Max Mollon: Let’s move beyond the limits of critical, speculative and fictional design

June 7, 2021

James Auger and Ivica Mitrović talk with Max Mollon, organizer of Parisian speculation, design and debate communities about his research in designing for debate.

Middle-east-rooted, Swiss-trained, Paris-based, Dr. Max Mollon (singular They/Them) are a Conflict Facilitator. As a Designer, they specialised since 2010 in creating future-based debate situations to collectively challenge present issues. Max worked as a Consultant since 2014 through their bureau whatif.wf and co-founded the politique-fiction.fr collective. Speaker since 2017, they spoke at Centre Pompidou, Ted-X and gathered the Parisian speculation, design and debate communities in an experimental seminar format (designfictionclub.com). As an Educator, they have been teaching internationally for almost ten years, and are the Head of Sciences Po Paris’ Contemporary Controversy workshop (since 2018). Author of Designing for Debate (2019), a practice-based Ph.D. in media studies, they have theorised concepts, means and roles available to practitioners when using design fictions to spark debate. Today, taking on one of these roles, that of diplomat, they are exploring ways to encourage the confrontation of opinions, fostering care and empathy for distant topics and worldviews – which is becoming crucial in today’s democracies.

Could you please explain your research and practice background and your connection to speculative and related design practices?

Firstly, my research (and my design practice) topic: how design practices can facilitate interpersonal confrontation of opinions and the expression of disagreement—and in particular, disagreements coming from minority or marginal voices. Therefore, I am less interested in purely speculative designs than in “political1 ones, and in the exploration of controversies. Why facilitate underlying conflicts—or, conflicts over underlying issues? Because it is becoming urgently necessary to question the model of Western democracy, which is based on the consensus of the majority to the detriment of minorities.

Secondly, I needed to go beyond the limits of critical, speculative and fictional appellation of design: between 2010 and 2012 my first attempts to design for debate encountered strong limitations (with the Dog & Bone project). Then in 2014, these practices were subject to a major academic criticism regarding the irrelevance of debating subjects reserved for the privileged (i.e. First World problems), perpetuating a colonial logic of design. Also, knowing that my training was mixed between Design Fiction and Critical and Speculative Design2, I tried to go beyond the previous limits without limiting myself to a practice, a programme or a label.

Therefore, my doctoral thesis argues that in order to overcome some of these limitations, it is relevant to understand such practices as part of a larger, heterogeneous group sharing common means—and a common intention, that of “designing for debate”. I simply call this group, “design for debate”. I have also identified that a large body of academic work takes these practices as an object of research (directly or indirectly). This has enabled me to circumscribe and qualify a field of research of the same name, the field of design for debate. From the most general to the particular, this research object includes design practices of the political; these practices belong to the “new social design”3; the latter may include various practices of debate and collective intelligence facilitation; including a subset I call “discursive4 design for debate”. It uses artefacts whose use is not to be put into operation, but to convey a discourse. Conceptually, the contours of this subset are placed at the intersection of Discursive, Adversarial, Reflexive and Participatory Design5. It is this subset on which my thesis focuses and which may connect with SpeculativeEdu. Although focused on debate, the results of my work are also applied to speculative design practices—in the thesis, and in other projects.

My work wishes to enable more research and design practitioners to question the canons of Critical, Speculative Designs, and Design Fictions, when they are used for debate.

Your recently completed PhD (2019) focused on designing for debate. In this you critiqued an early personal project – Dog and Bone (2010), specifically citing the limitations of the exhibition as a discursive space (a criticism SpeculativeEdu generally agrees with). Could you explain some of the key strategies you developed to escape the gallery?

I completed PhD from PSL’s SACRe practice-based programme with Annie GentesCodesign & Media studies Lab.
To escape the gallery, the main strategy is to keep the design process going beyond the creation of an artefact, and to take charge of the design of a communication situation—in which a debate issue, the artefact that embodies it, and a public can meet.

In more detail: the issue is less about escaping the gallery than about escaping a canon of the way designs for debate are “created” and “communicated”. Indeed, the design for debate projects the most mediated between 2000 and 2015 used similar means. In doing so, they gradually and implicitly established the following canon. The “creation”: of a catchy and provocative artefact; dealing with an issue determined solely by the author of the project. And the project’s “communication”: in a medium made primarily for dissemination (exhibition, web, mass media); in such a way as to provoke the construction and mobilisation of an unidentified public. Nevertheless, the exhibition and the previous means have had many virtues, including that of provoking massive debate in the academic community on the role of these practices. But, not (or little) that of sparking debate on the societal issues addressed by these projects (e.g. societal consequences of the deployment of genetic editing, artificial meat, artificial intelligence, etc.). These are therefore not inefficient means in themselves. However, from a debate perspective, these means are limited when they are used for specific ends. I have counted six specific ends—six functions67 attributed by the literature, to design for debate practices—implemented via six means of “creation” and of “communication”. Rather than providing strategies to only escape the gallery, my work wishes to enable more research and design practitioners to question the canons of Critical, Speculative Designs, and Design Fictions, when they are used for debate.

That said, at least three main strategies can be considered to overcome the limits mentioned above. The first strategy concerns the project’s “creation”, regarding the way of choosing a debate topic (which is too often carried out in an arbitrary authorial posture, perpetuating a domination on the public concerned by the debate). The next two strategies concern “communication”: the type of debate that one aims at when expecting to spark a so-called debate; and the way a project meets a concerned public.

You have been running the Design Fiction Club in Paris since 2017. This exists as a series of events, discussions, workshops and experimental seminars – what is the key aim of the club? Could you describe one or two of the more memorable events?

The first highlight is from Season 01, Session #9, the CrisprFood.eu debate of June 26, 2018. A member of the European Union’s Ethics Commission was then violently confronted by a scientist, user of the CrispR DNA editing technology, whose legislative authorisation had been under discussion in the EU for several weeks. The club session provided an opportunity for those involved in the controversy and the audiences that should be affected by it (but were unaware of it) to confront each other. The unique format allowed it to do so speculatively, projecting participants’ usual arguments into a roleplay, 30 years in the future, as if the technology had been authorised.16

A second highlight was in Season 01, Session #7, from April 24, 2018. Animated with Tiphaine Kazi-Tani and their invited speakers, the session was dedicated to the figure of the witch, to the critique of the “future cone diagram”, and to the futures that are struggling to come because they are crushed by the dominant narratives of patriarchy, capitalism, colonialism, techno-optimism, progressivism, etc. In addition to the theme, it was the unique format of this session that was striking—mixing performance and conference with witchcraft incantations, reading of quotations from thinkers, and a workshop for co-creating emancipatory magic formulas for the future.

Regarding formats, I could also mention Season 02, Session #1 (Feb. 28, 2019) where the participants were invited to become speakers. Or again Season 1, Session #6 (Mar. 13, 2018), questioning the relationship between design fiction and marketing. We will come back to the session’s topic in one of your next questions. Note, however, that it was the audience who had formulated the conclusive word of this session and not the moderator (here, Benoit Renaudin and myself), hence demonstrating the principle of the Design fiction club’s experimental and participatory seminar.

The main objectives of the Design Fiction Club have evolved over time.

  1. Popularising practices and bringing together communities that are disparate—coming from forecasting, controversy mapping, public debate, activism, innovation, research, design education. And to do this through lectures, performances, meet-ups, audience-driven pecha-kucha, design practice workshops, and debate sessions.
  2. To open up a space for research: conceptually and methodologically; dedicated to self-criticism regarding the value and role of these practices for society17; opening a field for experimentation and presentation of ongoing research (mine, speakers’, and even participants’); and dedicated to the exploration of conceptual and unconventional means of scientific publication.
  3. Being participatory and targeting a heterogeneous audience: in order to allow civil society or other disciplines to question the usefulness of research and to irrigate professional practices outside the academic circle.
  4. To be a laboratory for public debate, by leading debate sessions on current controversies (e.g. the politique-fiction.fr project, the CrispRfood.eu project).

In spite of the lack of funding to conclude the articles started in 2017–2019, the main results of the reflection of the first two seasons are to be found in the conceptual reframing that my thesis proposes18. Our sessions were also a real experimentation ground for forms of design and of debate. A dozen videos (one per session) will be put online and translated into English with the help of internet users.

Many of your recent projects/activities touch directly on political issues, for example Politique-Fiction (a collective conducting a series of projects merging Design Fiction and political issues) and your teaching at Sciences Po (Contemporary Controversies Design Fiction course). Given the complexity of the current political climate are you more or less optimistic about the role Design Fiction can play in influencing agendas?

In French political institutions, there is a strong culture of the practice of strategic forecasting (under the name “prospective”), so I have observed a strong interest in Design Fiction on the part of these actors—and a concern for competition.

The use of Design Fiction could very quickly increase in sectors which have political impacts (i.e. on collective life). It has recently been used in political communication, in the French presidential elections of 201719; in helping law making20; or in contributing to the public discourse21. The trend is even stronger if we don’t restrict ourselves strictly to Design Fiction. I have observed that over the last two years we have seen a dazzling increase in the visibility of the terms imaginary, fiction, science fiction, design fiction and future in the media. I limit these informal and empirical observations to the case of France. For example, the French army has equipped itself in 2019 with a “red-team” of science fiction authors of anticipation22, a generalist magazine dedicated to societal issues has just dedicated an issue to the renewal of our imaginaries23, in Paris, the Public Innovation Chair has organised public forecasting events in 201924, speculative fiction writing is being deployed in citizen consultation25. To name a few.

However, to answer your question, I am not “optimistic” about the value of these initiatives. There is a growing use of fiction to re-galvanise the design thinking sector, which is running out of steam (e.g. the term “future design thinking”). However, the critical potential of these practices is often eroded in the process. For when it is radical, critique through design is incompatible with the logic of profitability and growth which is the lifeblood of the design sector today—and it is incompatible with the entire capitalist system which saw its birth and supports it. So, can we live from a critical practice, other than in the artistic and academic sector? I.e. other than by being constrained to the neutralising space of the art gallery, or by betting on the long term through research and education of future generations?

This is my wager with design for debate. But the bet is risky and the odds are largely against me. To answer your question, I will be “optimistic” if a radical practice develops, debating what needs to be dismantled today to emancipate certain futures from the oppression of the dominant narrative that Western societies carry. This implies a redefinition of the role, the value, even the economic model of the designer for debate. I raise this point in reply to your next question.

How can we resist or overcome the situation where avant-garde critical design practices, established as resistance to the dominant system, ultimately become appropriated by the system itself?

There is no way to prevent a marketing advertiser from reusing/adapting struggle slogans—or, for example, from asking an environmental activist to represent an unsustainable brand with their Twitter account. Unless that person refuses the offer. Creating the conditions for students and professional designers to refuse such an offer is a way for design educators and speakers to overcome the situation you are talking about. This can be done by making the distinction more visible between what is critical and affirmative, and then between what is radical and superficial. At the Design Fiction club, for example, we have begun to popularise the distinction between critical design fiction and affirmative design fiction practices26. One can also systematically question the level of radicalness/superficiality of so-called “critical” propositions. This can be done in terms of the depth of the questioning; the taking a political stand against a specific situation; the deconstruction of discourses and postures of capitalist, colonial, intersectional domination; and the avoidance of elitism in the means employed and the targeted audience27. This raises the question of the quality criteria of these practices.

To go further in terms of refusal, the most radical act designers can do is to be aware that their profession contributes to the maintenance of the capitalist system, and to stop designing and/or to find another non-capitalist activity. While “[T]he master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”28, this raises the question of a design for debate without design.

Less radical, one can refuse any commercial relation of being “commissioned”—as advocated by the authorial posture promoted by Anthony Dunne in Hertzian Tales29. Yet, how can one make a living as a critic by escaping the academic or artistic sectors as a main source of income? Escaping from the business model of commissioning is essential. One way is the process of crowdfunding and patronage without influence or counterpart, as practised in investigative journalism, for example30.

Even less radical, speculative designers may refuse to work for certain clients who are not aligned with their ethics, or may dedicate themselves to the public domain. They are then confronted with the injunctions specific to commissioned work (utility, return on investment, profitability, profit). In this case, designers and actors of societal issues may pair according to their political affinities (more or less radical) and may propose singular visions of the future. A multitude of future scenarios would then compete in the media. If so, this approach calls for a massive work of citizens’ empowerment regarding participation in debates on their futures. This may be done by debating a multitude of scenarios; by analysing controversies; by facilitating critical reflection, opinion-building, issue formulation and public construction (in Dewey’s sense). To some extent the Crisprfood.eu project, mentioned earlier, is an example of this intention.

Finally, if we cannot force the dominant system not to appropriate the methods and arguments directed against it, why not infiltrate it and disseminate a method that inherently leaves room for even more criticism and confrontation? Design for debate has been partly designed for this. If designers do not have the means to be sufficiently critical in their commissioned work, interpersonal debate may leave room for the unexpected and for the expression of radical criticism by the participants. On a personal level, directing my speculative practice towards the organisation of debate has presented itself as the only economically viable compromise. Hence, my thesis proposes two postures to open a breach for the expression of disagreement and self-criticism within a situation, the Diplomat and the Trojan Horse31.

Diverting the dominant system’s assimilation of the critical avant-guard in such a way presents challenges. It requires a combination of various professions in the facilitation of interpersonal and public debate, complementary to design. It requires the development of a more explicit methodological foundation by designers. Above all, it requires such designers to redefine their role, usually oriented towards problem solving, in favour of issues finding. And that they make the value of political designs recognised.

SpeculativeEdu is about education – what are the key texts/references that you would recommend to design students to provide a better platform to design from?

Together with key references on the political and agonism32, some key texts on the decolonisation of design and critiques of speculative practices of design seem essential to me33. But they can leave one unable to act34.

To get back into action, designers can question the dominant posture of the “author” in their design process, and develop a participatory and inclusive posture. However, one has to realise the difficulty with which a privileged person (e.g. a white heterosexual cisgender designer) struggles to become aware of their privileges—and of their biased view of the world. One must also realise the over-determining and discriminating weight of this view—often matching the dominant social norm—on non-standard people. I therefore propose two texts.

In the medical field, the Dingdingdong Manifesto35 makes us aware of the devastating weight of the social norm, of expert knowledge and of its dominant narrative. More interestingly, the Dingdingdong Collective’s work on “speculative fabulation”—inspired by Donna Haraway—shows how story-telling and fictions can emancipate from deterministic narratives.

As a complement, in the field of anthropology, Horace Miner’s well-known 1956 study of the Nacirema tribe36 is of great inspiration to apply the process of defamiliarisation to oneself—i.e. looking at a familiar situation with a foreign eye.

Can you point us to one or two projects, initiatives or groups that we can be inspired by? Describe why they stand out for you.

To be brief, I am currently looking into experiential and speculative practices other than design.

For example, Gabriella Cserháti’s theatre company GK-collective and their one-person pieces, show how critical reflection on today’s world can be activated at the meticulous pace of one person at a time. Very little information is available on their work in order to force the public to experience it by themselves.37

The artist Rocio Berrenguer and her inter-species G5 summit project, shows how critical reflection and debate can be stimulated by showing a possible, and partially desirable future.38

  1. ‘Political’, in the sense of the confrontation of opinions and affects that is implied by collective life according to : Chantal Mouffe, On the Political (London; New York: Routledge, 2005). 

  2. Respectively via Nicolas Nova from the Near Future Laboratory, and James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau. 

  3. Ilpo Koskinen, ‘Agonistic, Convivial, and Conceptual Aesthetics in New Social Design’, Design Issues 32, no. 3 (July 2016): 18–29, https://doi.org/10.1162/DESI_a_00396

  4. Bruce M. Tharp and Stephanie M. Tharp, Discursive Design: Critical, Speculative, and Alternative Things, Design Thinking, Design Theory Series (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2019), https://www.discursivedesign.com/

  5. See CH1 | Section 2.C | p.41 of my thesis: Max Mollon, ‘Designing for Debate: How to craft dissonant artefacts and their communication situations so as to open spaces for mutual contestation (agonism) and the expression of marginal voices (dissensus)’ (Ph.D. Dissertation, EnsadLab, PSL Research University, 2019). 

  6. Rather than speaking of ‘objectives’ of design practice, I speak of ‘functions’ attributed to the artefact itself, to the project more broadly, or to design practices in general, borrowing this term from: Alain Findeli and Rabah Bousbaci, ‘The Eclipse of the Object in Design Project Theories,’ The Design Journal 8, no. (1 November 2005): 35-49, doi.org/ 

  7. The list of the functions, of each means and their limitations can be found in a summary table in my thesis | Mollon, ‘Designing for Debate’. CH3 | p.136 

  8. John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems, an Essay in Political Inquiry (Denver: Swallow, 1927). 

  9. Carl DiSalvo, ‘Design and the Construction of Publics’, Design Issues 25, no. 1 (January 2009): 48–63, https://doi.org/10.1162/desi.2009.25.1.48

  10. Donato Ricci, ‘Tensing the Present: An Annotated Anthology of Design Techniques to Inquire into Public Issues’, Diseña, no. 14 (31 January 2019): 68–99, https://doi.org/10.7764/disena.14.68-99

  11. Andreas Birkbak, Morten Krogh Petersen, and Tobias Bornakke Jørgensen, ‘Designing with Publics That Are Already Busy: A Case from Denmark’, Design Issues 34, no. 4 (25 September 2018): 8–20, https://doi.org/10.1162/desi_a_00507

  12. Mollon, ‘Designing for Debate’. CH7 | Section 30.B | p.286 

  13. Mollon, ‘Designing for Debate’. CH9 | Section 41 | p.447 

  14. A design tactic is “a designerly means directed towards the construction of publics” or in other words, towards the political involvement and empowerment of people regarding an issue.| DiSalvo, ‘Design and the Construction of Publics,’ 52. 

  15. Mollon, ‘Designing for Debate’. CH10 | Section 45. | p.473 

  16. Find the project’s summary online here: http://maxmollon.com/permalink/PHD_Appendix-crisprfood.pdf 

  17. Which seemed important to me at a time when fallen design thinking communities were turning to design fiction. 

  18. The reframing includes the questioning of the Critical, Speculative and Design Fiction programmes/labels, the questioning of the methodological canons of design for debate, and the positioning of these practices within the ‘new social design’, at the intersection of Discursive, Adversarial, Reflexive and Participatory design. 

  19. See this election campaign short-movie, very close to design fiction, broadcasted by the Insoumis party the day before the elections: https://youtu.be/Z6wIDOUDkao 

  20. In UK, see the proto-policy project: http://www.research.lancs.ac.uk/portal/en/publications/protopolicy-design-report%288ffb3c60-5870-4f6b-979a-163e2cec617b%29.html 

  21. I think about projects by my bureau What if?, at the festival of citizen assembly on ageing, in the city of Nantes ; or in Lyon city, in a cycle of cultural mediation on the questioning of the French prison model. 

  22. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/07/19/french-army-sets-red-team-sci-fi-writers-imagine-future-threats/ 

  23. https://abo.socialter.fr/produits/44/hors-serie-n8- 

  24. https://formation-continue.ensci.com/fileadmin/content_uploads/formation_continue/Friction_3_Prospective_ChaireIP.pdf 

  25. See Bluenove consulting’s work with the series of events Bright Mirror: https://bluenove.com/blog/bright-mirror 

  26. Following the typology of Anthony Dunne and Fionna Raby’s A/B Manifesto : http://dunneandraby.co.uk/content/projects/476/0 

  27. Lins inspired by James Pierce’s 2014 PhD thesi: James Pierce, ‘Working by Not Quite Working: Designing Resistant Interactive Proposals, Prototypes, and Products’ (Ph.D. Dissertation, Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, 2015), https://hcii.cmu.edu/news/event/2015/10/thesis-defense-james-pierce-0. | List detailed in: Mollon, “Designing for Debate”. CH3 | p.110 

  28. Audrey Lorde, ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. Comments at “The Personal and the Political” Panel. (Second Sex Conference October 29, 1979).,’ in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, ed. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldùa (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2015), 94–103. 

  29. According to Dunne, this stance of the “designers as author” allows to emancipate designers from the market’s imperatives and to develop a (self-)critical look on their productions. Anthony Dunne, Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience and Critical Design (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005), 75. 

  30. disclose.ngo/en | In French, https://admin.disclose.ngo/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Rapport_impact_2019_Disclose-1-2.pdf 

  31. Mollon, ‘Designing for Debate’. CH8 | Section 36 | p.342 

  32. Chantal Mouffe, ‘Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces’, Art & Research 1, no. 2 (2007): 1–5, http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v1n2/mouffe.html. | Carl DiSalvo, Adversarial Design (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012). 

  33. T. Schultz, D. Abdulla, A. Ansari, E. Canli, M. Keshavarz, M. Kiem, L. Prado de O. M., and P. J. S. V. de Oliveira., ‘What Is at Stake with Decolonizing Design? A Roundtable,’ Design and Culture 10, no. 1 (2 January 2018): 81–101. | Luiza Prado de O. M., ‘Privilege and Oppression: Towards a Feminist Speculative Design’, in Proceedings of the Design Research Society Conference, DRS2014 (Umeå, Sweden, 2014), 980–90. https://www.designresearchsociety.org/cpages/publications-1. | Ramia Mazé, ‘Critical of What? / Kritiska Mot Vad?,’ in Iaspis Forum on Design and Critical Practice: The Reader, ed. Magnus Ericson et al. (Stockholm / Berlin: Iaspis / Sternberg Press, 2009), 378–398. 

  34. Matt Kiem, ‘When the Most Radical Thing You Could Do Is Just Stop’, Medium, 16 January 2016, https://medium.com/@mattkiem/when-the-most-radical-thing-you-could-do-is-just-stop-1be32db783c5

  35. Dingdingdong and A. R., ‘Dingdingdong Manifesto’, trans. Damien Bright ([Online], Paris, June 2013), https://dingdingdong.org/a-propos/dingdingdong-manifesto/

  36. Horace Miner, ‘Body Ritual among the Nacirema’, American Anthropologist 58, no. 3 (1956): 503–507, https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.1956.58.3.02a00080

  37. http://gkcollective.org/?lang=en 

  38. https://rocioberenguer.com/ 

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