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Date Published: 7/28/2015
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors


Conversations in Critical Making

Garnet Hertz



By Garnet Hertz

Critical making, as a term, was initially used by Matt Ratto in 2008 and first published in 2009 to describe the combination of critical thinking with hands-on making, a kind of pedagogical practice that uses material engagements with technologies to open up and extend critical social reflection. [1] In Ratto's words, "critical making is an elision of two typically disconnected modes of engagement in the world--'critical thinking,' often considered as abstract, explicit, linguistically based, internal and cognitively individualistic; and 'making,' typically understood as material, tacit, embodied, external and community-oriented." [2] Ratto wanted the term to act as glue between conceptual and linguistic-oriented thinking and physical and materially based making with an emphasis on introducing hands-on practice to scholars that were primarily working through language and texts, like in the fields of communication, information studies, and science and technology studies. [3]

Because of its stress on critique and expression rather than technical refinement and utility, Ratto acknowledges that critical making has similarities to the practice of "critical design," a term popularized by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby [4] Critical design comes from the background of industrial design and builds objects that work to challenge the narrow conventions and biases that products play in daily life, primarily those that determine that products need to be convenient, affirmative, soothing, and empowering for the user. Critical design is focused on building industrial design prototypes that question the way products reinforce a banal and comfortable status quo by being efficient, optimized, or comfortable, and instead pushes users into more complex emotional and psychological territory by questioning social norms and stimulating discussion and criticism of design itself. [5] For example, critical designers often build products for a dystopic future, with the prototypes professionally documented and communicated through narrative video or images: "Products . . . as a special category of object, can locate these issues within a context of everyday material culture. Design today is concerned with commercial and marketing activities, but it could operate on a more intellectual level, bringing philosophical issues into an everyday context in a novel yet accessible way." [6]

A number of key differences between critical design and critical making exist, however. Critical making, as envisioned by Ratto in 2011, was much more focused on the constructive process of making as opposed to building an artifact. While critical design is focused on building refined objects to generate critique of traditional industrial design, critical making was initially conceived as a workshop framework with the final prototypes existing only as a remnant of the process [7] Critical design, on the other hand, tends to be focused on building objects that document well, and the artifacts do the work of challenging concepts like optimization, efficiency, social norms, and utopianism. Critical design is object-oriented; critical making is process-oriented and scholarship-oriented: "Critical making emphasizes the shared acts of making rather than the evocative object. The final prototypes are not intended to be displayed and to speak for themselves." [8] Ratto's emphasis is on using hands-on techniques to augment the process of critical thinking, while Dunne and Raby's critical design is primarily focused on building props for the construction of a speculative narrative.

As a process and scholarship-oriented practice, Ratto's critical making resembles "values in design," a concept most closely affiliated with Helen Nissembaum [9] Values in design is an approach to studying sociotechnical systems from the perspective of values, and starts from the assumption that technology is never neutral: "Certain design decisions enable or restrict the ways in which material objects may be used, and those decisions feed back into the myths and symbols we think are meaningful." [10] Values in design is an approach to scholarship and a workshop method that strives to unpack the assumptions behind technological designs and increase understanding in how technological objects shape social values. Although objects are at the heart of this process and scholarship, the understanding of these objects is of prime importance. Like critical making, technological objects are primarily to be studied, worked through, and understood through a value-oriented process of scholarly inquiry. Critical making explicitly names making as an important part of this process, while making is optional in the process of values in design. Critical making is like values in design, but the former clearly emphasizes the value of material production as a site for critical reflection, following the "material turn" that highlights material objects as a key part of social processes and conceptual frameworks. [11] Ratto's term of critical making is like a constructionist approach to work through values in design, information studies, or science and technology studies. [12]

My interest in the term critical making comes from a perspective of hands-on technology development and studio practice: flipping the emphasis of the hands-on augmentation of critical technology studies to appeal to "makers" to be more critically engaged with technology. In other words, I saw that the term as useful in encouraging makers--whether they are engineers, industrial designers, or technology-oriented artists--to step back and reevaluate the assumptions and values being embedded into their designs. While Ratto's emphasis is on having making improve critical inquiry of technology, I saw critical thought about technology as improving the process of making. Along the lines of critical design, my interests are more object-oriented instead of process-oriented.

With the objective of expanding the term critical making as an appeal to hands-on makers to be more critically engaged with technology, I set out to interview a number of people on the topic of how hands-on technology development interrelates to critical theory. I also felt that Ratto was not following through with the process of making enough, and that objects had a powerful force beyond their process of creation--they could circulate as art objects, product prototypes, or visual documentation that could reach far beyond the process of development. Focusing primarily on the development process limited the reach of critically made things to challenge the wider public's understanding of the relations between society and technology. In other words, I felt that Ratto's framing of critical making as a process limited its ability to disseminate critical thought through objects. Objects are effective as things to think with, can link concepts in a different way than language can, and can have a life of their own and can travel through different contexts. Although constructed objects are often imprecise in communicating ideas in comparison to language, things have the strength to hit you powerfully and forcefully. Critically engaged language can do detailed surgery on a topic; critical objects can hit like an emotional sledgehammer. To stop short of documenting and disseminating objects that are made in a critical way cuts the audience off from the impact of things to think with.

To dig into these topics and to draw links between the related concepts of critical making, critical design, values in design, maker culture, art and technology, critical technical practice, and others, I interviewed a number of people working in these fields, including Ratto, Phoebe Sengers, Natalie Jeremijenko, Alexander R. Galloway, and Jentery Sayers. All of these individuals work at the intersection of critical thinking and hands-on practice: Sengers develops new kinds of interactive technology that respond to and encourage critical reflection on the place of technology in culture; [13] Jeremijenko blends art, engineering, and environmentalism to create real-life experiments that enable social change [14]; Galloway is a philosopher and media theorist who also works as a programmer and artist [15]; and Sayers works in digital humanities with a "tinker-centric" approach to pedagogy. [16]

The key theme driving these conversations was to collect critical responses to the maker movement, which can be defined as a "convergence of computer hackers and traditional artisans . . . [that] tap into an American admiration for self-reliance and combine that with open-source learning, contemporary design and powerful personal technology like 3-D printers." [17] The starting point for these conversations was to take reflective stock of the DIY maker movement, which has emerged over the last decade through publications like Make magazine and related Maker Faire events, open-source hardware projects like the Arduino microprocessor platform, and new developments in low-cost 3D printing. Other topics include the interplay between critical theory and hands-on practice, contemporary art, the process of developing new technologies, open source hardware, tactical media and politics, interdisciplinarity and academic institutions, critical and speculative design, mass-produced consumer culture, and hackers and hackerspaces.

In conclusion, I hope that these conversations bring forward an expansion of the concept of critically engaged making, and in turn expand Ratto's term to bring critical inquiry to augment the process of hands-on practice. This is vitally important, since critically made objects have the power to be evocative "things to think with" that can be documented online, exhibited in public art galleries, or published as case studies in academic papers--and can work to expose the hidden assumptions and values embedded in technological systems to a wide audience. Critically made objects can enable individuals to reflect on the personal and social impact of new technologies, and to provide a provocative, speculative, and rich vision of our technological future that avoids the clich├ęs of consumerism industrial design.


[1] Matt Ratto and Stephen Hockema, "Flwr Pwr: Tending the Walled Garden," in Walled Garden, ed. A. Dekker and A. Wolfsberger (The Netherlands: Virtueel Platform, 2009).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ratto, "Open Design and Critical Making," in Open Design Now: Why Design Cannot Remain Exclusive, ed. P. Atkinson, M. Avital, B. Mau, R. Ramakers and C. Hummels (The Netherlands: BIS Publishers, 2011). (accessed July 16, 2015).

[4] Anthony Dunne, Hertzian tales: electronic products, aesthetic experience and critical design (London: Royal College of Art computer related design research studio, 1999), 177; Ratto, "Open Design and Critical Making."

[5] Dunne, 147; Dunne & Raby, Critical Design FAQ, (accessed July 16, 2015).]

[6] Dunne & Raby, (accessed July 20, 2015).

[7] Ratto, "Open Design and Critical Making."

[8] Ratto, "Flwr Pwr."

[9] Helen Nissenbaum, "Values in the design of computer systems," in Computers in Society (1998), 38-39.

[10] Nissenbaum, "Values in Design: What is Values in Design?," (accessed July 16, 2015).

[11] Dan Hicks, "The Material-Cultural Turn: Event and Effect," in The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies, ed. Dan Hicks and Mary C. Beaudry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 25-98.

[12] Seymour Papert and Idit Harel, "Situating Constructionism," in Constructionism, (New York: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1991), 193-206. Retrieved from (accessed July 20, 2015).

[13] See

[14] See, for example,

[15] See

[16] See

[17] Joan Voight, "Which Big Brands Are Courting the Maker Movement, and Why: From Levi's to Home Depot," Adweek (March 17 2014), (accessed July 20, 2015).

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