Interview: Design Friction
Léa, Estelle and Bastien from France based design practice Design Friction: “Practising this type of design is always political”.
Design Friction is Léa, Estelle and Bastien. Léa Lippera engages her Speculative Design skills in various topics such as artificial voices and connected speakers, digital labour and quantified self trends, civic engagement. She is curious to explore in which extent a Critical Design posture could deviate from technological matters to address issues such as sex-positive feminism, gender roles and cultures. Aside from Design Friction, she is also experimenting with game design at Casus Ludi, a playful and interactive experience factory. Estelle Hary is a designer working in various fields where she seeks to connect apparently disconnected topics and communities. It is in this sense that she would call herself an interaction designer. She seeks to use design methods and processes as a medium between different worlds. Her favourite topics relate to biotechnologies and more specifically to the impact their everyday use might have on our social behaviours, cultures and health. To explore those, she uses a wide range of tools, some borrowed from social sciences, as well as working directly with scientists, to create insightful and critical works to make the public actively reflect on those issues. Additionally, she is also passionate about creating meaningful visualisations to make sense of complex information. Bastien Kerspern is an interaction designer specialised in public innovation. He believes in innovation by transgression with a huge dose of culture jamming inherited from digital subcultures. With strong experience in designing participatory experiences, he pushes experiments in public debates and design for controversies. Interested in mundane frictions and uncanny narratives, his current works explore how digital technologies and related innovations might influence social models. Bastien also carries a discrete, but stubborn, passion for experimenting with interactive writing processes. Aside from Design Friction, Bastien is also an associate game designer at Casus Ludi and a course leader in urban service design at L’École de Design Nantes Atlantique.
How connected was your education with the Speculative Design (or related) approach you are using in your work today?
Answering this will require a bit of polyphony, as each of our designer journeys has been quite different before we started to experiment with Speculative Design and Design Fiction.
Léa: Basically, Speculative Design, as I practice it now, is the complete opposite of what I was taught in business school with market-oriented entrepreneurship visions, and in design school with problem-solving oriented projects. I discovered Critical Design “by chance” during my diploma project where I investigated the topic of uselessness. I made up a series of frustrating prototypes that can only be used in group, as well as three speculative objects that would only be useful in a dystopian future such as a smart cap displaying the number of followers in order to develop “useful friendships” or a smart-taser bracelet to boost reactivity in answering emails.
Bastien: As with Léa, I have been building my interest in Speculative Design and Design Fiction in the gaps of the short-term way of designing I have been taught and practised when I was only doing “traditional” Interaction Design and Service Design work. I came across the “formal” approach and definition of Design Fiction by digging into design research literature. It led me to realise I was actually already working with some facets of this practice for side projects, without knowing it was a thing, with a name. However, if I had to draw a link between the Speculative Design / Design Fiction approaches I’m using today and my last years of my Master’s Degree in design, it would be this strong connection with the questions related to the public field (citizenship, direct democracy, public innovation). It resonates with a crucial parameter that was missing during my education as an interaction and service designer: the necessity of working with long-term thinking in order to build commons and the prominent role of debate and dissensus in doing so. However, coming from this very problem-solving oriented education in design, this background as a problem-solver still plays an important role in this willingness to build bridges between the fiction phase of Speculative Design and the action beat back by service design/systemic design. One of the foundations of our studio was to explore how we could insert the perks of Design Fiction work within the realities of people, when it comes to reflect on the state of things, but also decide and act on it.
Estelle: My first years of education focused on Interaction and Information Design. I was doing a lot of data visualisation at that time. Then, I discovered the Speculative Design practice thanks to a talk by Anthony Dunne at the Lift Conference. I really got hooked by this approach and decided to carry out an MA in Design on this specific topic. As in France the broad family of Critical Design practice wasn’t really taught in schools (there has been some progress since, especially as Design Fiction has gained a lot of attention in France, as well as a rising public awareness on critical issues such as climate change and the role of design in it), I went to the Zurich University of the Arts where I carried out a Design Fiction research project on food and its potential futures.
Could you please select one of your (OWN) favourite Speculative Design projects and tell us what you like about it?
A bit more polyphony needed here!
Léa: Data Funeral, which is one of our speculative explorations of emerging and speculative rituals helping users to cope with failing data-driven services. This project draws analogies between data loss and grief, through a poetic and mystic lens, to point out the emotional involvement we put today into data. I also like the way we combine in this project a toolkit for wild exploration with more performative design fictions such as “Maraboot”.
Part of the Data Funerals design fictions, The Maraboot kit helps in divining futures for one’s data.
Bastien: Disobedient Wearables, a project investigating the broken promises and unexpected uses of wearable technologies. Even if some of the aspects of fictions might already be a bit outdated, I think it’s an interesting take on the societal and political implications of this technology through the notion of disobedience. I also think it’s a nice example of how a Speculative Design or Design Fiction project can offer variations of medium and actions. Disobedient Wearables has been designed as a three-piece work: a triptych of design fictions which multiply the points of view and gradients of disobedience, in a plurality of futures and presents, a toolkit to allow others to craft their own perspectives of wearable disobedience, and a workshop format inviting non-designers and non-tech experts to understand the wearable-related controversies. On another hand, I’m also really glad we’re able to run weird experiments with the notion of “Game Design Fiction”, with our sister structure, Casus Ludi, which is working on mediation through games. In a few words, Game Design Fiction is the idea of producing games highlighting the stakes related to situations that haven’t happened yet. This collaboration is actually about researching the potential of hybridisation between Design Fiction and Game Design to imagine experiences facilitating future-oriented thinking and anticipation-related reflexes for non-expert publics. It resonates with our commitment to try to make sure thinking alternative futures is a right and not only a privilege.
Estelle: I would say The Rules of the Game for Smart Streets is my favourite project. In it, we’ve been using Design Fiction in order to spark conversation on what is acceptable and desirable in terms of data practice (or surveillance practice some would say) to put in local streets. This conversation happened with denizens directly concerned by those kinds of digital experimentations. It showed how Design Fiction was first very good at immersing someone in how a technology could impact his everyday life, but also how constructive the conversations coming from it were. What was also interesting with this project was that all the recommendations coming from the citizens were transformed into a document that acted as a charter for any industrial stakeholders of startups wanting to carry out digital experimentation in the streets of Nantes Island (Nantes, West of France). If you summarise this project, you could somehow say that Design Fiction, through speculation, has helped create a real, almost contractual, document. In this project, Design Fiction has kind of directly empowered denizens when it comes to their data and how this vague idea of a smart city should happen in their city.
We think an applied Speculative Design (or Design Fiction) is especially well suited for public organisations.
If students asked about the practical or professional applications of this type of design, what would you say? (Or What are the practical or professional applications of this type of design?)
If we look back at our practice in the last few years, in its consulting aspects, we would say it’s clearly an uncertain bet to make Speculative Design or Design Fiction an actual job paying bills monthly. We cannot affirm either that there is an actual market. Nevertheless, we believe there is definitely a need and a space for Speculative Design and Design Fiction as a necessary addition to any design approach oriented towards transitions.
When we teach Design Fiction or Speculative Design in schools, as many design educators have certainly heard it before us, there is a common misconception among students about these types of design postures. Since Speculative Design productions aren’t for sale, it would mean there is no practical nor professional application. We disagree.
In fact, without epiloging on the difference between problem-solving – the current dogma in design education and training – and problem-framing, we believe the latter is crucial regarding current emergencies and crises, climate breakdown being the first one of them.
In this sense, we think an applied Speculative Design (or Design Fiction) – with all our sincere apologies to the ones who will faint after reading this oxymoron – is especially well suited for public organisations. This approach might help NGOs and civic movements in their advocacy actions to help in highlighting preferable perspectives or revealing the consequences of the status quo. This echoes with some of our thoughts during the Yellow Jackets movement in France, in 2018-2019, as we were wondering how some aspects from our Design Fiction and Speculative Design practice might have been connected to the protests and claims to engage with this agonistic cry for social justice.
Speculative Design or Design Fiction also might support local or national governments, as well as state departments, to build future-proofed and more-than-human-centred policies. Speculative Design and Design Fiction go beyond the injunction of innovation, as creating and maintaining the public goods and the commons requires long-term thinking and radical alternatives. These forms of design are both a complement to Service Design, growing in public innovation programs, and a counterpoint to the limited and limiting perspective of “user-centric” design, that is inflating in the public realm. It is how we decided to position our practice and projects since our beginnings.
Being pragmatic on the perspectives of Design Fiction and Speculative Design, we also often remind students and young designers that the professional practice of such designs is, first and foremost, a pledge. Practising this type of design is always political. It means to make no compromise with your ethics, to watch out for slow convenient slides to future washing and to take (or even steal) time to make your work inclusive. These noble principles being stated, it shouldn’t erase the constant struggle that is at stake due to the “commercial” nature of some projects and their inherent constraints.
Rules of Connected Streets, using Design Fiction and Speculative Design to help citizens in crash-testing and amending their recommendations to regulate smart street experiments.
In your opinion what is the purpose of Speculative Design? Please suggest up to three key metrics for evaluating the success of a project.
According to us, the purpose of Design Fiction and Speculative Design Fiction is to pluralise the alternatives and critically highlight the implications. In other words, Design Fiction or Speculative Design creates new ways of seeing and speaking about the futures and presents. It puts new narratives around those, which is dearly needed in a society that is stuck in a continuous present. As a form of “design for debate”, quoting here Dunne and Raby, this form of design acts as a form of inclusive mediation to tell and discuss these realities and coming perspectives. But does design really succeed in doing so? How could we evaluate such a success?
This question raises another meta-interrogation: should we evaluate the impact or success of a Speculative Design project? Or should we acknowledge that this is a form of critical debate and, by nature, it has to escape the philosophies attached to production and their related cult for metrics? Moreover, it is likely that those metrics will change from one project to another: you don’t want to look at the same data if you’re using Design Fiction or Speculative Design for mediating the cutting edge of technology coming from some abstruse scientific research or if you’re using it to foster discussion in a public debate that will have impact on a whole community.
From our experience, it’s hard to build on the existing metrics from classic design or even “traditional” public debate. At this point, it’s clear the canonical quantitative data “how many people were reached by the project or have participated in the discussion triggered by the fiction” is obviously NOT a meaningful metric.
This being said, we can share some criteria, rather than metrics, that we care deeply about in our work:
- The capacity of a project to generate and/or trigger a plurality of reactions and then channel the discussions towards a set of actions. It can be fuelling existing actions with new perspectives, or creating new forms of engagement, especially by, with and for the publics concerned by the topic of speculation.
- The ability of a project to offer diegetic gaps to the audience, to allow the public to dive into the speculative universe. Offering various angles to build on also provides grips for appropriation and iteration for anyone other than the designer-author. In a way, this is about doing a proper design job: building a speculative provocation having enough points of parity with the realities of the audience to facilitate its projection, especially by taking into consideration its (sub-)culture codes.
- A “good” balance between radical inspiration and critical anticipation: a Speculative Design or Design Fiction project should avoid showing too polished visions depicting the future or the present, but also escape the easy dark narratives and other modern penny dreadful stories. As Luiza Prado and Pedro Oliveira, from the A Parede collective, put it very well in one of their articles: “your dystopia is happening to us, right now”.
As a bonus metric, if you manage, through your Speculative Design work, to visibly shake the status quo by triggering a radical revolution, or a even a hopeful insurrection, well, consider the job is done.
Disobedient Wearables, RecovR, a set of fictional wearables to collect and resell personal data to supposedly repay debts.