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Women standing holding sign that reads 'The Episode of Black Mirror Really Sucks'

Reader: Matt Malpass

Written by Teleri Lloyd-Jones
Published date 27 August 2019

To mark our new Readers, we hear more about their research plans. Here, Matt Malpass, Reader in Critical Design and Course Co-ordinator for MA Industrial Design, discusses the wider role of critical design and why we're living in a bad episode of Black Mirror.

Congratulations on becoming a Reader. What will be your particular research focus?

For the past 12 years I’ve been looking at critical design. I’ve questioned how emerging and peripheral practices agitate orthodox design. They do this in the hope of advancing conceptions of the discipline, its contexts and to extend the problem areas that can be considered within industrial design’s remit.

A recent critique has been that critical design raises debate but rarely offers an account of the impact of this debate. For example, a designer might explore how over-population and future food-shortages can be tackled by genetically modifying the body. How do we track the significance of this work and understand its impact in affecting positive social-technical or environmental change? What is the value in the community constructed around the work? Does the work actually contribute towards a better future?

I believe it can and does, but more work is needed to explore this expanded role. This is my focus for the Readership – specifically questioning how the methods and tactics employed in critical speculative design operate in contexts of design-led social innovation.

In terms of your research: why this and why now?

It ought to be unimaginable that a profession concerned with the production and consumption of stuff is bereft of a critical tradition. I’m driven to contribute towards this tradition within product and industrial design. We – a broad community of practitioners that go beyond art and design – have seen this critical design practice move towards speculative function probing socio-technological paths and imagining futures that are a consequence of decisions made (or not made) today.

But with the world in the state it is in, we have to seriously ask the question: has the critical speculative project failed? With Brexit, Trump and genetically-engineered babies we seem to be living in a bad episode of Black Mirror. We’re living in the noir scenarios that have typified speculative critical practice.

I believe the methods and intentions of speculative critical design are valuable but we need to use them for more pragmatic and essential ends. Critical and speculative design is not shy of addressing complex social-technical and environmental issues through the production of stuff. As a discipline, it can work towards sorting out some of the problems we are faced with today by bringing together relevant parties through the design process. My research looks at how we might continue to do this effectively, to inform design practice and, importantly, how we teach design in the future.

Cover Image from Critical Design in Context, Matt Malpass
Cover Image from Critical Design in Context by Matt Malpass

What piece of work/research are you most proud of?

Probably my book Critical Design in Content, published in 2017. I’ve been surprised by its reach and popularity and have been approached by people from fields as diverse as international law and bioterrorism because of it. It’s really satisfying to see how design is valued beyond stereotypical associations with production and aesthetics, form and function and is seen as an agent of change.

I’m currently working on two new book projects – the first is a collection which will pull together key literature in critical and speculative design. I hope this will diversify access to the practice and expand a somewhat narrow and colonial view of the field. There is a rich and internationally diverse range of examples and omitted histories that need exposing – from critical computing and human-computer interaction to graphic communication and architecture.

The second book follows on from Critical Design in Context and will explore speculative design in the context of transition design. This draws on my experiences working with the Design Against Crime Research Centre and the Public Collaboration Lab, as well as two forthcoming research projects on the use of critical speculative design within global health.

If you could change one thing about the way your discipline is viewed what would that be?

I believe in a “designerly” way of knowing and understanding the world. I see design as a form of knowledge distinct from, but equitable with, the sciences or humanities.

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