Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 80, July 2009

Revisiting Affirmative Design

It seems these days that everybody has become activists of sorts. Ethics is the new black. We sign petitions on the web and join protest facebook groups, condemn sweatshops and shop fair trade, eat slow food and recycle our garbage. Especially within the designer community questions of sustainability have come to the centre and there seems to be a surge in new “critical approaches” to design in consumer society. And it’s about time. We need more critical design.

It is now ten years ago that Anthony Dunne published “Hertzian Tales”, the prominent elaboration on critical design, where he coined celebrated concepts like “para-functionality”, “post-optimal” and “infra-ordinary” design. Critical design has since become a special field of practice between art and design where consumerism and contemporary society has been interrogated and analysed through clever products and scenarios shown at acclaimed exhibitions.

Traditionally, criticism has been the activity to find and call attention to errors and flaws, to wave a critical attitude of questioning and examining the world. Since the Frankfurt School of thinkers, critical theory has been concerned with discerning authority and injustice within the capitalist political-economic system. To be “critical” has almost become synonymous with revealing the hidden mechanisms that fool the masses – which has often meant a rail against consumer society.

Critical design, as framed by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, has aimed to use speculative design proposals to challenge the preconceptions of products in everyday life and to enrich their narratives. The intention has been to raise awareness, initiate debate and to expose submerged assumptions manifested through the design of products and commodities. These artefacts become a powerful and embodied critique on consumer culture that causes reflection on existing values, conventions, and practices.

Critical design objects have often been placed into an art context by observers as they carry rich narratives and theoretical associations (thereby saying that design itself cannot have these characteristics). Many designs have been criticized for being negative and pessimistic. Perhaps these assumptions emerge as we are used to designs that promises a golden future rather than addresses the discontent of everyday life. Dunne and Raby has called this classical position of design “affirmative design”, a design that reinforces the status quo rather than questions it.

Using design as a critical tool is very powerful. With its special connectedness to our everyday object we can locate critical issues within a context of domestic material culture. We are used to regard carefully crafted designs to solve problems but just as important is the design of questions. When they work well it reveals our everyday under a new light, reveals or disrupts what we take for granted. This helps us better understand how we should craft our desirable futures.

The designs and projects by Dunne and Raby deserve recognition and they have set off a whole new wave of design rethinking as their books have entered the reading lists of most design educations.
But critical perspectives can also easily get theory-heavy and nihilist as they often lacks agency other than that of tearing down. The critical approach can quickly get stuck in dialectic anti-position or in a deconstructive approach where nothing new is assembled or proposed. Too often simple critical design becomes a chair which cannot be sat in (questioning functionality), an ugly vase (questioning paradigms of taste), or just plain bad designs. Unskilled criticism can become just a simple-minded rail against something or everything, and so can critical design. It can lose its narrative and end up saying just “no”.

For Bruno Latour, a theorist often quoted within design studies, this is the trap of criticism. In one of his articles he ponders over “why has critique run out of steam?” (Critical Inquiry 30, 2004). According to Latour, social criticism has over the last decade been put on automatic response throughout the academic world. Here “everyone” knows that “facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always the prisoner of language, that we always speak from one standpoint, and so on”. Critical theory and social critique have too easily carried us away and set us on critical repeat. Academic critics pull the carpet under each other’s feet like an endless slapstick movie. “Are we not like those mechanical toys that endlessly continue to do the same gesture when everything else has changed around them?”

No, for Latour it is time to “bring the sword of criticism to criticism itself” and reinvent the methods of critique. It must be a new criticism that assembles, that redevelops empiricism and science. It should not move away from facts and into pure narratives, but move closer to the matters of concern and communicate these better. What we need is to design tools that will allow us to visualize and model the “contradictory and controversial” matters of concern.

We can design scenarios that add reality and frames matters of concern, not subtract reality and end up in nihilism. With this we can strengthen design and add understanding to our desirable futures. We must imagine a critique that is associated with more reality, a multiplication of proposals, generating more ideas and assemble these into discussable scenarios, rather than debunking all as futile in an automatic critical response.

One of the difficulties with critical design positions might actually come from the art world as we often mix up critical design with art. If someone has already made a similar project in the art world it is not interesting anymore. One needs to be the first to say or do something, and when it is said the chapter is closed. Very few artists mention where they have gotten their inspiration from, if it is not a French theorist. In this way critical design can, just like art, become like quick sand. What you try to build on top of it gets sucked down into the mire.

A critical eye is important in design and good craftsmanship – it find weaknesses, contradictions and problems. More importantly, a good craftsman also speculates on what can be done to improve the design. It is a critique that also is experimental in its proposals and it affirms new possibilities with a voice of hope. So can we learn from critical design to better craft “affirmative” designs?

“Affirmative design”? What is that? It is “post-critical” and confirms something to build from. Engaged in critical craftsmanship it assembles, supports, encourages and builds alliances between visions. It wants to be copied. It is a contagious viral idea for others to use. It dares to call itself progressive, and it is building rather than destroying.

“Affirmative design” makes proposals, however humble, simple or modest. It is attentive to the small details, and acknowledges that you will not build something completely new, but improve or redesign the old.

“Affirmative design” has the “can do” mentality of the hacker, assembler and reflective craftsman. It will be using the materiality and energy of consumer rituals to build ethical and sustainable designs.

“Affirmative design” walks the critical path with care and does not lose sight its own special craft; that of proposing new speculative designs and scenarios for the future.

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