Just Design

cameron tonkinwise
12 min readAug 21, 2015

Being Dogmatic about Defining
Speculative Critical Design Future Fiction


Every time you qualify design with, or add design to, some other quality or practice, you are claiming that design does not already do that.

All these phrases are redundant and/or appropriative of design:
Design Futures, Design Fiction, Speculative Design, Critical Design, Adversarial Design, Discursive Design, Interrogative Design, Design Probes, Ludic Design.

Designing that does not already
Future, Fiction, Speculate, Criticize, Provoke, Discourse, Interrogate, Probe, Play,
is inadequate designing.

Not all (commercial) designing does all those things, but it should.

Thinking that all these things need to be added to design reinforces the mistaken belief that design is just an instrumental technical task — styling. These qualifiers are precisely what allows (commercial) designing to not (have to) do all those things, or, ironically, constrains (commercial) designing from doing all those things.

Calling out all these specialist versions of designing benefits only the artificial ecosystems of academic design research, especially the bubble that is HCI.


Design makes futures. What designers make becomes the futures we inhabit.

In this, design is unique. Other discourses imagine new and different things, but do not make, do not realize them as things that people in the future will experience as their reality. There are practices of making, but these crafts do not imagine new kinds of, and so future, things.

There are some other practices that make futures — architecture, engineering, planning. But these practices all work on larger-than-human-scale. Design is unique for focusing on everyday things of use, handlable equipment and furnishings, whether those are products, communications or environments (up to the scale of interiors).

This should be put more forcefully: in addition to design being unique as the practice of making futures, design is unique for approaching the world in terms of human-thing-interactions. Design sees materials practices; design sees the way the world is realized as material practices. Design makes futures by making new material practices.

Designing involves:

a) Generating Futures

Designers have a perverse ability to not see what is there, but instead see what else could or should be there. They are considered creative because they generate alternative realities, some of which they make into future realities. Designers are also considered optimistic. Designers are motivated by perfectibility, despite the evidence of every design project. They therefore often generate idealistically utopian futures.

b) Evaluating Futures

Designing sketches and prototypes possible ways of materializing futures. This is part of a), a generative process by which designers get out of (their) present reality. But it is also how designers evaluate whether those futures are preferable to the present. Designing does virtual testing — on paper, in studios, through (computer) models, via enactments — before making, before investing in often irreversible materializations. All designs that emerge from the process of designing — generating and evaluating — are criticisms of things about the present. Design criticizes (the present) by making (future) alternatives.

c) Enlisting Sponsors for those Futures

While designers make, they cannot make alone, especially at the mass production scale that is particular to design. Designers must convince many others, through many channels, of the value of making the futures they have generated — funders, suppliers, logisticians, craftspeople, marketers, users. Design is a process of persuading, alliance building, contracting, managing. Designers do this by involving various non-designers in aspects of the process of a) generating and b) evaluating this or that particular future. But designers also do this in general, creating openings for particular projects by doing speculative work (e.g., Overton Windows to extend MAYA). All designing always involves designing designing, whether: designing the look, talk and feel of a design firm; developing and promoting new ways of designing; or working strategically to open particular people and practices up to certain design futures.

d) Materializing Futures

Having generated futures that have been evaluated to be preferable by allies who have promised to help realize those futures, those futures can now be materialized — though that process has already begun as a result of a), b) and c). Materializing a design is not a finite process: it is not like designing ends when some thing gets produced. Design concerns practices, and a material product influences but does not control a practice, especially in complex contexts of many other everyday practices. So designers must, in an ongoing fashion, try to design the practices afforded by their products, or redesign their designs with respect to unexpected practices that emerge. All design is extended producer responsibility, in the ‘consequence business,’ Transition Design.

In sum,

a) = Design Futures, Design Fiction, Speculative Design, Design Probes, Ludic Design

b) = Design Futures, Critical Design, Interrogative Design

c) = Design Futures, Speculative Design, Adversarial Design, Discursive Design, Parafunctional Design

d) = Design Futures, Critical Design, Adversarial Design


It helps fabricate and artificially sustain the institutional economies of para-design discourses by pretending that they are difficult to define. They are not.

A phrase ‘Design [Noun]’ or ‘[Verbal Adjective] Design’ always goes in two directions. In the following A) refers to adding some concept or practice to design, whereas B) refers to adding design to some concept or practice.


[Note that this is a deliberately conservative definition of ‘Design Futures.’ More ambitious things currently being called ‘Design Futures’ are instead recategorized below.]


Something designers should be doing especially at moment c) in the process of designing.

Futures might in principle be unpredictable, but in practice they are more or less discernible. This is because, from the perspective everyday material practices, the focus of design, things change surprisingly slowly — despite seemingly rapid technological change, the majority of North Atlantic cultures for instance, still eat, bathe, clean, sleep, commute, and even learn and love, in much the same ways as 50 if not 100 years ago.

The domain of Futures is therefore characterized by arguments about what is probable. Designers build rich pictures of the Futures they are designing, correlating current trends and stresses with possible events to contextualize the rationales for their interventions. Design Futures comprise Theories of Change underlying multi-level, multi-stage Transitions. Designers develop Design Futures to convince others to help realize those futures. A designer who does not have a clear sense of the wider future they are trying to design by introducing a new product into the world is not only unconvincing but irresponsible.

Compared to Design Fictions, Design Futures are more systemic, less affecting. Compared to Speculative Design, Design Futures are more within the horizon of current expectations. Compared to Critical Designs, Design Futures are more synthetic of multiple existing contexts and vectors, rather than revealing of unacknowledged contexts and vectors.


Something Futurists should be doing to make their analyses more comprehensive and credible.

Futures tend to take the form of visions, systems and stories. These kinds of Futures can be elaborated, tested and made plausible through the addition of Design. Designs, manifesting as artifacts, substantiate the everyday practices that are being argued will be experienced in such a future. Futures without Designs tend to be abstractions.



Something designers should already be doing, especially at moment b) in the process of designing.

Despite being the instigators of future practices, designers often risk being too artifact-centered. Design fictions ensure that designers detail the contexts in which their designs afford particular kinds of experiences. With their emphasis on people going about their everyday existences, negotiating life objectives and cultural mores through the obstacles of quotidian technical actions, design fictions describe scenarios in which the design innovation is no longer innovative, but merely a habitual part of everyday practices. Personas are an essential component of design fictions.

Design fictions in this way allow designers to evaluate design propositions. A rich design fiction will provide enough insight into the future ways of living being designed that a designer can be confident in deciding, ‘yes, this is how we want to live,’ or not.

Of course, these short stories of future uses of designs should be informed by ‘real’ social research. But they are (non-fiction) fictions because

i) they describe future situations or normalized use of a design that do not yet exist,

ii) they should be ‘brief but vivid,’ effectively capturing the affective quality of being-with these future designs.

Design fictions deploy the expertise of curation, script-writing and editing to succinctly reveal the future material practices being designed.

There is therefore an ethical challenge to design fictions. Though fictive, they are the basis on which evaluations of designs are made. The way to negotiate the danger of this ‘confirmation bias’ lies in the fact that the ontology of fiction is ‘plausibility,’ even if what is being described is currently improbable and even impossible. It is the job of the (design) fiction-er to imagine as thoroughly as possible the interrelations of that fictional world, to find and reveal all that is plausible given those conditions. This is the imperative of a ‘moral imagination.’

Compared to Design Futures, Design Fictions are more visceral and emotive. Compared to Speculative Designs, Design Fictions are much more quotidian. Compared to Critical Designs, Design Fictions concern the surface experience of a future normal.


Something authors of fiction can do to introduce non-verbal elements into their stories to make them more multi-modal. Like prop comics.

Not to be confused with fiction authors focusing on detailed descriptions of things (e.g., Georges Perec, Nicholson Baker).



Something designers should already be doing, especially at moment a) in the process of designing.

Designers are distinct from other kinds of people because they can see how things could be otherwise. But they do not always see things otherwise enough; they slip back into the coping with how things are that we all (have to) do to get on. Speculations are forms of disciplined imagining, methods by which designers force themselves to think in more ambitiously counterfactual ways. Speculations try to push beyond current expectations and trending futures; they expand the sense of what is possible. To this extent, speculations should risk exaggeration and offense, being too serious and too funny, too optimistic and too pessimistic.

The limit on speculative designs is that they must be designs. On the one hand, this means that the focus is on material practices, rather than on the wider political, technological, biological, etc, situations that form the context for these speculative designs. On the other hand, it means that they must be materialized as things. These might not be operational — they are speculations — but they should be operable, able to be handled and physically experienced. Speculative designs are not verbal fictions. They might be filmed if the speculative designs are props within that film that the audience feels that they are using along with the actors in the film.

To be speculative, to serve the purpose of opening contexts up to radically distinct possibilities, ones that are quite distinct from what is plausible or probable, speculative design must never have a consistent style or mode. Each speculative design should be done in multiple modes, for a diverse set of distinct audiences.

Compared to Design Futures, Speculative Designs proffer radical situations at the limit of the possible that are in now way currently probable. Compared to Design Fictions, Speculative Designs are test the limits of plausibility. Compared to Critical Designs, Speculative Designs are merely creative with respect to current trends; they do not intentionally reflect back on the nature of the present.


Something irresponsible financial engineers do when they create products that dupe as many people as possible until those products destroy vast amounts of value.



Something designers should already be doing, especially at moment d) in the process of designing.

Designers imagine new possibilities that they then evaluate. If those new possibilities are considered preferable, designers persuade people to help them materialize those products and their associated practices. However, designers not only have to persuade people, they also have to ‘persuade’ organizations, communities, technologies, and even materials to change. These ‘entities’ can’t just be talked to; they must be swayed, displaced, undermined. Every act of creation requires destruction. For designers to materialize a particular future, they must dislodge an existing present, breaking the habits and habitats that at the moment more or less work, whether explicitly valued or just taken for granted. Designers must make those presents matter less than what they seek to materialize.

Critical designs reveal aspects of existing material practices that are concealed or denied. But as designs, critical designs do not just criticize but work actively to eliminate what they criticize. They taint the symbolic economy of an existing practice, or install obstacles to the smooth functioning of those practices; or they empower groups of people to politicize against those practices. Critical designs clear the way for preferable alternatives, deflecting present practices away from their probable futures. Critical designs are needed because a future being plausibly prefereable is never enough to make it probable and sometimes even possible.

Compared to Design Futures, Critical Designs attempt to obstruct likely futures rather than document their likelihood. Compared to Design Fictions, Critical Designs attempt to obstruct existing material practices rather than merely evaluate them. Compared to Speculative Designs, Critical Designs attempt to break the actual rather than expand the possible.


“The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”


When designers take responsibility for designing a debate, running a debate and following through on the decisions that emerge from the debate.

Debates do not merely arise as a result of some designed artifact, no matter how critical, speculative, futural or fictional. Debates are things that designers need to make happen, things that are difficult to design and take a long time to design.


If it is in gallery, it is art. If it is in a gallery, it is circumscribed and so impotent.

If it is at an academic conference… I can’t finish this sentence. Despair.

The avant garde was a bad idea even when it was a relevant idea. Design exists because capitalism absorbed modernist art. Thinking design should reprise the avant garde is something you would expect to find in a failing undergraduate essay in 1970.

There is nothing whatsoever disturbing about dystopias. People pay good money to see horror films.

There is nothing whatsoever motivating about utopias. Nobody pays good money to see situations in which everything is fixed for good and so nothing happens.

The more polished your aesthetic, the less speculative and/or critical it is. This has less to do with issues of inspiring audience participation and more to do with the ways in which it normalizes a pretentious taste regime.

Designers fetishizing ‘noir’ embarrassingly belies their film auteur wannabe-ness.

Media attention is not debate.

Putting technology at the center of anything is profoundly conservative. The only change is change to social practices. Market penetration of this or that technology is an appalling proxy for societal change, one that is merely a confirmation bias for the technology of big data analytics.

There is nothing especially speculative or critical about designers working with scientists. The more you say that ‘this is a sign that design is being taken seriously as an expert practice beyond prettying things,’ the more you can be sure that it is not.

A thing, by itself, can never be ‘disturbing’ or ‘provocative.’ You are only allowed to use the words ‘disturbing’ and provocative’ if you can find people willing to testify that they were disturbed and provoked.

Designers make, but to make any thing, you have to make people do things. That second form of making is no less designing (and no less material). Speculative and Critical Designs can and must be more than things a designer made; they must make people be speculative and critical.

Speculative and Critical Design must not be distinct from the act of designing, especially in commercial contexts. Critical Design distinct from professional designing is mere speculation. Speculative Design distinct from professional designing is acritical.

For all the attention design gets these days, the material practices that are design’s essential focus are still not sufficiently acknowledged. What is really radical about design is that it, and it alone, can understand and so intervene in material practices. Any version of designing that misses that undermines design’s power.

Oh. And:

There is nothing fictional, speculative or even critical about the fact that the future will be less and less white. Given imperialism, this is as it should be.

There is nothing more fictional, and therefore uncritical, about speculations that do not acknowledge that non-white people will own the future.

It is morally repugnant that the worst things white people can imagine happening to them in some dystopian future are conditions they already impose on non-white people.

cameron tonkinwise

(post)sustainable service systems, (post)critical design thinking, https://www.uts.edu.au/staff/cameron.tonkinwise, @camerontw@social.coop

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