Science as a Critical and Participatory Design Project

Critical and speculative design approaches are specially powerful to confront complex problems, to imagine new possibilities and to derive their implications. As Roger Ibars remarked at the workshop that he himself and Lisa Ma gave at La Mandarina Space last December :

  • the goal of critical design is to create a “design without a happy ending,  a quote Roger borrowed from his former professor Anthony Dunne of the Royal College of Art. This is a type of design that creates friction, dilemmas, debates and questions. The works of Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby who created apparently useless objects are in every design anthology. They invented the concept of “Design Noir” to show this aspect of design as opposed to the school of purely utilitarian and functional design.
  • the goal of speculative design is to generate new visions and new ways of dealing with the unknown and the ambiguous, as Lisa Ma showed in the same session. Bruce Sterling points to designer Anab Jain and  her “Design for the New Normal” in this sense.

In both cases, these design approches create open proposals. They are specially helpful for dealing with the ambiguity, the uncertainty and the fears generated by the evolution of science and technology. They also help us to free our imagination and create a framework for discussion. Those who use these approaches will find themselves in a place beyond the vested interests of both business and the technological and scientific ”caste” that evolves around science, technology, its processes and products.

All this makes both critical and speculative design approaches particularly suitable for the way we  at La Mandarina de Newton deal with that huge field that has come to be called “science communication”, a label that we find very limited and biased. As several analysis have already exposed, most science communication programs  tend to reinforce the interests of the “scientific and technological complex”. Just an example, let’s remember one of the most common cliché of this approach. Ask yourself how many times you have encountered communication initiatives where scientists were presented as heroes and selfless individuals. Conversely, going to hypercritical extremes does not do any better service to a healthy debate. Therefore, finding methods that allow us to explore and share ambiguity is important.

We champion an approach to science as emergent and and as little influenced by pressure groups  -business or professional- as possible. For this reason, we started our own investigation long ago about the hybridization of critical, emergent and participatory design. We thought that in this mix we could find ways for people to design their own ways to approach science.

There are times when debate can originate from the interaction of people  with  the “dilematic objects” of critical and speculative design. Let’s suppose you are invited to “Nuclear Dialogues”,  Zoe Papadopoulou’s exhibition  (thanks to  Lisa Ma for pointing us to Zoe’s interesting work).  We would approach a table where we would see a very peculiar tea set. The pastries would be “Yellow Cakes”, the name by which a certain type of uranium ore is known. The tea is complemented by the sound of the reading of a nearby Geiger counter.  Zoe is inviting us to reflect on the radioactive pollution of our foods by using a cozy but uncanny display of objects.

Should we or should we not eat the “yellow cake” we are offered? The answer is not so simple and the exhibition as a “dilematic object” originated what it had wanted:  an intense debate among visitors.

Critical and speculative design projects seem especially appropriate not just for “communicating” science but for generating deep public debate and, at the same time, some level of joint learning through discussion.

Therefore, we believe that it is possible to focus public projects that approach science to citizens in a critical way by making use of the  speculative and critical design attitudes. This is a line we’re working on and what we thing  can give interesting fruits.

However … is this all?

What good is a critical design approach  if audiences were just “exposed” to the result of the work of critical designers?  … What would be the effect of the ensuing debate? Perhaps it would be nothing more than the impact of some “ArtScience” approaches. Some are very spectacular in their presentation but have little effect as to learning and mobilization is concerned. There are some signs that science communication projects should go a little further in the design direction. Maybe the recent presentation given at ECSITE by Michael John Gorman points towards the next step along this direction. His presentation at ECSITE was, significantly enough, entitle “Speculative Design”. He seemed to imply where the institution he leads, a flagship of the ArtScience approach, may orient itself in the near future.

We are not interested in this shift as an institutional strategy but because its potential impact. We believe in going some steps further along the critical and speculative design path. Public involvement should move from the receiving the result of a critical design process to the process itself. We are already doing so in our project on internal contamination. We are mixing participatory design methods with critical design methods. This is one of the research areas that we are opening this year. We will be sharing the new possibilities we discover. For now, let’s just close by exploring the connections of these design methods with other critical cultures of practice. Let’s just share with you the opinion of a well-known cultural critic on the importance of finding a  common ground and of hybridising design with other critical cultures as the one of hackers or of the Matt Ratto’s “critical makers”.

So at some point technology has to be part of the critical conversation. And that’s where hackspace culture, hacker culture, some of maker culture, is so incredibly helpful. It’s equipping people with a basic knowledge of how our world actually works. But you have to add the question of how could it work better, how could it work differently. And as a totality, not just “I want a better widget.” What would be a better system? That’s the whole critical de- sign question. The central question to me now is the avantgarde of design.

McKenzie Wark

And this is the line of work where we will place ourselves in our upcoming projects. Let’s add that we believe that thee main contribution lies in letting people participate in the process of critical design and the associated discussion, not just on one or the other.


Critical Design Cycle: summary of Roger Ibars and Lisa Ma‘s presentations

For the opening of the cycle 進化 – “Jinhuà,from image to science, from science to design” we had the pleasure to have with us two international designers who have distinguished themselves by their personal approach to critical and speculative design: Roger Ibars y Lisa Ma.

Roger Ibars’ presentation

Roger Ibars presented the main differences between traditional design (which he referred to as ‘affirmative design’) and critical and speculative design:

  • affirmative design creates proposals that define the interpretation of the design that the user should make and also frame the corresponding values
  • critical and speculative design uses less-restrictive proposals and aims to provoke debate and controversy in order to explore new ways of thinking about what could become a reality: new technologies, possible future applications of science, etc.
  • the strategy and techniques used in each case are quite different: whereas affirmative design approaches the user through the methods it popularizes, such as Design Thinking (people, prototypes, shadowing, etc.), critical and speculative design generates original and controversial objects (cultural probes, ‘placebo’ objects, etc.)

Roger shared with the audience a diagram with the different aspects of both types of design:

Interests and approximations of Critical Design (click on the image to enlarge)

Recalling the words of Anthony Dunne, affirmative design tries to reach the ‘happy ending’ between the designed object and the user. On the other hand, critical and speculative design looks for an ‘unhappy ending’, provoking friction and discussion.

Moreover, the appealing side of critical design does not end in the generation of controversy: from the debate it creates, new aspects of the object are explored (which otherwise would most likely not have arisen). It has a clear contribution for social debate.

Therefore, the Critical Design approach is useful to explore controversial and ambiguous issues, as the ones we have chosen for our cycle, internal contamination.

Here you can find the first video (of three) of Roger Ibars’ presentation. You can watch the rest of his presentation on La Mandarina de Newton Youtube channel.

Lisa Ma’s presentation

Lisa Ma has devoted herself to work with ‘fringe’ communities by means of critical and speculative design. One of her aims is to preclude the over-exploitation of these communities by the big brands. This is what happens, for example, when the design departments of fashion companies use these underfavoured communities to search for new ideas on how to dress or how they create music. These insights are then used to develop new products and services for mainstream communities of consumers, the wealthy and integrated ones. In other words, the benefits of exploiting the fringe communities end up being beneficial to others and, thus, the original communities do not get a clear advantage from their contribution.

Lisa Ma showed us several creative projects in which two or more fringe communities eventually ended developing services and activities for all the groups involved.

She introduced us to some of her own, really original, projects:

-Association of Feline Association: it takes as its point of departure the, apparently, interaction with cats (many of them with toxoplasmosis) to improve some feminine characteristics. The result is that ‘beauty addicts’ get in touch with the ‘cat ladies’ (women that take care of a considerable number of cats).

- Heathrow Heritage: communities of passengers that have to spend too many hours at the Heathrow airport get in touch with the community of activists against this airport. The result are touristic tours around Heathrow that include, for example, places related with Shakespeare.

- Farmification: it is a project with a community of chinese workers of a joystick factory (who come mainly from a farming background) that aims to offer them the opportunity to work part-time creating their own farm plots in the factory premises or in adjoining land plots.

Here you can find the first video (of three) of Lisa Ma’s presentation. You can watch the rest of her presentation on La Mandarina de Newton Youtube channel.

After the session with Miquel Porta, we will start a process of Critical and Speculative Design with which we aim to develop a design object from the topic ‘Internal Contamination’.


The sessions on Critical Design start!

进化 – From image to science, from science to design and back

Vesalius' "Anatomy"

Decoding images  from the past and designing objects that aim at the future in order to examine challenges of high scientific content of the present.

"Jet Lag" from the "HWD Corporation" series. Roger Ibars.

Four conferences and workshops from December to April at Barcelona’s Ateneu and Espai Mandarina.

A joint project by the Ateneu de Barcelona and La Mandarina de Newton. Here you have the full description in pdf.

On  December 11th at 7pm in Room Oriol Bohigas at Barcelona’s Ateneu we will attend and participate shortly by presenting the entire cycle and La Mandarina de Newton presentation, then we will facilitate workshops at Espai Mandarina.

In brief: the conferences at Ateneu will give concepts and insights for the workshops and what happens in the Critical Design workshops will be fed back to the next conference at the Ateneu.

Focus: critical and speculative design

“[Critical Design] does not seek to produce immediately “useful” objects, but rather meditative, harrowing, always beautiful object-based scenarios. In an early-2008 interview, Dunne explained, “Usually, designers would make technology more user-friendly, easier to use, more attractive. But as technology is becoming more complex, and the impact it might have on our lives becomes more dramatic, designers are starting to use imaginary design products to debate and discuss future possibilities. Design in that way can facilitate a debate about whether we want these futures or not.” Paula Antonelli.

From "Farmification". Lisa Ma.

Science and technology evolve so fast that challenge us with possibilities whose practical implementations pose deep dilemmas. That is why an approach based on the Critical and Speculative Design may be a good way to help our sensemaking.  Hence the collaboration between Ateneu and La Mandarina de Newton within the  Project Platform Co-Creating Cultures.

What will we do in the first workshop?

  • An initial presentation on Critical Design by reowned designers Roger Ibars and Lisa Ma at Espai Mandarina.
  • Roger and Lisa will present the main concepts of Critical and Speculative Design.
  • They will discuss projects that fit into this way of approaching design.
  • They will explore possibilities for projects to be developed in subsequent workshops organized around one of the topics that will be addressed in the series, “The image of science” in the science section of the Barcelona’s Ateneu.

Addressed to: General Public, Scientists, technologists, designers and artists.

Registration: Please make your registration using eventbrite: or, if you prefer, you can send us an email to:

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