Human-Computer Interaction Institute
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University


Working by Not Quite Working: Resistance as a
Technique for Alternative and Oppositional Designs

James Pierce

December 2015

Ph.D. Thesis


Keywords: Design, Human-Computer Interaction, Interaction Design, Research through Design, Design Research, Design Techniques, Design Resistance, Critical Design, Speculative Design, Adversarial Design, Design Fiction, Reflective Design

Since the early 2000s, within the fields of Design and Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) an emerging body of unconventional design work has exemplified and articulated alternative and oppositional functions of design. Examples of such functions include provocatively speculating about alternative futures (speculation), questioning the status quo (critique), and debating political issues (agonism). Prominent examples of alternative and oppositional design have originated within HCI. Others have been heavily discussed, adapted, and critiqued within HCI. Alternative and oppositional designs have been presented under various names: critical design, design fiction, adversarial design, reflective design, ludic design, speculative design... At this moment the list continues to grow while examples of such work proliferate. This work collectively demonstrates the potential for design to engage concerns and goals that pivot around themes of generating radical alternatives and creating productive political, cultural, and social opposition.

This thesis argues that there is a body of unconventional design work that becomes cohesive and legible when held together by themes of oppositionality and alternatives, and operating throughout these designs is a technique which I term design resistance. This thesis presents two primary contributions. The first contribution is to isolate and elaborate resistance as a design technique at work across a range of alternative and oppositional designs. I articulate how design resistance works by analyzing a series of design exemplars drawn from HCI and adjacent areas of Design. The second contribution is to extend and refine the overarching technique of design resistance through two design case studies. These design case studies serve the dual function of offering additional insight into design resistance grounded in my own design practice while concretely demonstrating new knowledge relevant to specific domains and concerns within HCI, including sustainable energy consumption and critiques of digital consumer technologies.

Together these contributions provide new knowledge for (1) understanding the rise of alternative and oppositional designs, the concerns they are working to engage, and the research gaps they are working to fill, and (2) how to practice alternative and oppositional forms of design using techniques of design resistance.

243 pages

Thesis Committee:
Eric Paulos (Chair)
Jodi Forlizzi
Chris Harrison
Phoebe Sengers (Cornell University)

Anind K. Dey, Head, Human-Computer Interaction Institute
Andrew W. Moore, Dean, School of Computer Science

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