The Royal College of Art on one of the days I visited (beautiful weather unforeseen)
Last week and the week before, I had the privilege of joining the Design Interactions department at the Royal College of Art (RCADI -- previously mentioned here) for several sessions as a Guest Lecturer. It was an exhilarating and exhausting experience with a brilliant group of people, and I loved every minute of it. One of the many benefits of this valuable chance to weave our idiosyncratic version of futures into their idiosyncratic version of design was that it forced me, or enabled me (or some combination of those) to become considerably clearer on how the two play together.
The lecture I delivered on 12 March at RCA was titled "Design Interactions with Futures". Our point of departure was my observation that, when it comes to the intersection of design practice and futures practice, we can for analytical purposes discern two principal tendencies, facing in different directions. One is futures in support of design, and the other is design in support of futures. (I'm continually surprised by how hard-won, how long in coming, such basic insights can be -- and how blindingly obvious in retrospect.)
Those categories denote pretty much what you would expect. Futures in support of design describes work in which the exploration of one or more future scenarios is finally subservient to the creation of products, services, or whatever. Examples might include the design probes conducted by companies such as Philips, Nokia and Whirlpool; or the concept designs produced by Adaptive Path, such as the Charmr diabetes treatment device, and the Aurora web browser. All of these use an extended time horizon, therefore unhooked from certain present-day constraints, to facilitate more creative exploration of the artifacts that might become possible in the short- to medium-term. They are all, however, ultimately about making things.
Intuitively enough, design in support of futures, by contrast, describes that type of practice where design output is not an end in itself, but rather is used as a means to discover, suggest, and provoke. This territory, where design aspires to contribute to The Great Conversation reaching well beyond the community of design practitioners itself, is host to such concepts as "critical design", "design for debate" (both terms long used by RCADI masterminds Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby), and "discursive design" (a phrase I first encountered in this recent Core77 article). It's also a much better fit for the work that Jake Dunagan and I, with our various collaborators, have been doing for the past several years via FoundFutures and elsewhere. Whether they take the form of "theory objects" (which is not a bad descriptor for the types of things RCADI students often make), or of less fragmented, more immersive "experiential scenarios", design in support of futures and its ilk are all about the conversations and insights made possible by manifesting futures tangibly in various media.
I don't want to overdo the distinction between these two, because clearly concept designs informed by futures may enable exploratory conversation or debate, just as critical design artifacts intended to spur conversation may lead to products. (The first example of an ambiguous melding of the two that comes to my mind is the output of the so-called "design led futures" program at Victoria University of Wellington, recently blogged here.) Indeed, the mutually informing, overlapping, properties of these two modes of work for me simply highlight how fruitfully chaotic the design + futures intersection can be.
Since sharing the above ideas in London, I've had occasion to take this strand of thought a little further, particularly in relation to the similarities between the experiential futures work we've done and the practice of "Design for Debate" developed by Dunne and Raby.
Paola Antonelli is senior curator of design and architecture at New York's Museum of Modern Art, which hosted the remarkable exhibition Design and the Elastic Mind last year, featuring the work of these critical design pioneers as well as several of their students. Earlier this week, in an article for SEED magazine, Antonelli wrote: "Design for Debate does not seek to produce immediately 'useful' objects, but rather meditative, harrowing, always beautiful object-based scenarios." Here's Dunne and Raby themselves on Design for Debate...*
Design today is concerned primarily with commercial and marketing activities but it could operate on a more intellectual level. It could place new technological developments within imaginary but believable everyday situations that would allow us to debate the implications of different technological futures before they happen.
This shift from thinking about applications to implications creates a need for new design roles, contexts and methods. It?s not only about designing for commercial, market-led contexts but also for broader societal ones. It?s not only about designing products that can be consumed and used today, but also imaginary ones that might exist in years to come. And, it?s not only about imagining things we desire, but also undesirable things -- cautionary tales that highlight what might happen if we carelessly introduce new technologies into society.
In conversation with the design duo over lunch last week, when they mentioned the distinction between applications and implications, it leapt out at me. Traditionally, design practice has been preoccupied with the former, whereas theirs, and that of their Design Interactions students, is more concerned with the latter. And it seems to me that this maps rather well onto what we examined a moment ago: "futures in support of design" amounts to an orientation to applications, while "design in support of futures" can be seen as pointing towards implications.
Applications are necessarily convergent -- concerning that part of the design process where ideas, intentions and constraints culminate and are distilled into solutions, embodiments of the exploration process. Implications, on the other hand, are intrinsically divergent, multiplicative, compound; not only are there alternative futures, but there are first, second, and third-order effects (and so on, as far as you care to go) for any given innovation or development you might name.
What futures uniquely contributes to the exploration of implications is a framework for the systematic exploration of these contingencies; ways of managing the mess of possibilities.
In exploring design applications, the futures component is by definition more instrumental. It is oriented to opening up new markets and product lines, and so is less apt to surprise or challenge in profound ways. It is preoccupied with the superficial "litany" layer of discourse, perhaps sometimes scratching the "social" layer too, as identified by academic futurist Sohail Inayatullah. Where the focus is on exploring implications, though, design is a vehicle by which futures are freed to unfold, and to take us where they will. Well-designed interactions "with" and experiences "of" future scenarios may help unearth, whether by challenge or gift, deeper dimensions such as desires, norms, and values. Put in terms of Inayatullah's framework, this entails addressing the worldview layer, and sometimes, maybe even touching our bedrock layer of metaphor and myth. That ideas about the future can be designed to be encountered and engaged affectively, as a part of the continuum of lived experience, rather than just linguistically and cognitively, as in a classic philosophical thought experiment, is essential. The key challenge, then, for those of us interested in this dimension of the design + futures conversation, is to figure out for any given scenario(s) which of the endless potential implications -- the folds and eddies we can detect in possibility space -- are the most potent, game-changing or significant, and to use these as triggers to take the contemplation of possible, probable and preferred futures to the deeper layers.
To put it another way, our lot (whether as "critical futurists" or "critical designers") is not to sniff out killer apps, but to acquire an instinct for identifying killer imps.
* These question marks appear in the original, in place of apostrophes. I was about to "correct" this formatting accident in the quote when I realised that it was entirely appropriate.
> Object-oriented futuring
> Tribal futures
> Morphing art and design into advertising
> Open Source futures and design
> Design led futures