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Design

Speculative design: 3 examples of design fiction

4 min read
Tony Ho Tran  •  Apr 8, 2019
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A designer (essentially) has three jobs:

  1. Create
  2. Solve problems with what they create
  3. Resist the urge to scream when a client says “Can you make it pop?” for the millionth time.

But there are often problems so big that it becomes difficult—if not impossible—to create solutions for them. Issues like financial crises, environmental disasters, and political strife aren’t things you can simply sit down and design solutions for…right?

Meet speculative design.

Speculative design is a design method addressing big societal problems and looking towards the future—and creating products and services for those scenarios. BUT, like all things design, the concept is a little more complex than it sounds.

Let’s take a look at speculative design, its genesis, and some great examples of how it works.

What is speculative design?

Speculative design is the process of addressing big societal issues with design processes and systems.

“Where typical design takes a look at small issues, speculative design broadens the scope and tries to tackle the biggest issues in society.”

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The term was coined by Anthony Dunne, professor and head of the design interactions programme at the Royal College of Art, and Fiona Raby, professor of industrial design at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. The two popularized the concept in their book, Speculative Everything: Design, Dreaming, and Social Dreaming.

From the book:

“[Speculative design] thrives on imagination and aims to open up new perspectives on what are sometimes called wicked problems, to create spaces for discussion and debate about alternative ways of being, and to inspire and encourage people’s imaginations to flow freely. Design speculations can act as a catalyst for collectively redefining our relationship to reality.”

According to Dunne and Raby, designers shouldn’t just address issues of today, but also take a look into the future and ask, “How can we address future challenges with design?”

Where typical design takes a look at small issues, speculative design broadens the scope and tries to tackle the biggest issues in society. It seeks to answer questions like:

  • How should design impact the entire world?
  • How can we design for a healthier ecosystem?
  • What can we do to influence future cultures?
  • How can future technologies impact our products and services—and vice versa?
  • What don’t we want to see from the future?

Speculative design tries to imagine what it would be like to design without the current limitations of technology, culture, and politics in mind.

“Speculative design gives designers an opportunity to stretch their imaginations and develop new and boundary-pushing systems and prototypes for the future.”

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It’s important to note that what we aren’t talking about here is predicting the future. As Raby and Dunne note in the book, those who try to predict the future often end up dead wrong.

Instead, speculative design aims to imagine all the possible futures that could be. To do so, the book presents a taxonomy of possible futures.

Source: Slideshare

These futures can be probable, plausible, probable, and preferable. Any good piece of speculative design should fall within one of these areas. These possible futures are lenses used to better understand the present, and what we want and don’t want to see in our future as a society.

Anything outside of these futures is in the realm of fantasy—something speculative design has no interest in exploring. Rather, they want to see what can be created and explore society’s relationship with that creation.

The benefits of speculative design

As tech progress lurches forward, businesses and brands need to make sure they’re in the best spot to adapt and grow with those advancements. This means innovating in whatever industry they might be in, which positions them to gain a large swath of future markets. Most tech markets, after all, are winner-take-all.

This isn’t an abstraction, either. Organizations like Visa, Pepsi, Ford, and even NATO have begun hiring science fiction writers to help them create more innovative products and strategies. They all recognize the importance of being ahead of the game in terms of technology and services.

And when coupled with more concrete design practices, speculative design can be an incredibly useful tool for businesses and even governments.

For example, in 2015, the UK Government’s Office for Science partnered with Strange Telemetry, a research consultancy that leverages speculative design, in order to explore the “challenges and opportunities of an aging society.”

The way it worked was simple: Strange Telemetry came up with various concepts and prototypes for potential future scenarios and then asked participants what their reactions were to the concepts. This exercise gave policymakers a greater idea on what their constituents wanted—and didn’t want—out of future policies and technologies.

(For a full break down of the study, be sure to check out the full report here.)

Problems with speculative design

While speculative design offers plenty of opportunity for designers to push creatively, it does have a few drawbacks—namely, how difficult it is to sell.

Since speculative design is about taking risks and pushing the boundaries of what can be designed, companies and businesses are less likely to invest in them. This limits designers from being able to take those bold choices since there’s not a lot of businesses willing to fund these projects

And according to Dunne and Raby, there have been three key changes that have occurred throughout history that have rendered speculative design “more difficult and less likely” to exist.

  • Market forces. Beginning in the 1980s, design began to become more and more commercialized. Speculative design and their designers were “seen as out of sync with design’s potential to generate wealth.” Design became a tool to make more money rather than an artform and means of social change.
  • Atomization. According to Speculative Everything, society has grown more atomized, with a greater emphasis on individual accomplishments and actions rather than those for communities as a whole. There’s less of a demand for design that addresses bigger societal issues.
  • Pessimism. The dreams of the 20th century have been “downgraded” to hopes, according to Raby and Dunne. With broader issues such as climate change and financial disaster coming into focus, younger generations have adopted a more pessimistic attitude about the future. After all, why plan for something that might not happen?

Jeez, that’s darker than my morning coffee. Here’s a palate cleanser.

Ah, much better. Now where were we?

The key changes in the economic and design world have drastically limited the ability of designers as a whole to take part in speculative design.

“Speculative design works to address issues and answer tough questions that we currently create for ourselves.”

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It’s simple economics: If there’s no demand for it, there’s not an obvious reason to supply it. That means the type of things designers are allowed to create is limited by the bottom line. Since speculative design is about disruption and creating ideas around things that might not exist yet, it is looked upon warily by businesses who don’t want to take a risk on bolder ideas.

But does that mean that you should ignore speculative design completely?

3 great examples of speculative design

To give you a better picture of speculative design in action, let’s take a look at three examples.

They range from the familiar to the delightfully weird—but in all, they give you a good idea of what speculative design is and its implications in society.

1. Star Trek

Outside of fighting Klingons and going where no man had gone before, the show was chock-full of ideas and concepts that have had a deep influence on tech designs today.

Each episode showed millions of viewers what could be possible with technology like tablets …

Source: CNN

… cell phones …

Source: MeTV

… teleconferences …

Source: Ars Technica

… and much more!

NASA scientists have even gone on record saying how much of an influence the show was for their research.

And while we might be a few years away from tractor beams and laser cannons, we can anticipate those technologies with speculative design.

2. The iPhone

In 2007, Apple announced the creation of the iPhone, and with it, they showcased the power of speculative design on a grand scale.

Source: MacWorld

When the iPhone was introduced there was nothing like it on the market, so Apple’s design team had to develop an entire UI/UX process from scratch. That means answering questions like:

  • What impact will this interface have on future users?
  • How will this impact future tech?
  • What is the user flow / journey going to look like?
  • How often are users going to shatter their screen after dropping their phones on barroom floors? (Okay, maybe not this one)

The result was a piece of technology that completely upended the mobile phone market and changed the way everyone interacts with their phones.

Apple looked beyond what most thought was possible with mobile devices and crafted a vision around that. In doing so, they relied on speculative design to create a completely new and innovative product—and to great success.

4. The ten-thousand year question

Designers know how to design for products and services for present day customers. They can even broaden that scope and design for people a few years, or maybe even a few decades down the line.

But there are some things that need to be designed across entire millennia.

That’s the issue designers and scientists are grappling with as they figure out how to handle the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico—the United State’s only underground radioactive waste repository.

Nuclear waste is dangerous and life-threatening if we come into close contact with it. As such, scientists need to figure out how to develop systems for future societies and cultures to recognize the danger of the WIPP and the deadly radiation within it.

Surely, it should be as simple as slapping a few skull and crossbones or biohazard symbols around the area … right?

Not if you consider the fact that the WIPP will remain dangerous to human lives for 10,000 years. That’s more than enough time for language, culture, and societies to evolve.

We have no idea what human life will look like at that time. They’ll likely have new cultures, systems, and languages. Symbols and signs of today will likely look like gibberish to them.

So how do you design a warning system for people that far into the future? A few designs proposed:

  • Creating a pseudo-religious organization to pass down stories and traditions to avoid the area
  • Developing cats that glow when close to radiation
  • Dramatically changing the landscape around the WIPP to showcase the danger of the area (see below image)

This piece of speculative design works to address issues and answer tough questions that we currently create for ourselves. Namely, how do we warn future generations about the dangers that we have created?

For more on this topic, be sure to check out the 99% Invisible podcast episode on the topic—as well as this Vox video covering the issue.

Is it right for you?

Speculative design gives designers an opportunity to stretch their imaginations and develop new and boundary-pushing systems and prototypes for the future.

And while it can be a tough sell in today’s market, businesses and governments are starting to recognize its value. Even large corporations like Google user to explicitly dedicate time for their employees to embrace speculative design. The results have been wildly successful products like Google Maps and Gmail.

“By speculating more, at all levels of society, and exploring alternative scenarios, reality will become more malleable,” Raby and Dunne say, “and although the future cannot be predicted, we can help set in place today factors that will increase the probability of more desirable futures happening.”

Want to learn more about the future of design?