“The future is no longer regarded as predestined…It is now seen as the result of the decisions, discoveries, and efforts that we make today. The future does not exist, but a limitless number of possible futures can be created.”
(Bell, et al., 2013, p. 5)
A designer is by nature a futurist, designers create ideas that are not yet of this world, and turn those ideas into the world we live in. To design therefore is an exercise in futurity. While designers typically create for the very near future, how often does the designer reflect on the potential worlds they are creating? How often do they question what these futures look like, or more importantly how they should look like? Design fiction is a discipline that offers designers an opportunity to look far into the future. It provides a method to probe, explore, and critique these possible futures and the technologies they embrace. The designer no longer attempts to generate answers, but instead aims to formulate really great questions.
Defining Design Fiction
Design fiction can be understood as both a discipline and a method. Blythe (2014) has attributed the creation of the term to Bruce Sterling from his 2005 book Shaping Things where he first discuses the term, but fails to give a comprehensive definition. Sterling later provides a definition of the term in a 2012 interview with Slate magazine as “the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.” (Bosch, 2012). The diegetic prototype in the context of design fiction can understood as a piece of design/object that seemingly exists within the fictional world the audience is viewing.
There is an important difference between using the term “diegetic prototype” instead of just “prototype” when discussing design fiction. The term diegetic attempts to explain how the reader should understand and relate to these designs in a fiction. Kirby explains that the diegesis, or the world in which these technologies live, create the diegetic prototypes through “dialogue, plot rationalizations, character interactions and narrative structure.”(Kirby, 2010, p.41). Bleecker (2009, p. 85) believes that prototypes in themselves are simply not enough, they present “coherent functionality, but they lack a visionary story about what makes them conversant on important matters-of-concern.” While a prototype exists as a model or representation of some concept, a diegetic prototype exists as a functional piece of technology within a fictional world. A diegetic prototype is better able to help craft the stories that a regular prototype fails to create.
While Sterling’s definition of design fiction focuses on the methodological approach, the functional characteristic of the method can be described as a way to envision new technologies in the distant future, while utilizing narrative to show how these technologies are positioned within a new context. (Tanenbaum, 2014, p.p.22–23) The previous statement may sound a lot like a definition for science-fiction, however the key distinction goes back to the use of a diegetic prototype providing a more narrowing of focus to a particular context, object, or experience.
The design fiction disciple provides one method of how designers could envision futures. However, there are also other disciplines and methods of future visioning that deal with fiction: speculative design, critical design, and scenarios, to name a few. These three approaches address the topic of futurity with slightly different aims and structures. It is important to make a distinction between these approaches in order to better understand the position that design fiction takes.
While both design fiction and speculative design operate around the basis of some form of prototype, speculative design typically creates objects outside of a defined future context, and doesn’t include an accompanying narrative. Speculative designs are often framed within a context of the very near future. However, for speculative designs that attempt to explore the far future, the designs are situated within a world that is typically not explored or revealed. (Dunne and Raby, 2014)
Critical design, most famously popularized by the design firm Dunne & Raby, defines the term “as [using] speculative design proposals to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role products play in everyday life. It is more of an attitude than anything else, a position rather than a method.” (Dunne and Raby, n.d.). Critical design can then be understood as the application of speculative design while taking a very particular argumentative stance. These fictions may exist within our contemporary life, or they may address issues stemming from problematic trends and their resulting consequences in the future.
A scenario is a more common design method that is used to communicate a future concept. Blythe (2014, p.4) makes a distinction between the two methods explaining that while design fiction aims to examine a distant future, scenarios are grounded in a present context, or the very near future. A scenario is developed with the intentionality of implementation and is grounded in facts and the limitations of current technology. Most importantly, scenarios disregard the social and political context that a design would live in. The focus of the scenario thus becomes on that of the object, or perhaps the experience, but it examines the design through a narrow periscoped view of the world.
There are three important aspects to make note of in design fiction: the use of narrative, the diegetic prototype, and the context. However, these elements are not really matters of interest in their own right. The elements of a design fiction cannot be looked at individually or simply viewed as a future story with technological gadgets. Rather, design fictions are about “creative provocations, raising questions, innovations, and exploration…[it] makes an effort to explore new kinds of social interaction rituals.” (Bleecker, 2009, p.7). The production of knowledge that design fiction affords requires that the whole of these elements be read together to present a cohesive narrative of the future. The diegetic prototype then takes the position as a topic of discussion in conjunction with it’s relational socio-cultural, political, and economic value. The way these elements of a design fiction relate and resonate to the audience is a critical aspect to utilizing the method effectively and to ensure that the larger provocations and questions can be realized.
Design fiction has the ability to resonate with an audience because of “possible world” theory, which states that a piece of fiction can be understood by an audience while exploring “possible worlds” that might not be so easy to grasp in their present reality (Markussen and Knutz, 2013, p. 233). These “possible worlds” are developed through “cognitive estrangement” (Raven and Elahi, 2015, p.52), or cues that communicate to the audience that they are not perceiving their current time and place. The design fiction relies on the diegetic prototype along with the context to present these cues. While an audience may be able to suspend their disbelief by relating to the work as fiction, the elements presented in the story must also contain a certain logic in order to be effective. Tanenbaum (2014 p.1) states that even if a technology does not exist or is known to the audience, it must follow a set of governed rules. The audience must not doubt the seriousness of the design or the technology being presented.
A narrative that focuses too much on the technological gadgetry quickly loses it’s critical value by no longer providing the provocations that design fiction can offer. Just as user-centred design practice positions people at the centre of the design process, people should also remain as the main focus in the fiction. The diegetic prototypes should eventually be put aside while examining the “timelessness of human fundamental social practices. Then put…back in, as a prop, to move the story along” (Bleecker, 2009, p.27). In order to see how these diegetic prototypes can be effectively utilized within a narrative, we’ll look at an example of design fiction from Hollywood.
Design Fiction & Hollywood
The 2002 Steven Spielberg film, Minority Report, is a textbook example of quality design fiction. Arguably the most notable scene of the movie is the opening vignette that shows Chief John Anderton (head of the Precrime unit), using a large gestural computer to piece together evidence from the future to predict the location of a murder in the future. In order to discover the location of the murder, Anderton is shown “scrubbing the images” through a complicated gestural performance. This giant computer exists as a diegetic prototype within this future world, informed through dialogue to produce a believable system of technologies. The success of this story lies in it’s ability to quickly transport the audience into the year 2054 while subtly revealing cues about the social, cultural, and political context of the time. Bleecker (2009, p.37) talks about why these future technologies should exist specifically within a piece of fiction and it helps to explain how the Minority Report effectively utilizes the diegetic prototype:
“We can put the designed thing in a story and move it to the background as if it were mundane and quite ordinary — because it is, or would be. The attention is on the people and their dramatic tension, as it should be.”
While this giant computer captivates the viewer with it’s dramatic gestural design patterns, it doesn’t usurp the narrative. Rather it informs the audience, and then quietly moves to the background to let the audience explore the unfolding dramatic tensions of lust, passion, and jealously.
If we remove this diegetic prototype from its fictional narrative and presented it as an isolated design object, the rich drama this computer affords would be lost. Removing the theatrical gestures, the rituals and rules of operation, the snarky dialogue, and the slightly dystopian power source, the audience is left with little more than a large acrylic display of transparent interface screens with static projected images.
Taking a Stance
The example above demonstrates how formal aspects influence the effectiveness of design fiction. While the formalistic qualities provide a good outline of what design fiction is and why it exists, Raven and Elahi (2015, p. 50) state that there is a necessary separation in futures that must be made between “form and content”. For any vision of the future, the author or designer is taking some sort of stance or position. Whether these visions explore utopias, dystopias, or future ethics, it is up to a critical audience to determine the value of these creations. Tanenbaum (2014, p.2) argues that the author has the power to push for or against a technology through persuasive narrative. What may seem reproachable in contemporary society may be less contemptible in a future framed through the captivating qualities of storytelling.
Design fiction is a way to create compelling visions of what life in the future could be like. It gives the designer permission to explore boundless thoughts in our world where money and other constraints often limit ideas. Visionary designs have the potential to “shape the collective imagination”(Wakkery et al., 2013, p. 8) or perhaps “[plant] a seed that reveals itself in the distant future”(Hogan, 2015, p.2). However, to create something that looks so far into the future that it remains unattainable, one might question how we can evaluate the production of knowledge from these activities. I believe that every future narrative has the potential to create interesting discussions, debates, and critical conversations no matter how absurd these futures may seem. With an exponential increase of technological capabilities in conjunction with the sheer number of global conflicts rising it is becoming increasingly important to start asking the important questions about design and our future.
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