Daniel Jasper, University of Minnesota

Since 1999 I have been using the formal and conceptual language of products as a means of research, and creative discovery. This mode of production falls under the rubric of “critical design”. Critical design describes a process whereby a designed artifact, its use and the process of designing it perform as an embodied critique or commentary on environment, economy, politics, culture—or design itself.

For instance, in this scenario wall paper patterns I’ve had commercially produced call in to question basic assumptions about the purpose of textile designs for domestic applications. In addition to being decorative and aesthetically pleasing can textile patterns also be emotive and consciousness-raising with regard to current topics including the United States’ drone program or casualty rates among armed service members?

Former head of the Design program at Cranbrook Academy, Kath­ryn McCoy said ‘Design is not a neutral, value-free process; however, we have trained a profession that feels political or social concerns are either ex­traneous to our work or inappropriate.’ (McCoy, 1994 p.111) McCoy alludes to a sort of tacit knowledge (and knowledge production) that became codified within the Western academy after World War II in which formal design pro­duction typically results in concrete statements couched in positive terms, which celebrate consumerism, consumer products and the munificent cul­ture that produced them. Theorist Guy Debord characterized the psycho­-philosophical underpinnings of this mediated environment in the following terms, ‘Everything that appears is good; whatever is good will appear.’ (Debord, 1967 p.15) In this regard design (graphic, product, apparel) acts as the process by which this self-congratulatory monologue is made flesh, expressed physically in the form of what seem to be ideologically in­ert objects. As design educators, practitioners and scholars in a historically incurious profession one might be forgiven for asking is this all there is? Is client-based practice the only prescribed outcome for our intellectual and creative endeavors and those of our students? In addition to critical think­ing and critical writing, is there room for critical design in design research, pedagogy and practice?

In one Writing Intensive graphic design course at the University of Minnesota students are asked to perform an examination of material culture—the very culture they propagate through work in their chosen profession. They critically examine their own patterns of consumer behavior within the simultaneous contexts of design, society, economy and culture. In a sequence of assignments, they express their findings not only with writing, but also the principles and practices of data visualization, using traditional 2-D com­puter-aided methods, or 3-D methods made more expressive through attention to materiality and physical presence. Without being expressly told to ‘make critical design’ the students nonetheless perform criti­cal practice not as an end unto itself but simply as a method of interrogation. It is within this context that critical practice works in tandem with the traditional writing and research processes as an extension of writing. Here students are asked to place themselves, as designers, within the broad­er framework of design, society, economy and culture not as an ancillary consideration but as something central to their role as authors and producers of culture. Within this context, students are taught that being critical isn’t a job description for cranky elitists—it is something that should be done by designers as a matter of course.


Daniel Jasper is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.