Friday, June 14, 2013

CCDN 271: Assignment 5: Massive Critical Change

Starting and maintaining a fire is simple once you understand the process. Massive Critical Change is no different. It doesn't just spring out of nothing; it has to be created with a nurtured, critical approach, and then developed to the point of fruition. This essay will seek to substantiate the claim that while Critical Design is well equipped to be able to initiate Massive Critical Change (Massive Change generated by a critical thought process); it is unable to complete it due to a lack of socio-political clout and popularity. Massive Critical Change is primarily carried out through corporate power and popularity. Due to the nature of Critical Design and how it tends to operate, it has the potential to have a tangible influence on the inspiration and initiation of Massive Critical Change. Critical Design can often be the spark to the flame. That flame must then be sold through a corporate identity or be picked up and nurtured by the public. The socio-political weight larger corporations bring to the global market allow the decisions they make to be well respected and carry mass. When taken on by the public, the Massive Critical Change seeks to gain momentum through popularity. People have the power to make said change happen, but only when enough support is rallied.

Critical Design generates large amounts of inspiration and publicity for the world of design through the artefacts and theories that it creates. Prominent examples of these artefacts include the “Technological Dream Series” by Dunne & Raby, which questioned the future of robots in our everyday lives (2007), as well as the “Onetrees” project by Natalie Jeremijenko which raised environmental awareness regarding plant growth in different areas (2004). Critical Design is not a specific concept of how to generate Massive Critical Change, rather it is a stance. Dunne & Raby, prominent critical designers, illustrate that the ability to disturb the everyday is where its power to instigate change comes from. Critical Design “suggests that the everyday as we know it could be different, that things could change.” (2013) This suggestion of another metaphorical reality goes on to then being redefined as something that “uses speculative design proposals to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role products play in everyday life.” (Dunne & Raby, 2013) This speculative practice, originally creating suggestions, often culminates with critical artefacts, representing the suggestion made by the critical designers as something tangible, more conceivable and suggestive to the market. These created artefacts are powerful tools for initiating Massive Critical Change, as Simon John Bowen; Design Researcher at Sheffield Hallam University suggests. Bowen suggests that they allow the stakeholders and other powerful players in the corporate world to engage with novel situations and develop critical thinking about future possibilities. (2007) Getting the ideas out to the people in power though interesting objects that generate large amounts of discussion is an effective channel for Critical Design to focus its energy, as it has large potential to generate results.

Due to the very nature of Critical Design as a counterpoint to affirmative design (Dunne & Raby, 2013), it is unpopular. Therefore, as a result, the artefacts that are created cannot be sold like normal products that affirm the status quo. This means that on its own, Critical Design cannot alter the status quo, as it lacks the socio-political power it needs in the global market. Another issue with it with regards to Massive Critical Change is that debates relating to Critical Design often rarely leave the elitist and relatively rarefied art galleries and institutions they are displayed in (Yauner, 2009). This pitfall is mitigated sometimes by the aforementioned critical artefacts, but even these sometimes lack the publicity or outspokenness to influence. However, Critical Design isn’t necessarily about creating marketable products. Dunne & Raby assert that at its heart, Critical Design is an advanced form of highly specific activism, tailored to a design audience, tied closely to Conceptual Design, Contestable Futures, and Speculative Design (2013), which future-proofs the concepts and ideas that come out of Critical Design. Massive Critical Change develops out of the ideas of those who have the foresight to look ahead and consider the potential of tomorrow. Critical Design sets that spark for tomorrow’s flame.

The inability of Critical Design to carry through the Massive Critical Change that it initiates is made up for by corporate power. Large corporations have the socio-political weight and clout to be able to bend the market and current trends to their will. While Critical Designers release many of their own critical artefacts, large corporations often release products that many believe have the potential to be just as critical. One of the most potent examples of a product having massive market impact was the release of the Sony Walkman. Dunne & Raby (2001) state “The original Walkman created a new kind of experience (mobile, personal music) and redefined the role of technology in public spaces.” (As cited in Bowen, 2007, p.3) This product was a revolutionary moment for the consumer electronics market, and as such, had a huge influence on the market for a long time after its release. However, what is astounding is that this revolutionary aspect was not designed, but happened by chance. According to Bowen, none of the stories as to how the Walkman was devised tell of Sony’s desire to affect social change (2007), and Dunne and Raby also mention that “the effects it produced were incidental and not consciously engineered” (2001, p.45). This unexpected amount of social change is sadly uncommon in today’s latest consumer electronics releases, and in many cases abused, with minor changes to an existing system being touted as “the next big thing”, when relatively little actually changes at all. Apple states repeatedly that its products are “sleek, revolutionary, and groundbreaking” (2013), yet often their products are mere iterations of their previous products. This continuously shows the potential for an extremely powerful corporation to completely control the market with both real and engineered Massive Critical Change. This control serves the company well through sales and popularity, making Massive Critical Change an efficient and effective marketing tool.

The Sony Walkman represents a game-changing moment in the history of the consumer electronics market.

While recently Massive Critical Change has not occurred in the field of consumer electronics for a while, the impacts of positive policy decisions with respect to environmental and social concerns have made waves. Large corporations have the ability to make tiny changes that can change the landscape of the entire market, purely because of the company’s scale. “Since forming a relationship with The Natural Step in 1998, Nike has made shoeboxes 10% lighter... ...saving $1.6 million annually” (Mau, 2004). Nike’s decision to partner with The Natural Step has given rise to an ecological turnaround in the product market. It appears to be becoming more and more fashionable for a business to be sustainable. This slight alteration to policies and how products are made was a small step in the right direction for Nike, but the overall impact was definitely an instance of Massive Critical Change. In a round-about way, The Natural Step is activism and Critical Design rolled into one, initiating big changes in large corporations that have a widespread impact, essentially cutting out the creation of critical artefacts and engaging directly with the corporations to bring about Massive Critical Change. Bowen states “Critical Design practitioners point to the underlying values and assumptions of design practices (and design research practices) and suggest problems in leaving them un-critiqued.” (2007, p.2) This nature of critiquing the status quo with regards to the product market actually leads to problems in the system being discovered and dealt with. Without this critical mindset, these problems are rarely seen at all. But having some people focussing on them allows the biggest corporations to completely change the market, carrying out the Massive Critical Change.

Design industries across the world are seeing a changing set of ideologies. We are headed into increasingly uncertain times, and as a result, there has been significant upheaval in the industry. The nature of design itself is evolving and changing, creating a definite instance of Massive Critical Change. “What if we could use the power of design to help create a storyboard of the future of humankind... ...a story of what’s needed to create positive change at a global scale” (Coughlan, 2010, p.3). Critical Design has been challenging us to think differently for a long time now, and some people and corporations have actually listened, resulting in a lot of design for situational futures. “Now, more than ever, we need design to help find solutions to global problems. The field has changed: technology allows everyone to be a designer.” (Klaasen & Neicu, 2011, p.2) This changing scope of design, this realisation that design is more than just products, this realisation that design very much is all around us, is humbling. Design is coming into our homes, and people are beginning to take it upon themselves to improve the world around them. The Natural Step is taking measures to get corporations heading the world into the right direction, and succeeding. Linn & Hayman state that corporate leaders “think their social action should become less about "giving" and more about ‘acting’; moving corporate activity into what was previously firmly charity or government turf.” (2013) This changing mindset on how to use existing corporate resources goes with the changing state of society in general; as we move to a much more open society, the nature of design changes too. People want transparency, people want creative control. People don’t want to give and receive any more. People want to act and create.

This changing scope of design and the design society leads to a state or motion of design known as ‘open design’. “Open design offers unprecedented possibilities for design to improve the world”, state Klaasen & Neicu (2011). The rise of the ‘maker society’ is a part of the expansion of the world of open design. The very method of design changes as people no longer want to blindly buy things, but actually have the skill, the power and the potential to make products themselves. The realisation of cheap rapid prototyping technology can be heavily credited with this social change, as now anyone with the technical know-how, a few thousand dollars and a computer can create something that other people might want. This leaves designers in a unique position. “People can only take responsibility for solving their own problems if the devices and systems that cause them are open to their understanding”, say Klaasen & Neicu; encouraging designers to actually relinquish control and start working a meta-system, designing products that allow people to design products. This changing method of design is leading us into territory that is largely unexplored. Massive Critical Change is being brought about by the consumers, who have been given the ability and tools to create, and now technology is struggling to keep up with people’s desire to create. However, that said, once technology catches up, Brown states that the biggest instance of Massive Critical Change to date may occur when “design is taken out of the hands of designers and put into the hands of everyone” (2009). The changing form of the design method is a critical evolution that should ultimately result in a more advanced, integrated society.

“In this changing world, design has expanded its agenda to engage with spaces far more diverse than those of its industrial origins.” (Melles & Feast, 2013) In a rapidly changing world, Critical Design fulfils a specific part of Massive Critical Change. Being unable to actually carry out the change itself due to a lack of socio-political power in the global market, it instead resides at the grass roots level of the whole concept. Critical Design seeks “mainly to make us think. But also to raise awareness, expose assumptions, provoke action and spark debate” (Dunne & Raby, 2013) Due to the very nature of Critical Design, it suffers from pitfalls at running the change itself, but at the same time, that’s not actually what it’s trying to achieve. It succeeds at generating debate, it succeeds at proposing new ideas, and it succeeds at getting people to think about the future in a design sense. It challenges the norms, and more often than not, someone is listening. Corporations have the ability to make small changes based on feedback from organisations such as The Natural Step. For large, market-dominating corporations, a small change can result in Massive Critical Change, such as packaging reduction in Nike, as well as sustainable timber usage in Home Depot (Mau, 2004). These changes can change the very core values of the market itself. Popular demand can also be shaken up by Critical Design, but again, ultimately the driving force behind the Massive Critical Change is the public themselves, not the Critical Designers. Massive Critical Change is happening right now in the form of the rise of an open design culture, in tandem with the rise of a maker society. These changes are fundamentally shifting the place design takes in our world, and this raises the question: What part of our lives will design as a whole impact next?


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