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.

2 thoughts on “Design sociology part 3: critical, speculative, and ludic design

  1. Thanks Deborah. These concepts are really interesting to me in terms of my research and professional activities 🙂

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