Friday, November 07, 2008

Design led futures

MARK: a digital feedback "biomarker" to manifest internal bodily processes
Image by Michael Fyfe for Kardia Project, Design-Led Futures 02007
(see Kardia workbook, pp. 132-154)

A fabric-based, personalised interface for music collections
Image by Dan Scudder for Stitch Project, Design Led Futures 02007
(see Stitch workbook, pp. 17-25)

X-POSE: diagnostic imaging plaster for user-friendly sports medicine
Image by William Carlson for Velvet Project, Design Led Futures 02007
(see Velvet workbook, pp. 47-56)

Each year, students in the School of Design at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, have an opportunity to apply their design training to dreaming up future product lines for a partner company.

The Design Led Futures (DLF) program was established at Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Design in 2004. ... The DLF program offers companies visions of the future. It explores possible scenarios for ten years into the future. It attempts to expand the range of possibilities that a company can see by challenging what the company currently does. It entices companies to take risks by offering believable future scenarios. Partner companies have included Fisher & Paykel and Methven from New Zealand, and currently DLF is working with Nike.

Companies have seen DLF as an opportunity to develop visions of the future with two main purposes in mind. The partners do not expect to develop intellectual property out of the projects. Rather, they use them to challenge their own teams into thinking beyond their comfort zone. Secondly, the concepts proposed by DLF are used by companies as promotional tools. The concepts serve the same function as 'concept cars'. They are not intended to go into production, but they help companies create an image of themselves for the public. This is useful in the sense that the company can express a sense of innovation without necessarily producing the concepts.

~Edgar Rodríguez Ramírez, Ross Stevens, and Simon Fraser, 02007, "Design-Led Futures: Emotional and Behavioral Response to Radical Future Concepts" [pdf], paper presented at Connecting '07, the World Design Congress, San Francisco

In March last year, Pantopicon's Nik Baerten succinctly described the three projects DLF had produced up to that point (a post reproduced at experience design consultancy Experientia):

  • Domestic Bliss: students were required to create a new understanding of the role that appliances (such as fridges, washing machines and cookers) might play in the architecture and culture of the home [link; set in 02014; working with appliance company Fisher & Paykel]

  • Inside-Out: project on the theme of outdoor living and the role that appliances might play in making this possible and pleasurable [link; set in 02016; again with Fisher & Paykel]

  • Energising Water: project to explore and create a new understanding of the base material of water by creatively applying existing or new, specifically developed technologies [link; set in 02015; partnering with Methven, a shower and tapware manufacturer]

Each of these resulted in a string of Flash-animation presentations (reachable via the project links above) describing a series of hypothetical product lines. There's a lot of content in total, and it's well worth exploring.

However, I want to highlight the most recent project completed through DLF, a collaboration with the sports-brand giant, Nike. The 02007 cohort's collective output has its own self-contained website, hello_cybernetics, which at the time of writing seems to have received startlingly little attention online.

The three sets of design concepts offered up for Nike's future are called Stitch (based on digitally-responsive fabrics), Velvet (based on projecting images on the body), and Kardia (which, I'm delighted to see, goes way beyond the usual ten-year horizon to a post-Singularity vision for the brand, as far as 02087). Each project has a short introductory film wherein the product concepts are shown off and explained, and a downloadable (pdf) "workbook" (presentation booklet of sorts) is also available for each of the three. The production values are great, and some of the ideas are quite ingenious. (Images at the top of this post come from the workbook documents for which I couldn't find separate URLs, because they're linked from a Flash page.)

I very much like the fact that the students seem to have seized the opportunity to elaborate their personal ideals for what the brand could become, which importantly, allows room to deviate from the corporate vision. This makes it a particularly interesting case of inerweaving commercial and educational agendas; it's certainly far more enlightened than simply using trainee designers as a low-cost source of labour, toiling to legitimate the conceptual confines of an Official Future. And it makes learning possible on both sides of the partnership. From the Design-Led Futures initiative's website:

On the one hand, we want to empower students. As course coordinator Ross Stevens says, "If we cannot demonstrate to students that they can initiate meaningful change – then, as educators, we have failed".

On the other hand, we want to help industry to harness this creative energy and direct it into commercially successful business infrastructures and outcomes. In this respect, we are committed to an active leadership role – one of collaboratively developing industry, rather than the traditional role of simply serving industry by following its directives.

On his profile page, Stevens adds:

I personally believe that design fills a unique role here, first by generating creative, diverse and challenging possibilities, and then making these visible and tangible to others outside of the design profession. Through this process, a broader debate is created that draws people with different skills and perspectives together to create answers that are economically, socially and ecologically considered.

Resonant sentiments.

Overall I'm impressed by what strongly comes across as a highly resourced, pedagogically thoughtful, and institutionally well-connected program. For an initiative named "Design Led Futures", of course, from my point of view it would be great to see a deeper awareness of the futures dimension -- concepts and methods from the futures field that could be extremely useful in this setting -- and there are other aspects of the program that I'd like to look at more closely another time (such as its organisers' research on emotional engagement through future artifacts). But for now, it's great to have found another active player at the intersection of futures and design practice.

Check it out.

Related posts:
> Future-jamming 101
> Object-oriented futuring
> Greener Gadgets
> London after the rain
> The MacGuffin Library

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