What If …

Speculative Everything

Thomas Wagner
Global Design Futures


In their book „Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming“ (2013), Anthony Dunne (Professor and Head of the Design Interactions Programme at the Royal College of Art) and Fiona Raby (Professor of Industrial Design at the University of Applied Arts, Vienna) have given an overview about how design can be used as a tool to imagine possible futures and question the status quo. Dunne and Raby (2013) described speculative design in a way of speculating about how things could be in the future.

In the following I will give a short overview about key aspects of this book which are important for me and why I think, speculative design can play an important role for designer.

Beyond Radical Design

We live in a world with many challenges like climate change, destruction of natural resources and aging population to name a few. For Dunne and Raby the only way to overcome is by “changing our values, beliefs, attitudes and behavior.” (Dunne and Raby, 2013, p. 2) To imagine what could drive these changes, design can be used as a tool to speculate about possible futures and think critically about today and prospective implications of actions.

Speculative design is described as “creating an idea of possible futures” (Dunne and Raby, 2013, p. 2). Those futures can be postive but also negative and will reflect the world we are living in today. Everything starts with a „What-if“ question to open up spaces of discussion and debate. With the power of design it is possible to question, provoke and inspire.

What if Amazon did housing? A concept by Future Facility at the Design Museum’s NEW OLD show.

Conceptual design

For Dunne and Raby, design today is entirely driven by market forces (2013, p.14). Conceptual design is described as a way to escape from these restrictions, to reflect about things and have a kind of “playground” to think free and open. It deals with unreality and ideals to question our reality and open up a space for exploration of how products and services could be. It pushes boundaries, open space for trying out ideas and explore new ways of doing things.

Design as critique

Critical design is described as a form of critical thinking through design: “not taking things for granted, being skeptical, always questioning what is given” (Dunne and Raby, 2013, p. 35). It does not have to be necessarily negative. Critical design is described as successful when people need to make up their own mind (Dunne and Raby, 2013, p. 40). It pushes boundaries between being real and unreal, seriously and ironic, trivialize and absurdity.

Why speculative design?

Speculative Design is useful in terms of “debate potential ethical, cultural, social and political implications” (Dunne and Raby, 2013, p. 47). In todays world, where through technological innovation everything seams to be possible, it can play an important role in terms of asking key questions about ethics and what it means to be human: In what kind of world will we want to live in? What do we want to achieve? Where do we want to go? It opens up a space to explore a range of ideas in an “safe environment” where we can determine the possible impacts and consequences those concepts might have.

Dunne and Raby mention: „As designers, we need to shift from designing applications to designing implications by creating imaginary products and services that situates these new developments within everyday material culture. As the science fiction writer Frederick Pohl once remarked, a good writer does not think up only the automobile but also the traffic jam.“ (Dunne and Raby, 2013, p. 49)

Speculative design and its ability to critical question and reflect, is a great tool to explore new fields, make things tangible and to start a discussion. It lets people think about things in a different way and opens up space for imagination and inspiration. With these tools, designer are able to question the mindset of our values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. This discovery can be a very inspiring process which helps us to drop constraints and run free.

Dunne, A., Raby, F., 2013. Speculative everything: design, fiction, and social dreaming. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts ; London.



Thomas Wagner
Global Design Futures

Research, Strategy & Design | Service Experience Designer (MA) based in Berlin | Currently Senior Service Designer @ Infarm | wagnerthomas.org