Design, Fiction and The Logic of the Impossible

Why can’t we have more of that!? (Fiona Raby, Newsbar, 2018)

This question, asked by Fiona as we ate our sandwiches at the Newsbar, has lodged itself in my mind since leaving New York. We were discussing the brilliance of The Third Policeman over lunch. O’Brien’s wondrous, surrealist, postmodern masterpiece, written between 1939–1940, has been a continual source of inspiration to me for over 20 years. It was my last day with Fiona, Tony and Carolyn and, as with many lunches over those 3 months, our conversations drifted towards our favourite films, artists and fiction. Fiona demanded, with a sense of almost indignation, why the freedom, creativity and imagination of the great surrealist, postmodern and magical realist fiction writers, like Flann O’Brien, didn’t populate the world of design. We talked about the freedom and joyous expression of literary fiction in relationship to experimental design practice.

Also during my last week in NYC I went to see Rams with the brilliant Matt Brown. A beautiful documentary about the legendary head of design for Braun, Dieter Rams. I, like many of my generation, enjoy a bit of design fetishism as much as the next white-male-middle-class-designer. But I came away deeply frustrated by the gulf between the object obsessive conservatism and the lack of genuine follow through by many of the fanboys (or put more clearly; Rams lived his ideas, those that hero worship him often take his ideas as superficial styling to fuel consumption). My other deep frustration was why did it all need to be so fucking earnest?

So much of design culture is occupied by people that take themselves so very seriously. When thinking about our conversations in the Newsbar about magical realism and surrealism, it became apparent to me that the level of imaginative freedom allowed in the world of experimental fiction, would struggle to exist in contemporary design culture (and academia) because there’d be some form of backlash about how it wasn’t ‘real’… that the work didn’t address the world’s real issues or problems… that it would never succeed in the ‘real world’. We are a discipline that is reliant on our creativity and imagination, but have become terrified of the imaginary.

I’ve returned to The Third Policeman, listening to the audiobook, 20 years after I first read the novel. I was fascinated how, after a gulf of time, my attention was drawn to different sections. In my first reading, it was the wondrous impossibility of the objects; the spear, the boxes, the bicycles that captured my imagination. However, two decades later, I’m drawn to the ‘world’ in which these objects find themselves; the infrastructure of the imaginary, the logic of the impossible. In some ways, this shift in my attention maps against my interest in design, but also a growing awareness (throughout design industry and design education) that the infrastructure of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ systems (that enable objects to be designed, manufactured, distributed and then connected to impossibly complex digital networks) are where the action is.

I loved how O’Brien imagined an impossible object, but then carefully crafted a world that could support its existence…behaviours, systems, economies where all put in place to make the impossibility of the object make sense (or seem less impossible); although he was ultimately writing about ‘heaven’, he made reality bend to fit the imaginary. For me, this is akin to what design does.

There have been many ways in which design (or technology) and magic have intersected — whether through the description of something so beautifully thought through, the journalist or critic evokes language of other worldliness or the million or so times Arthur C Clarke’s rules are quoted in tech pitch decks and conference talks. However, in magical realism, there are qualities that give designers interesting opportunities to explore beyond these common tropes.

Some of these ideas are linked to my old post about design fiction as pedagogic practice. How do we as educators set up the conditions to expand our students confidence in exploring things outside of the tyranny of the real. Looking at my favourite twitter bot, by @chrisrodley and @yeldora_, for inspiration - so much can be done with the way we give direction and write briefs (this part of my forthcoming book), looking at the tweets below, each of them is springboard for the imagination, a place to design from.

I also see them as useful strategic design processes; we can see magical realism as a momentary break or rupture in reality, the ‘realism’ part gives a solid grounding and connection for the audience (client) to hold onto, they recognise and invest in a world that is described, but then, sometimes without notice, the world takes an unexpected detour. Carrying the audience into a new realm of believable possibility.

The success of the ‘story’ relies on how well the author/designer integrates the magical aspect. Although full of wonder and surprise, the magical element shouldn’t cause a rejection of the reality already expected. The reader should move effortlessly into the non-real realm. This is an important skill for designers to master; how to take people through a narrative, demonstrating an understanding of the complexities of a given context, but then flawlessly move into a new realm of possibility. A space where new ideas, actions, motivations, behaviours and materialities are possible.

Beyond the initial move into the non-real, into a magical realm, one of the things I’m interested in, is how the window into a new reality can give us space to rethink something that we weren’t expecting to encounter; how the impossible object, gives insight into new ways of being and doing things. It’s almost that the ‘object of magical realism’ is a straw man, a trojan horse, that allows for a different type of reality to come into existence. An object to allow you to think through second or third order consequences and implications; finding new answers for questions you weren’t asking.

To put a little more clearly; if design is looking to be more ‘system focussed’, where we engage in the holistic design of complex systems, maybe the best entry point are small scale, magically impossible objects. Objects that we access in order to think about new ways of doing the big, complex stuff. By describing a space/place, not constrained by ‘reality’, you can allow for the invention of a new language. By seeking different languages, different aesthetics, we start to change (infect, mutate) the material present. How we speak of the objects and systems that we design often directs, legitimises or negates their potential. By pushing design into a surrealist, magical space, we can try to build a language that opens up a different relationship to the world around us.

So, in conclusion a question; how do we find sense in nonsense, or more importantly, how do we find new realities and new possibilities if we’re constantly policing the borderlands of the real?

Matt Ward is a designer and educator. I write here: and show strange speculative work here: