Design is often thought of as a tool to improve upon the current paradigm of a particular environment – innovative, blossoming new ideas to better our lives in some way or another. In other interpretations, design adds beauty and style to our lives, creating aesthetically stunning furniture, products, clothing, jewellery etc.
However, there are alternative renditions of what design can be, and what it might tell us. Critical design, design fiction, speculative design, these ideas go by many names, but all bear striking similarities, and subtle differences.
In a recent article I read, posted on the blog “back of the envelope”, last month’s Glitch Fiction exhibition, (part of the Paris design week) was reviewed with glowing praise. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to go to the show myself, but have been lucky to have seen a lot of the work previously. The show indeed did look fantastic, and well deserving of the positive write up by Liam Young of the Design Council, but one thing did jar slightly with me when I read it.
The author comments on the pieces in the exhibition as showing “potential futures”, but is this really true? And can speculative design theory be practiced closer to the present, eliminating that sense of “tomorrow”? Can it instead embrace the complexity of today?
Speculative design is the evolution of critical design, coined by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby in the late nineties, which itself takes influence from the earlier Radical Design of the 50s and 60s in Italian design (although the practice of critical design was prevalent in architecture before this). At its birth, critical design could be said to be a form of critique on consumer and popular culture, in particular, the human relationship with designed products. Much of Dunne & Raby’s work focused on how the evolution of electronic goods impact upon our lives, consciously and subconsciously, physically and psychologically. As consumer electronics became more prevalent in society at all levels, it was an inescapable scenario which Dunne & Raby exploited to the full potential, extrapolating the present model into parallel and future realities – questioning how this new explosion of technology might shape society. A tantalising mix of present and near-future scenarios, close enough to almost touch, but always evasive enough to be just out of reach.
Through its evolution though, critical design seems to have lost its way a little. I feel that the term “critical” design is long since dead. This no longer adequately describes the role of this type of contemporary design practice. In Paola Antonelli’s recent analysis of this term in Domus, she asks the question, “critical of what?”. The term “critical design” implies a retrospective tendency, and imbues the designer with an almost omnipotent character – assigned the task of making the world better through design.
Is design a force to shape the world? Can a piece of critical design inform and influence how the public, scientists or other designers experience and transform their environment? Possibly to some extent, but I think that the more realistic situation is that, more than a protagonist, design is the RESULT of action. Rather than shaping the world to come, it reacts to the world around us NOW. We often think we are designing for the future, but this future never comes. We are instead designing for the ambiguities, the falsifications and half-openings of today. Our false ideas of what the future will bring, and possible tomorrows lead to fantastic design, in the genuine sense of the word.
Speculative design does not influence scientists, policy makers or cultural leaders. As brian Aldiss put it when analysing the medium of science fiction novels, “science fiction is no more written for scientists, than ghost stories for ghosts.” and critical design too, may fall foul of this misplaced justification. But who or what then is critical or speculative design for?
We live in a world today with “wicked problems” so complex that they fall outside the merits of any single person (or design house). So entangled are the situations facing modern society, that one cannot be even addressed without considering a myriad of other interconnected issues. This is not to say that design is useless! On the contrary, now more than ever, design needs to find its footing and expand upon what its role is.
I recently exhibited two pieces at the 2011 London design week as part of the designersblock show. The exhibition had over 100 participants, but I still felt very different to most other exhibitors. I was surrounded by a wealth of beautifully crafted objects, all unquestionably aesthetically stunning, but only a few, I felt, provoked deeper thought, and went beyond the traditional roles of design. The visitors to the show too, were often very curious towards my work, and met it with a mixed response. The classic “but how are you going to sell that?” or “but who’s going to want that?” questions were asked, prompting me to return to the question of who the audience of speculative design is?
Critical design cannot predict the future. Our ideas of the future are often less radical than the reality. Design however, can invent worlds giving us freedoms to explore various branches of reality. Speculative design is a dreamlike exercise – manufacturing alternate worlds, ones which feel every bit as real as the “real world” we inhabit day-to-day (whatever that is!). It cannot predict the future, but it can shape the present.
By questioning our reality, and proposing new alternatives, it does not mean that these will ever come about. Instead it lets us imagine a landscape where the normal constraints disappear. This can be very useful when it comes to design commercial or “practical” products too. In design, as in any discipline I feel, an over reliance on the “norm” or status-quo can be crippling. Speculative design can inspire and give ideas for possible or desired futures, and more importantly, presents, which can be translated into numerous forms – whether these be consumer products, film, literature, policy etc.
Taking design beyond the realm of creating our world of tomorrow, and using it as a device to implement our dreams about today, is to me, an exciting route for design practice. We run the risk of neglecting our complex desires in the current context, instead seeking to pre-empt those of the inhabitants of 2100+. It is with a certain naivety that design undertakes the role of guardian of the future, when the understanding of the present is so inadequate. Design cannot and will not solve all the worlds problems, but it can communicate them, and address our fantasies, pleasures, personal idiosyncrasies and thirst for discovery. The complexities of the modern world are almost paralysing, and it is tempting to use design as a vehicle to promote a better future – almost as a form of escapism – but the present has become so fractured that it often seems like a film rather than an interactive experience itself. Science fiction has long been used as a medium to illustrate the future, and the parallels between sci-fi and much speculative design are obvious. But both formats often fail to make an impact on a meaningful level, as they can too easily be condemned as un-believable, polarised (either utopian or dystopian) and superficial.
Rather than the suspension of disbelief, it is the BELIEF, and wonderment which makes contemporary, contextual speculative design so powerful. Speculative design (or design fiction as it is often called) can bring our fantasies to life, by breathing life into ideas – making the intangible truly tangible. Oscar Ihermitte’s Urban Stargazing and Marguerite Humeau’s Back, Here Below, Formidable (see previous post) are great examples of how speculative design thinking, when combined with a current context and working outcomes, can produce amazing pieces of work which feed the imagination. These projects, and earlier works of designers such as Tobie Kerridge, Anab Jain, Crispin Jones and Nelly Ben Hyoun, show how designing for the dreams of today, rather than the hopes for tomorrow, places speculative design in a pivotal role for contemporary culture. By applying the theory and thinking of speculative design to the present context, making things work, we can challenge our idea of the possible and impossible. This is a key principle I try to incorporate into my own practice. In much of my work, I think it is interesting to make the idea of the future disappear. The future is not in 50, 100 years time – the future is now and is happening today.
The future of design as a critical tool for debate is certain. But more than that, the evolution of speculative design to go beyond this task, to not only ask questions of the future, but to excite and propose alternative presents and ideas about reality is a vital role in the maturity of design as a discipline. I am not suggesting that we stop extrapolating into the future and wondering about the world to come, but lets use design to ask more questions about today, a critique of the present – to challenge todays social, technological and cultural paradigms.