Critical By Design? is a two-day international research conference on the capacity of design as a mode of critique and will take place at the Academy of Art and Design (FHNW) Basel. With Jeffrey Bardzell, Shaowen Bardzell, Carl DiSalvo, Igor Galligo, Bruno Gransche, Moritz Greiner-Petter, Anja Groten, Søren Bro Pold, Alice Twemlow, Peter-Paul Verbeek, Matt Ward, Janneke Wesseling, Anne-Marie Willis and Ludwig Zeller.

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The conference offers a unique platform for the interdisciplinary discussion of critical theories and practices from a design perspective. Renowned experts from design theory, history and practice, the philosophy of technology, the art, cultural and media studies as well as the field of human-computer interaction come together to reconsider historical trajectories, advance contemporary understandings and propose future developments of design as a materialized form of critique.

The relationship between design and critique proves to be ambiguous and problematic. In its interventionist and constructive nature, design meets criticality on the premise of the shapeability and alterability of cultural practices and social realities. Design can be seen as inherently critical and speculative, as it sets out to project novel relationships of people and things from that which it diagnoses as the status quo. At the same time, design is inevitably normative, if not often violent, as it partakes in stabilizing the past, normalizing the present condition and obstructing possible futures. In the same way as design can unfold and make experienceable social boundaries, values and norms embedded in our material culture, it is a major contributor to their manifestation and obscuration in the first place. The conference aims to foster a vital rethinking of critical design strategies by reconsidering their effectiveness and exposing their inherent limitations.

With the emergence of approaches such as Design for Debate, Critical and Speculative Design or Critical Making, among many others, the idea that design could be a material mode of critical inquiry regained an international and interdisciplinary visibility in the last decades. By now, a plethora of labels, schools and frameworks has established that aim to reclaim design as a critical practice. The specific conditions and boundaries of design as a mode of critical engagement and the various notions of criticality employed often remain implicit. Conceptual references to earlier radical and anti-design traditions or historic traditions of social critique have hardly been analyzed in greater depth so far. Furthermore, contemporary critical fields like feminist or post-colonial theories have only been addressed recently and by a small number of design theorists and practitioners. The conference therefore provides a platform to discuss the genealogies of criticality in design, to elaborate the specific capabilites and pitfalls of design-based critique and to infer implications for the further development of the field.

Additionally, the conference picks up on the recent efforts within the humanities to question and update the general foundations of critical epistemologies in the wake of technological and socio-political shifts. Critique, seen as a resistant mode of thinking and acting, has to undergo the program of critical questioning itself. The struggle with critique observed in fields such as the social, cultural, art and media studies has yet to feed back into design and design research in a similar manner. The interdisciplinary context of the symposium offers a chance to exchange and co-develop emerging forms of criticality across fields and practices.

The following questions will serve as conceptual starting points:

  • Which concepts of criticality from other disciplines and traditions of thought are adapted in the discourses and practices of design? What, on the other hand, are distinctively designerly concepts of critique and how could these resonate with the methodologies and epistemologies of other disciplines?
  • If critique through artifacts has to be seen as a special mode of critical engagement, how can it be specified and described? How do the specifics of design – be it the materiality of artifacts, the propositional, speculative and normative nature of design, aspects of use, mis-use and appropriation or the shaping of behaviours, experiences and habits through design – allow for distinctive forms of critique? What then, are promising and effective critical design tactics that are appropriate for the contemporary condition?
  • What are inherent blind spots of design that might limit and call into question its potential for critique? How can design be critical of the politics of the already-designed and the trivialization of societal issues as design problems? How can the rhetoric valorization of criticality as a cultural currency be problematized in critical design practices? And how to foster honest practices, that take on responsibilites for the issues they aim to debate and critique?

The conference is organized by the members of the SNSF-funded research project Critical Artifacts, led by Prof. Dr. Claudia Mareis and Prof. Michael Renner.

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