Design sociology part 3: critical, speculative, and ludic design

This is the third part of my series on design sociology (see here for part 1, and here for part 2).

Critical design is another term that is frequently used in the design and HCI literature. Rather than taking a utilitarian and commercially-oriented perspective, critical design incorporates social and political theory into the design process, and is sceptical and questioning of the ideals and practices of mainstream design. It identifies the social and political dimensions of objects and systems and recognises complexity and ambiguity. The language of design is used to ask provocative questions, identify and challenge tacit norms and assumptions and explore alternative futures (Bardzell & Bardzell, 2013; Dunne & Raby, 2013; Kimbell, 2012; Malpass, 2013).

Some design and HCI researchers use the term agonistic design, adversarial design or design activism to describe an approach that is overtly and specifically directed at political activism and challenging the status quo, often including marginalised or disempowered social groups in the design process. This design approach is viewed as offering a counter to the corporatisation and neoliberal political orientation of design thinking by returning to the socialist roots of participatory design (Björgvinsson et al., 2012; DiSalvo, 2012; Markussen, 2013).

One example of a critical design project was the Neighbourhood Networks project, based in Pittsburgh, USA (DiSalvo et al., 2012). Neighbourhood residents were invited to take part in activities using environmental sensors and a prototype of a handheld environment sensing and robotics platform designed specifically for the workshops, and to compare the two types of sensor technologies. They were then asked to invent their own uses for the platform, involving a storyboarding activity that used images and texts and then building their own prototypes. The overall objective of this project was to encourage the participants to become more aware of the environmental concerns in their neighbourhood and to express their concerns in the form of their designs.

Speculative design involves configuring future imaginaries that may not be expected to come to pass. Unlike some design approaches, therefore, it is not directed at problem-solving, but rather at problematising futures. Speculative design can come together with participatory design approaches. It has been advocated as a way of engaging publics with science and technology and identifying their understandings of new technologies and the benefits or risks they see as associated with these technologies (Dunne & Raby, 2013; Gaver et al., 2015; Michael, 2012; Michael, 2017; Wilkie et al., 2015). Speculative design often draws on satire, exaggeration and allegory (Malpass, 2013). By inspiring or responding to speculative design artefacts and ideas, participants are provoked into thinking differently and creatively, perhaps raising questions about conventions and assumptions. Speculative design methods can also uncover the rationales and meanings behind what might be considered to be unusual, irrational, unexpected or perverse uses of objects; and in doing so, contribute to new ways of thinking about their possibilities as well as their deficiencies (Malpass, 2013; Michael, 2016; Michael, 2017).

Using speculative design research, HCI and other researchers have designed objects that are meant to provoke imaginative responses. Thus, for example, as part of Persuasive Anxiety, a project seeking to investigate self-tracking, Gross and colleagues (Gross et al., 2017) invented three design artefacts that were designed to be controversial. These devices were made to be deliberately intrusive as a way of foregrounding the performative nature, anxiety-inspiring qualities and privacy implications of collecting self-tracked data for health and behaviour change. Participants in their study were asked to use the devices over a period of six months in their homes, with the researchers meeting regularly with them to interview them about their experiences and conducting observations of how the devices were used. The researchers were interested in how these devices worked to defamiliarise and disrupt conventional assumptions about self-tracking technologies, opening up new ideas about how these technologies might be employed in everyday life.

Ludic design is explicitly directed at playful and curiosity-driven engagements, and can be an aspect of speculative design. In an example of speculative and ludic design, Gaver and colleagues (Gaver et al., 2013) made several devices as part of their Indoor Weather Stations project, and asked people to use them in their homes. These devices were designed to reveal the microclimates of the homes by highlighting air movement, the colour of ambient light and temperature differentials inside the homes. The purpose of this project was to explore approaches to environmental conditions that departed from the often-moralistic and individualistic focus in HCI design on persuading people to change their behaviours in response to initiatives directed at environmental sustainability.

In the next blog, I will wrap up this series of posts with a discussion of where design sociology can head from here.


Bardzell, J. and Bardzell, S. (2013) What is critical about critical design? Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’13), Paris: ACM Press. pp. 3297-3306.

Björgvinsson, E., Ehn, P. and Hillgren, P.-A. (2012) Agonistic participatory design: working with marginalised social movements. CoDesign, 8 (2-3), 127-144.

DiSalvo, C. (2012) Adversarial Design. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

DiSalvo, C., Louw, M., Holstius, D., Nourbakhsh, I. and Akin, A. (2012) Toward a public rhetoric through participatory design: critical engagements and creative expression in the neighborhood networks project. Design Issues, 28 (3), 48-61.

Dunne, A. and Raby, F. (2013) Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Gaver, W., Bowers, J., Boehner, K., Boucher, A., Cameron, D.W.T., Hauenstein, M., Jarvis, N. and Pennington, S. (2013) Indoor weather stations: investigating a ludic approach to environmental HCI through batch prototyping Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’13), Paris: ACM Press. pp. 3451-3460.

Gaver, W., Michael, M., Kerridge, T., Wilkie, A., Boucher, A., Ovalle, L. and Plummer-Fernandez, M. (2015) Energy Babble: mixing environmentally-oriented internet content to engage community groups Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’15), Seoul: ACM Press. pp. 1115-1124.

Gross, S., Bardzell, J., Bardzell, S. and Stallings, M. (2017) Persuasive Anxiety: designing and deploying material and formal explorations of personal tracking devices. Human–Computer Interaction, online ahead of print.

Kimbell, L. (2012) Rethinking design thinking: Part II. Design and Culture, 4 (2), 129-148.

Malpass, M. (2013) Between wit and reason: defining associative, speculative, and critical design in practice. Design and Culture, 5 (3), 333-356.

Markussen, T. (2013) The disruptive aesthetics of design activism: enacting design between art and politics. Design Issues, 29 (1), 38-50.

Michael, M. (2012) De‐signing the object of sociology: toward an ‘idiotic’ methodology. The Sociological Review, 60 (S1), 166-183.

Michael, M. (2016) Notes toward a speculative methodology of everyday life. Qualitative Research, 16 (6), 646-660.

Michael, M. (2017) Enacting Big Futures, Little Futures: toward an ecology of futures. The Sociological Review, online ahead of print.

Wilkie, A., Michael, M. and Plummer‐Fernandez, M. (2015) Speculative method and Twitter: Bots, energy and three conceptual characters. The Sociological Review, 63 (1), 79-101.

Design sociology part 2: terms and approaches

In the previous post I introduced the idea of design sociology. In this post, I begin to outline some of the key terms and approaches and discuss their relevance for the development of design sociology.

Key terms in design

Design and design thinking

The concept of design, as it is used in professional design circles, refers to developing an idea about a product, system or solution, and devising a plan for executing that idea. Design involves an iterative process of problem solving that includes identifying the practices of end users, generating and testing ideas and then implementing them. Most design-related research works towards developing a set of recommendations for how the design of objects or systems can be developed and improved for their targeted users. It therefore has a future-oriented perspective that can move from what is currently known to what might occur (Bergman, Lyytinen, & Mark, 2007; Dorst, 2011; Drazin, 2013; Kimbell, 2011, 2012): A design problem is developed, which the actions of designers need to address to achieve a better solution for the relevant stakeholders (Bergman et al., 2007). Success is measured by how well the proposed solutions work for the intended purpose.

Design thinking is a design-based approach to problem solving, change or idea-generation beyond the domain of professional design that emerged about two decades ago. Design thinking became popular as a new mode of creating solutions because designers were viewed as possessing particular creative and innovation skills, able to adopt a human-centred approach and possessing a privileged sensitivity to how changes in culture can be identified and built on in developing new cultural forms. In the neoliberal and entrepreneurial context prevailing in most wealthy countries, in which the capacity for developing innovation, creativity, novelty and futures forecasting are prized as ways of fostering economic group, these attributes have achieved high worth (Drazin, 2013; Kimbell, 2011). The design thinking approach has been taken up in particular in the contexts of management, business, information technology, and organisation, but also by those working towards social change and policy development (Bjögvinsson, Ehn, & Hillgren, 2012; Brown & Wyatt, 2010; Dorst, 2011; Kimbell, 2011).

The design workshop is the archetypal set-up for running design research activities, involving bringing together professional designers or design research teams with end-users and other stakeholders to identify challenges and develop new ideas. Methods of running participatory design activities often involve some kind of design artefact, used to challenge perceptions and stimulate ideas and new ways of doing. These artefacts are developed from consultations with commissioning clients or previous research into the topic under investigation, which may involve reviewing the existing literature as well as conducting new social research to define the problem, typically using the standard methods of surveys, focus groups or one-to-one interviews. Design artefacts are usually a kind of material object that can be viewed or handled, but may also be concepts that are expressed verbally (Drazin, 2013). As they are used in design workshops, design artefacts operate as boundary objects because they enable design knowledge to cross social worlds and facilitate alignment of interests across these different contexts (Bergman et al., 2007; Vines, Clarke, Wright, McCarthy, & Olivier, 2013). Design artefacts need to possess the capability for common representation, to transform design knowledge, mobilise for action, and legitimise design knowledge across heterogeneous social worlds (Bergman et al., 2007).

Examples of design artefacts that are typically used in workshops include descriptive or functional prototypes and mock-ups, images, fictional narratives, videos, games, dramatic performances, storyboards, scenarios, inspiration cards, or cultural probes (objects that invite people to perform certain tasks). Sometimes design artefacts are given to participants to be deployed or worked with at home or in work settings. Ideally, these artefacts work to spark responses that go beyond the obvious, reveal gaps and ambiguities in understandings, and inspire new and often provocative ideas that challenge taken-for-granted assumptions. Design artefacts are often made by the research or design team before research participants encounter them, but in some projects, they are developed together with the participants as part of workshops.

In seeking to understand human behaviour, design and HCI research has traditionally adopted cognitive psychological models of behaviour that focus on individual responses (Vines et al., 2013). The practices associated with an object or system have often been examined without recognition or identification of related practices that contribute to an ecology of use, involving other humans and nonhumans, space and place. Design thinking and research has also been subjected to criticism for its limited, individualistic and predominantly utilitarian and commercially-oriented approach (see, for example, Dunne & Raby, 2013; Kimbell, 2011, 2012; Malpass, 2013; Vines et al., 2013). In recent times, however, many design and HCI researchers have begun to include sociocultural and political perspectives in their work. In HCI research, this is referred to as the third paradigm (following the engineering and cognitive psychology paradigms) one that has been gathering momentum for several years (Harrison, Sengers, & Tatar, 2011; Harrison, Tatar, & Sengers, 2007; Sellen, Rogers, Harper, & Rodden, 2009). The term reflective design has also been employed in the HCI literature to encompass researchers’ attempts to question taken-for-granted values and tacit norms and assumptions, move beyond single authoritative interpretations to elicit multiple viewpoints and develop ideas for alternative possibilities (Gaver et al., 2013; Sengers, Boehner, David, & Kaye, 2005; Sengers & Gaver, 2006).

These developments in design and HCI research bring its interests, perspectives and methods closer to those of sociology. Many of these approaches involve end-users at some point in the design process. The process of collaboration with publics and other stakeholders is often referred to as co-design or participatory design. Co-design and participatory design have been described as a process of experimentation, mutual learning and reflection in action involving multiple participants beyond designers. The underlying ideal is that those who will use these ideas, processes or objects (the end-users) are able to have a say in how they are designed. The origins of participatory design lie in social rights movements. Activities are therefore often directed at incorporating the ideas of community groups, with a focus of achieving social change or improvements to people’s living conditions.  (Bjögvinsson et al., 2012; DiSalvo, Louw, Holstius, Nourbakhsh, & Akin, 2012; Malpass, 2013; Muller, 2003; Robertson & Simonsen, 2012, 2013). Some researchers have sought to include the participation of social groups who have traditionally have been excluded from the design process, such as those from culturally and linguistically-diverse backgrounds, with significant health conditions, children or older people or people of low socioeconomic status (for example, Hendriks, Huybrechts, Wilkinson, & Slegers, 2014; Lindsay, Jackson, Schofield, & Olivier, 2012; Vines et al., 2013).

An example of participatory design is the method of participatory forecasting and backcasting. Groups of stakeholders are asked to imagine desirable probable, possible or preferable future scenarios, which may involve brainstorming exercises and ideas clustering. Once a set of scenarios has been developed, they are used as a tool for the development and assessment of strategies and solutions. When backcasting is used, these future scenarios are developed, and then participants work back to the present to develop interventions to achieve these futures (Carlsson-Kanyama, Dreborg, Moll, & Padovan, 2008).  The scenarios are sometimes represented using images, and then presented to further groups of participants to invite their responses. This approach has mostly been used for such topics as environmental sustainability (for example, Carlsson-Kanyama et al., 2008; Robinson, Burch, Talwar, O’Shea, & Walsh, 2011) and household consumption and energy use (for example, Davies, 2014; Doyle & Davies, 2013).

The next post will continue looking at approaches, covering critical, speculative and ludic design. 


Bergman, M., Lyytinen, K., & Mark, G. (2007). Boundary objects in design: an ecological view of design artifacts. Journal of the Association for Information Systems, 8(11), 546-568.

Bjögvinsson, E., Ehn, P., & Hillgren, P.-A. (2012). Design things and design thinking: contemporary participatory design challenges. Design Issues, 28(3), 101-116.

Brown, T., & Wyatt, J. (2010). Design thinking for social innovation. Development Outreach, 12(1), 29-43.

Carlsson-Kanyama, A., Dreborg, K. H., Moll, H. C., & Padovan, D. (2008). Participative backcasting: a tool for involving stakeholders in local sustainability planning. Futures, 40(1), 34-46.

Davies, A. R. (2014). Co-creating sustainable eating futures: Technology, ICT and citizen–consumer ambivalence. Futures, 62, Part B, 181-193.

DiSalvo, C., Louw, M., Holstius, D., Nourbakhsh, I., & Akin, A. (2012). Toward a public rhetoric through participatory design: critical engagements and creative expression in the neighborhood networks project. Design Issues, 28(3), 48-61.

Dorst, K. (2011). The core of ‘design thinking’ and its application. Design Studies, 32(6), 521-532.

Doyle, R., & Davies, A. R. (2013). Towards sustainable household consumption: exploring a practice oriented, participatory backcasting approach for sustainable home heating practices in Ireland. Journal of Cleaner Production, 48, 260-271.

Drazin, A. (2013). The social life of concepts in design anthropology. In W. Gunn, T. Otto, & R. C. Smith (Eds.), Design anthropology: Theory and practice (pp. 33-50). London: Bloomsbury.

Dunne, A., & Raby, F. (2013). Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Gaver, W., Bowers, J., Boehner, K., Boucher, A., Cameron, D. W. T., Hauenstein, M., . . . Pennington, S. (2013). Indoor weather stations: investigating a ludic approach to environmental HCI through batch prototyping. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’13), Paris. ACM Press, pp. 3451-3460.

Harrison, S., Sengers, P., & Tatar, D. (2011). Making epistemological trouble: Third-paradigm HCI as successor science. Interacting with Computers, 23(5), 385-392.

Harrison, S., Tatar, D., & Sengers, P. (2007). The three paradigms of HCI. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’07), San Jose, CA. ACM Press, pp. 1-18.

Hendriks, N., Huybrechts, L., Wilkinson, A., & Slegers, K. (2014). Challenges in doing participatory design with people with dementia. 13th Participatory Design Conference (PDC ’14), Windhoek, Namibia. ACM Press, pp. 33-36.

Kimbell, L. (2011). Rethinking design thinking: Part I. Design and Culture, 3(3), 285-306.

Kimbell, L. (2012). Rethinking design thinking: Part II. Design and Culture, 4(2), 129-148.

Lindsay, S., Jackson, D., Schofield, G., & Olivier, P. (2012). Engaging older people using participatory design. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’12), Austin, Texas. ACM Press, pp. 1199-1208.

Malpass, M. (2013). Between wit and reason: defining associative, speculative, and critical design in practice. Design and Culture, 5(3), 333-356.

Muller, M. J. (2003). Participatory design: the third space in HCI. In A. Sears & J. A. Jacko (Eds.), Human-computer interaction: Development process (pp. 165-185). New York: CRC Press.

Robertson, T., & Simonsen, J. (2012). Challenges and opportunities in contemporary participatory design. Design Issues, 28(3), 3-9.

Robertson, T., & Simonsen, J. (2013). Participatory dsign: an introduction. In J. Simonsen & T. Robertson (Eds.), Routledge International Handbook of Participatory Design (pp. 1-17). London: Routledge.

Robinson, J., Burch, S., Talwar, S., O’Shea, M., & Walsh, M. (2011). Envisioning sustainability: recent progress in the use of participatory backcasting approaches for sustainability research. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 78(5), 756-768.

Sellen, A., Rogers, Y., Harper, R., & Rodden, T. (2009). Reflecting human values in the digital age. Communications of the ACM, 52(3), 58-66.

Sengers, P., Boehner, K., David, S., & Kaye, J. J. (2005). Reflective design. Proceedings of the 4th Decennial Conference on Critical Computing: Between Sense and Sensibility, Aarhus. ACM Press, pp. 49-58.

Sengers, P., & Gaver, B. (2006). Staying open to interpretation: engaging multiple meanings in design and evaluation. Proceedings of the 6th conference on Designing Interactive systems (DIS 2006), University Park, Pennsylvania. ACM Press, pp. 99-108.

Vines, J., Clarke, R., Wright, P., McCarthy, J., & Olivier, P. (2013). Configuring participation: on how we involve people in design. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’13), Paris. ACM Press, pp. 429-438.

Design sociology part 1: a research agenda

Over the past few years I have become interested in experimenting with approaches to social research and theorising that I am calling ‘design sociology’. I think that design approaches have much to offer the development of novel modes of sociological inquiry, especially for research that seeks to understand people’s engagements with objects and systems, better engage publics and other stakeholders, work towards social change, and identify and intervene in futures. One example of a project in which I have used design methods is a study on public understanding of big data with Mike Michael (see here and here for publications from this). I am now working with a professional design research studio to develop methods for new projects.

While not all design approaches are relevant to the interests and preoccupations of sociological researchers, many designers and HCI researchers have become progressively open to incorporating sociological and anthropological concepts and theories in their work. For their part, anthropologists have begun to realise the possibilities of taking up design approaches. Design anthropology as a sub-discipline of anthropology is new but rapidly evolving, as evidenced by the publication of several edited volumes since 2011: Design Anthropology: Object Culture in the 21st Century, Design and Anthropology, Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, Digital Materialities: Design and Anthropology and Design Anthropological Futures. As outlined in these books and other design anthropology literature, like sociologists, anthropologists are focused on developing concepts and ideas about the way social groups operate. They tend to be oriented towards the past and the present rather than the future, and on documentation rather than social change. Design anthropology takes a more applied, future-oriented and interventionist approach than do other modes of anthropological inquiry.

With some notable exceptions, thus far sociologists have not been as open to engaging with design and HCI perspectives – or indeed, even with design anthropology. Design sociology as a term is hardly ever used. Yet design sociology as a field of research can fruitfully incorporate the strengths and foci of design-oriented approaches while maintaining the critical and sociocultural emphasis of traditional sociological enquiry. Sociologists can productively build on the existing critiques of design thinking processes that have been raised by designers and HCI researchers. From a conceptual and theoretical level, design sociology can also extend the literature on design that represented the design process and design artefacts as sociomaterial phenomena that are situated within specific sociocultural and political contexts. It can develop insights into how objects and systems are designed, developed, promoted to users and taken up by users and also retain a reflexive perspective on the use of design research methods as themselves context-specific and discursive research devices, involving multiple and often contested knowledge claims that can work to serve or support certain interests and futures over others.

In my next blog post I will I review key terms and approaches in design research that offer possibilities for applied sociology.

Four talks in Europe, June 2017

I’ll be giving four talks in Europe in June this year. Here are the details and the links to the events.