Critical Design | The Impact Of Social And Environmental Trends

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Critical design may be described as a critical theory based approach to design. Critical deign uses design to challenge preconceptions about the role that products play in everyday life. It aims to discover new areas of interest and original goals for designers. It focuses on studying the impact that new technologies and policies, and of worldwide social and environmental trends have on designers. Critical design was made popular by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby through their firm Dunne & Raby. Dunne and Raby describe it as an attitude or a position rather than a method.  It is the opposite of affirmative design, which is design that reinforces the status quo.

The Critical Design Process

The critical design process is not necessarily about creating a functional object but rather it is about stimulating thought and intrigue. The general aim is to help others steer thought and ideas in the direction that the designer would like the world around him/her to head. The role of the critical designer is to challenge political and industrial assumptions and to elicit discussions about social, cultural and ethical issues. The critical designer speaks about how today’s technology will influence these fields.

Dunne and Raby write that in order to achieve these aims “we need to move beyond designing for the way things are now and begin to design for how things could be, imagining alternative possibilities and different ways of being, and giving tangible form to new values and priorities. Designers cannot do this alone, though, and the projects here benefit from dialogues and consultations with people working in other fields such as ethics, philosophy, political science, life sciences and biology.”

( Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, Between Reality and the Impossible (Entre la Réalité et l'impossible), in Téléportation,catalogue of the 2010 SaintÉtienne International Design Biennal, p.105.)

What Are The Origins Of Critical Design?

The term critical design was first used by Anthony Dunne in his book Herzian Tales: Elictronic Products, Aesthetic Experience, and Critical Design (1999) and later in his Design Noir: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects (2001) which was co-authored together with Fiona Raby.

Dunne and Raby work as educators at the Royal College of Art’s Design Interactions Department. Dunne is the head of the department. Through their work at the college Dunne and Raby established a place in history for critical design. The new field of practice has its origins in radical design and architecture from the late 1960s and 1970s.

Italian Radical Design of the 1970s was very critical of the dominant design ideologies and the mainstream social values. In the 1990s the trend was towards conceptual design which provided a fertile atmosphere for the growth and development of critical design.

Who partakes in critical design?

Dunne and Raby are the original and dominant proponents of the ideas of critical design. Many of their student at the Royal College of Art (RCA) also practice this form of design. These designers include: James Auger, Elio Caccavale and Noam Toran, Krzysztof Wodiczko, Natalie Jeremijenko, Jurgen Bey and Marti Guixe.

Important Design Movements image
Important Design Movements

What does critical design do?

The main objective of critical design is to get people to think. It aims to raise awareness and challenge assumptions. Ultimately it hopes to get people to act. Specifically, it aims to effect the future of biotechnology.

Dunne and Raby describe the function of critical design as follows: “Design can shift the discussion from one of abstract generalities separated from our lives to tangible examples grounded in our experiences as members of a consumer society. In this way, people can become involved in the debate earlier creating a dialogue between the public and the experts who define the policies and regulations that will shape the future of biotechnology.

In other words, design can explore public perceptions of different biofutures before they happen, and make a contribution to the design of regulations that ensure the most humane and desirable futures are the most likely to become reality.”

An Example of Dunne and Raby’s work

Foragers, is an example of one of Dunne and Raby’s latest designs. In this project Dunne and Raby examine that way our food is gathered and propose an alternative solution. They propose that the farming, as we know it today, is not sustainable, as there is a scarcity of arable land.

The designers pose the question: Can human live by foraging food? and Can humans live on substance that are no longer considered edible? Instead of continuing to engineer plant life Dunne and Raby envisage engineering and “outsourcing” the gastro-intestinal tract. In this way, new equipment would be used to allow humans to eat and digest what exists around them such as tough roots and cellulosic matter. The engineered gastro-intestinal tract is to be worn over the head or on the body. By proposing such a design Dunne and Raby hope to elicit a dialogue between people and debate.


This highly provocative form of design aims to makes waves and to challenge our general assumptions about and hopes for the future. It is specifically interested in science and biology and looks to influence our bio-future.




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