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Don’t panic

[ DUNNE & RABY, Technological Dream Series:no.01 Robot, Iris Scan,  2007. Photo Per Tingleff ]
[ DUNNE & RABY, Technological Dream Series:no.01 Robot, Iris Scan, 2007. Photo Per Tingleff ]
The article Don’t panic is divided in two parts: the first one takes us through the most significant projects by the design studio Dunne & Raby, formed by the English duo Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby and based in London. Works such as Placebo, Is This your Future? or Consuming monsters introduce us to the general story line, and seduce the reader with proposals, ideas and concepts related to critical design, a term coined for the first time by Anthony Dunne in his book Hertzian tales – Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience and Critical Design (1999). The second part of the article concentrates on the definition of critical design and presents its instigators with dilemmas as simple as: what is the function of critical design?, what questions us?, why is the approach always a negative, obscure and psychological one?, what is its future?, and finally the most worrying of all, why does critical design never have a happy ending?
“Beneath the glossy surface of official design lurks a dark and strange world driven by real human needs. a place where electronic objects co-star in a noir thriller...”
[ DUNNE. Design Noir: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects ] 1

February 2007, Tokyo, Japan

I meet up with Fiona Raby in the city of Tokyo. She has come for a visit with a group of students from the Design Interactions Master’s degree at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London. So that she can escape from the intensity of spending time with such an over-stimulated group of students –in the already over-stimulating city of Tokyo– I suggest we go out to dinner at a new restaurant I discovered, which will also allow me to meet her face to face and hear her thoughts on what critical design is.

Fiona Raby, along with Anthony Dunne, are Dunne & Raby, one of today’s most intriguing design studios, as they have been for some time now. They are based in London but they are both frenetic accumulators of miles and travel constantly, spreading their ideas at conferences, workshops and other events related to design and technology. In the purest underground style, Fiona calls this activity ‘having gigs’. Anthony Dunne is currently the director of the Design Interactions Master’s degree at the Royal College of Art and Fiona, apart from other Architecture-related projects, is also a tutor at RCA.

But let’s go back to Tokyo. We meet in the neighbourhood of Nakameguro, two subway stops from the hectic area of Shibuya. The restaurant is located right under the subway tracks –the notion of space in cities like Tokyo is an experience in its own right. Every five minutes, the entire restaurant shakes as the train carriages pass overhead, reminding you that you are living in an earthquake zone.

Doing this interview in Tokyo and speaking of the trajectory of this English duo would not have great relevance if this Japanese city were not where Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby moved in 1988 after finishing their respective master’s degree at RCA. He in Computer Related Design and she in Architecture. They lived in Japan for 3 years, where she worked at a design studio and he worked for Sony, when the electronics giant was enjoying its golden age with Walkman.

For Tony and Fiona, and for many others, Tokyo is one of the most fascinating cities for contemplating the infinite manifestations of technology in culture and vice-versa. The mandatory visit to the electronic neighbourhood of Akihabara is a good appetiser for asking yourself what mass consumption electronic products have in common with Manga comics, animated films, videogames, robots, model trains and girls dressed up as chambermaids.

[ DUNNE & RABY, Hertzian Tales, Faraday Chair, 1997-98. Photo Lubna Hammoud ]

After their experience in Japan, Dunne and Raby returned to London. The flourishing electronics culture in Tokyo at the beginning of the 90s gave rise to the heartbreaking desertification of the industrial landscape of Great Britain. The general public was more worried about the Iraq War (the first in 92) than enjoying –and even less questioning- the shortage of “electronics culture” that Europe in general experienced at that time.

In order to give shape to the lines of research that they had in mind, the duo couple set up at the Royal College of Art. They started projects there related to the psychological effects of using new technologies. We are talking about the beginning of the 90’s when both the Internet and mobile telephony had yet to have a significant impact on either society or culture.

As a result of projects that they carried out at RCA, the term critical design started to develop and take shape. This label appeared as the umbrella term for many projects about new technologies that had been catalogued as artistic proposals due to not fitting into any traditional design category. Anthony Dunne regroups all these projects and lines of thought and in some way imbues them with dignity with the category of critical design in his first book Hertzian Tales2.

However, before starting to define the aims of critical design, let’s review some of the lines of research that Dunne and Raby have carried out up to now and we will see how they mix, interweave and reinvent their way of understanding design in relation to emerging technologies.

Technology as a placebo

“In the city of New York, over 75% of the pushbuttons installed beneath traffic signals for pedestrians to push to cross the street are mechanical placebos. Pushing the button does not reduce the waiting time.”
[ LUO, The New York Times ] 3

The Placebo Project (2000-2001), with the initial goal of investigating the experiences of users with the electromagnetic fields produced by electronics objects, is one of Dunne & Raby’s most fruitful research lines.

Fruit of the Placebo Project, a series of 8 objects were born that were conceived that were designed to make these electromagnetic fields visible and in turn, their influences on our psychological well-being. These objects, basically pieces of furniture like chairs, tables or stairs, were constructed and donated “as adoption” to a group of participants so that they “coexisted” with them for a while and could then later talk about their experiences.

[ DUNNE & RABY, Placebo, Compass Table, 2000. Photo Jason Evans ]

[ DUNNE & RABY, Placebo, GPS Table, 2000. Photo Jason Evans ]

By way of example, we can cite Compass Table. The surface of this table is comprised of 25 compasses, which turn in different directions when they are affected by the magnetic fields created by objects placed on top of the table like mobile phones or laptop computers. “In fact, the objects in this project do not solve any problems and users are left to construct their own realities”, commented Tony Dune about the Placebo Project. And he added: “As designers, we cannot always change reality, but we can change the perception that we have of it, providing users with psychological peace”.

Another example is GPS Table, which is a table with a GPS apparatus (Global Positioning System) that shows us its position on a screen. If it cannot communicate with satellites due to being at a location in the home where there is little coverage, the table will display the message LOST. About this particular object, they commented: "We like to think about the idea that someone could put this object inside their home somewhere where there was not coverage and thus experience a certain cruelty towards the object itself’".

Investigating how we grasp the meaning of electronics products and, in general, emerging technologies, is the starting point for Dunne & Raby’s projects. The way that they approach their objects of study is their personal stamp.

Placebo has also become one of the lines of research of many projects done by students at the Royal College of Art, where both Tony and Fiona have worked as lecturers since the mid-nineties. Many student projects, as well as the Placebo Project itself, are contained in the book Design Noire, which they published.

Consuming monsters

Between sushi and umeshu soda (my favourite drink in Tokyo), Fiona explains how her interests in the electronic object culture started to take another direction with the emergence of ‘other’ new technologies.

Fiona told me the anecdote of how around 2001, due to moving, they had to start taking public transport to get to the Royal College of Art where they were working. During the journey, she remembers having read countless headlines in the free magazine METRO in which new technologies, specifically biotechnologies, starred in new episodes of horror day after day: cloning of sheep, rats with human ear implants, fluorescent rabbits... Fiona told me: “We constantly receive information about the parallel effects that many new technologies have and will have on us in the future, but on the other hand without us being able to participate in how they will be or how they will affect us in our daily lives”. She added: “Furthermore, the vision of how these technologies are advancing is always alarmist and sensationalist”.

Faced with this situation, they asked themselves what other technologies –today invisible, tomorrow tangible– are going to influence us in the near future. Biotechnologies and nanotechnologies are two examples of these. As a response, they have talked about creating contexts and tools so that the general public can participate in their discourse and designs, in turn also involving the designers in this new technological paradigm. Take note that they do not propound actually designing the technologies as a response to the problem, but rather creating tools in order to think and reflect. This is one of the keys to comprehending their critical design proposal. Or at least, this is their ambition.

[ DUNNE & RABY, Placebo, Electro Draft Excluder, 2000. Photo Jason Evans ]

One of the mediums for channelling critical thought about these new technologies is the design of ‘critical products’. Dunne points out that “products, as a category of objects, can infiltrate the daily lives of people”. This is when these ‘critical’ products become the mediators of our values and not the values themselves.

One of their projects that exemplifies this viewpoint of the technological spectrum is the series of objects for the project entitled Is this your future?, which was designed for the Energy Gallery of the London Science Museum.

This project proposes three scenarios in which the daily lives of children between 7 and 14 years of age would be observed from the point of view of energy generation. For example, the blood of children’s pets could be changed into small energy generators in the future and for them, Dunne & Raby have designed a blood extraction kit. The object that measures this experience is represented as a bag of blood in the shape of a teddy bear. This intends to sweeten the sinister experience of drawing blood from our pets and, in some way, interweave the values of utility and enjoyment of the objects and subjects that surround us.

[ DUNNE & RABY, Energy Gallery, The Science Museum, London, Teddy blood bag Radio, 2004. Photo Dunne & Raby ]

What they explore are not the future forms or future functions of these potential technologies, but more their social, ethical and psychological consequences. And not only their negative and positive consequences, but also –and this is where a large part of the interest rests- the non-identified ones, the unexpected or even repressed ones.

What is critical design?

Critical design is the term that Dunne & Raby coined to refer to the projects and their respective tools for this new way of approaching their objects of study.

[ DUNNE & RABY, ANASTASSIADES, Fragile Personalities in Anxious Times, Priscila, Huggable Atomic Mushroom, 2003 . Photo Dunne & Raby ]

As noted at the beginning, the term was generated and developed in the book Hertzian Tales. But this does not mean to say that critical design is “a method or a language”, Fiona emphasises. “It is an attitude and it is a stance”, she insists.

Critical design tends to be compared to conceptual design. As they clarify, there are substantial differences. Unlike conceptual design –which only imagines, speculates and prowls in the future-, critical design is presented as a means to experience the values derived from these imagined futures. Design does not take responsibility for the effects but rather only explores, remixes and repackages the values generated by these futures. Thus, Dunne & Raby do not define critical design as a method, but as an attitude, a medium, a position before the object of study.

The method shall depend on the creativity and the objectives of those who are practicing it and on the methods they have learned. Neither could you say that their method is to not have a method. It is more a matter of transdisciplinarity, of opening the “code” to other disciplines.

However, design as a criticism –as they point out- has existed previously. They quote as an example the Italian Radical movement of the seventies or some of the most conceptual furniture design experiments of the nineties. But the first time the actual term critical design was minted was indeed Anthony Dune’s book Hertzian Tales.

And what is critical design for?

Sometimes the simplest questions are the most piercing and this is perhaps one of the preferences among their detractors, critical of criticism or simple ‘tourists’ of their ideas. In general, the latter are extremely liable to brand everything that cannot be mass produced and uses the art gallery circuit to communicate with the greater world as “artistic”. They censure critical design as being, amongst other things, negative and anti-everything. They also criticise that it is only a “commentary” of what is happening in reality without having any power to change it. They accuse it of being a joke, of not taking an interest in the aesthetic (the aesthetic shape, one supposes), of being pessimistic, fantastical and very, very dark.

[ DUNNE & RABY, Evidence Dolls, 2005. Photo z33, Kristof Vrancken]

How can we accept all of this as design when they have always told us ad nauseam that design always has a happy ending!?

They insist that critical design is a tool to create knowledge, an exchange of ideas and discussion about how new technologies will become part of our lives.

Design without a happy ending

Critical design is a medium that makes it easier to imagine, discover, confront and discuss how these technologies are going to infiltrate and become a comfortable part of our lives. Not by way of a social alarm –as some mass media have made customary- but providing a gradual narration and seducing us with their objects and experiences.

But this is not all. That consumers –yes, they talk about consumers without being pejorative- have a wide-reaching experience of the products and services in all aspects. “That they discover roads that the efficiency of mass production and standardisation are never going to offer them”, comments Dune. In other words, that consumers can enjoy new dimensions of object-based culture without the ending needing to be a happy one.

[ DUNNE & RABY, Technological Dream Series:no.01 Robot, 2007. Photo Per Tingleff. ]

Used users

Design as a configuration tool for new realities is -by definition- something that makes these realities uniform. However, on the other hand, products and technologies are not mature until you can express yourself freely with them. How can we reconcile this apparent contradiction and at the same time propose new lifestyles with daily objects?

Dunne & Raby research and propose products not for happy end users and not for docile, obedient and usable users. To the contrary, they propose products and services for complex experiences, for small obsessions, fears, personal dramas, intimate stories, unfinished relationships, repressed desires. ‘The public for our products does not seek satisfaction of their needs but the quandary, and their success does not depend on them resolving it, but simply managing to create it’, they state.

One of the precise roles of critical design is to “question the limited space in which emotional and psychological experiences move that are offered by current technological products” states Tony Dunne. And this “limits us to be able to fully enjoy the complexities of human nature”. This is where some claim that their vision of products is too pessimistic, too dark, too noire, to which they respond that “being negative or dark in our proposals is not an end in itself, our viewpoint is positioned to positively use the negative aspects of products”

In the present and supposedly over-saturated landscape of technological usability, it is difficult to conquer the territory of anomalies, of the secondary, of the intimate and the personal.

What is the future of critical design?

They point out that their greatest enemy is becoming just one more way of “sophisticated entertainment for the discipline of design”, where “proposals become 90% humour and 10% criticism”. In other words, when critical design becomes mere posing instead of a posture.

At this time, their already long road in the world of design places them as one of the most interesting British duos and this establishes them less as a fleeting gang and more as a cult gang.

Critical design 2.0

A lot of the time, the motivation for designing new products and even new technologies lies in our own personal frustrations. We only have to look at the stories of our ancestors to see that our evolution is intrinsically related to the way in which we have resolved our daily problems in order to adapt to our environment. First, constructing tools, then using them and later socialising them so that the world can take advantage of innovation.

The future of design should be exactly this, the skill of some to provide others with the tools they need to make things. Full stop.

In this sense and as I understand it, critical design has more future than design that is not critical.

1 DUNNE, A., & RABY, F. (2001). Design Noir: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects. Basilea: Birkhäuse. Babel

2 DUNNE, A. (2006). Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience and Critical Design. New York: The MIT Press [1999]

3 LUO. M. “For exercise in New York Futility, Push button”. New York Times, 27-02-2004

Sobre l'autor


Roger Ibars va realitzar els estudis de Ciències Polítiques i Sociologia (UAB), és llicenciat en Disseny Industrial (ESDI) i màster en Disseny i Interacció pel Royal College of Art de Londres. Roger Ibars viu i treballa a Tòquio.



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