by Frida Jeppsson

Many seem to agree that design criticism is not critical enough – an argument easy to support, considering the amount of copy-pasted press releases, shallow and characterless reviews, exhibitions and products surrounding us and trivialising the design practice. Or is the problem that design fails to attract, or convince, when reviews come to focus on the gadget and gimmicky part of the object? The deeper visions and conceptualisation of design generally tend to be overlooked by media.(1) It is tempting to ask if design in itself is critical enough to produce engaging material. Critical reflection exists in the design process and often makes a significant part of the end result – but why does this aspect fail to deliver? This phenomenon is stretched to the extent of anything passing as (good) design, without any form of analysis or reflection on behalf of the popular design press. Critical thinking in design, whether from historians and educators to authors, journalists and practitioners is largely absent.(2)

Everybody thinks – it is a part of being alive. At question here is however the consequences of these thoughts, as the quality of what we produce heavily depend on the quality of our thoughts. Without exorcised thinking one’s results can become biased, distorted, partial or prejudiced, which in effect is costly both in money and life quality. Critical thinking involves developing an emotional and intellectual distance between oneself and ideas, like improving one’s thoughts by imposing intellectual standards upon them. This entails effective communication and a will to overcome egocentrism;(3) two major problem-areas here illuminated within the design practice.

Perhaps designers’ aspirations to create something better than what was before are limited as a consequence of the critical discourse deficiency? Business Week, after all, declared innovation dead in 2008(4) and Julio Cappellini similarly declared shape as dead in February 2010.(5) We are facing a world indifferent to better-or-worse(6) where a broadened critical reflection may be the cure to reset the notion of design being trivialised. Another important action to turn this around is for critics, curators and educators to develop methods to inject critical reflection at an earlier stage in the design process, as in other areas still unfamiliar with its presence. This book is a collection of thoughts and invocations by many international profiles discussing the establishment of critique as a corner stone in the design process and beyond, with focus on reflection and a common language for design critique.

Designers should probably not be blamed for the lack of critical discourse and a questionable public awareness of the notion of design. Do however take a moment to think about what design would be without critical thinking – both among practitioners as well as in publications and media in general. It is an image very close to our reality; a world chanting 'buy new' rather than 'repair'. It has also resulted in a wasteland of multitude where similar objects and shapes cannot be separated from each other. The intention here is however not to blame anyone or point fingers but instead to expand the area of design critique to become open and inclusive, by focusing on creating a discourse around what is being produced and referred to as design.

By collecting inspirational examples, In Case of Design – Inject Critical Thinking aspires to bring design critique closer to the masses. Is it possible to change the format and methods of creating public awareness? Older strategies such as investigative and aggressive journalism, with hands covering the camera lens, quotes taken out of their contexts and focus on mistakes rather adds to an already misrepresented image. With that being said, this book will not solely rub people the right way. It is indeed a search for answers, even if it means gently stepping on some toes. Can we, by generating a critical language for design, bring the two opposing worlds of commercial and theoretical/academic design closer?

We are not talking about a design language here, as in aesthetics, colour, shape, type, material or the language of 'things'. Rather the discourse about articulation and a critical language for design – as in words. Art has its own critical language, developed over centuries, so does botany and auto engineering. What would the experience of walking through a garden in bloom be like without the systematic idiom of Carl von Linné? Much like him, we have a great opportunity to create our own critical language, but the question is where do we start – and how? Shall we start at the grass roots, accepting everyone as a critic and editor without control over the outputs?(7) Or perhaps walk down the academic path and begin with the educations, where professors transmit knowledge to younger aspiring versions?(8) It is, clearly, not a question of black or white, but the significance of a critical language and for whom it is intended are questions of major importance. It also becomes a matter of valuing expertise in the information society we live in today, which is an issue heavily depending on trust and source credibility with wiki-sites overloading us with facts and opinions by the minute. This scenario conjures a challenging question, that if the real critics are the readers/viewers/users?

The lack of a common language may also be the reason for designers experiencing a great deal of confusion today, as there are not words to describe their diverse practise or 'fields' in which to place the significance of one’s work. An attempt to clarify and divide the industrial design practice was recently made in the book Discursive Design, which aims to develop a language for designers to be able to contextualise and articulate their work. The book proposes four shelving units: Commercial Design, Responsible Design, Experimental Design, and Discursive Design,(9) where each unit is dictated by the purpose and content of the work.

Language is not the answer to everything; an equally important part of criticism and critical reflection is content and contextualisation. However, content does not mean anything if it is not communicated in a persuasive and engaging way. In Fuck Content Michael Rock argues that designers should communicate content solely through form and not attempt at being authors. How good are designers at communicating? Could a critical language induce a movement away from its commercial appearance and promotional goals?

A potential place to begin uncovering the reasons for a questionable design discourse is at the roots, the design educations. There does not only seem to exist a resistance towards theory among design students, but also a general lack of it in the curriculum and, as an unavoidable result, a scarcity of knowledge and ability to place oneself in the field of design. Designers expressing their own ideas and communicating their process, ideology and theory often becomes problematic. Critical reflection does, however, exist on educational level and students are generally known to be both questioning and aware, as established earlier. Is there however a part missing in the design process – the transportation from finished product to the display of it? Yet again, it is tempting to wonder if a critical language is the missing factor in this equation?

Media undoubtedly plays an important role in creating a public opinion on the notion of design, an opinion very different depending on one’s background and context. How can it be that the assumptions are so different, for example, in media and in academia? Media in this argument refers to newspapers, popular design magazines, do-it-yourself-inspired TV programs, coffee table books and other outlets merely focusing on the colourful results of design. These different channels possess great powers as they govern a big deal of the production of design knowledge. Is media opposing critique? Is it a question of supply and demand? Should critique be a question of market values? Daniel Golling, the chief editor of Forum, is challenged to shed some light on these difficult questions, which could be put in polar position to Rick Poynor who illuminates the difference between design writing and criticism and give his perspective on what real criticism is. Attempting to establish the future role of design criticism, the educators Anna Gerber and Teal Triggs were asked to reflect upon their responsibility in introducing critical thinking among aspiring students and have contributed with some well-aimed bullet points to consider when it comes to design writing criticism.

The field of media is a fast evolving, fast developing area with the increasing amount of personal (design) blogs on the Internet where everyone is a writer as well as editor. A popular question among well-established critics is if this is good or bad for the design discourse. This is not an easy question, but one of great importance for the new generation of critics. Like with many things in society, it is important that writing is supported on many levels, but critical reflection about content is probably one ingredient crucial for the survival of the discourse. Without the shorter impulsive blurbs, we may not have the longer editorial articles or essays either? On the other hand, when looking at an old (1966) list compiling the "purposes of the critic" point number eight may have the answer:

8. The content and level of criticism is determined by the audience addressed.(10)

With this in mind, one wonders if the creation of a critical language also creates larger gaps between practice and theory? Would a critical language become exclusive? Or can a common language bring the two worlds closer and let critique play on media's half of the pitch? There are many things to take into consideration when discussing a common language, such as possible consequences of ‘one’ critical voice as well as the advantages and disadvantages with an institutionalised language.

Contemporary ideas and dilemmas like those discussed here and onward are hard to define and/or 'teach' and should therefore perhaps rather be addressed in a discursive manner, which also makes out the framework for this book’s ideology, form and language. The combination of language and content sets the perimeters for the audience, which here is composed both of academics, critics and design writers as well as students and professionals with a genuine interest in the critical design discourse. The book will not provide any truths or solid answers; the material collected should however make out a good base for discussion both on educational, academic and practice-based level.

It may be considered a generalisation to suggest an injection of critical thinking into 'design' without further articulation or explanation of the wide field. In this case, I do however mean in all aspects of design, with a particular focus on the material culture, public participation, academia and future, which logically makes out the main chapters.

The book is as much an experiment as an excursion aiming to investigate what scenarios, results and opportunities a new language and an illuminated and extended critical discourse can produce. The individual contributions are intended to work as a narrative, but every piece stands on its own and can be read sporadically. The authors have been given personal questions to answer, which are divided into the chapters: Product Overload which sets out the starting point and questions a world without critical discourse; Public Awareness examines how the notion of design has become quite so vague and asks public educators how they administer their responsibility in their different lines of work; Form of Language seeks to answer the significance of a common critical language for design; Future Outlook looks to the future of criticism by questioning the identity of the critic, the designer as a thinker and has a last word from tomorrow’s younger generation of critics.


1. Debatty, Régine, Designing Critical Design - Part 1: Jurgen Bey (We Make Money Not Art, Mar 19, 2007).
2. Baratt, John, A Plea for More Critical Thinking in Design, Please (Fast Company: Design This Day Blog, Aug 10, 2009).
3. Paul, Richard and Elder, Linda, The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools (Foundation for Critical Thinking Press, 2008): 4-7.
4. Baratt, John.
5. During The Material Gap, a public seminar initiated by Svensk Form (the Swedish Society of Crafts and Design) in February 2010, Julio Cappellini claimed that designers should focus on research and innovation to remain contemporary, and that the best shapes were created during the 1950s and 60s.
6. Anon, To: All Who Care about the Future of Criticism (Critical Inquiry, Feb 7 2003).
7. In Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern, Vol. 30 no. 2 (Critical Inquiery, 2003-2004) Bruno Latour’s questions facts becoming something only topic for old theorists, as today’s generation have a completely different relationship to journalism and critique – that of fast travelling and quickly changing.
8. Mark C. Taylor argues in End the University as We Know It (The New York Times, Apr 26, 2009) that universities are producing products (students) for which there is no market and educational systems that are cultivating students to become clones of their professors.
9. Tharp M. Bruce. and Tharp M. Stephanie, The Four Fields of Industrial Design: (No, not furniture, trans, consumer electronics, & toys) (Core 77, Jan 5, 2009).
10. Poynor, Rick, Critics and Their Purpose (Design Observer, Apr 23, 2004).