Literature Review: Design Noir

Final Major Project / 02

August 17, 2021

Luchen Peng, Tiana Robison, Jinsong (Sylvester) Liu


The book Design Noir describes an invisible yet physical electromagnetic field, referred to as ‘hertizan space’, caused by the growing amount of electronic objects, from mobile phones to washing machines. It then approaches theoretical arguments about critical design, addressing that design can reach beyond solving problems comforting economic expectations, but providing critiques of the prevailing situation instead.

The book features the Placebo Project, which uses eight prototype objects to investigate volunteers’ attitudes to and experiences of electromagnetic fields in the home.

Hertizan Space:  radiating from a computer, a telephone, and a fax machine.
Prototypes from the Placebo Project.


Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby (Dunne & Raby) focus on making controversial design works. Another relevant book from them is Speculative Everything.

Affirmative Design, Critical Design and Art

Dunne & Raby talked about affirmative design and critical design in Section 04: Designer as Author. They reckon that ideologically, all design processes result from a corresponding view and understanding of the world. Therefore, it is naive to view design as somehow neutral, clean and pure. Since conventional design professionals see their work’s value as inextricably linked to the marketplace, developing a critical perspective in design is extremely difficult.

One of the factors distinguishing Critical Design from Art is the manufacturing context. While Art is detached from mass consumption, Critical Design still directly proposes products in the consumerist culture. It could be a provocative academic practice comparing to writing papers.

Context of critical design

In the previous tutorials, John and Al kept reminding us to consider “where does your project live in the world?”. Since we decide to apply the critical design method in our project, an orthodox approach seems not applicable. In this book, Dunne & Raby introduced their works as:

  • adverts in a London listings magazine
  • workshops at the V&A Museum
  • a window display in Selfridges at Oxford Street 
  • a national newspaper article.

Evaluating Critical Objects

In Section 05: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects, Dunne and Raby introduced the Placebo Object, taking the conceptual, critical objects from galleries into daily lives. There is a conflicting view of “reality”. While the products are definitely not real, considering some are merely placebos and unlikely to make it to the commercial marketplace, they argued that discoveries are grounded in non-fiction and actual human lives.

The most valuable part for me is the interview that suggests a possible way to evaluate these critical objects. For example, they asked volunteers who bring the device home: 

  • How do you describe the object to your friends?
  • Where is the object and how has it ended up there?
  • Did it worked and does it help?
  • How do you experience the given topic?
  • What are your personal (unscientific) theories?

Blog posts ©sylvesterlau, 2021