Darkness as an antidote

In a previous post by Salvatore, he outlines the use of big data as an essential element in developing and speculating diverse future scenarios, and the complex, inevitable challenges that will arise within society. With this in mind, it led me to the role of critical design and how we can utilise ‘darkness as an antidote’ in future thinking.

When we think about design we see it an aesthetic outcome of ‘nice things’, one that is never made ugly or thought in a negative way. How can we, as designers, truly engage with and design for the complexities of human nature for future scenarios if we are not addressing the other side of the design spectrum – the dark themes, negativity and cautionary tales that shift our perspectives out of complacent speculative thinking.

Dunne and Raby explore the notion of dark design and humour as an approach to critical design– how can we use these methods of thinking as a way to use negativity in a positive way? When we are designing products, we often view people as predictable, obedient users and consumers, however whilst we can speculate techno-utopian futures, ‘darkness’ allows us to draw attention to scary possibilities in a form of caution and can be the solution to force people into action.

Humour, more specifically satire and irony can engage audience by appealing to the imagination in a constructive way. However, humour can sometimes lead to parody, which in turn is ineffective as it signals too clearly the irony. Dunne and Raby suggests deadpan and black humour works best, with a certain amount of absurdity which is useful to help resists streamline thinking (often leads to passive acceptance). They talk about political comedians, The Yes Men (Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos) who use satire, shock tactics, caricature, hoaxes and “identity correction” (impersonating target organizations and individuals) to raise the issues people face by corporations. They sometimes use very sensationalised methods to present fictional scenarios, however they can also use subtle approaches for example, their 4 July 2009 New York Times, which displayed fake headlines of a better future such as “Iraq War Ends” and “Nation Sets Its Sights on Building Sane Economy”. They printed and distributed the fake edition, in addition to a website, creates a tangible and immersive experience for viewers.

“In critical design, irony can all too often be interpreted as cynicism especially in a discipline in which people expect solutions” (Dunne & Raby, 2013)

An example of dark design in pop culture is the animated television show, Futurama which uses a wide range of humour styles (self depreciation, black comedy, slapstick and surreal) to depict a satirical depiction of technology and life in the 31st century future and parodies of the present day. It is an example of the many vices and the ‘flawed minds’ of human beings that exists within society, as mentioned in Salvatore’s post.

With underlying literary scientific fiction concepts, it contrasts high and low culture in a comical format, which is highly entertaining. Creator Matt Groening presents the challenges that are imposed by mega-corporate, techno future on the working class society (Lovece, 2009). Often things work out, yet at the compromise of corruption, wealth inequality and tradition.

Critical design can be a powerful tool to shift our thoughts away from becoming comfortable with ‘nice’ design with positive solutions. Exploring ‘dark’ themes and complex emotions through humorous outlets creates frisson that challenges and triggers us to think of possibilities not thought of before.


Dunne, Anthony & Raby, Fiona, 2013, ‘Design as Critique,’ in Speculate Everything, Cambridge: MIT Press, pp.33-46.



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