What do we mean by ‘critical’?

The term ‘critical’ is one of those tricky words that has dozens of accepted meanings, both in commonplace and academic settings. While the spirit of the term itself rejects fixing its own meaning, this brief explanation is meant to make public the internal debate over why this particular word was selected when founding this interest group. We originally came together around the shared belief that something was missing in contemporary design practices. We decided to use the term ‘critical’  to name this ‘absence’ and as a way of aligning ourselves with similar projects in other disciplines. From the outset, we intended the term to be more connotative than denotative, in that it is more meant to situate a general approach than a signifier with an agreed upon definition (hence the reason why we don’t spend our events hoping to come to a consensus on what ‘critical design’ is). We paired the words ‘critical’ and ‘design’ to highlight the group’s mission of exploring ways that design itself can engage with critical modes of thinking and doing. In this sense, it is something of a normative lens but without any particular ethical framework. More than anything, we intend the term to describe a working method. In Insurgent Citizenship, James Holston (2008) defines his approach of ‘critical research’ the following way: “I do not mean pronouncing what is right or wrong with the way things are, judging them by some external measure. Rather, I mean pointing out the ways that thoughts and actions rest on taken-for-granted, unexamined assumptions and the consequences that both the unexamination of the familiar and its defamiliarization have for the construction of the way things are” (35).

We also intend for the principles of Critical Design to get adopted into the mainstream of design practices. So while our political positions may overlap, we do not wish to equate ourselves with any avant-garde camp that uses conceptual design itself as the form of critique. Rather, we hope that our group is one method by which criticality can get directly imported into the design world. Furthermore, we hope that our decision to use the word ‘critical’ does not get conflated with the negative connotation of the term ‘critique’, nor do we wish our events or the spirit of the group to devolve into negativity and finger-wagging. And though it may not always show, we each whole-heartedly believe that the ‘critical’ camp can learn just as much from the ‘design’ camp as vice-versa. In other words, the practical and solution-driven nature of design processes is as important to our group’s mission as the one-sided importation of criticality into design.

All of these decisions, in terms of positioning the goals and methods of the group around the word ‘critical’, were made based on the context in which we find ourselves. Thus, they are intended to be flexible and to adapt to the changing makeup of the group. While we have yet to schedule any “nights of reflection”, we welcome comments either here or during our events on such meta/reflexive issues.


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