PhD Thesis – A Critical Artefact Methodology

Using Provocative Conceptual Designs to Foster Human-centred Innovation


of thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of Sheffield Hallam University for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, March 2009.

This research develops a rationale for using provocative conceptual designs to foster the innovation of human-centred product ideas – a ‘critical artefact methodology’.

This research employed similar tactics to Action Research (Swann 2002): cycles of action (using critical artefact methods in design projects) and reflection on that action (including a contextual review of existing theories and practices), which produced action (product ideas) as well as research (a proposed critical artefact methodology).

In two projects, I used sets of workshops where stakeholders’ engaged with my critical artefacts to develop my understanding of their needs. Living Rooms (designing the home for ‘tomorrow’s older people’) suggested how my methods might be improved then taken account of in Digital Mementos (designing novel mementos for increasingly digital lifestyles), including selecting productive participants – stakeholders in-tune with the possibilities of novel situations, such as von Hippel’s “lead users” (1986).

Within participatory design and co-design I position critical artefact methods as using stakeholder participation to inform design activity rather than as co-creation. In reference to Ehn & Kyng’s mock-ups (1991) and Gaver’s cultural probes (1999) exemplars, I show that critical artefacts do not fit the description of ‘prototypes’ (suggestive of design direction or destination) and that my critical artefact methodology depends upon a progression from presenting stakeholders with critical artefacts (that provoke critical reflection) towards more ‘prototypical’ artefacts expressing relevant needs (for evaluation).

I suggest that critical design (Dunne 1999) and related design practices have similar characteristics and operation to Critical Theory: a view that the status quo (generally affirmed by design) somehow ‘oppresses’ society; that ‘enlightenment’ of the factors underlying this ’emancipates’ society and is facilitated by a reading of critiques (alternative proposals such as critical artefacts).

In my critical artefact methodology the designer develops their understanding by designing artefacts to ‘process’ stakeholders’ engagement with previous artefacts – I use Polanyi’s notion of “indwelling” (1966) to support this method of empathic knowledge sharing. Designer’s and stakeholders’ co-reading of critical artefacts means that this understanding can be of future or latent stakeholders needs; it enables them to explore alternative needs, wants/desires, practices and products by broadening their understanding of what is possible.

The contributions of this research are a critical artefact methodology supported by critical artefact methods; a more instrumental use of critical artefacts than other critical design practices; and (in Digital Mementos‘ outputs) exemplar findings demonstrating the value of a critical artefact methodology’s application. Whilst this thesis presents a ‘point in time’ in my methodology’s development, I intend that it provide designers with insights into similar techniques within their own professional practice.

The research was funded by the Arts & Humantities Research Council‘s Doctoral Award Scheme.

DUNNE, Anthony (1999). Hertzian tales – electronic products, aesthetic experience and critical design.

EHN, Pelle and Morten KYNG (1991). Cardboard computers: Mocking-it-up or hands-on the future. In: GREENBAUM, Joan and KYNG, Morten (eds.). Design at work : Cooperative design of computer systems. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 169-195.

GAVER, Bill, DUNNE, Tony and PACENTI, Elena (1999). Design: Cultural probes. Interactions, 6 (1), 21-29.

POLANYI, Michael (1966). The tacit dimension. 1983 Doubleday & Company Inc. ed., Gloucester, Mass. USA, Peter Smith.

SWANN, Cal (2002). Action research and the practice of design. Design issues, 18 (1), 49-61.

VON HIPPEL, Eric (1986). Lead users: A source of novel product concepts. Management science, 32 (7), 791-805.

Electronic copy

aCriticalArtefactMethodology.pdf (7.1 Mb PDF file).
The thesis is available as a single large file rather than individual chapters as it includes bookmarks for chapter headings and all internal cross-references. Apologies to those with limited download speeds, I hope the increased accessibility and usability of the file compensates for any inconvenience.