Imagining the performer(s) of the future(s): imagination, speculative design, and design fiction

DES 304 | School of Design and Creative Technologies at The University of Texas at Austin | Professor Cathryn Ploehn, MDes

Cathryn Ploehn, MDes
DES 304
9 min readSep 17, 2020

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Future fable of making tea via robot arm, In Everything is Someone [1]

Designing that does not already
Future, Fiction, Speculate, Criticize, Provoke, Discourse, Interrogate, Probe, Play,
is inadequate designing .— Cameron Tonkinwise [3]

Thinking about how we can shape the world with design begins with how we imagine the world. That is, imagination is a force that shapes how we situate ourselves and what we can do (and make). As activist and writer adrienne maree brown writes:

We are in an imagination battle.

Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown and Renisha McBride are dead because, in some white imagination, they were dangerous. And that imagination is so respected that those who kill, based on an imagined, racialized fear or Black people, are rarely held accountable.

Imagination has people thinking they can go from being poor to a millionare as part of a shared Amrican dream. Imagination turns Brown bombers into terrorists and white bombers into mentally ill victims. Imagination gives us borders, gives us superiority, gives us race as an indicator of capability. I often eel I am trapped inside someone else’s imagination, and I must engage my own imagination in order to break free. — adrienne maree brown [2]

Thus, most consequential moves (for the futures) happen at the level of what we can imagine, and in some ways, the tools we use do to shape imagination inform and shape what we design, and the future that inhabits what we can design.

History and the imagination

Our imaginations are bound up in history and theory: in what we make of our past, where we are situated, and the meaning we already see (or not) in the things we do everyday.

To put this idea into motion, I give the following example of coffee culture in the United States and Mexico (I was born and raised in the U.S. with both parents of both Mexican and European descent). Coffee culture in the United States is often categorized as “four waves,” generally asserting that coffee has shifted from being viewed primarily as a mass purchased commodity, towards more interpretations of coffee as a craft or artisan good, compatible with supporting co-ops.

The following components might be present in the coffee imagination:

  • Role: Daily ritual (in U.S. & Mexico) to energize (mild psychoactive drug)
  • Value: Coffee to stimulate as part of work culture
  • Value: Coffee shops as “third place,” creative class, modern lounging, and intellectual covo
  • Value: co-ops in Mexico trigger / sustain sovereignty
    Environmental: Climate threatens it

Synthesizing how we (in the U.S. and Mexico) have historically used and viewed coffee, our imagination of coffee might include: work ethic, intellectualism, resilience, precarity, and craft.

(Visionary) Science Fiction and the imagintion

Fiction (particularly genres of Sci-Fi, Afrofuturism, Dystopia/Utopia), which often take place in “the future”) is a kind of mirror of how we view the part and present [4].

In Make it So, Nathan Schedroff outlines how fiction shapes designer and public imagination for what interactions we could yearn for or expect in emerging technologies, particularly interfaces:

The relationship is also one of reciprocal influence. Every popular real-world
interface adds to what audiences think of as “current” and challenges sci-f
interface makers to go even further. Additionally, as audiences become
more technologically literate, they come to expect interfaces that are
more believable.

For example, communication devices in Start Trek set expectations for future cell phones [9];

Brain-computer interfaces in Avatar versus the actual BCI device Emotiv EPOC [9]

Star Trek replicators, which reorganize atoms to create any kind of food (in its database) instantly, which may create and / or comment on retro-future expectations of beverages like coffee:

Works such as fiction expose our assessments of history, often in a mode where we can begin thinking through where we can go. For example, in the case of afrofuturism:

Afrofuturism is a way of recontextualizing and assessing history and imagining the future of the peoples of the African Diaspora via science, science fiction, technology, sound, architecture, the visual and culinary arts, and other more nimble and interpretive modes of research and understanding. [5]

Still, as Ursula Le Guin, Virginia Woolf, and others state — the future is dark [4, 8]. As in, we don’t know what exactly will come next, and using what we can imagine, can shape what’s possible. Visionary fiction allows us to dream of and workshop freer worlds, with works like Octavia’s Brood make obvious connections between social justice movements and worldmaking:

Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in speculative fiction. All organizing is science fiction, Organizers and activists dedicate their lives to creating and envisioning another world, or many other worlds — so what better venue for organizers to explore their work than science fiction stories?

Indeed, we can reach the just societies if we can imagine what it looks like feels like smells like — to experience possible futures in terms of our everyday lives.

Thus, we need to articulate different kinds of futures, and design can serve as a source for generating those futures. (Good) design already manifests different futures, though good designers must be wary and think through what kind of futures they might be.

Once the imagination is unshakled, liberation is limitless. [7]

Design (for interactions) means designing futures

Design makes futures. What designers make becomes the futures we inhabit.[3]

What design does in terms of futures? In part, design can be used generate futures, evaluate them, and bring others onboard [3].

  • Generating futures. What kind of possibilities for the future are out there? When we ideate possible designs, we are indeed exploring and expanding our imagination for what circumstances are made possible through design. Speculative design is given more detail below, though more tools/lenses include: Design Futures, Design Fiction, Design Probes, Ludic Design
  • Evaluating futures. What kind of set of circumstances are viable, preferred, pleasurable, liberatory? When we create concept images, prototypes, etc. we are in fact testing out and suggesting different future circumstances. Design fiction is given more detail below, though more tools/lenses include: Design Futures, Critical Design, Interrogative Design
  • Design, through good communication, brings others on board for the futures they articulate. And, through and actually building and deploying prototypes actually materialize versions of the futures they imagine.

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.[3]

Speculative design

Speculative design is one lens for generating futures. Speculative design is one lens (that interaction designers use) that helps us expand the possibilities for design and futures. When we design in a speculative manner, much like the fiction writer, we are focused on expand what we can imagine a future might be in first place. As scholar Cameron Tonkinwise asserts:

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. [3]

Unlike fiction, speculative design must center designs themselves, the “material practices” of that context as opposed to the larger dynamics of that context (political, technological, etc.) [3].

HCD designer and scholar Woodrow W Winchester and Marcel L. Walker use speculative design and an Afrofuturism lens to provoke a ”more inclusive design exploration” of what wearables might mean for women of color [6]

Individuals and companies have found value in the art of creating speculative designs. Companies like Superflux focus on creating tools and narrative visions centered around design, like this 2019 talk from Anab Jain:

Designing in speculative way allows us to dream of freer futures, much in the vein of visionary fiction such as Octavia’s Brood [7].

Design fictions

The grandmother looked at the mother and father and asked them, “you really can’t see that she has a face?” The mother and the father were both confused. They looked again at their daughter. Their operating systems didn’t recognize her face, it was just a blur of errors that made them feel a little nauseous. They knew just how all the things around them felt: it’s very hard to be around something that doesn’t have a face. It’s so hard to know what to do. They both had to look away. [1]

From Everything is Someone [1]

Design fictions are a tool for evaluating designs, by thinking through the material realities of futures in the context of everyday life:

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 [3]

For example, Budinger’s “Our Symbiotic Life” is focused around bringing different kinds of climate scenarios to life with the use of imagery, and so on [10]:

The work combines insights of the climate impact research community, technology meta trends and plant science, which work as framework for the exploration of relationships between humans, plants and technology. Aim is to create an entertaining, inspiring and engaging way to deal with abstract scenarios.

Storyboards like the following show what the everyday life might be in a future where everyone has access to affordable healthy food. In this example, most people have first hand encounters with the act of growing food, and fresh produce is grown in a decentralized fashion. The following shows an entire day of one character going through that experience:

By looking at how this hypothetical person’s everyday life is, we can get an idea of whether these futures (implicated by their design of community gardens, for example) are pleasurable or compelling.

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. [3]

Sources

  1. Everything is Someone — Future fables about people and technology and everything in between, by Joshua Noble and Simone Rebaudengo
  2. Emergent Strategy, by adrienne maree brown. AK Press
  3. Just Design:Being Dogmatic about Defining Speculative Critical Design Future Fiction, by Cameron Tonkinwise
  4. For Ursula K. Le Guin, the Future Was Always About Today, by Jacob Brogan for Slate. https://slate.com/technology/2018/01/ursula-k-le-guin-taught-us-how-to-think-about-the-future.html
  5. Castro, J.G. Sanford Biggers: Music, Afrofuturism, and re-envisioning history Castro. Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire. Aug. 14, 2013; https://www.nyubrn.org/sanford-biggers-musicafrofuturism-and-re-envisioning-historyinterview-by-jan-garden-castro/
  6. Woodrow W Winchester, 2018, Afrofuturism, inclusion, and the design imagination
  7. Octavia’s Brood: Science fiction stories from social justice movements. Edited by adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha. AK Press
  8. James Bridle (2018), New Dark Age
  9. Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction by Christopher Noessel and Nathan Shedroff
  10. OUR SYMBIOTIC LIFE: An exploration of plausible interspecies relations (2017) Katja Budinger

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Cathryn Ploehn, MDes
DES 304

Data viz, computational design, interaction design / Professor at UT Austin / MDes Carnegie Mellon