Ask a designer if they’ve heard of critical design, design fiction, speculative design, or discursive design and you’ll almost certainly get a “yes.” Ask if they can differentiate between them, and you might as well be asking them to distinguish fiscal strategies among the Republican presidential candidates. (If you were to ask a politician to differentiate between critical design and design fiction you would undoubtedly get a much more elaborate and confident answer than the typical designer—though completely made-up of course).
Even the designers that affiliate themselves with speculative design have difficultly articulating the difference between what they do and, say, design fiction. Having interviewed dozens of such practitioners, most have some idea or a working personal definition of speculative- or fictive-approaches, but they are generally not confident enough to make any firm declarations—they often avoid or are ambivalent about such labeling.
This is really not that surprising for such a relatively young field of practice. But the ambiguity or confusion certainly doesn’t do us any favors. Seasoned Core77 readers might remember a 2009 article on “the four fields of design” where we tried to help make sense of this kind of work by relating it to other types of design based on designers' deepest intentions. Rather than focus on what we design, or how we design, instead the concern is on why we design.
The article is still well worth the read for the big picture as it charts out the fields of commercial-, responsible-, experimental-, and discursive-design. But here we will drill down a bit further into discursive design to set the stage for Core77’s new Discursive Design channel.
While most designers have heard of critical design, a term coined by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby in the mid-1990s, they probably have not read the book, Hertzian Tales, from whence its definition came. And this is a very particular definition. Along with other aspects, critical design was described as: dealing specifically with electronic objects; being based upon a more academic notion of critical theory (specifically the Frankfurt School for you well-read designers); and being in opposition to typical “affirmative design” that populates the marketplace and the domestic product-scape. Over the years, though, the term has been stretched and appropriated to encompass a wide range of associated work (that transcends all three of these original bounds as well as others).
But before “critical design” the general term “conceptual design” was probably most prevalent while “interrogative design” was used by Krzysztof Wodiczko at least by the early 1990s, and “anti-design” and “radical design” have been used to describe international movements in the 1960s and 70s. And architecture had been using “critical architecture” for at least a decade prior to “critical design”—in fact, "post-critical architecture" had already arrived just as design was starting to get its criticality on. Undoubtedly there were many other versions of, and nomenclature for, this type of work that never made it into the history books. Most recently, speculative design and design fiction have established themselves within the design lexicon.
This natural expansion of product design beyond its historic roots as the handmaiden of industry and commerce has allowed (some) designers to step into a wondrous new frontier—employing their design thinking to promote, and potentially affect, social thought. While "good design" is often professed to be unobtrusive, intuitive, invisible and something that does not make the user think too much, discursive design instead actually targets the intellect. The primary goal is to prompt self-reflection, ignite the imagination, and foment contemplation—to deliberately make the user think (deeply).
This, of course, demands a purposeful shift—the designed object’s primary role is no longer utilitarian, aesthetic or commercial. Instead it is mostly (though certainly not exclusively) a thought catalyst. The product is given form and function so that it can communicate ideas—this is the goal and the measure of success. Rather than tools for living and doing, these are tools for thinking. While different, this design approach is only a shift in orientation, it is not a radical departure. It is still product design, but with somewhat different product affordances.
Just as the graphic designer can create more readable and effective election ballots, they also can create political posters. Both activities employ the same tools and mediums, but one helps people do, the other helps people think.
Our conception of discursive design work is akin to graphic design’s political posters. To question the legitimacy of product design’s expansion into this arena is tantamount to challenging illustrators who make political cartoons, musicians who write protest songs, filmmakers who create expository documentaries, writers who pen critical op-ed columns, or any other creative practitioner whose efforts are directed toward more socially-engaged ends rather than basic forms of utility and entertainment.
With general and sometimes subtle distinctions, there are many brands or titles for such an expanded design approach: critical design, design fiction, speculative design, speculative re-design, interrogative design, design-for-debate, radical design, conceptual design, and dissident design, for example. And there is probably a new one being contemplated or created right now somewhere in the world. But what lies at the root of them all is deliberate use of products to communicate ideas that are ideologically, socially, and/or psychologically charged—and often provocatively so.
We fully acknowledge and respect both the idiosyncratic and the agreed-upon characteristics of these different approaches. And we fully expect that new and viable shoots and branches will emerge. Because of this, we feel that it is important to understand the field as an increasingly broad range of practice that is comprised of many forms—think "genus" in relation to "species." Discursive design operates at the genus level, below which there are many species, such as critical design, design fiction, speculative design, etc.
We feel that “discursive” represents the core of all of these forms, and operates most effectively as an organizing genus. The word "discursive" comes from “discourse,” which can be understood most basically as the expression or treatment of a topic—part of a discussion or debate. A discursive design is an object that has been intentionally (and usually abstractly) embedded with discourse and/or is used to elicit discussion.
Its ultimate reason for being is not to provide utility, though it definitely does that lest it not be associated with “product.” Instead, the designer conceives of a product that is capable of communicating ideas. But these are not just any ideas, they are those with psychological, sociological, or ideological weight; the topic is substantive enough to support a complex of competing perspectives and values.
It should be emphasized that as a part of the discursive design genus, each species shares the same general philosophy of an expanded conception of product design. They all use artifacts to engage the intellect, but each species differs somehow in terms of method, posture, approach or effect.
For Core77's Discursive Design channel we will be including all such forms. When the designers identify their work with a species-level description (design fiction, speculative design, etc.) we will include that. And often when projects are not identified by the designers, we will often suggest a particular species-level description.
Names and definitions can be crucial for the development of practices and disciplines—they create the necessary common ground for individual understanding and broader discussions. They help disciplines understand themselves as well help when communicating with other fields. Names represent identities. Identities facilitate mutual understanding. And mutual understanding furthers respect, collaboration, and growth.
We believe that it is time for product design to catch up with all of the other creative disciplines—architecture, graphics, fashion, music, writing, performance, etc.—and embrace greater intellectual engagement and move beyond the restrictive boundaries of mere utility, entertainment, and beauty. These traditional contributions are certainly highly important and valued, but we can and should also be fostering cultural development through broader forms of participation. Design has more to offer, and we hope that the Core77 Discursive Design channel will help to encourage more reflective and engaged product design and to foster a strong community of practice.
If you have discursive design work that you think fits the bill, please contact us for possible posting on this channel.
Don't have an account? Join Now
Create a Core77 Account
Already have an account? Sign In
Please enter your email and we will send an email to reset your password.
Ahmed, I think we are on the same page in general. Perhaps there are only small differences. I think that some designers are critical of Design, but I don't think that because the field in general is "myopic and shallow" that this should preclude them from trying to use design as a medium to attend to more intellectual issues--doing discursive design. I don't think that the entire field has to change before some are able to move in a different direction. I think they do have a home in an expanded understanding of design practice.
I think that material culture studies, STS, etc. make incredible contributions (my anthropology doctorate is in material culture and consumption), but I also think that designers using the designed object as a medium to address the same issues can also contribute in valuable, though be they different, ways. Poets, songwriters, fiction writers, graphic designers, etc. also comment on the same topics as material culture, STS, etc. do. They do it differently, and certainly not as rigorously as an academic might, but I believe that their approach can appeal to others and can have value and impact as well. I don't think design should be excluded from trying, but I do think we need to be more rigorous, careful, and learned when we choose to.
I very much appreciate your engagement with this topic.
Agreed. And still male and female are terms/concepts used quite exclusively and quite usefully for the overwhelming majority of people on the planet. Our point is that classifications are imperfect simplifications, and even morally contestable (especially academic circles), but still help move discourse and certain understanding along.
Sadly, Ahmed, I think you are correct (as also indicated by your other comments below) that design schools do a poor job of teaching and integrating the lessons of design history into their curricula. This is partly because they are under pressure to include so much else (design research, digital fabrication, CAD, sustainability, systems, interaction, UX, etc.), and most tend to listen more to what industry is asking for since job placement is their chosen key measure of success. (I have yet to have an employer tell me that they want graduates who have a better grasp of design history.) It is also partly due to the relatively new field of design history and PhD's. Of the four institutions that I have been affiliated with, only one had a design historian on faculty (he was educated as an art historian, but spent his career focusing on design). Art historians often take on this duty with less expertise and gusto.
Francisco, thanks for your comment. We agree that political posters are generally "closed, one-way emissions." But that type of voice still contributes to the discourse surrounding a topic. Discursive design is about using the artifact (poster, product, etc.) primarily to voice substantive issues rather than attending to problems of utility (the improved ballot in our example). While a discursive designer *may* take on the role of trying to facilitate discussion or debate (which is how I think that you are understanding it) this is not necessarily the case. Discursive work/voice can become part of the debate.
In many ways using discursive design to raise a topic for others to debate--trying to remain neutral--is playing it safe. Some discursive designers take this stance, for what sometimes seems as a way of avoiding criticism from others (e.g., being called elitist, self-righteous, or wrong-minded). While we do need designers who are interested in facilitating debate, I think we also need designers who take a stand, even quite provocatively, like graphic designers can do with their "closed, one-way" political posters. Perhaps, or even ideally, their work is able to make others self-reflect and see things differently. Sometimes the discursive designer is provocateur, and sometimes they are facilitators--both are important and valid roles in our minds.
Could you specify what is the conception of 'graphic design's political posters'? Who/ what are you drawing upon? The majority of political posters are closed, one-way emission of messages uninterested in discursiveness.
Agreed, but design can't do this without raising critical questions around its own practice first. Design practice is, as I have said above, myopic and shallow, unaware of its own heritage and therefore making the same arguments again and again. If people want to study what designers do from outside the discipline, let them go to material culture studies or STS etc. But if they want to practice the discipline from within...they need to read up on and understand the history of design like every other discipline does. This is the big failure of design academia...no history and theory informing mainstream practice or pedagogy. People just reinvent the wheel over and over again...hence no transcending discourses that have been present for 50+ years.
The journey is nothing new, if you follow design academia from the Methods movement (Christopher Alexander, John Chris Jones, Bruce Archer etc.) - just that contemporary design academia is myopic and forgetful and the study of the history of design thinking and research, including critical design, is little pursued in contemporary programs, unlike architecture and fine art where there are actual "History of" and "Theory of" courses.
The metaphor of sex, with its strongly contexted binaries (homo\hetero-sexual), and the long contested history of queer debates, argues for an acknowledgement of wider spectrums, not over-arching universalisms. Even granted biological determinism, sexuality is still a widely contested subject - i.e. biology does not dictate who we are, esp. within the context of technologies that allow us to remake and reform biology.
Are current design schools so bereft of courses that teach the history of design practice and theory that this it becomes necessary to remind them via general design blogs that it is worthy, every once in a while, to resort to both (self-reflection and criticism, as if there isn't a history of both in design, i.e. Schon, Cross etc.)? (I don't mean to critique you specifically here, just design academia in general here).
You raise an important point for clarification. We do not deny the important intellectual and philosophical perspectives that undergird the many design historical eras, traditions, and schools of thought. They have always been there and we claim that design cannot escape them. The most mundane, inane, or inert design is steeped, intentionally or not, in layers of intellectual content--the belief in or assumption of user-centeredness, for example.
There is a difference between having a philosophy that informs your designs for utilitarian things, and using a designed object to communicate ideas that have nothing at all to do with design--where design is only the catalyst. This is one of the limitations we see with the field of critical architecture--it deals nearly exclusively with ideas surrounding architecture itself rather than the possibility of using architecture to speak to issues beyond and completely disassociated with architecture.
We are intrigued by the possibility of using design discursively in order to transcend issues of design and material culture. We want to highlight this potential. It can be used as a medium that has no intellectual boundaries or anchors connected to design. This is the potential that is being discovered, but has largely gone untapped.
Artists may claim to do just that--critique how we relate to our built environment, so I do not think that this is a key point for differentiation. I agree that the question of socio-technical practices and how products might offer alternative utility is an important arena in which discursive designers can work. But I do not think that this satisfactorily defines the domain in which it operates. The discursive designer can play around with and challenge conventional utility as a means of speaking to many other issues--or really any issue. This is the power and the similarity of our medium--the product/object--with those of other creative fields that use different media to inspire self-reflection and to critique.
Yes, within more academic circles this is increasingly the case--the criticism and skepticism is a very good thing, and a natural part of the maturation of a discipline. We too think that the bar needs to be raised with this relatively young practice. We want designers to be more intellectually prepared, invested, and concerned with tapping into the potential for greater engagement. If a designer really cares about a topic and claims to want to have (let alone claim to actually have) an effect on others' thinking, then just posting images of an inadequately researched design on their website is hardly sufficient.
In the spirit of critical discourse, is the designer capable of having a higher-order debate on their topic? Are they aware of competing arguments, traditions, and frames (e.g., privileged, western, neo-colonial) within which they are thinking? There is a long way to go, and in many ways we are just beginning the journey.
Ahmed, thanks for your comments. You point to a fundamental issue with all classifications with regard to their attempts to address complexity. We certainly do not wish to deny the incredible complexity of design, but instead offer a model to try and deal with it.
Of course the immense range of design activity in addition to the many possible intentions cannot be *reduced* to four neat categories. But we feel that the four-field approach provides a foundation and a common vocabulary through which we can begin to unpack the complexity. We think of it as a starting point rather than an end point.
I like to use the classification of sex (not gender) to emphasize the problem--even categories as seemingly basic and incontestable as male and female are imperfect simplifications. There are issues externally with partial-, ambiguous-, and missing-genitalia with life-altering implications for those born with them and heart-wrenching dilemmas for their parents. And internally there is a wide range of chromosomal morphology (partial-, missing-, and misshapen- X's and Y's) when we understand sex as distinct from genitalia.
But the biological classification of male and female offers a very useful shorthand that works for the most part, and even when its flaws arise, it provides a foundation from which to debate and think more deeply.
"Affect" is used as a verb.
...employing their design thinking to promote, and to potentially have an effect upon, social thought.
Self-reflection and criticism are crucial for the advancement of fields and disciplines. We think we need more. We think design should aim higher and begin holding itself (ourselves) to similar, if not higher, standards than other fields/discplines.
Again, how can you say that the design disciplines haven't had more than a century long history of intense intellectual engagement? It's as if the entirety of intellectual thought in design that was engaged in questions beyond utility and form from the Bauhaus and Ulm schools onwards doesn't exist, much less disciplines outside design like material culture, science and technology studies, design studies etc. that have been very interested in what, how and why designers make and do!
Actually, it is precisely through a critique of the way we relate to objects-of-use and everyday, mundane socio-technical practices and the kinds of discourses that ground them that critical\speculative design differentiates itself from fine art practice. It is precisely through opening up alternative ways of how utility is provided that these forms of design practice raise the questions they do - otherwise what difference is there between design and art?
Contemporary speculative and critical design practice has been critiqued precisely for being mostly interested in avowedly apolitical, primarily aesthetic explorations and for being shallow in its criticality. See Luiza, P. and Pedro, O., "Questioning the critical in speculative and critical design", Ansari, A., "Design must fill current human needs before imagining new futures", and Bardzell, J., "What is "critical" about critical design?".
Would like to point out here that the distinctions between commercial\responsible and experimental\discursive seem vague and unclear. What about practice enacted through explicitly commercial channels that is undertaken with 'humanitarian' intent, or social innovation that even though it means well, simply reinforces neoliberal or colonial paradigms? And most critical designers, especially Dunne and Raby, would argue that in fact, the entire point is to evoke discourse and raise problematic questions around our relations with technology and each other by exploring and pushing existing boundaries and envisioning possible\alternate futures. The moment you begin to define a particular form of design practice as "commercial" or "social" or "experimental" you are making statements about the kinds of politics, forms of knowledge, and discourses grounding that form of practice. You can't reduce these things to simple universalizing statements.
Could you explain what is meant by 'affect social thought.' These three terms seem mutually exclusive.
Good to see this new initiative open with the presumption that designers are ignorant, both of their own discipline/practice and of politics.