How Design in Sci-fi Motivates our Future

Concept Design by Matt Bell © DXLab

Design in Sci-FI

There is something amazing that happens when we visualize the future. It happens.

This phenomena is perhaps unique, or at least, exceptionally pronounced in our species. Most life forms are responsive to their environment- while the extreme successes of mankind can be directly linked to preconceiving the future. Planning before execution.

But what happens when we plan so far ahead, that we go beyond the realm of current technological possibility? Science-fiction.

When Jules Verne contemplated an immense submarine built to scour the unknown depths for new life and magnificent rocketry — or when Robert Heinlein predicted bustling Mars colonies and AI politicians — they exemplified this great human trait. They built and tested these designs inside a human-centered narrative of tomorrow. But what use is it to contemplate a future so far away?

First, in pondering the future- they began a discussion that has and will continue to define our development of those very technologies, so far out of reach. Second, we are about to reach them.

Companies like OpenROV are democratizing access to ocean exploration- while a particularly successful sci-f fan boy is setting his sights on Mars with break-throughs in re-usable interplanetary rocketry and AI empowered vehicles. Transportation of goods, ideas, and individuals is already seeing strides toward yesterday’s science fiction.

So how can we be a part of this future?

By formalizing a way to contemplate future products in a way that is actionable in the nearer term.

Future-Casting

Future-casting is the application of design thinking within a future context.

We use this process to explore the fundamental desirability of a potential design in 5–10 years. In our modern world the pace of innovation is accelerating — automation, AI, robotics, the future of transport itself — are being driven by advances in fundamental technologies that are compounding. Impossibilities are becoming inevitabilities. Stubborn businesses are sinking while start-ups enlightened by new forms of digital and physical production are gliding toward the horizon.

We have no choice but to dive into the context of tomorrow and plan solutions that will enrich the whole of humanity. And future-casting is the vehicle that makes this practical.

Framing

What will the world look like in 5–10 years? In order to get our thoughts in the right space we must gather inspiration. We scour the latest research, movies, books, and science fiction. What are the challenges and tensions on the horizon, and where can we apply design to the story of our future users to remove friction?

Inspiration is not about copying — it is about identifying the logic behind design decisions, judging them against our predictions, and re-interpreting them through our own lens. In a way, it’s about gathering subconscious cues and potential solutions that will resurface as we explore the future landscape.

Ideation

Why is it important to sketch?

Bandwidth. Human communication is a slow process. (Tim Urban gives a thorough explanation about how Neuralink might solve this.) In order to convey ideas in real-time, we generally talk or type our thoughts (though an interesting restriction within the comments on GDQ this year led to emoticon-based communication.) Whereas humans are well equipped to take in immeasurable data through the power of sight — millions of colors, shapes, subtle relationships and other data can be absorbed and understood in an instant. A picture truly is worth a thousand words.

How can we harness this power? First, we should note that a sketch of any fidelity can be extremely useful — and second, we can take comfort in the fact that half of the work will be done by the viewer. Interpretation is like the secret sauce of ideation.

Humans are creative creatures — whether you are an engineer, manager, or a trained designer, you possess a unique world view and thought process. And it is through your unique lens, the unique language of your mind, that you will interpret the images of others. The concept of Gestalt is important here — because just as an observer completes the edge of a square when looking at this image:

So to, will you complete the concept as shown by another’s sketch. The difference is, we all know what a square should look like — but when you are presented with a more complex image — you apply a more complex meaning from your background. In this way, each observer fills in the design with their own subjective viewpoints and ideas. What could have been a dry or simple concept can spawn many differing opinions and ideas. In effect, these “errors” in communication are the motor of ideation.

As we increase the fidelity of our images we start to do two things. 1) We start to reduce the Gestalt effect, and the lense of the observer will have less affect on the notion of the concept itself. 2) We make it more tangible, and in this way, the observer actually gains a greater ability to challenge and diverge the concept — as if judging a prototype, for instance. This is why it is important to start increasing fidelity once there is some agreement on the basic concept.

Concept Design by Matt Bell © DXLab

And so, we can develop the final form:

Concept Design by Matt Bell © DXLab

Of course, this is not the only type of deliverable. The design above had a specific purpose- to realistically portray the autonomous truck in the context of Kevin Fishner’s short-story about the future of automation. But the specific type of deliverable depends on what you’re trying to gain clarity around. Is it a process? A system? An experience?

Model by Matt Bell © DXLab

We like to use narrative to build a context for a product and understand how a product will live with us- how it will effect our lives. We can thus push off from there, either diving deeper into a day-in-the-life storyboard or short-story (See DXFutures) or even concretizing the product with 3D-Modelling, rendering, and ideally a functional prototype. The breadth of your tool-kit determines how well you can convey your concept of the future- and communicate the desirability of an increasingly feasible technological application. But even at DXLab, we always start with a simple sketch.

So what potential problems and solutions do you see in the near-future — what is the narrative you imagine?