Matt Ward: All design is speculative

January 23, 2020

Sara Božanić and Petra Bertalanič talk with SpeculativeEdu partner Matt Ward about Speculative Design education and the SpeculativeEdu project.

Matt Ward was the Head of Design at Goldsmiths (2015-2018) and is a SpeculativeEdu partner. Previous to his appointment as Head he spent 10 years leading and evolving the BA in Design. He has held numerous External Examiner positions across the sector, including Design Products at the Royal College of Art, Graphic Media Design at the University of the Arts, and Design; Process, Material, Context at University of West England. His research spans a wide range of interests from Speculative Design to radical pedagogy. He’s a practicing designer, writer and founding member of DWFE; a post-disciplinary, semi-fictional design syndicate. DWFE’s work searches for meaning in the construction of the extraordinary; they design activities, objects and incidents to reconfigure people’s perceptions. Matt holds three international patents on the work he did at NCR’s Advanced Research and Development Department on the emerging contexts of the Internet of Things and Urban Computing. Matt has been a research affiliate to MIT Media Lab and Interaction Design at the RCA. He consults for a range of organisations; Nokia, BERG, Dentsu and the Design Council. He lectures internationally about design, technology and education.

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

I see Speculative Design as one of the fundamental characteristics of design practice. Design always operates through different temporalities; a Speculative Design approach happens to focus on further temporal conditions, but this doesn’t mean that only “speculative designers” speculate, we all do; we constantly imagine alternative material possibilities, mediating and negotiating a set of changing external variables. However, “Speculative Design” has also become the name for a certain type or style of experimental work that speaks about possible futures outside of the commercial constraints of product delivery. Speculative Design can act as a mode of inquiry or it can be a form of strategic practice within industry. At its worst it’s an aesthetic, a step-by-step guide or corporate vapourware, at its best it creates a gravity centre, attracting people to discuss different types of futures, whilst using the tools and the language of design to explore and expand our notion of the possible.

The SpeculativeEdu project, to me, is an opportunity for those of us who have been in engaged in speculative forms of design education and practice for many years, to take stock and reflect on an evolving practice, in dramatically changing conditions. It allows us to gather together a dispersed set of resources, case studies and practices to think deeply about what’s next. It’s a space to build a discourse, share experiences and disseminate our learning. A lot of “Speculative Design education” has been dispersed and disparate, odd individuals, a module here and there, mutant programmes that don’t fit the “norm”. SpeculativeEdu gives people in the design community an opportunity to come together and see what everyone’s been doing.

On top of that, SpeculativeEdu has allowed us time to experiment with new forms of educational practice. Our recent workshop in Maribor, Situated Speculation (SitSpec) or “Alternative Friends” gave us a chance to try something new, placing us outside of our educational comfort zones – any project that allows that, is pretty special. Sitspec gave us the opportunity to expand our understanding of Speculative Design through the exploration of comedy, dialogue and difference. Through the collaborative writing of future focussed dialogues, where entertainment and humour was key, it allowed us to understand the values and assumptions we make across cultural difference.

It’s easy to forget for most people “design” is still “designer clothes”, “interior styling” or vapid, conspicuous consumption.

What’s the difference between Design Fiction, Critical Design, and Speculative Design?

Not much, or more precisely, I don’t really care. There are far too many people trying to either intellectual land grab or brand themselves through the naming of this or that type of design. Each of the terms have their visible and hidden histories, they’re bound by a set of contextual practitioners, places and moments in time, but often they’re used interchangeably. I’m not sure the different names do much good, accept to bring people together to build a conversation or extend the reach of a certain approach. However, more often than not, the nomenclature just distracts or constrains the work; it takes focus away from the broader project.

That aside, I was recently in a meeting with an archaeologist, a heritage expert and a conservation specialist. They found the term Speculative Design really exciting. So, for those outside of our discipline it can be a useful way to expand the popular perception of what design is and can be. It’s easy to forget for most people “design” is still “designer clothes”, “interior styling” or vapid, conspicuous consumption.

Why do you believe “all design is speculative”?

Because we never design for today. We’re always projecting and imagining a world where our work will exist. Even design with the fastest turnaround times, from concept to production (say editorial publishing), you’re always thinking of a person in the future, using and engaging with your work. We design for a world that doesn’t yet exist. We’re constantly imagining (or making assumptions about) the conditions and possibilities of the future world we hope to inhabit. This is why, over the last decade, more work is focussed on different environmental and political possibilities, because these issues dominate our attention and imagination.

Within an educational context, CSD or Design Fiction allows students the safe space to explore ideas and understand, or think (make) through, the possible impacts of their ideas.

What is your experience of Speculative Design in formal (Goldsmiths) and informal (workshops, summer schools, conferences) educational processes?

That’s a difficult question to answer. At Goldsmiths, where I’ve worked for nearly 20 years, we approach things very differently. We position ourselves as post-disciplinary, as we’ve never adhered to disciplinary specialisms. Our programmes, the BA Design and the MA Design Expanded Practice, aren’t structured in the traditional modular format; so our curriculum and student experience are more holistic and pluralistic. We have an ethos of experimentalism, so we aim to push the boundaries of acceptable practice; this means we rarely define or adopt a particular approach, method or style. My colleague, Jimmy Loizeau, describes this as sub-dogmatic, a pluralistic approach that has the conceptual and material flexibility to allow for many different types of practice. That being said, a lot of our staff have been part of the “CSD” community (in terms of their own practice), but they’re never really comfortable with the label. So, at Goldsmiths, we’ve tried to learn from projects and approaches, to expose students to a variety of different ideas of what design is. As I’ve discussed before, I think one of the most important things about Speculative Design, is its impact on pedagogy – how it is a way to teach; a constructed space of learning. The speculative space, that of fictions and stories, can act as a way to deconstruct all forms of design practice. Within an educational context, CSD or Design Fiction allows students the safe space to explore ideas and understand, or think (make) through, the possible impacts of their ideas.

In informal educational settings, in workshops in industry for example, I see speculative methods can be used effectively to loosen up creativity – allowing diverse stakeholders to explore possibilities without getting stuck on the near term problems. By “suspending disbelief”, you can examine the values and assumptions your organisation holds.

One of the key challenges today lies in moving Speculative Design beyond educational environments. What is your advice on this process?

I hope we can quickly move towards normalising Speculative Design as one of the many tools designers can use to address and think about the challenges we’re facing (be it political, environmental or technological). Speculative Design allows us to think strategically, but through a material present. However, there are a couple of things that I think we, as a community, should be wary of …

Don’t over offer: As we’ve seen with Design Thinking, over stating the power and claims of design can ultimately undermine it as an approach. Using it as a method doesn’t guarantee interesting or resonant work. Over selling its power risks it being dismissed in the future or turning us into snake oil sellers.

Material rhetoric: Designers are comfortable seeing prototypes as a fragile, non-fixed ways of thinking – a process of thinking through issues and ideas without finalising a future possibility. However, these futures, seen out of context, can become concretised in the imaginations of non-designers. The proposals, that we give material form, are often misinterpreted as possible and desired, not propositional and problematic. In other words, be careful what you wish (design) for.

Resist instrumentality: As with most things within advanced capitalism, any critical resistance to normative practices becomes quickly subsumed into the beast. I still believe that Speculative Design can open up a new space of the imagination, one outside of neoliberal capitalism, but to do that we need to work hard to build an infrastructure to support and discuss the work.

Colonising the future: If Speculative Design builds competency in thinking about future alternatives, the design community needs to ensure that it is aware of the structural inequalities that allow for a privileged voice. I think it’s become painfully obvious that we don’t need any more white male billionaires telling us how the future looks, therefore by moving Speculative Design outside of the “academy” we need to make sure it’s reaching people who don’t normally have say over the future. We should aim to empower alternative views about how the world could be.

I think one of our greatest challenges is to build future practices that are more inclusive and diverse.

Who in your opinion should have agency in the development of the future?

Everyone … but obviously that’s a little naive. However, I think we should work towards a practice that makes the power structures visible in how futures are developed. Notions of agency often come hand in hand with privilege and power. I think one of our greatest challenges is to build future practices that are more inclusive and diverse.

Speculative Design today is gaining more and more popularity among designers, which also leads to more criticism. How in your opinion does this criticism move the practice forward?

This form of practice has been around and visible for over 20 years, it has moved and evolved through constant iteration and reflection. I personally think constructive criticism is essential and always welcome – we have to be constantly vigilant to new opportunities and perspectives.

However, as most of the work exists in an educational context, I think the best way to critique is through evolving alternatives. Most of the critics are academics that teach. If someone has a problem with the approach, teach it in a different way. Create a positive educational culture where students can learn and push the culture forward. I’m not a big fan of the distanced, cold, critical eye of the academic. Producing work is difficult, putting projects into the world is an act of bravery, people should always be treated with care, respect and generosity when placing themselves in a vulnerable position.

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