Francisco Laranjo: We don’t need Speculative Design education, just better design education

November 17, 2020

Francisco Laranjo, editor of the design criticism journal Modes of Criticism, reflects on Speculative Design practice.

Francisco Laranjo is a graphic designer and researcher. His writings have been published in Design Observer, Eye, Creative Review, Grafik, and Público, among others. He has been a visiting and guest lecturer at the Sandberg Institute (NL), CalArts (US), Royal College of Art, London College of Communication (UK), Zürich University of the Arts (Switzerland) and speaker at the University of Applied Arts Vienna (Austria), University of South Australia (AUS), University of Split (Croatia), and others. Francisco has a PhD in graphic design methods and criticism from the University of the Arts London and an MA in Visual Communication from the Royal College of Art. He is an Associate Lecturer at Central Saint Martins, editor of the design criticism journal Modes of Criticism and co-director of the design research centre Shared Institute.

Speculative design is dead. It has been used and abused, rebranded and exploited, mystified and glorified beyond repair.

Speaking about it in 2020 is anachronistic. For over a decade, there has been a significant body of discourse and criticism, pointing out its shortfalls, trends, and potential. But design is amnesiac, and therefore, constant reminders are in order. In this sense, speculative design is not pioneering anything—the need for reminders has been taking place time and again, and work under this banner greatly capitalises on the discipline’s difficulty in remembering history. The term is a looser evolution of critical design, which obliges an historical and theoretical attachment to criticism. The former finds a crucial precedent in critical practice, dating back to the 1960s (there’s history beyond architecture, especially in graphic design). Speculative Design frees itself from the scrutiny of criticism and the commitment and responsibility of critical practice. It’s perfect to be used as a fad, a portfolio entry, a corporate exercise, a quickly replicable method, a recipe for a morning meeting with visible and colourful outcomes. It has been the subject of countless academic papers, from academics needing to bank on their PhDs, to academics not wanting to miss the trend train. This nurtures an aspect of design that is central to its existence: the profitable need to start from zero over and over again.

Design that isn’t critical and doesn’t speculate about the futures we want to build for ourselves and future generations is not design at all. This is the merit of the resurgence of these issues and emergence of these terms in the mid-2000s: pointing to an acritical state of design and exposing the self-centered fragilities and privileged myopia of its multiple sub-fields. The term also sparked the consistent rise of foresight specialists, travelling the globe supporting commercial ventures and tech solutionism, disguised as offering possibilities and visions of the future. Speculative Design in 2020 is almost exclusively dystopian or openly market-oriented, and fails to rigorously and radically champion alternative futures outside closed circles, predictably begging to be accepted by a canon popularised at the Royal College of Art 15 years ago. Over nearly two decades, Speculative Design was prolific in highlighting three key aspects of design, equally applicable to the graphic, product and interaction fields: (1) veneration of form and style is fundamental, the key selling point to cultural institutions and peer-acceptance; (2) generation of discussion as an end in itself, reducing “debate” to being mentioned in a press-release, a newspaper, a design blog; (3) exposing flaws encourages scrutiny and self-questioning. This sparked a—sometimes renewed—interest in cultural studies, sociology, politics, systems thinking and demanding more accountability in light of growing populism, racism, xenophobia, nostalgia for imperialism, precarity, manipulation of information, surveillance capitalism. This wasn’t achieved by European or North American efforts, mostly busy categorising objects and praising anything that deviated from the norm. This was mostly achieved by the perseverance of researchers from the Global South, reorienting concerns, providing adversarial criticism, alerting to precedents and demanding far greater ambition from designers—influencing and encouraging other peers in multiple countries along the way. 

In turn, this has had an important impact on education: decolonising bibliographies and hegemonic practices, diversifying faculty and working towards greater inclusivity and co-learning. Speculative Design can’t be awarded the trophy for this achievement—it’s just one small cog in the middle of many other disciplinary developments, together with fundamental transformations across the world during the last two decades. This term will continue to bring panels together, conference calls, and projects debating its specificities. But they will likely be doing a disservice to the discipline and the communities they could work with if they remain insular, treating it as a special design mode, or a module to be taught over a semester by luminaries or cool studios that drop by every now and then. It is only if researchers and educators build upon the discourse of the last decades and learn from diversity and history—not just bringing the occasional “progressive” researcher for tokenism—that this term can still be relevant. Not as an end in itself, but as a means for it to change, adapt and grow with other theories and models, other methods, and other worlds which are just as valid, if not more, than the one created by this term. We don’t need speculative design education, just better design education.


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