An overview of contemporary speculative practice
A tour d’horizon of SpeculativeEdu’s investigation into contemporary Speculative Design practice by Julian Hanna.
After interviewing dozens of leading design practitioners, educators, and theorists from across Europe (and in a few cases beyond) we are able to draw a clearer path to show where Speculative Design has come from, where the approach is at present, and where it might be headed in the near future. While the list of interviews is selective rather than exhaustive, it is intended to provide a useful snapshot of contemporary Speculative Design in a European context. (Note that while most of the interviews cited have already been published, a few others are forthcoming.)
Speculative Design may be understood as a new design approach – an open set of tools, techniques, and methods; ready to be used and adapted to various contexts in which we live and act – that emerged in the developed centres of the West around the turn of the last century. Over the past two decades it has increasingly taken on a more global character and influence. But even within Europe, Speculative Design and related approaches such as Design Fiction are more familiar and used more widely in some countries than others. In France, for example, Speculative Design is flourishing at present; in other countries such as Switzerland or Germany the designers we spoke to described it as having a more muted, understated or niche role, blending with other practices or being confined mainly to a few higher education courses. Czech designer Markéta Dolejšová sees the current marginal status of the approach in her country as a challenge for the future: “Through workshops, field trips, discussions, and various experimental activities our aim is to shift the ‘Bohemian Speculative Design’ from its current non-quite-yet state towards a real thing.” Overall, our survey suggests that the influence of Speculative Design is constantly expanding into new regions and disciplines as new waves of designers embrace and adopt its techniques in different aspects of their work – and the approach itself is also evolving and adapting to new realities and calls for change.
Before we go any further a note about terminology is in order. The following remarks, taken from James Auger’s PhD thesis (RCA, 2012), provide some useful perspective on the meaning of Speculative Design from a practitioner’s point of view:
“Speculative design proposals are essentially tools for questioning. Their aim is therefore not to propose implementable product solutions, nor to offer answers to the questions they pose; they are intended to act like a mirror reflecting the role a specific technology plays or may play in each of our lives, instigating contemplation and discussion. Here I outline two approaches:
First, through informed extrapolations of existing product lineages, ‘speculative futures’ imagine and present near-future products, systems and services. These are intended to act like a cultural litmus paper, testing and examining the implications of an emerging technology before we commit to specific applications or research directions.
Second, ‘alternative presents’ are speculative design proposals that question existing paradigms through the design of products and services that utilise contemporary technology but crucially apply different ideologies to those currently directing product development. These are speculations on how things could be, had different choices been made in previous times, and are used to examine the values of contemporary products.”
Cameron Tonkinwise has notably criticised the appending of terms such as “speculative” and “critical” to design, stating that “Designing that does not already Future, Fiction, Speculate, Criticize, Provoke, Discourse, Interrogate, Probe, Play, is inadequate designing” (“Just Design“). In his interview for this project, Tonkinwise provided a positive vision of what the practice could look like: “Speculative Critical Design, insofar as it is a form of Design-focused Science Fiction, can be, at its best, an applied example of design philosophy, explicating how designs materialise particular kinds of futures, and/or lending particular kinds of futures plausibility by fleshing out their designed socio-technical material practices.” Matt Malpass, a lecturer and researcher at Central Saint Martins, argues that Speculative Design and other related practices are “all modes of Critical Design”; that is, “They serve to challenge orthodox conceptions of design and extend the agency of design and the matters of concern that design might typically engage.” Jan Boelen, the artistic director of z33 and educator at Design Academy Eindhoven, on the other hand, views Speculative Design and Critical Design as “fundamentally different positions”. In the view of Ivica Mitrović, who leads SpeculativeEdu, the scope of the project includes not only Speculative Design but also “all related discursive and experimental approaches in the field of design, which are focused on re-thinking the practice, and which are situated outside the mainstream design world (e.g. critical design, reflective design, discursive design, adversarial design, etc.)”.
Interface Creep, circumflex.studio
The Basel, Switzerland-based practitioners circumflex.studio provide a very clear definition of what Speculative Design means in their own work (just as many other practitioners also define their own sense of the term). They state: “Speculative Design should be an informed projection that brings into question the reality we ground this projection on. Informed means that it’s not about making up just any alternative future, present or past but grounding this speculation in prior knowledge, emerging tendencies, existing technologies, and human behaviours. Through creating an alternative reading—set in the future, present or past—the predominant reality is put into question and inherent biases are revealed. This is our very ideal understanding of Speculative Design.”
“Speculative Design ultimately allows us to think about what’s preferable,” according to London-based designers Andrew Friend and Sitraka Rakotoniaina, “no matter what dystopian, utopian or particular lens a project may use as a vehicle.” Similarly automato.farm calls Speculative Design “a great safe space … where it was ‘allowed’ to explore possibilities rather than problems, where we could create microworlds in a parallel present or near future and where you could still use the language and the materials of design, without tumbling into the world of art.” Another useful definition is provided by the Slovenian critical and speculative scenario designer Tina Gorjanc, who states in her interview: “Speculative Design thinks about current laws, political systems, social beliefs, ethics, values, fears and hopes, and projects how they can be translated into future material expressions and embodied into the material culture.”
Bestiar.io, Nicolas Nova
There is a line—sometimes clear, sometimes blurred—between Speculative Design inside and outside the academy, or between academic researchers and practitioners. Nicolas Nova, of HEAD Geneva and the Near Future Laboratory, describes this division from the standpoint of someone who is comfortable working on both sides of the line: “One can definitely see a split though between speculative projects produced in the context of cultural organisations such as design museums, applied art exhibits, or design schools (proper ‘Speculative Design’ following the Royal College of Art Design Interactions lineage), and the use of Design Fiction by service design or design strategy studios for commercial clients and public organisations. Few design studios do both, while people like Superflux, or us at the Near Future Laboratory, do not see a clear distinction between these two paths.”
In the eyes of many of the practitioners we interviewed, Speculative Design is best understood as an approach rather than a precise methodology. In his interview for this project Nova states: “I wouldn’t call that a ‘method’, as it’s too strict and formal. I’d say it can be seen as an approach with a focus and a certain number of ingredients that designers play with in their project. Depending on context, the mix leads to different results.” According to circumflex.studio, this designation means both added risk and responsibility: “Since there is no methodology to follow, Speculative Design requires a critical mindset and the ability to connect dots and look at the world differently.” With all of these caveats in mind, Speculative Design will continue to be used as a general term designating the broad range of practices described in the context of this study.
From the standpoint of the present phase, we can identify three main types of designers using Speculative Design and related approaches: early pioneers, the first wave that followed, and the new wave of practitioners. As this is all relatively recent history, the people involved are mostly still active, even practicing side by side; coexisting, in other words, rather than replacing or succeeding each other – at least not yet. But there are some distinctions to be made between the three waves.
In terms of pioneers of the approach in the European context, these were mostly RCA Design Interactions educators. The first batch of students graduated in 2006 with projects like Jon Ardern’s “Design Solutions for Post Crash Civilisation”. Susana Soares describes what it was like being part of one of the first cohorts: “Between 2005 and 2007 I was attending the MA in Design Interactions programme at the Royal College of Art … Both students and tutors were trying to make sense of how Speculative Design could be positioned in relation to the various disciplines of design and how we could continue our practice. We went through many iterative descriptions such as Design for Debate, Critical Design, Design Fictions, Diagesis Design, Disruptive Design, Design as Engagement” and so on. Anthony Dunne, the former Head of Design Interactions (2005-2015), sheds some light in our interview (with Dunne & Raby) on the original conception for the programme: “speculation has a long history in design, think of concept cars for example, but it was used mainly to sell new ideas and future technologies to consumers. One of the things we were trying to do in DI was to relocate this way of designing from a strictly commercial context into one where it could be used for other purposes”. In the view of Cameron Tonkinwise, the “debate” aspect was key: “it is odd that so few design programmes explicitly teach argumentation and persuasion … this was the great value of Speculative Critical Design, versions of which were called ‘Design for Argument’ or ‘Discursive Design.’”
Tina Gorjanc, as a younger generation practitioner, recalls that support for “the design for change principle rather than purely designing just for the commercial market” was a defining characteristic that set a course such as MA Material Futures (previously Textile Futures, established by Carole Collet in 2001) at Central Saint Martins apart from other courses. Matt Malpass, a CSM Design faculty member, corroborates this view: “We’re living in the noir scenarios that have moved to typify speculative critical practice. So, what? I believe the methods, strategies, tactics and intention of Speculative Critical Design are valuable and we can use the method … for more pragmatic, essential and critical ends.”
Insects au Gratin, Susana Soares
In fact many of the pioneers of Speculative Design are today trying to close the loop to action, taking the practice out of the gallery and into everyday life. The Reconstrained Design Group led by James Auger in Portugal, for example, has applied a Speculative Design approach to renewable energy through the prototyping of gravity-powered appliances (e.g. lamp, turntable) and a general rethinking of energy consumption in its current through-the-wall form. Their manifesto (2017) encourages designers to “Set aside the easier work of armchair critique and take up the more difficult work of proposing viable alternatives”, to “Design ecologically”, and to “Start building the future you want” – take concrete actions, in other words, in contrast to earlier projects that simply aimed to promote debate or reflection.
The first wave that followed were influenced by the pioneers of Speculative Design and new alumni of courses such as RCA Design Interactions. As Berlin/Dresden-based studio The Constitute describes, first-wave practitioners were often self-taught in speculative approaches. “Our professional education was at no point related to what is now coined as Speculative Design”, they told us in their interview. “We both studied Industrial Design at a very traditional school in Dresden. … Because we didn’t have skills and technology to prototype and evaluate our design concepts, we had to build Wizard of Oz prototypes and do video mock-ups. It became speculative on a very rational level. It wasn’t that bad though, because learning within restrictions can push students.” In other words, this wave of practitioners learned through experiment, developing new approaches through trial and error, and pushing the boundaries of what was technically possible. At the same time their projects were setting the standard for future waves of designers, tackling questions of methodology, and engaging in critical discussions about the form and direction Speculative Design should take. New educational programmes were initiated across Europe, and Speculative Design approaches were introduced to clients in the business world.
Ready to Cloud, The Constitute
Like the pioneers of Speculative Design, many first-wave practitioners today are shifting priorities from futures to realities. (J. Paul Neeley’s thoughts on expanding Dunne & Raby’s a/b list are a good example.) They increasingly seek to go beyond “sparking discussions” to embracing action, through projects that address urgent issues such as climate change, migration, and social justice. Rather than simply speculating on emerging technologies, these designers consider what aspects of their speculations can be transformed into actions in the present. New perspectives are also being opened up by practitioners working outside as well as inside the established boundaries of Speculative Design, drawing on certain elements and blending them with aspects of other approaches.
The third wave of practitioners emerged from both the older established programmes and the new courses in Speculative Design that began to appear across Europe and around the world, often drawing heavily from or in some way reflecting the original models. (In fact these new programmes are often taught by alumni of the original RCA Design Interactions cohort.) The latest wave is already incorporating criticism of Speculative Design, for example by focusing on applying speculations to real-world problems and working to “decolonise” the approach, or by moving beyond “a human point of view” altogether (in the words of artist-designer Fara Peluso). Rather than feeling targeted by this criticism, the new Speculative Design intuitively embraces elements that the earlier waves arguably left out; it is naturally more inclusive, decentralised, and proactive on social issues, reflecting broader changes across all areas of design. There are also bold new (though not uncontroversial) initiatives taking place, such as the Speculative Futures meetups and the PRIMER Conference, with a new European edition; or the Plurality University Network led by the futurist and entrepreneur Daniel Kaplan – “a global, open organization that connects the artists, designers, utopians and activists who use the power of imagination to enable alternative futures.”
Pink Chicken Project, Nonhuman Nonsense
Practice: Key Themes
When we spoke with practitioners, one theme the majority of interviews touched on was real-world applications of Speculative Design – beyond the gallery and the ivory tower. (As Cameron Tonkinwise quipped in his interview, “In a gallery, only people who already agree with you can hear you scream.”) In terms of business applications, Nicolas Nova observed how “the ‘design thinking’ trend … paved the way for the circulation of Design Fiction approaches” outside academia. Nova sees “an opportunity to train people in how to develop Speculative Design approaches in their particular context, how to translate this into the daily business of a municipality which aims at rethinking the future with its citizens, a small company that focuses on how to readjust its culture, or a corporate institution which needs to set priorities for preferable futures.” Michaela Büsse, one half of circumflex.studio, argues that while “Speculative Design is mainly used as a tool to critique or question a certain implication of a technology … it is more and more used as a method to innovate. Many speculative designers work in research and development departments of big corporations and together with scientists and engineers give shape to possible futures.”
This crossover is largely seen as positive, reinforcing the versatility of Speculative Design approaches across various contexts. There are times when it is more superficial, for example when it is used in corporate design contexts as “a fancy brainstorming tool” (in the words of Markéta Dolejšová). Ivica Mitrović puts it more bluntly: “Speculative design practice is very much in fashion now”, he says, pointing out that: “Even the military anticipates future warfare using speculative scenarios, and the World Economic Forum employs methods from Speculative Design practice for discussions about the future of the world economy.” Benedikt Groß, speaking of the possibility for effecting change, says that it depends on the context: “in the realm of future mobility, I can have more impact from within the system [working with moovel lab] in comparison to a completely outside position”.
Who Wants to Be a Self-Driving Car?, Benedikt Groß
Speculative Design can be extremely useful when applied beyond design research contexts, but it must be done conscientiously. As many of the practitioners we spoke to insisted, ethical and political awareness and intellectual rigour are key to making this crossover into real-world applications meaningful – and avoiding the lazy or superficial co-option of Speculative Design’s techniques and aesthetics. FoAM, a network of transdisciplinary labs led by Maja Kuzmanovic and Nik Gaffney, offers a useful framework for thinking about applied Speculative Design: “Since futures and Speculative Design have increasingly become a part of business, industry and politics, a designer with a generalist mindset could apply their work in almost any field of interest. The question to ask is what activities are most worthwhile, considering the environmental, cultural and social turbulences we’ll continue to be faced with. What applications would you like to see? In what contexts and at which scale could your work be significant? What would make the most substantial difference?” Similarly Tobias Revell, a London-based designer, artist and academic, asks: “Anyone from big IT firms to local government can speculate and produce cool design fictions, but are they intellectually taxing? Are they forcing the audience to confront a cognitive gap or dissonance?”
Seeing an opportunity for effecting real change in the private sector, Cameron Tonkinwise states: “there seems to be a quiet desperation at some levels of many corporations at the moment, which creates odd requests for speculation, even critical speculations if well-concealed by non-disclosure agreements, to find out what on earth to do, about new kinds of customer value, retaining talent and taking up social governance as asset-stripped governments collapse into populism. This, it seems to me, could be the context for concerted efforts to reassert ways of speculatively critical designing”. On the possibilities for Speculative Design in artistic contexts, meanwhile, Konstantin Mitrokhov of circumflex.studio suggests that “designers capable of resisting superficiality … and maintaining a solid political and ethical stance” have the best chance of flourishing. Tina Gorjanc mentions as one important practical application in the research domain “working alongside publicly funded science researchers and makers who are coming up with … amazing technologies but seek the guidance of speculative designers to foresee the ethical implications they might have when released into the mainstream”.
In terms of recent examples of Speculative Design projects worth checking out, we elicited dozens of suggestions from designers in the course of our interviews. The question about “great projects” often led to discussion of (a) the evolution of Speculative Design over the past decade, and (b) the need for even better, more fully realised and impactful projects in the future. Beyond these issues, the projects mentioned showed the breadth of Speculative Design practice, especially in the present decade. Some of these projects included, for example, Thomas Thwaites’s Toaster Project (2011) and GoatMan (2016), both published in book form; Sitraka’s Prophecy Program (2013); The Constitute’s Ready to Cloud (2013); Martin Avila’s Symbiotic Tactics (2016); Nonhuman Nonsense’s Pink Chicken Project (2018); Markéta Dolejšová’s various “edible speculations” including Parlour of Food Futures (2017) and Extreme Biopolitical Bistro (2019); and Superflux’s recent projects Mitigation of Shock (2017) and Trigger Warning (2019).
Time Conditioning, Andrew Friend and Sitraka Rakotoniaina
What is Speculative Design actually for? Design, unlike art, is traditionally assumed to serve a practical purpose – even if that purpose is to get people thinking about possible (mis)uses of emerging technologies in real-world contexts, for example. How do you judge the success of a project? What metrics should you use for evaluation? This was also difficult to pin down, but several of the practitioners we interviewed provided illuminating perspectives. Sitraka argues that projects must “challeng[e] one’s perception and/or assumptions of what technologically driven realities could be”. In terms of metrics, Sitraka looks particularly at three factors: “the clarity of the intention behind the project – whether the aim is to spark conversation and debate, highlight potential caveats, or propose a more ‘critical’ vision, etc. – the execution, the means through which the intention or message is being crafted – design considerations– and the distance between the response from the targeted audience, stimulated by the execution, and the original intention.” Time’s Up, the veteran Linz, Austria-based group, suggests three other primary elements as evaluative metrics: surprise, experience, and the everyday.
In common with any ground-breaking approach, Speculative Design has raised its share of debates and controversies – many of which were addressed in some form in our interviews. Speaking of the so-called “gallery problem”, for example, Tobias Revell, who has been outspoken in his criticism of certain aspects of Speculative Design, states: “there is the reasonable critique that the canon of Speculative Design ends up in galleries or on post-it notes”, and he concludes, “That seems pretty accurate.” But he also admits there are exceptions, and that some designers are working to address the issue. To clarify his views, Revell adds: “in education it’s a really useful way of engaging students and others in difficult conversations about difficult issues and I wholeheartedly encourage its use … It’s when it creeps into corporate strategy and marketing that it becomes a problem.” On the issue of diversity and privilege, Matt Malpass acknowledges that “There is a decolonisation job to do on Speculative Critical Design in terms of the diversity in those practicing and the approach to projects undertaken. This is something that we are acutely aware of.” (For a much fuller discussion of critiques of the approach, see Matthew Ward’s essay in this series.)
Mitigation of Shock, Superflux
But Anab Jain of Superflux adds a moderating voice to the chorus of mea culpa. As she tells us, “These issues are very complex, and I think the only way we can attempt to understand them is by avoiding accusations and flamewars, but instead opening up space for everyone’s voice to be heard.” She adds, with only a hint of irony: “If we successfully overturn capitalism, the rest will follow.” Ivica Mitrović observes that “outside the European context, we see interesting attempts to overcome the criticism of dominant Speculative Design approaches, for example in Speculative and Critical Design: Futures and Imaginings from the Margins, a study programme at the Design Department of Carnegie Mellon University initiated by Deepa Butoliya. The curriculum focuses on the practices of ‘post-critical’ and ‘post-normal’ design and intends to make speculative and critical approaches more pluralistic, inclusive, and practical with the objective of opening space for the marginalised.”
In its ideal form, Speculative Design acts as an element not of division but of cohesion: connecting people from diverse backgrounds, experts across disciplines, various publics and stakeholders, to open up meaningful critical discussions about the future and explore how different—how truly different—things could be.
If they want to effect real change practitioners should aim, in Cameron Tonkinwise’s words, not just for easy speculations and “the photogenically exhibitable”, but for “actually critical, because not just speculative, designs”. In its ideal form, Speculative Design acts as an element not of division but of cohesion: connecting people from diverse backgrounds, experts across disciplines, various publics and stakeholders, to open up meaningful critical discussions about the future and explore how different—how truly different—things could be.