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Introduction   Project in brief   Seminar


Towards a critical design practice

Cultural Usability? What an uneasy combination of words… Yes, the title of our project is controversial. If ‘culture’ stands for the practices of producing meaning, making sense of the world, sharing values and engaging in everyday life, studying these practices might involve questions of representation, identity and power – and lead us to probe the boundaries of society, politics and ontology. If ‘usability’, on the other hand, is about human perception, memory and cognitive mappings, specifically relating to human-computer interfaces, research into these issues focuses on clearly defined pragmatic and functional considerations of technological design.

So the words seem to pull into opposite directions - towards culture and technology, interpretation and implementation. But their pairing, used as a working hypothesis, may prove productive in a search for a design approach that situates the practice of technology within its cultural and social contexts.

Cultural usability: our aim is not to reform usability – for example by providing rules for cross-culturally usable or ‘politically correct’ interface design – but to work towards a critical, reflexive practice of new media design. Instead of new design guidelines, the result of the work would be a critical sensibility to design.

This sensibility may lead us to question and make visible the tacit assumptions involved in the discourses and practices of new media. We may have to inquire how design’s subjects and objects are represented and constructed through the metaphors, classifications and scripts used. In spite of the speed of the ‘new’, we may also have to remind ourselves of history - of the ideological and philosophical constructs that have become naturalized in our practice.

In this sense, our aims come very close to Philip Agre’s proposal for "critical technical practice", where a critical reflection on the practice is part of the practice itself. A critical design practice may involve deconstruction, but is not necessarily a negative or destructive, but a productive, accountable activity that is conscious of its values.

Cultural Usability - the pair of words also indicates the hybridity of our practice. Hybridity, and heterogeneity: new media is very much about technology in the making – a mess of controversies where the designer participates in networks of machines and culture, power and economy.

Working across practices and disciplines, we are constantly moving in the margins of our own knowledge and skills; and the shifting of perspectives between theory and practice, analysis and production is not an easy task. We may also feel a loss of innocence, noticing that in the end the question is about politics – about how the small ‘problems’ we ‘solve’ relate to bigger problems, and how ‘we’ might be a part of the problem ourselves.

Where does this questioning stop? How is it possible to work in this way, conscious of these complexities? When doing design, it may be necessary to temporarily ‘black-box’ some issues out of view and proceed situation by situation, attending to the materials at hand. But the process through these partial views can be guided by a sense of context and connectedness, of location and responsibility.

Minna Tarkka