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‘Critical and Speculative Design Traditions’ Have Revolutionised What is Meant By Design

Receiving over £1 million in external research funding since 1997, Critical Design at the RCA has revolutionised what is meant by design, complicating and transforming the perceived roles products and the design process play in everyday life. In addition to influencing how professional designers and industry research labs think about design across the world, major exhibitions, mainstream media coverage and films, such as the feature-length documentary Objectified (2006), have brought Critical Design’s complex networks of social, cultural, scientific and technological issues to much wider publics. 

Critical Design, as a concept and a practice, has become synonymous with the Royal College of Art. Its recent history tells the much bigger story of the changing relationships between design and science and technology. Researchers, most notably Professor Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, Head of Programme and Reader in Design Interactions respectively, have used their work to explore the social, cultural and ethical implications of emerging technology and science, and ensured that the RCA has been at the forefront of these developments for almost two decades.

Dunne, Raby and colleagues have used design to provide new forms of expression for complex issues, grounding in designed things the most abstract, speculative and future-focused considerations. ‘What if...?’ questions about emerging technology in everyday situations have presented preferable futures – as opposed to predicting the future – and allowed viewers to imagine how science research might affect their own lives, positively and negatively.

The RCA has been the home of Critical Design since the very beginning. In his Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience and Critical Design (CRD Research, 1999; MIT Press, 2006), Dunne, then research fellow in the College’s Computer Related Design Research Studio, provided the first articulation of Critical Design as a coherent design approach and set of ideas. It was subsequently developed as a theory, through funded collaborative research projects and through individual practice, as led by Dunne and Raby.

Critical Design proceeded to move beyond a narrow digital focus to connect with broader social issues and brought its highly innovative methodologies to wider audiences through conference presentations, the design press and international design exhibitions, such as Stealing Beauty at the ICA (1998) and Lost and Found (1999), a British Council touring exhibition. 

Since 2002, Critical Design has embraced newly emerging fields, including biotechnology, in order to explore new roles for design in relation to science. During this phase, RCA researchers were commissioned to devise Critical Design projects exploring biotech, amongst other science-related issues, by the Science Museum, London (2004–present) and the Pompidou Centre, Paris (2005). The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, featured several critical designs in its exhibition, Safe: Design Takes on Risk, curated by MoMA’s Senior Curator in Architecture and Design, Paola Antonelli.

Inaugurated in 2006, the Design Interactions programme has continued to play a leading role in redefining the relationship between design, science and technology. By means of collaborative research projects with academic partners and industrial research labs, Critical Design at the RCA has engaged with fields including synthetic biology, robotics and computing. In each area, design has articulated the social, cultural and ethical implications of the research being done in labs. 

In 2010, supported by an EPSRC Impact! Award and Nesta, 16 RCA researchers were linked with university research labs across the UK to explore the broader implications for society of research into areas including nuclear energy, quantum computing, synthetic biology and security. Participants included RCA researchers James Auger, Onkar Kular, Nina Pope and Noam Toran, with the project culminating in an exhibition that was seen by 1,300 people and covered in the Guardian and Design Week.

This critical and discursive function was evident, too, in projects deliberately aimed at much broader publics. Dunne and Raby’s Technological Dreams Series, No. 1 (2007), commissioned by z33, the acclaimed gallery of contemporary art in Hasselt, Belgium, explored the cultural and emotional consequences of living with robots.

Further high-profile exhibitions have introduced Critical Design thinking to different audiences, increasing public understanding of design’s interface with emerging technologies. The seminal MoMA exhibition, Design and the Elastic Mind, featuring work by 21 RCA staff and former students, was visited by over half-a-million people in 2008.

For What if…, Dunne and Raby were commissioned by the Wellcome Trust to devise an exhibition about design and science for its HQ Windows in London, a project that was seen by an estimated two million passers-by. The success of What if… led the Beijing International Design Triennial to invite Dunne and Raby to curate an exhibition at the National Museum of China, which was visited by an estimated 800,000 people over three weeks in 2011.

Critical Design continues to inform academic research, as enshrined in Dunne and Raby’s book-length analysis, Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction and Social Dreaming (The MIT Press, 2013), and recent exhibitions. Work by Dunne and Raby, alongside the Design Interactions Research Lab, is currently featured in Future Fictions: Perspectives on world-building, a major exhibition curated by Karen Verschooren at z33, which surveys how contemporary artists, designers and architects relate to future thinking and imaging.

Microsoft Research Cambridge, leaders in computing and technological development, have commented on the transformative effects of Critical Design on its thinking and practice: ‘The critical and speculative design traditions – pioneered and refined by Dunne and Raby – have been used to shape a more sophisticated understanding of design and design research in our organisation. Most explicitly, this has contributed to a research competency in Microsoft Research, one that has sought to develop a nuanced view of what design and research can be in the technology industry and R&D. This has been borne out not just in individual studies and project work, but also reflected in our overall practice.’ 

Work by Dunne & Raby and by the Design Interactions Research Lab is currently on display in Future Fictions: Perspectives on world-building, z33, Hasselt, Belgium, 5 October 2014 – 4 January 2015.