James Auger: Design essentially needs a revolution

December 12, 2019

A talk with James Auger on the importance of Speculative Design practice and ways of moving it beyond educational environments and galleries with Sara Božanić and Petra Bertalanič.

James Auger is an enseignant chercheur at ENS Paris Saclay. His work explores ways through which practice-based design research can lead to more considered and democratic technological futures. After graduating from Design Products (MA) at the Royal College of Art in London James moved to Dublin to conduct research at Media Lab Europe (MLE) exploring the theme of human communication as mediated by technology. After MLE he worked in Tokyo as guest designer at the Issey Miyake Design Studio developing new concepts for mobile telephones. Between 2005 and 2015 James was part of the critically acclaimed Design Interactions department at the RCA, teaching on the MA programme and continuing his development of critical and speculative approaches to design and technology, completing his PhD on the subject in 2012. After the RCA James formed the Reconstrained Design Group at Madeira Interactive Technologies Institute (M-ITI) in Portugal, exploring the potential of the island as an experimental living laboratory through a combination of fictional, factual and functional multi-scale energy-related proposals and projects. This work was awarded the Cultural Innovation International Prize by the Centre of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona (CCCB) in 2017. Running parallel to his academic work James is a partner in the Speculative Design practice Auger-Loizeau, a collaboration founded in 2000. Auger-Loizeau projects have been published and exhibited internationally, including MoMA, New York; 21_21, Tokyo; The Science Museum, London; The National Museum of China, Beijing and Ars Electronica, Linz. Their work is in the permanent collection at MoMA.

What does Speculative Design and the SpeculativeEdu project mean to you?

Speculative Design is relatively new and as such is yet to be completely defined. This has consequences — it is difficult to locate the borders where the approach becomes something else, meaning that methods become blurred and purpose vague or varied.

At the same time (and complicating matters further) Speculative Design is still evolving. It is uplifting to see the approach gaining popularity, but also problematic as the lack of mature systems of evaluation or agreed methods of practice facilitate the adoption of dubious or shallow variations, for example focusing too much on the spectacle rather than the speculation.

Speculative Design has also become too associated with futures. Of course, speculating on possible futures remains one key strategy but far more interesting (from my perspective) are alternative presents – the reconfiguring of elements, motivations, structures or systems that exist in the world today. Much design practice (and the education that provides its foundation) remains driven by roles that were established in the United States early in the 20th Century1 and as such products and systems are commonly designed and evaluated by outdated or inappropriate means. Design essentially needs a revolution, a shift away from market-driven imperatives, and the constraints that these impose, towards more responsible approaches – this is where the most interesting Speculative Design projects are currently happening, projects that embrace the complexity of the systems in which design happens, whether material, economic, political and so on, rather than the type of object worship that typically happens in the design community (and reverberate far beyond).

SpeculativeEdu comes along at an extremely interesting time for the community. From my perspective it is a hugely important and necessary intervention as the approach is tending to drift and diffuse. By gathering some of the key practitioners, via interviews, questionnaires, workshops and events we can examine and interrogate the state of Speculative Design with the aim of better defining what exactly its point is and sharing how best to do it.

You have stated that design should not be understood as “Design is good, Design makes people’s lives better, Design solves problems.” Why?

These three statements came under the heading “myths taught at design school”. The origin was the very first post on the Crap Futures blog (which I write together with my M-ITI and SpecEdu colleague Julian Hanna). Julian asked me to say a few words on the future and the state of design, my response provides a little background to the design myths:

“As a young design student in the 90s I was proud to be practicing in my chosen discipline and happily set about learning how to develop new products that people might want to own. But looking back I realise that my education (and the majority of other designers’) desperately lacked any critical or philosophical foundation.”

Design school essentially gave me the skills to make nice objects accompanied with the illusion that these improve the quality of people’s lives. The source of such illusions (as I learnt much later) comes from modernist myths of progress perhaps best exemplified by General Motors Corporation’s promotional film To New Horizons (1940). This presented a vision of the United States set 20 years in the future described by the voiceover as “a greater world, a better world, a world which always will grow forward.” Such a world was made possible, as the film goes on to explain, by unfettered progress in science and technology. Such notions continue to dominate both the economic and political landscape to this day, in particular through the corporations of Silicon Valley. Their typically neoliberal vision of the world is hugely problematic as it largely denies the existence of any negative implications of their products and systems and as such, we end up with a Californian notion of progress based on increased efficiency, automation, generic solutions and little respect for privacy or resources – essentially 20th Century progress on steroids. The fundamental problem, from a design perspective, is that huge swathes of the industry are entirely complicit in both the creation and the continuation of such myths however flawed they clearly are.

In the Audio Tooth Implant project, created in 2000 together with Jimmy Loizeau, you proposed a radical concept in personal communication. Can you tell us more about the social transformation behind it and how you see this project today, almost two decades later?

Audio Tooth Implant, Auger-Loizeau, 2000.

It’s incredible to think that this was almost 20 years ago. We were both students at the Royal College of Art, Jimmy focusing on alternative modes of telecommunication and I was exploring notions of trans-humanism; the Audio Tooth Implant was essentially a crashing together of these two themes. It was our first and probably most successful Speculative Design project. I’d suggest this success was based on a number of factors but in particular how we (largely accidentally) managed the fictional aspect of the proposal. I previously compared the approach to Orson Welles’ radio play of The War of the Worlds in 1938 that created widespread panic in certain US towns due to its realistic delivery. The techniques employed by Welles bear many similarities to those used in the creation of convincing Speculative Design projects: the crafting of a complex narrative or artifice using the real-life ecology where the fictitious concept is to be applied, and taking advantage of the nuances of contemporary media, familiar settings and complex human desires or fears. The careful blurring of fact and fiction changes the way the audience perceives the concept and in turn their reaction to it.

The project went quite viral, including featuring on the front cover of Time magazine in the US. But more important were the letters and email messages we received from all over the world, each voicing individual hopes and fears for such technology. This is the true product here – thoughtful and considered appraisals of what could go wrong with a product before it’s actually available, facilitating a more responsible approach to the technological future.

The key advantage of Speculative Design is removing the constraints that limit the potential of mainstream design.

In your latest works you deal with energy and time, proposing fictional, factual and functional systems and objects. Can you tell us more about it? What is the thinking behind it?

I moved to Madeira, Portugal in 2015 after 10 years in the Design Interactions department at the Royal College of Art in London. This move, to a remote idyllic island, provided the ideal opportunity to reflect on the time at the RCA and begin defining a new area of research. What emerged out of this period was essentially a shift towards a more expanded perspective on design – attempting to move beyond a kind of object navel gaze that is typical within the design industry where artefacts are put on pedestals and their systems (of manufacture, operation, politics, etc.) out of mind. Our group comprised the writer Julian Hanna, designers Enrique Encinas and Mohammed Ali, the theoretical mathematician Parakram Pyakurel and anthropologist Laura Watts.

The new work is largely influenced by Albert Borgmann’s concept of the “device paradigm” in which he makes a differentiation between things and devices — things are inseparable from their context: we engage and interact with them in their worlds; means and ends exist in an unbroken continuum. Devices, on the other hand, conceal their contexts as the means are hidden in complex systems, their actions determined by invisible algorithms or unseen actors. This has the effect of dislocating ends from means. The present tendency is for designers and consumers alike to focus on the instrumental end—the object of desire—while ignoring the means, the obscure and complex infrastructures that allow the device to work. So, focusing on the subject of energy, the aim was to exploit the key advantage of Speculative Design – that is removing the constraints that limit the potential of mainstream design2. In the case of energy this means the massive systems of infrastructure that dictate all of our energy interactions via generic solutions such as the plug socket in the wall.

The project has three strands. First, a more utilitarian approach that suggests a method for finding bespoke solutions in specific local environments. For example, in Madeira we developed a gravity battery from scrap motorcycle gearboxes that takes advantage of the island’s vertiginous landscape.

To complement the utilitarian approach, we are also developing more designerly examples of Reconstrained Design addressing the complex notions of desire that drive conspicuous consumption. The Gravity Lamp and Gravity Turntable, for example, aim to provide a more direct challenge to contemporary design, by removing constraints imposed by its relationship to the market. The aim is not only to address stylistic issues but also the problem of making—that the route to ownership should not be constrained by a lack of skills or access to tools. The solution is to build networks of experts, professionals, and craftspeople, essentially decentralising DIY by engaging with the local community, its expertise and its resources. A DIY manual for a product could, for example, be a wiki that shows the constructive steps but also points the way to local cabinet makers or metal shops that will help to build sophisticated elements of a project. This approach would also support the survival of craft knowledge in local communities.

Gravity Keyboard (utilitarian approach), Reconstrained Design Group, 2018.

And third, we are working on a book of 100 more dramatic speculations. Whilst plausible from an engineering perspective, their scale and ambition currently make them very difficult to implement. We believe that such thinking is essential if we are to address some of the issues we face at this time.

One of the key challenges today lies in comprehensive ways of moving Speculative Design beyond educational environments and galleries. What is your advice on that process?

I would say that this is the most difficult challenge – indeed for many speculative designers the lure of the gallery and adulation of the design media remains a clear and present temptation. The structures of power that remain in control of (aspects of) the future have changed little over the past 100 years and are extremely entrenched in their various positions. Whilst Speculative Design can provide alternative configurations to the established paradigm, the actual implementation or adoption of these is incredibly problematic for a number of reasons. But there are opportunities:

  1. Design education (as discussed in question 2) largely celebrates objects on pedestals or in picture frames. This elevated status neglects and negates the complex systems in which the design industry operates. The first step, therefore, is for a fundamental shift in how we teach design (our SpecEdu friends at Goldsmiths provide a good example of what this could be).
  2. A more complex problem arises when we begin to address the approaches of Silicon Valley. Their access to global resources, the complexity of their infrastructural systems and fundamentally, their exploitation of “good” design to create desirable products has created a system that appears to be almost impossible to dislodge – it is, however, a fragile power. Such companies will be successful only as long as people worship the items they create. I believe there will be a fundamental change coming as new generations become increasingly engaged with environmental issues, making short-lived gadgets very uncool. The Fairphone provides an early glimpse of this shift. Examining this theme and suggesting post-Silicon Valley possibilities is a great opportunity for Speculative Design projects.
  3. There is also upstream engagement – one of the commonly overlooked positive aspects of Speculative Design are the meaningful collaborations that have been taking place with the scientific community. It is very difficult to gauge the impact of these interactions because they usually take place behind closed doors, but it is possible for designers to influence the trajectory of a particular technology in this way. More recently we have been working with the European Commission, using Speculative Design to develop near-future scenarios based on blockchain’s impact on intellectual property. These will be used to help policymakers develop legislation on the subject.
Can one make a living from this kind of work?


In the Reconstrained Design Manifesto you mention a challenge: “Be patient for the quiet days.” There is also a quote from the author Arundhati Roy: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” Can you explain what this quote means to you?

A glimmer of optimism in a sea of misery.

Gravity Turntable, Reconstrained Design Group, 2018.

  1. I’m focusing largely on industrial design and the role of pioneers such as Norman Bel Geddes and Henry Dreyfus in shifting product styling beyond pure function (Streamline Moderne) to increase desirability and in turn cementing design’s relationship to the marketplace. 

  2. See our Nordes paper on Reconstrained Design: http://researchbank.rmit.edu.au/view/rmit:52615