What is the purpose of ‘Critical Design’ events?

levels of issues

Following our last public event, we have done a bit of reflection on how to properly frame the role of such face-to-face meetings and have found it helpful to situate such a role relative to other potential concerns surrounding design. Above is a preliminary diagram of what we consider to be the full spectrum of concerns related to the broader topic of ‘critical design’. In founding this particular interest group, we wanted to resist resist focusing our attention on more philosophical concerns (the top end of the diagram), despite the fact that these remain legitimate political issues. We find that issues often get addressed between graduate students and faculty in more traditional academic settings such as reading groups, colloquia, and conferences; they also tend to be divorced from practical concerns of practitioners, for better or worse. And because one of our primary goals is to refrain from slipping into esoteric theorizing, we prefer that, at least in our public events, any talk of ‘theory’ (however conceived) should be made in direct reference to examples of praxis–in our case, design.

Critical Design events were also consciously conceived to go beyond mere description of content, i.e. focusing solely on particular design products or projects. In other words, we intend the events to be something other or more than recapitulations of design reviews or other typical design presentations. The reason is because these sorts of presentations too often avoid the tough questions and whitewash significant decisions that designers make concerning social and political issues; instead, they tend to highlight formal and aesthetic decisions and therefore tell dishonest narratives lacking in reflexivity. And in the spirit of reflexive thinking, we  want at least a significant portion of each Critical Design event to cover methodological concerns. These might include questions of design agency, design ethics, design education, as well as decisions made during the design process. But again, these topics should not be discussed abstractly but in direct reference to particular projects. What the above diagram reveals is how such methodological concerns can bridge the gap between practical and philosophical issues, potentially helping reduce the persistent divide between academic/intellectual circles (i.e., theory) and ‘real world’ design (i.e.,  practice). We hope to create a forum for dialog that extends from one event to the next, regardless of who is actually in attendance.

Which segues to our final point of this post: what is quickly becoming evident is how difficult it is to transmit such an approach to the attendees of such ‘community’ events. We definitely want our events to remain open to the public, but this almost certainly guarantees new faces each time who may not be used to our (hopefully) unique format. Likewise, with all the above goals in mind, we don’t want to become overly dictatorial in how the events are structured. So for now, we’re allowing the process to unfold in a more ‘organic’ fashion, reflecting upon each event as they occur, both privately and in blog form. And as you might imagine, we surely welcome any suggestions–feel free to bring them up at our upcoming events!

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