Matt Malpass: Critical practice should always challenge disciplinary hegemony

March 21, 2019

Author of “Critical Design in Context: History, Theory, and Practice” and educator at Central Saint Martins talks with Ivica Mitrović and James Auger about Speculative Design today.

Matt Malpass is a designer and theorist based in London. He is a Reader in Critical Design Practice at University of the Arts London: Central Saint Martins where he coordinates the Product Ceramic and Industrial Design Programme. He is author of Critical Design in Context: History, Theory, and Practice (Bloomsbury, 2017). Malpass works to contextualize the field of Critical Design practice by considering the methods and principles used to establish the critical move through design. Current work explores the transdisciplinary nature of Speculative Critical Design and the problems and opportunities that transdisciplinary offers. He works to question the use of Critical Design as a form of public engagement in a context of design-led social innovation, and how models of open design and manufacture disrupt and advance the principles and practices of design, offering opportunities for social impact through citizen-centred innovation.

In your view, what is the relationship between Speculative Design and other related practices?

They are all modes of Critical Design practice. They serve to challenge orthodox conceptions of design and extend the agency of design and the matters of concern that design might typically engage. Speculative Design might typically be used to question paths of scientific and technological progression and the socio-cultural implications of these paths of progression. Critical Design is arguably less “future orientated” and situated to address concerns of today. Both have discursive characteristics and can utilise design fiction as a methodology.

Is it important for these approaches/fields (and their related methods) to be fully defined or should we retain an open approach with an open set of methods, tools and techniques (also in the context of a design curriculum)?

I don’t think it’s too important to fully define these approaches. There is so much crossover and bleed between the approaches. An open set of methods is important, and actually a critical practice should always be in flux and challenge disciplinary hegemony. For example, as Speculative and Critical Design practices embed in design curriculum and become part of the canon their “otherness” and the peripheral characteristics that might have engaged themes and concerns outside orthodox design thinking become normalised and part of what design is and can address. In doing this however the space and need for other forms of critical practices emerge that might have different characteristics to those typified by SCD and its associated practices today.

In our curriculum we run a mode of study titled “Industrial Design for Discourse”:

Industrial design today is increasingly applied as a form of critique and speculation within disciplinary, scientific and societal frames. In this context, designers reflect on the role of product design in society. In doing this, designers challenge established discourse, institution, episteme, to present alternative roles for industrial design to those driven by technological and commercial concerns. In design for discourse, the designer questions both the discipline of industrial design, and how industrial design practice engages discourses, and functions as an agent of discourse.

Typically, 10 MA students will be working on a discursive project in studio with 4 other groups of 10 students that are working in enterprise, service design and design-led social innovation contexts. This plurality in practices within the same course is intended to enrich and challenge each of the fields of practice in an agonistic space. This is defined as a learning and teaching method.

Agonistic space: A key learning strategy is to foster a postgraduate culture where there is a constructive tension within the understanding of industrial design as a discipline. The course provides a space for multiple interpretations of the practice. Differing opinions and considerations about what industrial design is, exist in one space. The dialogue between students, practicing broadly within these different emphases, has a constructive effect on the promotion of critical dialogue. Collectively, this creates a more sensitive and thoughtful environment than a model that advocates a particular style, approach, or personality within the output of the course.

Hindu Tales, Anne Couvert-Castera. Central Saint Martins, MAID. 2015.

In your opinion what is the contemporary state of Speculative Design (with a focus on education)?

I think we’ve seen a spike in interest within the practice in design education but I worry about some of the quality and we do see a repetition in themes. It’s been challenging to see some of the centres of excellence that pioneered the practice shift orientation for various reasons.

Do you think that designers can make living by doing just speculative practice, or is it only possible through connecting with academic and research institutions?

There are limited examples of designers who have developed an economically and sustainably viable practice through speculative practice. The only one from within my programme is Projects by If.  Others are reliant on relationships with research institutions, academia or are embedded within companies that might occasionally support a critical, speculative inquiry.

What is the ideal level of education in Speculative Design? What kind of previous experience provides a good background for a potential candidate?

I would say Masters. There are some strong undergraduate examples but those projects that are most successful require the time that a deep MA inquiry offers; time to onboard experts and potentially track and evaluate impact of the practice.

I believe the methods, strategies, tactics and intention of Speculative Critical Design are valuable and we can use the method within the movement for more pragmatic, essential and critical ends.

Do you think that the recent criticism of “dominant” Speculative Design has changed the practice, and if so, in what way? (In particular the discussion on and following the Design and Violence blog.) Did this in any way influence your curriculum?

No. Some of the questions raised were already being considered. As you know a critique of Critical Design has developed arguing that the practice raises debate but rarely offers an account of the impact of this debate and engagement. For example, if a designer presents a vision of a future exploring overpopulation and food shortage that can be tackled by genetically modifying the body, how do we track the significance of this visioning practice and understand the impact of the work in affecting positive social-technical or environmental change? What is the value in the community constructed around the work? Does it actually contribute towards any change or transition towards a better future? I believe it can and does, but I also think more work is needed to explore this expanded role for our design practice.  We’re doing this on MA Industrial Design and MA Material Futures at CSM specifically questioning how the methods and tactics employed in Critical Speculative Design operate in contexts of design-led social innovation and working towards sustainable change.

In developing a model of practice that serves to offer critique and question design orthodoxy we saw Critical Design emerge. We’ve seen this Critical Design practice move towards speculative function that probes paths of socio-technological and visioning futures that are a consequence of concerns and decisions made (or not made) today. But with the world in the state it is in, with Brexit, Trump and genetically engineered babies we’re actually living in a really bad episode of Black Mirror. We’re living in the noir scenarios that have moved to typify Speculative Critical Practice. So, what? I believe the methods, strategies, tactics and intention of Speculative Critical Design are valuable and we can use the method within the movement for more pragmatic, essential and critical ends. Critical and Speculative Design is not shy of engaging complex social-technical and environmental issues by engaging publics through the design and production of stuff, and can work towards sorting out some of the issues that we’re faced with today by bringing together relevant parties through the design process. Developments in our curriculum – the projects set and encouraged – look at how we might continue to do this effectively, to inform design practice and, importantly, how we teach design into the future.

There is a decolonisation job to do on SCD in terms of the diversity in those practicing and the approach to projects undertaken. This is something that we are acutely aware of. But it is also important to stress that it’s not only SCD as a design practice that suffers such colonial concern.

The Drum Thing, Jeffrey Doruff. Central Saint Martins, MAID. 2017.