Introduction // CritCrit

Posted on Sep 29, 2021

Hi, my name is Nina Boelsums, I am an industrial design master’s student in Eindhoven. When I asked my professor if he could point me to some publications for industrial design criticism he could not think on any. After an afternoon’s search I did find plenty of articles by architecture, graphic design, art and technology critics, but not much critical thought on the design of future everyday life. We lack the in-depth criticism that is already present in other design publications like Failed Architecture and Modes of Criticism, but this wasn’t always the case: industrial design criticism has been a substantial genre in the past, but the 90s shift away from written criticism to design-as-criticism and the 00s collapse of established design publications and failed design-blogging projects have led to a vacuum◦. Online platforms like Dezeen and Designboom are filled with thinly concealed advertisements and celebratory articles dripping with techno-optimism. This blog attempts to revive industrial design criticism, and to simultaneously build upon Dunne and Raby’s work of embedding critique in design. Decrit.de is an acronym for my process of design criticism → design: industrial design critiques as a starting point for counter-designs. In a sense, this is an attempt on doing critical design differently, since the legs on which it stands are crooked: critical design isn’t critical, because it refuses to take a position and instead chooses to facilitate a superficial discussion, and it isn’t design because it hardly ever leaves the exhibition space, its critiques cannot be lived in our everyday lives.

A decade’s lack of critical self-reflection has problematic effects on a field which supposedly impacts everyone’s everyday and future life. It has maintained and obscured the ideological nature of design. Neoliberalism, specifically the Californian ideology of tech solutionism arriving from neoliberal economic ideas in hippie packaging, has us designers by the throat. Design’s ambitions to create a better world with the next big buzzword are merely ambitions to cover up a rotten system. Design’s more mundane task of creating new markets for tech companies makes us even more obviously complicit. But the clock is ticking. The pressures of the Corona crisis already showed the fragility of neoliberal organization, but the Climate crisis is leaving us with mere years to create radical change before our social structures start to melt down. Meanwhile, innovation has stagnated. What is the state of high-tech everyday design? Our users, on their dopamine-fuelled surveillance machines, watch billionaires launch themselves into almost-space, as they fill a time gap in their gig-economy jobs using platforms running on cold-war era technology. Even when we disregard human suffering or the survival of the planet, any self-respecting designer should seek to overcome neoliberal capitalism because it quells innovation. Why bother designing the future everyday at the end of history?

A revival of industrial design criticism could expose the neoliberal essence of design and help shape a design counter-movement. The 80s design boom was ushered in by Thatcher’s design-lunches at home, and her appointment of a so called design minister. Neoliberalism’s individualism aligns with design for conscious consumers and its distaste for (democratic) governance leads to an increased demand for designers to solve complex problems with nudges and hacks, which gives us a position of technocratic power. The designer is no longer a designer, but also a manager, a cop, a diplomat. Our increase in influence increases the importance of critiquing the designer-technocrat. Jarrett Fuller argued that because of design’s ubiquity, design criticism pops up everywhere and therefore we no longer need to look for it. I disagree. Non-designers deserve insight in the designed technocracy of their environment, and fellow industrial designers need critical reflection on wtf we are up to. We need to critique the practice of design itself, not just its fruits.

◦ Alice Twemlow’s Sifting the trash: a history of design criticism has been an amazing source for this project.