Danish Centre for Design Research

Critical Design as ­Constructive Provocation

Critical comment. Professor Anthony Dunne’s Placebo project included a sofa that contained this shield against electromagnetic radiation. The furniture was put into use by ordinary families and served as a critical comment on the technology we surround ourselves with. Photo: Jason Evan
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Critical design is not a new invention. But it is highly topical. With the global climate issues topping the agenda and the complexity of the global market as a condition for even the most mundane activity, there is a renewed need to question the current state of the world. And critical design will do just that. But can critical design also be used as a tool in the design process, or will it lose its bite if an attempt is made to tame it?

By Trine Vu

Chairs made of second-hand clothes from homeless people. Cow patties in an installation with a PH designer lamp in the home of a poor African family. A bench in the silhouette of a swastika. A sofa with an electromagnetic shield adopted by an average family. And a soft drink to improve the lives of guarana growers in Brazil.

Critical design has many faces and often finds itself in the border land between art and design.

The Burning Issues of Our Times

It is not a new invention, but the current climate challenges, society’s growing complexity and increasing globalisation have lead to a growing interest in making a difference in the world, and that has brought critical design to the fore once more.

Tau Ulv Lenskjold, a Ph.D. scholar at The Danish Design School, teaches critical design and design theory. In his Ph.D. project he explores design as a critical practice – how designers can work with critical design and bring it into the real world.

He studies the critical practice through work analyses of various types of design products and design objects and case-studies based on interviews and observations of the ways in which designers, artists and activists use design methods and strategies.

"We are currently facing a number of big issues that have made it increasingly important to relate to the state of the world. That involves how we’re going to solve the climate problems, and whether we should be taking part in the excessive production that’s taking place. Globalisation is an important perspective for critical design, because it is an example of the growing complexity of the world around us," says Tau Ulv Lenskjold and explains that while design is by definition aimed at fixing problems, critical design is aimed at questioning the present conditions.

The Toaster Project

Complex products. Student Thomas Thwaites wanted to demonstrate how complex even the most commonplace objects are today. He therefore constructed a toaster from scratch relying entirely on hand tools and pre-industrial methods. 
Photo: Daniel Alexander

Design Should Do More Than Just Simplify the World

Another reason why critical design has taken on renewed relevance over the past 10-15 years, according to Tau Ulv Lenskjold, is that there is currently a strong general focus on design. Design is often expected to provide solutions and help simplify the world in order to make it more rational, as this is seen as auspicious in itself.

"In a Danish context, the functional and rational always take precedent. But in my opinion, that is a discourse that critical design ought to challenge," says Tau Ulv Lenskjold.

A Critical Comment

To illustrate how critical design can challenge the current state of affairs and spark debate about the way we organise our societies, Tau Ulv Lenskjold mentions a concept design by the Dutch design firm Droog with chairs made from second-hand clothes from homeless people and benches shaped like swastikas.

"This is about as close as we get to examples of critical design that can be used in the real world. They’re intended as design, not art, because they preserve the functions of a chair and a bench, and because they’re available in the market rather than merely put on display in a museum. Unlike art, design has an obligation to take an interest in the practical use of things," he explains and offers another example of the use of critical design to shine a critical light on the way we live:

In the Placebo project, one of the founders of the concept of critical design, Professor Anthony Dunne of the Royal College of Art in London, offered a critical comment on the vast amounts of technology we surround ourselves with in everyday life by creating a series of furniture with "special features", including a table with a built-in compass and a sofa with a shield against electromagnetic fields. Dunne had ordinary families live with the furniture for a while, and afterward he interviewed them about the experience. The purpose of the experiment was to take conceptual design out of the galleries and into everyday life in order to make people reflect, in particular, on the invisible electromagnetic waves from the technology we bring into our life.

In the project What if, which was on display in 2009 at The Science Gallery in Dublin, Ireland, design student Thomas Thwaites set out to build an ordinary toaster from scratch. The resulting toaster, says Tau Ulv Lenskjold, resembled something that was made of play-dough and stopped worked after about 10 minutes. His point was to demonstrate how complex even everyday products are today.

"Critical design points to things in contemporary society that we otherwise tend to have a blind spot for," Tau Ulv Lenskjold adds.

S(h)it on it
Critical design. The Dutch designer Richard Hutten’s
S(h)it on it (a bench in the shape of a swastika) was designed as a statement against fascism. People sit on it with their backs towards another. 
Photo: Rene Koster

Critical Design Makes the Invisible Visible

Andreas Rumpfhuber is an architect and design researcher based in Vienna, Austria. He took his Ph.D. from the Danish Centre for Design Research in 2009 and is currently organising a series of seminars on critical design in Vienna. Among other aspects, he studies the political dimension of design and architecture, including what happened to architecture when the office landscape was invented and became the norm in workplaces the world over.

He also thinks that there is good reason for the renewed interest in critical design. As an example of the use of critical design for provocation he mentions the Supergas project by the Danish artists group Superflex.

Here an installation with a huge balloon full of animal waste is hooked up to the well-known PH designer lamp to deliver lighting to a poor African family, thus highlighting both global inequality and climate problems.

"Any good design contains a certain portion of critique. The main purpose of critical designs is to make the invisible visible by showing us something we didn’t know existed," says Andreas Rumpfhuber.

Design on the Activist Agenda

Many of the critical design projects are experimental, but critical design can also take the form of something as commonplace as a soft drink.

With the energy soft drink Guarana Power the Danish artists group Superflex is trying to create a new platform for guarana growers in the Amazonian jungle in Brazil to sell their crops at a fair price.

"Here critical design is used in an activist attempt at promoting a cause, as the project is a reaction to Coca Cola’s near-monopoly on the guarana production – this is reflected, for example, in the way that Superflex plays with a modified Coca-Cola logo in the design on the bottles," Tau Ulv Lenskjold explains.

Critical Design as a Tool

Perhaps critical design can be used for other purposes beyond questioning the present conditions. Tau Ulv Lenskjold explains that critical design can be used as a tool in ordinary design processes, where it may serve as a sort of constructive provocation.

"User-involving design processes typically have a great emphasis on reaching consensus, which means there’s often a risk of picking the easy solutions, so the outcome of the design process tends to conform to the lowest common denominator. Here it may be an advantage to use critical design as a provocation to make people leave their comfort zone and dare to think outside the box in order to find a better solution to the design problem," says Tau Ulv Lenskjold.

Andreas Rumpfhuber, on the other hand, does not think that critical design is an appropriate design tool.

"The problem is that you can’t control creativity. In order to be critical, you have to take yourself out of the game. When multinational corporations use hackers to check their security, then who’s serving whom? It’s the same thing with critical design: When every company around the corner is asking designers to take a critical look at their product to maximise their turnover – who is serving whom? The moment that critical design turns mainstream, it loses its soul," Andreas Rumpfhuber argues.

The Concept of Critical Design

The concept of critical design was first used in Anthony Dunne’s book Hertzian Tales from 1999. Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, his partner in the design firm Dunne & Raby in London, are often credited with creating the concept. Critical design uses design objects and experiments to offer criticism or comments on social conditions while also exploring the boundaries of design.

Critical design often finds itself in a grey zone between art and design but differs from art on several counts, among them its accessibility to a wider audience.

Over the years, critical design has been used in activism and for political purposes, in Denmark with the artists group Superflex as one of the examples. Critical design also explores the borderland between design and science by creating design fiction – a sort of future scenarios for alternative applications of design in both technological and social contexts. Critical design can also take on a broader scope, for example with the use of sustainable materials to demonstrate a critical stance.

Additional reading

Tau Ulv Lenskjold’s research profile.

Andreas Rumpfhuber’s seminar series in Vienna about critical design.

Article about Andreas Rumpfhuber’s Ph.D. dissertation, Immaterial Labour Poses New Challenges for Architecture, Mind Design #19, May 2009

Superflex’ Guarana Power-project.

Superflex’ Supergas-projet.

Thomas Thwaites’ The Toaster Project.

Anthony Dunnes The Placebo Project.

Dunne and Raby’s definition of critical.  



Mind Design #36, 2011

Edited and published by the Danish Centre for Design Research

Reproduction allowed and encouraged with indication of source