Critical about Critical and Speculative Design
Thoughts on critics of Critical and Speculative Design at the intersection of critical reflection and pedagogic practice by Matt Ward.
In order to write this essay, I spent time researching academics, experts and pundits who have written extensively about the evolution of “Critical and Speculative Design” (CSD). Although I’ve been immersed in the culture of experimental design education and discourse for twenty years, my (often repressed) scholarly self insisted that I refresh my knowledge with historic and contemporary voices in this, often fraught, sub-field of design.
Do we need more critiques of Critical and Speculative Design?
There has been a wide range of critiques about Critical Design over the last 10 years, so I found it difficult to understand what I had to contribute to the conversation, or more importantly what the SpeculativeEdu community needed beyond a series of links to other people’s writing. I certainly didn’t want to fall into the academic trap where I try to “out critique” the critics, who ultimately seem determined to prove that they are “more critical” than the critical designers. Their words fuel a sort of academic arms race, towards a fictional intellectual purity, or a utopian project that manages to sit outside of the structural problematics of contemporary capitalism, the historic abuses of colonialism and the embodied privileges of those who have time to write about such matters. I also wanted to avoid creating a defense of the “CSD canon”, as many of the practitioners are my friends and frankly don’t need me to defend them. Cries of white middle-class privilege would be heard as I tried to defend work and positions that are historically important. I’m deeply aware that we don’t need yet another middle-aged western academic giving a “god like” overview of a discipline to claim his expertise or oversight. Most importantly, I didn’t want to form false opposition to the common criticisms, as they have aided a culture of practice that is under constant reflection and evolution. So it is at the intersection of critical reflection and pedagogic practice that I wish to position this essay.
In order to do this effectively, I first need to contextualise the “common criticisms” within a culture of education. What I hope to evolve are “modes” or “categories” of questions that can be applied to projects whilst they’re in progress – giving references and possible framing to enable educators (and practitioners) to push projects into new areas, opening up an awareness of the historic problematics, without closing down the educational freedom to explore at the boundaries of the imagination.
When formulating how best to question CSD projects, we need to approach with caution. Our current global conditions – climate crisis, global migration, resurgence of right wing populism, crumbling of democratic institutions, dramatic wealth inequality superpowered by “big tech”, gender inequality, white supremacy, and a growing mental health crisis (especially in young people) – create an environment where it’s difficult to feel that you have any agency. Caught in the headlights of a global death spiral, many students become overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of the world, where “doing good” or designing anything to have a positive impact seems futile or impossible.
This essay aims to share the mistakes and learning of the last 20 years of Speculative Design education, without dismissing the battles won or unmining work that has wrestled design out of the hands of the realists and instrumentalists.
As educators and designers, we know that, whilst in the throes of making decisions about how to progress a project, it’s easy for a critical voice to derail a creative trajectory. So a key challenge is to cultivate a critical design education; sharing and building a set of processes, practices and questions that allow for both production and reflection, analysis and making, critique and creation. This essay aims to share the mistakes and learning of the last 20 years of Speculative Design education, without dismissing the battles won or unmining work that has wrestled design out of the hands of the realists and instrumentalists. I am approaching the above with an educator’s enthusiasm and a designer’s optimism; framing historical work as “foundations of discursivity” (Foucault, 1984) to enable our collective understanding of the future of design, whilst building a set of questions to allow for a reflective, productive and more inclusive practice.
I have attempted to give a broad survey of the common critiques of CSD, the voices of dissent that have propagated since the popular emergence of the field in the early 2000s. However, the essay cannot give a full account of the multitude of critical voices. There have been countless papers written, PhD chapters crafted, conferences programmed, Medium articles penned and endless tweets tweeted that highlight the problems with CSD as an approach. These critiques are often directed to the more visible projects – those that the press deem newsworthy. However, there are a wide range of projects and practitioners (female, people of colour, non western) that don’t get seen or held up to critique or adoration; this is partly due to the dynamics of a news cycle, but also because many of the projects discussed publicly are the results of an educational process. This means that only a few examples make it past the critical eyes of collective admiration to circulate in the realm of the real. Whilst examining and critiquing CSD work, we must always consider that many of the projects are the material evidence of a learning process – therefore inherently vulnerable and open to mistakes.
Some of the more scholarly, academic accounts provide excellent historical coverage of the emergence and divergence of CSD as a strange sub-discipline (Kerridge, 2015; Malpass, 2017). Others translate emerging non-design discourses in philosophy, race studies, postcolonial discourse, gender studies and STS (Prado de O. Martins, 2014; Ward & Wilkie, 2009; Michael, 2012; Winchester, 2018) to highlight key problems and opportunities in CSD, whilst others deconstruct the foundations of the approach, rendering it useless or defunct, “a simple way of designers internalizing the guilt they feel for a hopeless industry and then using the imagination to pay off a debt that is ultimately, unpayable” (Nocek, 2017). As with most discourses within the design academy, CSD attracts naysayers, trolls and gray vampires (Fisher, 2018), but like many designers, I find myself in a position of “utilisation”; interested in what we can do with these critiques; how modes of criticism can give life to a more nuanced, open and exploratory field.
A brief history of CSD
Although there are many examples of experimental modes of design and architectural practice that aim to resist their social, economic and cultural (hegemonic) conditions, the contemporary instantiation of CSD emerged in the 1990s at the Royal College of Art in London. The evolution of CSD as a “field”, “sub-discipline”, “school”, “method” or “attitude” was a reaction to a set of particular disciplinary, educational and technological conditions. The main driving forces were: a shift away from an aging modernist educational culture; a growing acknowledgment and frustration with the cultural impact of mass consumption; a rapidly shifting technological culture, through the invention of microprocessors, personal computation and networked communication; and a growing disciplinary awareness of the impacts and responsibilities of the designer (Papanek, 1985).
After the full-scale capitalist embrace of the 1980s, many designers were searching for alternatives outside the “service relationship” to market capital. The dogma of disciplinary norms had become stultifying and a new generation of designers emerged. Seeing design beyond the “form follows function”, “problem solving” doctrines (following in the rich tradition of Experimental Architecture of the 1970s), designers started to contextualise their practice as part of a richer cultural milieu. Educators, such as the influential Daniel Weil, promoted narrative trajectories as a means to explore the cultural and technological potentials of design, effectively blurring material and conceptual boundaries. Within design theory, the influence of Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World (1985) forced designers to start to question their role in conspicuous consumption and the impact consumerism has on the planet’s ecosystem.
In 1990, the impact of the personal computer, the emergence of “interface design” and the role of CAD as a tool within design, led the RCA, under the leadership of Gillian Crampton Smith, to start Computer Related Design (CRD), as an offshoot of Industrial Design (Crampton Smith, 1997). CRD Research Studio later became the home to Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby (Dunne + Raby), enabling them to evolve their practice as Critical Design following their experimental projects and Dunne’s PhD, “Hertzian tales: an investigation into the critical and aesthetic potential of the electronic product as a post-optimal object” (Dunne, 1998). It was between CRD Research, Design Products (Platform 3 – with Durrell Bishop), Architecture (ADS 4 – with Gerrard O’Carroll) and later Design Interactions that CSD emerged.
As the work of Dunne and Raby was picked up by curators and journalists (mainly due to the nature of the questions they asked about the role of technology in the context of the techno-utopian fever of the early 21st Century) their position became more established. When Dunne became Head of Programme and Professor of Interaction Design in 2005 and Raby became Reader in Design, the control of the curriculum enabled them to evolve and promote their unique position to a broader audience. The employment of Brendan Walker, Nina Pope, James Auger and later Noam Toran added to the team a breadth of practice that enabled the original instantiation of CSD. The newly named Design Interactions (DI) programme grew in reputation and their approach to design became more publicly visible.
This potted history not only acts to give context to the genesis of the field, but also highlights that CSD was marginal, both in terms of voice and position within the RCA and its location in a broader European design educational context. Contracts were precarious and fractional, and project funding was difficult to come by. Dunne and Raby occupied a position where, for years, they fought against dominant doctrines for a different role for design; a position where one could ask deeper questions about the impact and adoption of technology, in order to understand the broader consequences of design and technology on society.
A practice of power and privilege
One of the most common criticisms of CSD is that, as a practice, it comes from a position of white, northern European, culturally colonising, patriarchal privilege (Prado de O. Martins & Oliveira, 2014). This first came to prominent visibility in the comments section of Design & Violence, a MoMA online “curatorial experiment” by Paola Antonelli and Jamer Hunt. The conversation followed John Thackara’s reflections and critique of Michael Burton and Michiko Nitta’s Republic of Salivation project (Burton & Nitta, 2011); the ensuing debate highlighted tensions found within the field (Thackara, 2013).
In Thackara’s post he takes issue, in a particularly condescending tone, with Burton and Nitta’s lack of critique of the underlying “causes to this imminent threat”. This is a repeated critique of CSD (see “All the critiques” section below): projects fail to challenge the broader reasons for the problems that we face; they look at “downstream” problems of capitalism without offering a position on structural inequalities and problematics. The comments that followed Thackara’s post were a microcosm of the issues and tensions found in CSD. Burton and Nitta, and CSD practitioners as a whole, were accused of “noncommittal aesthetic play”, of “trivialising” important issues, of being “profoundly stupid” and “narcissistic”. Frustrations about perceived elitism and political naivety get mixed with defensiveness about a field trying to produce work outside established economic dynamics.
European art schools, and more broadly the “creative industries”, have been places of white middle-class privilege since their founding. There are well documented problems of racial, gender and class inequities across both higher education and the design industry (Theuri, 2016; Burke & McManus, 2011). However, it’s important to understand the shifting demographics with HE and the creative sectors, as the institutions of art, design, drama and music have undergone a radical liberation in the last half century. In the UK, shifting demographics and government policy have dramatically increased the percentage of the population that go to university. The students of today’s university, in terms of socio-economic privilege, are unrecognisable to those 50 years ago. With this diversification (now threatened by the marketisation of HE), comes a demand to transform how and what is taught to designers, as well as long needed diversification of the faculty.
I would argue that CSD has been at the forefront (in design educational terms) of questioning dominant power dynamics, demanding that students unravel the roles and responsibilities of the profession. However, it still has a long way to go. Throughout the UK and the rest of Europe there has been a positive push to “decolonise our curriculums”. The students who have pushed for this transformation are responding to decades of failure in our institutions to reflect the diversity of the student body. However, post-colonial discourses have been commonplace across many disciplines since the late 70s, and writers such as Edward Said and Homi K Bhabha have been part of art school critical studies programmes for over 20 years. Franz Fanon and Gayatri Spivak have seen more recent popularity, but mainstream design education and professional discourse has been slow to fully adopt these thinkers. More importantly, the institutional infrastructure of the academy and design industry have failed to change the conditions of employment, curricula design and recruitment to support and embody many of the ideas found within postcolonial, subaltern discourse.
The energy and power in this particular critique moves beyond the boundary of design. It is a global political drive that questions who has the right, role and agency to imagine a different future. For too long, the role of speculation (financial, political and cultural) was held (and continues to be held) by the powerful few, often with the gender, race and class privileges to match; decisions about how the future will look, how environments are designed, and how social decisions are made, have been taken by a small elite.
How do we shift the power relations of speculation? How can design education create a culture where subaltern voices have visibility and power? Is it possible for CSD to enable the democratisation of speculation?
The most urgent questions for the SpeculativeEdu community to ask are: How do we shift the power relations of speculation? How can design education create a culture where subaltern voices have visibility and power? Is it possible for CSD to enable the democratisation of speculation?
It is first important for students (and practitioners) to acknowledge their own privileged positions, whilst ensuring that they address the following questions in their work:
- Participation and engagement – as with all forms of design, it’s important to see the work as relational in nature. CSD is no different: every future speculation or world built to provoke comes from a relationship with a (projected or imagined) user group. By engaging people and asking for their insight and help to imagine their future selves, CSD can start to understand the diversity of hopes and fears that people have about our current condition.
- Authorship and benefactors – once a relational dynamic has been established, through research or participation, it’s important to ask: who benefits from the work? Engaging people in your speculation is important to ensure that you aren’t blind to difference, but don’t use people as a “resource” to enrich your project.
- Inclusion and exclusion – be aware of who you include in your speculation. Whose lives are you imagining? Whose challenges are you representing? Who are you excluding? Make sure that you think of people beyond your own experience of the world, because they may have a different future.
- Maintenance and social infrastructure – as you speculate on alternative futures, think of how and who maintains the worlds that you are building. Who is fixing the infrastructure when it fails? Who cleans the streets and workplaces when your gaze is elsewhere? All futures are maintained; those that sit at the periphery of design’s privileged gaze are the ones we need to represent.
- Feedback and reflection – once your project is “finished”, show it to people and explain your ideas. Get feedback on the world / scenario you have created. Try to understand how it sits with their understanding of the world. This feedback should come from a diverse group of people inculcated in your future. Use the conversation to learn about the process and practice of the imagination.
Does it do what you claim?
Another area which causes concern within the design community is the extent to which CSD meets the claims made by some of the practitioners. There are a number of different competing issues found here; the first centres around the quality and range of the “debate” or “discussion”.
Design for Debate
The original premise of CSD is that it acts as a provocation to enable a discussion or debate about the topics, technologies and futures that should be addressed through public interrogation. Here, designed objects act as the focus or manifestation of a scenario to enable a “public” to unpack the desirability of a world presented. Using design as a means to “spark debate” or create certain “adversarial” conditions (Disalvo, 2012), in order to learn about perceptions of certain futures, has been central to the practice since its inception. However, many critics have questioned how “the debate” is formulated, where it happens, what we learn from the substantive content, and who is included in the discussion.
Some critics believe that the debate is limited to members of the design community; speculative designers speaking to speculative designers in a self congratulatory echo chamber. Others believe that the designers neglect the location and mediation of the debate, leaving it to happen “elsewhere” (on blogs, in the news, through informal discussions) and therefore the claim to “create debate” is unsubstantiated.
If the premise that CSD creates debate is true, then there is concern about the designer’s role. Are designers the best people to ask questions about our collective futures? Do designers take the role of moderator, chair, reporter or analyst? Should designers find, declare and argue for a particular outcome or future (following the criticisms of CSD not “taking a political position” – sitting on the technological fence)?
Over the evolution of CSD, the understanding and positioning of the debate has changed. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, projects would be displayed in a museum, gallery or sent off to press and a controversy would ensue. These controversies were often unintentional and somewhat damaging; either way, critical and speculative designers need to learn from the difficulties. Here are a few questions or ideas of how:
- Design the debate – for students and practitioners not to fall into the common critiques of CSD, it’s important to pay as much attention to the context, form and forum for the debate as it is the objects designed to enable the discussion. Plan where the debate or discussion will take place, learn from cultures and professions that manage, enable and promote discussion and debate, design the context of your work. Record and document the debate, integrate this into the presentation of the project.
- Orchestrate the audience and “debate team” – in order to have a productive debate or discussion you need to bring together people with different opinions, experiences and knowledge. In the design of a project, pay attention to who has a voice in the critique of the world that you create. Not all debates need to take place in Parliament or the tabloids; they can be local, specific and targeted; engage the people inculcated in your future, open futures to voices normally underrepresented.
- Track and understand the effects of the work – there is a need for designers, CSD and all other types, to understand the impact and unintended consequences of their work. As projects move into the world (outside of the “research domain” of a university context), there are many ways for practitioners (and commissioners) to try to understand the success and failings of the work. Unlike most design work, which commonly uses market and user metrics, the impact for CSD is harder to track. Did your work do what it intended to? One of the key difficulties is the temporal nature of how discursive work travels; a project made a decade ago may suddenly be referred to due to a technological advance.
- Design the “media strategy” – some of the early examples of CSD (see Auger Loizeau’s Audio Tooth Implant, 2001) had dramatic media “reach”. The work travelled way beyond the confines of the design press straight into international publications. How designers prepare and manage the role of the media in their work is of key concern. Within the context of SpeculativeEdu, it’s important for educators to understand how, in terms of tutorial support and curricula content, we can support students to learn about this complex world of press management and public relations.
- Follow up – many speculative designers move from project to project. This is, to some extent, produced through the dynamics of the funding environment. But when a project aims to discuss a national / global level issue of extreme complexity, the debate needs time to evolve and there needs to be some form of “aftercare”. This can be seen as analogous to how manufacturers have services to deal with damages, faults and repairs. What does this mean in terms of CSD?
All the Critiques
Another of the common critiques of CSD is that projects fail to address underlying structural problems. By accepting and projecting a future through objects and products, they deny the fundamental issues affecting our current condition, the need to reimagine an alternative to capitalism and rethink our relationship to material consumption due to its effect on the planet. These critiques often come from political and environmental scholars, design theorists who have dedicated their work to “re-directing” design’s practice (Fry, 2007). These thinkers highlight our collective failure to address the climate crisis, placing the human race in a position of extinction with design playing a central role in this destruction.
Although many of these criticisms are valid – much of the work produced by CSD doesn’t address many of the larger political, economic and environmental problems – it’s difficult for this to be extended to all experimental practice. Does our environmental crisis mean that all work should be directed to address this? Self-confessed critical speculative designers (although there aren’t many happy with that title) often work in response to a range of different conditions: funding calls, university or client briefs, curatorial themes, museum programmes, etc. The work is produced in a context that impacts on the scope and direction of the practice. Designers are rarely “lone scholars” with the academic freedom to select their own focus. Also, to give nuance to the work, designers need to frame futures within an experiential realm that is understandable and relatable to an audience; projects are often seen as the start of a larger discussion, without a conclusion or end point.
Underlying many of these critiques seems to be a problem with the use of the word “critical”. To be “critical” seems to generate a sense of territorial embattlement; protests of “you’re not really critical” or “CSD is not critical enough” seem to run through many of the denunciations. Critical Theory, with its history in the Frankfurt School, sets up an expectation of a meta-discursive critique of the system of capitalism. So when CSD fails to meet these expectations, the work is dismissed in its entirety. The Left has struggled to give space to a diversity of voices seeking a progressive political agenda; it often self sabotages and self cannibalises, without seeing the benefits of plurality. Seeing CSD as a practice that is seeking an alternative outside of consumer markets should be supported. Within the field of design there are numerous practices that dismiss any sense of responsibility or engagement in broader social, political, environmental and technological issues; these practices may be a better to place to direct our critical gaze.
Those who have assumed a CSD identity often defend themselves, saying that they can’t address all the issues at once, but this is often dismissed as naive or willfully neglectful. CSD is an ongoing, diverse set of design practices that engage and question different technological futures, but it’s also deeply contextualised in its own cultural condition.
Future fatigue (Loizeau & Ward, 2009)
By focussing on futures, the distant horizon, the long now, many believe that CSD neglects the near and direct urgency of now – a call to action to affect our collective present. By searching for an alternative, we fail to examine and address the inequalities of the here and now. Some see this as deferment in our responsibilities, but many critical speculative designers see their work as operating in the now – aiming to shift perceptions to make way for change.
However, I see this as part of a broader cultural narrative; borrowing from the work of Bifo Berardi, and later Mark Fisher, the strange fatigue felt in the narratives of CSD’s futures are a result of what Berardi and Fisher call the slow cancellation of the future (Berardi & Fisher, 2013); a cultural moment where it’s impossible to understand temporal difference through our cultural production, where we are “assailed on all sides by zombie forms” (Fisher, 2014). Maybe this slow cancellation is what makes CSD cause rupture and friction – the future it aims to project never feels fully new, more a cultural assemblage of our troubled pasts.
The context of production and consumption
CSD is often dismissed by members of the design community due to the context in which the work is produced and shown. Projects often get displayed in galleries or museums, and commonly come out of university research groups or degree programmes. In order to understand these criticisms, let’s breakdown the underlying problems and issues.
Gallery and Museum context
Design as a discipline is inherently linked to notions of production, work is often judged by its visibility within a marketplace. Be it the “matter battle” (Boyer, 2011) or the culture of “shipping”, the impact and success of design is often valued through its visible impact (through sales numbers, users reached) and its cultural visibility (awards, accolades, column inches, likes and tweets). Getting something produced and into the world—bought and used by normal people—is the prized goal.
Overcoming the barriers to market, navigating the “dark matter” (Hill, 2012) – the aesthetic compromises, the navigation of client dynamics, the complexities of production, the difficulty of distribution, the adherence to the rules and regulations of international markets, the corralling of supply chains, the relationships forged with manufacturers, the messages delivered by marketing teams, and the securing of financial capital – is all part of the complex game that designers have to play. When design escapes these issues, by isolating the work from the need to move from idea to (mass) production, it is seen as a lesser “product”. Some believe it’s in the complex material, economic and political process of production that the real design “art” is achieved.
I would describe this as the tyranny of the real, our disciplinary desire to attest to our effect on the world. However, in our contemporary times, it’s easy to see how design can work on a symbolic, strategic and conceptual level; circulating in the world, reordering our understanding through its fictional, affective resonance.
But we also need to understand that CSD is actually similar to a lot of design practice (“fiction is design is fiction”, Jones, 2015). How much design work never gets made? How many slide decks have been filled with ideas of products that never see the light of day? How many times does work get produced and disseminated (through the design press) and yet never makes it into production? The production zealots like to adhere to the demand of the “real”, but this seems counterproductive if we wish design to be taken seriously as a practice that has the depth and intellectual weight to shift away from being a purely aesthetic / technical practice to have a more strategic / political role in the world.
The second issue that gets highlighted when discussing the gallery and museum context is that museums and galleries are seen as part of an elitist cultural system, a site of exclusivity. Work that aims to open up a conversation is disseminated in a context that lacks diversity. However, this is often due to designers trying to find spaces where objects are encountered not through the lens of consumption. Galleries and museums often give the freedom to explore ideas as a cultural practice, not a commercial one. More recently there has been a push for speculative practices to go into communities and engage with people outside of the gallery context. By focussing on the specific, embodied, local practices of people, SCD can locate their futures within the lives of those people they wish to reach.
If the design sector is going to evolve new forms of critical and discursive practices, practices that open up new questions about society, technology, politics and law (see Forensic Architecture) there is a need for a new type of institution; a place where an expanded, hybridising creative practice can evolve and engage with a range of audiences. Traditional models of galleries and museums fail to deliver the appropriate context for this type of work.
CSD in the age of post truth media production
One of the conditions that has dramatically changed since the inception of CSD is the means by which projects are disseminated. I would argue that the success of CSD is a result of the early instantiation of the internet and an emerging social media environment; the decentralised, non-hierarchical, non-traditional design media, in the form of niche, cult blogs (such as Régine Debatty’s We Make Money Not Art) and online magazines (like Dezeen), searched, found or were willing to publish interesting and strange practice. In the early 2000s peripheral practices gained enormous traction, reaching audiences they never previously would have due to network-powered virality.
With virality comes serious network side-effects; filter bubbles and fake news. CSD, as a “research practice”, bypassed the slow and boring academic design journals to find an audience way beyond the academy. As with much of design culture, pop aesthetics, powerful narratives, and shiny, alluring objects caught the imagination of people not normally interested design research. However, this “destabilised” how CSD projects were received and understood (Kerridge, 2015); work moved into the world, “made real” by the decontextualised misreporting of the technology press – resulting in some strange results (see Auger Loizeau’s Time magazine “inventions of the year” front cover).
Context of production: learning, teaching and research
Within higher education, CSD is produced through two different modes, teaching and research, by either academics (tutors, lecturers, professors, researchers) or students (undergraduate, postgraduate or doctoral).
As research, CSD is positioned as a practice-based research, a mode of inquiry designed to discover and imagine new insights and opportunities; which “implies a reflection of the contingencies of our world today, and of the practices for creating, imagining, and materializing new worlds” (Grand & Wiedmer, 2009). This impetus comes from the university as a site of knowledge production. However, practice-based research isn’t a settled and fully established approach. It’s discussed and debated endlessly amongst the design research community, with little evidence of progression (see Press, 1995). There isn’t time, within the context of this essay, to explore the multiple readings and conflicting opinions, but it’s important to highlight that there is tension. Due to this debate, experimental practice often fails to communicate with those outside of design and the academy the benefit and value of the work. This means that CSD is read through the lens of functionalism; a desire to know what it does in the world, how effective it is, where it achieves its goals. Although I believe it’s essential to build a critical voice to unpick what is a “successful” CSD project, criticisms often come from all angles, attacking work for failing to do something it was never intended to do.
In order to support students undertaking work that falls under the banner of CSD, it’s helpful to ask them to frame their work in terms of their intention. Declaring what they wish to achieve, for whom, and why, helps bring into focus the role they wish the work to play in the world. This also means that work can be distributed to the appropriate channels and engage with the audience that is most relevant to the ideas. The problem comes with how to measure impact. If CSD is aligned more closely to something akin to literary fiction, then work needs to be done to build a critical language of analysis.
CSD provides a space for young designers to deconstruct the different mechanisms that exist within design practice, whilst using a brief as a diagnostic tool to understand their learning experience.
As a pedagogic practice (Ward, 2013) CSD acts as an approach to furnish students with a set of skills and experiences, allowing them to understand the role, power and process of design. This moves CSD away from being a “style” or “method” of design, towards a pedagogical technique to teach design. CSD provides a space for young designers to deconstruct the different mechanisms that exist within design practice, whilst using a brief as a diagnostic tool to understand their learning experience. So for the tutors within the SpeculativeEdu community, it’s important to understand how the educational “briefs” structure and align to learning expectations within the curricula.
Context of production: commercial, corporate and strategic function
Over the last 10 years CSD has seen the practice and approach adopted throughout the commercial (often through the term “Design Fiction”) and public sectors (often within a policy making process). The approach is often reformulated as either foresight (a process where scanning horizons and trends delivers understandings for potential dangers and market opportunities), strategic development (integrated into an organisation’s product development process with the aim of delivering new product ideas) or marketing & communication (with the aim to convey a vision for a company, an aesthetic of future readiness).
The adoption of the approach has had deep effects on the CSD community. Practitioners see the integration of Speculative Design practices into the commercial domain as an opportunity to continue their work outside of the confines of higher education. The competitiveness of the HE job sector and increasingly difficult conditions make this attractive. Beyond this, it also offers an opportunity to move speculation into action, demonstrating how CSD can drive change. However, this has also garnered a lot of criticism. Instrumentalising a critical practice, subsuming it into the capitalist machine, confirms to those critics that felt that CSD failed to offer alternatives, that it was purely a tool for the neoliberal colonisation of the future.
“Hard times are coming”: methods and aesthetics
“Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom—poets, visionaries—realists of a larger reality.” (Le Guin, 2016)
The fictional worlds built by CSD often appear dystopian in nature. This aesthetic or narrative device is commonly criticised as it catastrophizes the future, scientific development or technological progress. Those invested in the development of new technology, or linked to scientific discovery, will tend to dismiss the work as “fear mongering”, “conspiracy theorising” or “unrealistic”, whilst a more general audience can grow fearful and paranoid, numbing us to an inevitable extinction. The gravity well of dystopian narratives attracts speculative designers for a series of interconnected reasons.
Many CSD projects use narrative tropes as a means to articulate and communicate a story or scenario. For the stories to be effective – engaging to an audience – the designer needs to employ “narrative devices” or plot structures to ensure that the scenario isn’t bland or boring. This means that, more often than not, the designer looks to create “antagonistic forces” (Booker, 2004) for their protagonists to overcome. Overcoming evil forces gives space for the audience to empathise with the protagonist, placing themselves into a future context, thus (the theory goes) enabling a more involved discussion. However, most fiction (either literary, science or cinematic) isn’t explicitly producing work to engage an audience in debate (although this is often a cultural side effect). Authors write work to entertain and resonate with people’s lives and imagination, they don’t need to concern themselves with the substantive content of an ethical debate around the use of technology or the formulation of a “social critique” (Dunne & Raby, 2013). This means there is often a mismatch between the narrative devices employed within CSD and the type of discussion that follows. The need for tension sometimes over-dramatises the banality of existence.
CSD, from the beginning (brilliantly demonstrated by Dunne and Raby’s A/B list), positions itself in opposition to affirmative practices. This approach, resulting in dark and dystopian futures, challenges the techno-utopian positivist narratives of Silicon Valley. CSD looks to create counterpoints in order to question the trajectories that are presented as “necessary and inevitable” (Fisher, 2009). However, as with many cultural forms, they change over time. In 2019, during these perilous times, dark and dystopian environmental and political narratives are our reality. Cinema and science fiction is struggling to keep up with the strangeness and apocalyptic visions of our projected now. Black Mirror (Brooker, 2011-) perfectly captures many of the anxieties we have about the ramifications and future of technology. CSD can’t compete with the budgets and production values of Hollywood studios, so it’s essential for CSD to evolve outside of the dystopian cinematic aesthetic. In an age where it’s harder to imagine a future outside of capitalism (Fisher, 2009) or create a form to question the impact of technology as effectively as mainstream cinema, what is the role of CSD?
The original intentions behind CSD are still important for any designer to learn. As we engage in teaching design, speculative or otherwise, developing ways and means to think through and work with the dark ramifications of our actions is essential. With every prediction – in user behaviour, social organisation, technological advancement, material invention, economic trends – comes a series of unintended consequences. CSD is a way to give form to those consequences.
CSD often takes scientific predictions and “weak signals” to extrapolate imaginative possibilities. These material extrapolations make visible the alternatives open to us, giving people a chance to discuss issues that affect us all. What is often lacking are the political infrastructures to enable these discussions to travel to the right places – where the action is. Isabelle Stengers describes Science Fiction (SF) as the “art of consequences” (Stengers, 2014). The connection between SF and CSD (or Design Fiction) is well documented (Sterling, 2009). Be it as an extension to SF or a different type of social fiction, CSD enables a way to capture the social imagination through the material articulation of possible consequences; a “thought experiment” (Dunne & Raby, 2013; Stengers, 2015) made concrete, enabling a collective interrogation. Our challenge, within experimental design education, is to create the conditions to enable these alternatives to thrive.
Ursula Le Guin called for “realists of a larger reality”; creative people experimenting with alternative representations of lived experience, unorthodox social formulations to enable hope in dark times. These new realists need an infrastructure of support, an “ecology of trust”, where “fiction … activates thinking” (ibid.) without fear of attack and accusations of naivety, blind privilege or lack of care of marginal people. These support and maintenance infrastructures, creating an ecology of trust, are the most difficult thing to achieve in contemporary higher education – where metrics, conservative methodologies and precarity result in academics behaving in ways to proliferate bad-faith critique, without offering actionable alternatives. Our challenge as a community is to create an “ecology of practices” (Stengers, 2015) where trust is fostered, enabling a sense of collective ownership over the future.
“Perhaps, as designers, unreality is the only thing we have left – a tool for loosening the grip of the reality we find ourselves within, to help think beyond known frameworks, and to shift our thinking. In this way, design might begin to contribute to a proliferation of multiple alternative worlds existing in our collective imagination, enlarging it to provide a richer conceptual space of imagining for everyone.” (Fiona Raby, 2018)
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