Critical Theory in Design

Examining the translation between critical theory and design work was one of my initial interests in design, and how, as a student coming from a critical cultural and literary theory background, I marketed myself relative to a future in design. The many-authored “Critical Design and Critical Theory” article starts to get at some of the complications for implementing critical theory in design. The authors do an excellent job of walking us through their process of critical design and the problems found along the way, and wrap up with an analysis of “breakdowns,” things that didn’t work so well, and “breakthroughs,” new insights that they gained on critical design.

There are at least a couple of interesting things to learn from this: It seems that applying critical theory directly both closed down and opened up their research in unexpected ways, but I would like to focus on the former. The authors seem overly constricted by the critical backing, and they argue that when the research subjects didn’t “engage as expected with our designs, we had to move with them or abandon the project.” They comment that they were not prepared for the “level of openness that critical design requires” (296).  They require this openness but they suggest that, to implement openness you need to lessen the role of critical theory by using it only to inspire the idea, and then letting it fall away as research proceeds in new directions. While I agree that one should not cling to a limiting theory for no reason other than an obligation to stick to the theory, one should also be willing to negotiate with a theory: not drop the theory or drop the study, but look at how the two talk with one another. Why did it fail? What does it say about the theory? What other theories of gender and gendered spaces would be useful to bring in when the one with which you start does not seem to work? This seems like a great moment for design to intervene in critical theory as well as for critical theory to intervene in design, and something of a missing opportunity to suggest that perhaps less engagement would be best.

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