Published on: January 10th, 2012
A series exploring ideas in the Design Studies curriculum.


Why is design so difficult as a critical practice?

Course: Design for This Century

Prof. Clive Dilnot

A street sign with an image of a pair of glasses and a piece of paper with typewriting on it.

IMAGE  flickr/underpuppy | license: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The talk in week 9 of the graduate lecture series “Design for this Century,” on just how critical practice can be established in design, was sandwiched between Jonah Brucker-Cohen’s lecture on new critical practices amongst artists and designers who are interested in “disturbing” the norms surrounding networked systems and a talk by Chris Csikszentmihalyi—Visiting professor in the design and technology at Parsons and previously director of the MIT Center for Future Civic Media—on the possibilities of new social media for transformative action [ditto re J B-C]. The lecture dealt with the structural difficulties that surround the critical in design. It ended with an exploration of an astonishing 1993 project in Berlin by the artist and art-historians Renata Stih and Friedrich Schnock, which re-defines the entire notion of what a “monument” to the Holocaust might be. Stih and Schnock’s project (link is to a German page — scroll to the bottom for English) is not a lamentation for the dead but a visual-and-textual presentation of the regulatory means by which the Jewish population in Berlin were gradually and systematically stripped of their rights of citizenship to the point where they could be removed without protest and set to the death-camps.

A street sign with german writing on it explaining that Jewish authors are no longer allowed to write as of March 1935.

IMAGE – flickr/underpuppy | license: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Working up to this “memorial” as one of the most incisive critical projects of the last twenty years the lecture looked at why such projects were so rare in design. Using the critiques of the design profession put forward by the Dutch graphic designer Jan van Toorn and Anthony Dunne’s (now well-known) frustrations with the lack of critical exploration in design of the implications of new technologies the earlier part of the presentation explored the kinds of strategies and tactics that were needed by designers to overcome the economic, professional and cultural barriers to the critical in design. But the lecture also opened, for future discussion, the idea of whether the “critical” is the right ambition for design, or whether design as an essentially affirmative activity, is most powerfully ‘critical’ when it creates new things that are transformative and re-directive of practices and mentalities. The final group of lecture on the course will debate this question exploring issues of possibility, scenarios, ethics, scales of global practice, sustainment and politics in terms of how we can conceive a design practice adequate to the demands of this century.


Curious? Apply online for the Design Studies program.

Further reading on Jan van Toorn’s work:

Design for This Century is next scheduled in Fall of 2012.

Program Contact

Caroline Dionne, Program Director

Program Update

Parsons is not currently admitting new students to this master’s degree program. Parsons is now offering a Graduate Minor in Design Studies that is designed to complement the MA History of Design and Curatorial Studies and other graduate programs across the university in design, liberal arts, and social research.