Over the last couple of years, the term Design Fiction (DF) has gained ground and popularity. It has entered design parlance and has become ‘hip with the kids’. As a practice it’s moved out of classrooms and galleries into boardrooms and research labs. I’ve watched the term grow in popularity, been frustrated with the lack of historic contextualisation, and amazed by how little the term has been interrogated.

I’ve been fascinated by the interplay between fiction and design since the mid-nineties when I studied the Italian radicals, I presented a project as a piece of fiction during my degree, since then most of my work has been inspired by my love of literature and cinema. I’ve been teaching ‘Design Fiction’ as an explicit part of my teaching since 2006 when I wrote a brief called Fictional Futures, here’s an excerpt:

Brief excerpt, 2006

Asking students to imagine a world and design artefacts to communicate a set of beliefs or practices though the utilisation of fiction has been an essential part of the BA Design curriculum for over a decade. But the thing I’m most surprised by is how little has been written about the role of fiction and speculation as part of design education. I can understand how DF can have value in a research context in order to provoke and convince an audience of a possibility space; a mode of questioning and coercion. I can also see its role in technology consultancy, as the construction of narratives, where products, interactions, people and politics open up new markets and directions for a client. But I think people have missed its most productive position; that of DF as a pedagogic practice.

I’m fully located in the ‘all design is fiction’ camp, so I’m not a big fan of nomenclature and niche land grabs. Design as a practice never exists in the here and now. Whether a week, month, year or decade away, designers produce propositions for a world that is yet to exist. Every decision we make is for a world and set of conditions that are yet to be, we are a contingent practice that operates at the boundaries of reality. What’s different is the temporality, possibility and practicality of the fictions that we write.

For a minute, stop and think about the amount of consultancy work that has been presented to clients but never made it off the production line. The sheer volume of objects that have been proposed, considered and rejected. Often described as vapourware, design consultancies produce a massive about of work that remains in the realm of unbuildable, often unread and considerably fictional. Proposals are dismissed due to a range of factors - fit to market, economic viability, brand alignment etc. but for whatever the reason they remain in the imagination of the designer (with scattered fragments of evidence contained in the portfolios of companies and people).

The ‘diegetic’ quality of the worlds that DF build are arguably similar to the accounts that we give of the use, market, popularity and impact of many of our proposals. We always design for a world that sits, sometimes just slightly, out of sight. We engage in a complex set of actors in order to move our fictions into the realm of the real. We fight against the Dark Matter to get work made.

This observation is nothing new. But it’s essential to understand my continued interest in speculation and fiction. My challenge is how to construct and design an educational curriculum that develops the wide range of skills and knowledge it takes to be a designer, whilst opening up a space for our students to push the boundaries of our discipline. By focussing on the speculative and fictional, design is no longer constrained by the practical reality of todays material and economic restrictions. The part of our curriculum that concentrates on the fictional, pulls important parts of design practice into focus; narrative construction, user interactions, representations of affect, communication and contextualisation. We train designers to become fluent in the operational mechanics of their practice.

Below is the beginning of a manifesto towards an education that embraces and interrogates the role of fiction in design:

1. All design is ideological

The social, cultural and political basis of those ideologies need to be exposed, interpreted and explored. In DF the ideological drive is laid bare for all to see. Deconstructing the economic and political underpinning of design is an essential skill to develop.

2. Fiction as a testing ground for reality

As with any practice where contingency is mapped and explored, future ‘scenarios’ lay a framework for possibility. Once represented and articulated they can become a space of shared imagination and language.

3. Re-inscribing behaviour and responsibility

In imagining the norms, morals and aspirations of our fictional protagonists, we set up behavioural trajectories for action. By scripting use, designers frame expectations and opportunity. If Madeleine Akrich is right in her assertion that ‘technical objects contain and produce a specific geography of responsibilities’, then the opportunity to re-assign these responsibilities is an exciting possibility.

4. The decisions you make have consequences: prototype them in the stories you tell

What first seems like a good idea, can have unexpected, unintended and undesirable consequences. Use fiction as a way to think through a full range of possible consequences. The interesting (and often dangerous) impacts of objects happen on the outskirts of intention, like a ripple effect on reality. Pretend before you mess the world up.

5. Normalise to persuade

New ideas, objects and behaviours are difficult to imagine and assimilate into our view of our everyday lives. Prototyping banality allows for the imaginative leap it takes to place one self in a future context.

6. Make space for experimentation

Developing a rich experimental design process is key to a continually improving and innovating practice. By suspending the rules of reality, DF allows for meandering play and unfettered exploration. Allow the material and meaning of design to emerge from an iterative experimental process.

7. Think through making

DF as a pedagogic practice allows students to think about the future (consequences, possibilities, actions and events) through the very material of their practice. In the construction of the aesthetic of the future, you can manipulate your own thinking about how you want to engage and locate yourself in the world.

8. Things that work don’t create interesting stories

One of the biggest hurdles in making Design Fictions is that the better that objects work, the more ‘seamless’ the world is run, the more boring the fiction is. Tension, loss, love, pain and fear (etc.) are all more interesting emotions to explore. Hence the tendency towards either dystopian or corporate idealist narratives. Finding the uncomfortable haunting fiction that surround an object, the place where social life starts to break down and fracture is far more interesting than a world that ‘just works’.

9. Build from ideas to aesthetics

The idea of aesthetic originality is difficult to comprehend. We live in a world where it is commonly believed that everything is a remix. In design it’s common to reference, borrow and “quote” form from the past. Opening up your source code to expose your visual references can be creatively productive. However, this can also lead to visual trends that fail to move the form and discipline forward. Instead, build aesthetics from the ground up, develop ideas the create a logic of aesthetic decision making.

10. Things live in their interaction with their context

The complex social dynamics that emerge from the insertion of a new object into a stable context should be prototyped in fiction. By ‘acting out’ new forms of interaction we can see if our ideas have a place in the world.

11. People are the protagonists in the production of reality

In design it’s essential to know your users, in DF it’s equally as important; research your central characters, make three dimensional characters not ‘personas’.

12. Craft the narrative

Too much DF seems to be produced by people who have never read any fiction. If you’re using fiction as a method, immerse yourself in the literary world. Understand how fiction works, what makes a good story and how to build complex, subtle and engaging stories.

13. Don’t mistake the training for the race

What I’m discussing here is design education, not all design or even design fiction. Therefore it’s important to understand student work as a side effect of learning. All to often I see work being presented and critiqued as if it was ‘professional practice’. The work created by students at college is to push their understanding of a discipline, not produce design as it exists in the cut and thrust of industry (fictional or not). This doesn’t mean that the quality of the work is weaker, it’s just doing a different thing. DF creates a sandpit for reality, where life can be tried, test, critiqued and debated - a safe ground of play and opportunity.

14. Understand what your fiction is doing in reality

Don’t allow DF to be an excuse for poorly conceived, weakly thought through design work. Just because your ideas live in a fictional domain it doesn’t mean that you can get away from important design decisions. All DF operates in the world - it does something to somebody: be clear and articulate about its intension, create a framework to test its success.

The ideas found above are due to endless conversations with friends, colleagues and students. I’d particularly like to thank; Laura, Jimmy, EUG, Matt, James, Timo, Einar and Nick. Design Fiction in its current guise owes everything to the relentless work of Tony and Fiona. The role of the ‘diegetic prototype’ is key to the development of DF, for that I thank David Kirby. As always, we are still learning from Archigram and Superstudio.

“The transformative potential of Utopia depends on locating it in the future, on thinking through the process of transformation from the present, and identifying the potential agents of transformation”

Ruth Levitas in Tom Moylan, Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination.