Speculative Design: Thinking About the Future in Times of Uncertainty

Win Shanokprasith
10 min readMay 14, 2020
Dunne and Raby, Designs for an Overpopulated Planet, №1: Foragers (2009), Video still

กดตรงนี้เพื่ออ่านบทความเวอร์ชั่นภาษาไทย

What is speculative design? Perhaps it is important to start the conversation with a simpler question: what is design? And what does it mean to design something?

Just about everything we use in everyday life has been designed by someone. From something small and obvious like our mobile phones to something larger and perhaps less obvious like the experience of ordering take-out on said phones, you can see how the majority of our lives are lived through objects and experiences that were designed. The ubiquity of design as a word is so widespread it seems that design has completely integrated itself into the contemporary tongue. We speak of the design of things all the time. Sometimes, we even speak of designing things ourselves!

Yet despite its omnipresence, design still remains a rather elusive and mysterious practice. What counts as design? And what do designers really do? There are a plethora of professions that end with design as suffixes; professions like interior design, product design, or graphic design to name a few. And it is easy to assume that the type of work done in these professions, at least on the surface level, is primarily about aesthetics.

There are also other professions, whose titles still categorically end with the word design, that concern themselves not with the processes of beauty but rather the processes of thought. This includes professions like information design, design management, software design, urban design, service design, and user experience design.

It may come as a surprise, that the differences between these design disciplines and the aforementioned group are in fact not very many. Despite their differences in objectives and job descriptions, these design disciplines share a fundamental approach. That is they recognize design as a thinking activity. Unlike artists who work in the interior space of individual curiosities and personal interests, designers collaborate in the exterior space of solving real-world business problems.

User experience design (UX design in short), utilizes practices that intersect those found in psychology, sociology, and behavioral sciences to study and understand the human condition and context of a given business goal. This human-centric approach makes UX designers valuable to organizations that want to make sure their products answer real consumer pains and values.
Major tech companies today understand the value of design, as they employ more and more designers into progressively strategic and business-critical roles to help connect complex technologies to everyday people.

UX designers spend a lot of time talking to customers. This allows them to understand how their designed product will be used by real people. But this approach is not without its faults. So it may be highly possible to predict how a customer segment will respond to a product in the year of its release, but what about the next 5 to 10 years to follow?

When introduced into the world, products begin to have a life of their own as new customer segments may adopt the technology, and new behavioral patterns may emerge as the products assimilate into the culture. How can we make sure our products will affect society as we intended? And what if our products end up causing more harm than good?

We cannot predict the future. But it is possible, if not altogether necessary, for us to speculate on the societal effects of our designed products.

On Speculative Design

A term coined in the ’90s by design academics Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, speculative design is the practice of hypothesizing future products, systems, and services to conceptualize how they might affect societies of the future.

Dunne & Raby, PPPP (2013)

This diagram by futurologist Stuart Candy, redrawn by Dunne and Raby, illustrates an approach to the practice and vision of speculative design. Projecting from the present onwards, the diagram breaks the future down into 3 main cones according to the likelihood of their actualization.

  1. The Probable is where traditional design operates. It describes what we can assume will happen judging from how the world currently is.
  2. The Plausible begins to ponder further into the space of scenario planning and foresight. It describes alternative futures and the possibilities of could be’s and what if’s.
  3. The Possible goes beyond, to extreme scenarios of what is scientifically possible. This includes utopias and dystopias, while never crossing into the realm of fantasy or science fiction.

Somewhere between probable and plausible future scenarios exists a reality that is preferable. Whether or not the future we are heading towards will develop into a preferable one is the crux of the work that speculative designers do.

But preferable to whose standards? It is not up to designers to mandate what is and isn’t preferred. This is why speculative design is more about raising questions than providing definitions of how things ought to be. Its opposite would be affirmative design, which is design that reinforces the status quo.

Dunne & Raby, A/B Manifesto (2013)

Above is another image by Dunne and Raby that describes the positioning of the practice in contrast to more traditional methods of design. By all means, B isn’t meant to replace A, but it does give context and dimension for conversations about the possibility of design as a tool for thinking.

So What Does Speculative Design Look Like?

Speculative design projects often take shape as design proposals, in the medium of exhibitions, films, novels, product design, and sketches. They are ideas that take shape in the world through the means and methods of design production. Some rely on heavy research and collaboration with experts from related fields of science, technology, economics, or politics, while others employ the narrative and aesthetic structures of design to paint convincing pictures and articulate profound arguments.

It is not that speculative design is something far removed from our lives either. An example is Charlie Brooker’s science fiction anthology TV series Black Mirror, which examines the possible unanticipated consequences technology may have on modern societies.

Joe Wright and Charlie Booker, Nose Dive, Black Mirror SS3 EP1 (2016)

In an episode titled Nose Dive (2016), we are introduced to a world where every interaction we have with others is rated by them on a 5-star scale review, where our average rating affects our socioeconomic status and our access to public and private services. In this world our online and offline lives interweave seamlessly as we know everyone by name and rating profile, we are well connected as everyone uploads everything on social media for likes, and we can rest assure that everyone will work hard and be kind to one another because the incentives of doing so far outweigh the consequences of low social ratings.

In this same world, we are bombarded by comparisons to people with higher and lower social ratings, the concept of privacy ceases to exist when everybody knows us by name, and gaps in economic inequality becomes magnified.

If you have seen Black Mirror, you know that the true horror of these stories lies in their resemblance to the world we currently live in. With a few wrong turns, we can imagine these scenarios becoming true in the near future. Film is a powerful medium because it immerses us into the world of an idea while remaining accessible to the mass and easier to digest than books or art.

Jaemin Paik, When We All Live to 150 (2012) / Ted and Morya’s second marriage contract comes to an end.
Jaemin Paik, When We All Live to 150 (2012) / Moyra and two other women are interviewed by the new family.
Jaemin Paik, When We All Live to 150 (2012) / Moyra’s ‘child’ in her second family.

In a series of speculative photographs titled When We All Live to 150 (2012), Jaemin Paik examines our quest for prolonging life and its implications on the model of families. When life expectancy is increased to 150, up to six generations may share the same household. The project follows the fictional life of 75-year-old Moyra and her sprawling contract-based family.

Moyra decides to renew her 30-year marriage contract with Ted, ensuring they receive better social support and tax benefits from the state. Age 82, Morya’s second 30-year contract with Ted expires. She decides to leave Ted and move to a “two-generation” family where joins a new husband and a 52-year-old “child”.

When people live to be 150, would the institution of marriage be reexamined? How would the architecture of homes change when families become more multi-generational? What are the financial implications of age, if retirement is still marked at age 60? The way we live our lives and the concepts we take for granted as self-evident are in fact highly influenced by many governing conditions of science, technology, politics, and philosophy.

Superflux (Anab Jain and Jon Arden), Song of the Machine, The Film (2011)

Song of the Machine (2011) is a short film produced by London based design studio Superflux that shows the world seen through a prosthetic device for people with reduced vision. Superflux is interested in the emerging field of ontogenetic studies, which combines genetic engineering and electronics to manipulate individual nerve cells with light. The studio entertains the question: what if we can use a virus to infect a degenerate eye with light-sensitive protein, via an eyewear device, to establish an optical link with the user’s brain?

What Song of Machine proposes is the possibility of a new, enhanced reality for those with impaired vision to see parts of the light spectrum beyond human capability.​ A disability may cease to have negative connotations when it comes with an opportunity to see the world in a different, more vivid, and more informationally rich way.

Ettore Sottsass, Preliminary Project for Microenvironment (1971)

The process of speculation can vary depending on the practitioner. A project can be scientifically driven, technologically driven, culturally, and humanistically driven. Or it can also exist as a pure idea. Whereas heavily researched speculations are strong representations of how things could look like, ideas are purer, more immediate, and more malleable to development and discourse.

Speculation can be visualized simply through sketches, as Italian architect Ettore Sottsass has done in series of drawings, Preliminary Project for Microenvironment (1971), where he proposes what a nonmaterialistic household can look like. His drawings illustrate alternative living spaces where inhabitants are uninterested in furniture as precious fashionable objects to possess. Instead, furniture is reduced to material and aesthetic neutrality, shifting its focus to address possibilities of multi-functionality and use as communal assets shared in communal living spaces.

It is easy to see these projects as works of art, or even science fiction, but it is very important to know that speculative design is definitively not art. As art, the criticality of its messages can too easily be dismissed as fiction and fantasy. Speculative design follows the same processes of thought as traditional design so that its speculations are based on logic, research, and real possibilities. This possibility is what accentuates the power of speculative design. It is much more disturbing to know that life as we know it and our interactions with technology could very much be different than it is today.

Implications of Speculation on How We Might See the World

To speculate is by definition to think about the future. Speculative design is a thought process that everyone can partake, and a conversation in which everyone is invited to participate in. Speculative thinking feels pertinent today amid the Covid-19 pandemic, a global reminder of how easily what we consider normal may crumble and change.

Normality is facing direct challenges as foundational aspects of our society are being disrupted. Global travel is abruptly put on hold. Social distancing is disrupting businesses big and small, causing millions to lose jobs in what is already turning out to be one of the largest economic crises of our time. The effects of change can be felt at the macro level, but also on the cultural and individual level. The way we work, talk, and travel has become much less of a physical activity and more of something that happens virtually, online. New words like social distancing emerge and enter the global tongue as language begins to adapt to a world that is much lonelier than before.

I have the utmost respect for everyone who is working tirelessly to fight this pandemic today. It is crucial that our research and development for solutions is done at speed. On the other hand, I think it is also important for us to take this time to slowly and critically study the changes that are happening in our lives. How is the design of everyday products and experiences playing a role in shaping the way our daily lives play out? And with how things are currently progressing, can we imagine the different possible futures that may lie ahead?

You may speculate with stories, drawings, detailed planning, or data-driven hypotheses. The power of ideas is that they can be inspirational, they can be infectious, and they can be catalytic. Since thinking requires no academic or technical expertise and is virtually free, we should all be encouraged to engage in thinking and dreaming about our individual present and ultimately our collective future. In uncertain times where our lives are becoming physically distant and isolated, perhaps it is through this that we may come together again in solidarity of thoughts and dreams?

I think it may be possible.

--

--

Win Shanokprasith

UX designer and artist based in Bangkok, Thailand. Currently working @ Kasikorn Business Technology Group (KBTG)