such, there is quite a bit of hand-waving at ideas of what it means to be ‘critical’, even as this is a central notion for the work.

Instead, when Bardzell et al. think about the intersections of critical theory and design, they are seeking design practices that ‘promise an approach that rather than serving needs as they are presently understood, instead seeks to disrupt or transgress such constructions of need’ (289). In some senses, we can see why this is critical. It asks questions, as does Kantian philosophy, about the underpinning conditions of possibility: critique. What these authors want to know is: if this is a goal of critical design theory, then how can this be operationalized into a research-design-driven methodology, without going against the very spirit of criticality within which they wish to situate their practices? As they put it:

In other words, one might desire a description of critical design as an approach to account for both (a) products that generate dilemmas or confusions among users in such a way that users are encouraged to expand their interpretative horizons or rethink cultural norms; and (b) the sorts of design processes that could lead to those kinds of products (289).

There are several challenges/problems with this goal that the authors outline (289):

  1. Critical theory offers little insight about how to make things;
  2. Critical theory tends to be anti-method;
  3. Critical theory emphasizes the meanings and effects of cultural artifacts over their creation;
  4. Critical theory generally tends not to focus on the author of a work as an individual creative agent.

Again, the loose definition of ‘critical theory’ here allows the authors to get away with these broad statements, whereas I would say that, in fact, only certain types of critical theory have anti-intentionality, for instance, at their core.

The two artefacts that the paper’s authors built to explore critical design theory were: 1. the significant screwdriver (which recorded the gender of its users but was also designed as an expressive instrument that would showcase the work); and 2. the whispering wall (which played back gendered observations about a binary opposite gender into the other gender’s locker room). Both were designed to intervene, provoke, and transgress with respect to gender. (I note, also, that while these are somewhat humorous artifacts, the entire piece is quite playful, gesturing at one point towards a ‘magic thing’ with no other explanation! (288))

So, what problems did they hit?

First, predictably, they hit snags in operationalizing theory. This fits the old adage that ‘theory is when you know everything but nothing works. Practice is when everything works but no one knows why. In our lab, theory and practice are combined: nothing works and no one knows why’. ‘As’, they note ‘in any design activity, in making the leap from descriptive to generative, the designer must make judgments about how to proceed’. These judgments come with unavoidable assumptions that can only be worked through by doing (293).

Second, it was difficult for the team to set design intentions and outcomes in advance. ‘Our designs’, they write ‘did not garner the reactions from participants that we intended’. The fact that the team brought a range of assumptions to the design table meant that they found it very difficult to anticipate what the ‘slight strangeness’ (294) for which they aimed would actually look like. ‘It is something else’, as they put it, ‘to design something with just the right “slight strangeness” to be productive’ (295).

Finally, to counter both of the above, the team had to deploy rapidly evolving deployment and evaluation protocols (294). In other words, they had to be flexible as the research-design process went forward, which can have problems in situations such as ethical review (296).

Of course, the team also learned a lot from the process. These included the need for subjects as researchers (crucial for our open-access philosophies) (294). When subjects were involved in the iterative process, things went much better, although one might then query the extent to which the designed artifacts will really be provocative. They learned that they needed a deep relationship with their design subjects (296) and that a fluidity of research plan is crucial (296). What I think most resonated for me as a takeaway point, though, was that it’s very hard to know what will provoke a particular audience towards the type of critical thought that one desires and any pre-planning of this can come with unintended consequences. Certainly, this does not mean that one should not consider desirable critical thinking outcomes. It just means that one must also be expected for this to go badly wrong, as it would in any artform that attempted a purely didactic (or crypto-didactic, as I have termed it) approach.

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