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Master in Critical Design

How could subversive imagination be a trigger for transforming the current environmental, political and cultural crisis into desirable futures? This MA Programme explores the instrumentalization of critical design in the creation of an impactful change within specific spatial contexts.

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In a moment in history with global challenges like the climate crisis, extreme political polarization, war conflicts or social disparity, a contextual critical design that invents hopeful futures renders more necessary than ever. This Master in Critical Design instrumentalizes critical thinking to create an impact in our society, cities, and other environments.

Critical Design emerged in the 60’s, when Italian architects and industrial designers started to dissociate their work from the logics of the market, linking it with political ideas that would confront the challenges of their time. This swift change of interests transformed the figure of the designer into someone who participated in intellectual and political public discussions from their own practice, widening its scope and creating an impact in the world.

During one academic year, this master programme combines theoretical study, research investigation and practical work led by international architects, thinkers, artists, activists, curators and publishers. The programme explores history, current debates and gives a landscape of contemporary practices that are challenging hegemonic discourses today.

Ultimately, the students will acquire a broad set of perspectives on key challenges of our times and tools to add to the international conversation on geopolitics, spatial justice, environmental activism, care, identity politics, feminist studies and practices, climate justice, extractivism, non-human rights, political art and design, critical architecture or urban radical alternatives among others, though experimental criticism applied to design research.

The curriculum is structured in three themes: Critical Thought and Design, Current Debates, Contexts (Cities and Environments), and culminates in the development of a Master Thesis.

Do you want to know the rest of Elisava’s master and postgraduate programmes? Find the design master you are looking for.

Admission Requirements

Architecture, design, art graduates. Professionals with experience in architecture, art, design, curatorial practices, activism, critical studies and individuals interested in politics, ecology and how contemporary critical design can generate an impact in society and space.

If you have doubts about whether you would be a good fit for this programme, please submit your request for a case-by-case evaluation.


The ambition of this master programme is six-folded:

  • To explore conceptual tools through which to interrogate the world, asking how social, political, economic, cultural, and institutional structures shape specific spatial contexts.
  • To develop an understanding of contemporary discourse from a historical, multidisciplinary, and critical point of view.
  • To understand design, architecture, and art in relationship with other critical spatial practices, activism, alternative forms of knowledge production and dissemination forms.
  • To vindicate the role of the designer as a public intellectual able to trigger urgent public conversations and actively participate in them with her/his work.
  • To examine the social agency of design, that is, the understanding of its value through how it shapes environments and society.
  • To create interrogative transdisciplinary rigorous studies and speculative work that challenge the forms of traditional design as well as the role of the designer in society.

Programme of the MA in Critical Design

1 Overview

The programme is organized into 2 terms and 6 modules/subjects in Barcelona, which runs for 40 weeks over 10 months between September and June. Each term combines theory lectures and seminars with workshops on specific themes. The curriculum is structured through 12 questions that interrogate criticism, the environment, cities, politics, care and the figure of the designer as a public voice and disseminator of ideas.

The questions are: What Criticism? What Care? What Politics? What Extraction? What Nature? What City? What Spatial Justice? What Future? What Conceptualization? What Dissemination? What Question? What Project?

The programme ends with a Master Thesis that could take the shape of a design project, an architectural proposal, an art piece, a performance, a political action, a curatorial initiative, a publication project, a pedagogical initiative, a theatre play, a film… as well as research written work and a plan for its development outside of the university.

2 Term 1. September – December

1.1 Agonism: Critical thought in Art, Architecture and Design

This research seminar explores the potential of agonism to open unexpected paths for the identification of current polemics and their confrontation through architecture, art and design.

The students will be introduced to methods of advanced critical thinking and research, to be applied in their work and in the analysis of the works of others.

Ultimately, the aim of the course is to give instrumental tools to the students so that they get involved with the fabric of our times in terms of current international conversations and practice, bridging alliances and complicities in an increasingly polarized world.

1.2 Contemporary Debates I: What Politics? What Care?

This class explores how art, architecture and design navigate political, environmental, social, and cultural challenges of our times.

The students will embark in two class modules taught by relevant figures working with politics, gender, feminist issues and questions of care. Employing a case-study approach, the course showcases examples from both within and beyond the realms of these fields, aiming to investigate how they contribute to collective concerns within culture and politics.

Ultimately, the students will study the history of the subjects, the current conversations on the matter and will produce one project for each module guided by each of the professors. Ultimately, the course takes a critical stance, examining the agendas, tools, methodologies, and their contributions to the advancement of these disciplines.

1.3 Contexts I: Environments: What Extraction? What Nature?

In this series of studio classes, students will engage with critical thinking to explore the intersections of art, design, architecture, climate emergency and the issue of extractive practices. They will also explore the social and political implications of climate change and its impact on vulnerable non-human communities. Through design exercises and critical reflection, students will develop a deeper understanding of how our fields can contribute to create creative resistance to damaging practices for our planet.

1.4 Contexts II: The City: What City? What Spatial Justice? What Futures?

This subject will focus on a different city every year, with potential trips and collaborations between Elisava and their local urban actors. In this class on critical thought and Barcelona’s urban context, participants will explore the intricate relationship between history and the present condition of the city and its challenges. Through an interdisciplinary approach, the class will explore the historical, cultural, and socio-political factors that have influenced the city’s urban development. This master class offers an opportunity to engage with the vibrant and complex landscape of Barcelona while exploring the broader themes of urbanism, mass tourism, gentrification, culture, spatial justice and the question of degrowth.

3 Term 2. January– June

2.1 Contemporary Debates II: What Conceptualization? What Dissemination?

In this seminar, participants will delve into the realm of critical thought in its intersection with contemporary discussions through publishing and curatorial practices. Participants will analyze the methodologies and strategies employed by critics, publishers, and curators to convey and shape our cultural imaginary. Ultimately, participants will gain a comprehensive understanding of the multifaceted nature of these practices as a tool to navigate and contribute to contemporary discussions in their field.

2.2 Thesis Seminar and Studio: What Question? What Project?

The Master Final Project or Thesis is a detailed work that presents a rigorous investigation into a design topic selected by the candidates under the guidance of their faculty. Thesis students must demonstrate their capacity to critically synthesize design knowledge and make precise projects that show their excellence in argumentation, creativity, invention, presentation, creation and skills in scholarly and fieldwork research on design. The objective of this dual class is to distill students’ interests to start working on their Thesis during the Winter Semester for its presentation at the end of the academic year. The final product of this Master thesis could be a design project, a performance, an exhibition, a curatorial proposal, an academic program, a publication, an architectural proposal, etc.

How we do it

The MA in Critical Design blends theory and practice to foster a mix of critical thinking and hands-on creation. This approach values the connection between thinking and doing, believing that knowledge thrives when both aspects work together.

Within the programme’s curriculum, an ongoing cycle of thought-provoking lectures, hands-on workshops, and lively seminars, creating a continuous cycle of generating ideas.

The programme also emphasizes collaboration through various learning methods and field trips, promoting knowledge sharing and community building. Its final goal is not just about adapting to changes in society, technology, and culture but to actively create resistance and different futures. This straightforward methodology aims to make a meaningful impact on design and societal discussions within the realm of Contextual Design and Critical Design.


Do you want to know more about the Masters’ School?

Each academic year, students with very diverse professional and cultural profiles of more than 80 nationalities from all over the world attend their master’s or postgraduate training at Elisava. We want to promote connections and networks among students beyond the context of each master’s degree to promote the exchange of knowledge through very diverse projects: we organize interdisciplinary workshops and conferences; transdisciplinary projects with students from several master’s degrees; collaborations with companies, institutions and NGOs…

Interdisciplinary workshops Collaboration with companies, institutions and NGOs Elisava Masters’ Talks and lectures Elisava Alumni
Masters’ scholarships

Do you want to study the MA in Critical Design at Elisava? In this section you will be able to check all the information on the annual call for scholarships, which recognize, reward and disseminate the talent and excellence of future master’s students.

Elisava Masters’ Scholarships