Interview: Theo Ploeg

December 2, 2019

Design and media sociologist from Heerlen: “Speculative Design should be able to translate possible futures to the now”.

Photo by Nicole Bolton

Theo Ploeg is a media and design sociologist. He tells stories of possible futures to inspire. His Studio Hyperspace speculates about the art of living in an accelerating world. As ambassador of Speculative Design at Digital Society School, he co-founded Speculative Futures Amsterdam together with Mick Jongeling. He teaches at Maastricht Academy of Media Design and Technology and explores alternative futures of journalism at Fontys School of Journalism. In his spare time, he writes about design, pop culture and music and cuddles with his cat Adorno.

How connected was your education with the Speculative Design (or related) approach you are using in your work today?

Fortunately, I studied information sciences, business studies and sociology in the late eighties and early nineties. There was a lot going on, and due to the end of the Cold War, symbolised by the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was this extreme optimism about the future. I also was active as a journalist for a couple of obscure underground magazines, and I connected to the emerging music scenes like drum ‘n’ bass, early internet culture, and the radical ideas of some renegade sociologists and thinkers. For me, the nineties in Amsterdam were one big playground for the future. Because of the liberal culture, there was a lot of personal and entrepreneurial freedom. A lot of people embraced the future and thought that everything would become better. Totally naive, but that bubble felt good. It gave me the freedom to combine and blend what I’d learned at university with the numerous changes I experienced in subcultures. I discovered a group of thinkers, like Gilles Deleuze and Marshall McLuhan, that weren’t taught at university, but would become highly influential in pop culture.

As a journalist, I began writing about the emerging field of accelerationism – an academic strain of thought that mixed electronic music with cyborgs, neo-China and capitalism – and started working as a business consultant in the field of new media. During the day I was advising managers at ABN Amro International about how the internet would change the international payment system, at night – after I got rid of my suit and tie – I visited the numerous dance parties on the outskirts of the city.

For me, the future was already there – until the internet bubble burst and the anti-globalist movement showed that things were much more complicated. Yes, I was naive, but during that period, I learned to translate academic theory into practice, and the other way around. I’m still using that skill in my current practice.

Could you please select one of your (own) favourite Speculative Design projects and tell us what you like about it?

Well, since I am a design sociologist, making and producing are not my best skills. Lately, I’ve been in and out of maker labs a lot. I learned some crucial design skills, but it also showed me my limitations and what I want to focus on. As a design sociologist, I work together with “real” designers, who are capable of translating a concept to a design much better. At the moment, I am fine tuning a Speculative Design approach I named Intervention Design. It is based on the idea that to really have a more significant impact, Speculative Design should be able to translate possible futures to the now.

Intervention Design with the toolkit at Digital Society School

Furthermore, designers need to see the current world through different lenses, otherwise, speculation turns into forecasting and scenario-thinking, and we already have enough of that. My approach has three phases used interchangeably and focused on: the reframing of a particular field or development (EXPLORE), the translation of the reframe to a fictional world and story in ten years (IMAGINE), and the actual design process focused on that fictional world and the translation of the inventions made in this phase back to interventions in the now (MAKE). I’ve developed the approach (I wouldn’t call it a method yet) at the Amsterdam University of Applied Science and Maastricht Academy of Media Design and Technology, and currently, am fine tuning it at the Digital Society School in Amsterdam. It brings together social sciences, future thinking, imagination and design skills. Lately, I’ve done a lot of workshops using (parts of) Intervention Design with students, designers, social scientists and more business-oriented professionals. Especially the translation back to the now seems to be an essential aspect: instead of producing an artwork that opens up the discussion about a probable future, Intervention Design leads to an actual design that is more or less usable. Although I personally love Speculative Design that touches the realms of sci-fi and art, I think that it is time to translate insights into Speculative Design and an artistic attitude to more “common” design.

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?)

Designers play a crucial role in dealing with most big challenges we are facing. I think it’s evident that science isn’t capable of dealing with both abstract and present developments like climate change, economic crisis, social changes, the refugee crisis, and more. Our modernistic system has broken down, and instead of fixing it, we need a new one that is more flexible and fluid to prevent what has happened to us now: being trapped inside a system that has become too complex to fully grasp. Scientists are so entangled in the system that we need artists and designers to show us other realities and preferable futures. That’s where Speculative Design comes in. According to me, it’s the ideal combination of an artistic attitude and design way of thinking and doing.

It also functions on a more practical level. The design field is changing, and more and more designers are shifting from user to meaning-centred design. For example, the designer of the infinite scroll on Instagram now questions his decision. The same goes for one of the designers of Twitter’s retweet function, who refers to that design decision as: “we might have just handed a 4-year-old a loaded weapon”.

Speculative Design can help designers to become aware of the bigger picture, the impact design can have on society as a whole. You can also frame it in a more commercial way: knowledge of the effects of design on society leads to a better design. Speculative Design can also help to explore future possibilities in both concept and design, and is very useful as a basis for prototyping and mapping the future by design.

For me as a design sociologist, the primary purpose is to give designers and social scientists tools to reframe reality, to question our current system and come up with different alternatives that are both possible and preferable.

In your opinion what is the purpose of Speculative Design? Please suggest up to three key metrics for evaluating the success of a project.

The term Speculative Design is used for a really broad spectrum of ideas, methods and approaches. They all have their purpose. For me as a design sociologist, the primary purpose is to give designers and social scientists tools to reframe reality, to question our current system and come up with different alternatives that are both possible and preferable. I also find it essential to use Speculative Design not only for fueling discussions about preferable futures but more so for coming up with designs that are actually useful to immerse an audience or a group of users in that preferred future. In that way, a much broader group can be reached with Speculative Design. So, I would suggest that a key metric for evaluation is to what extent the actual design is telling the story you want to tell to your audience. Not all that different compared to more common design practices.

Another, more intrinsic, metric would be to what extent Speculative Design can help designers to leave the current status quo behind. That’s the functional quality of Speculative Design as a tool.

I think the importance of Speculative Design can’t be exaggerated. Other design methods and approaches fail at questioning the current status quo and are even encouraging designers to stay within the system. Speculative Design paves the way towards meaningful design for our whole planet.

Speculative Futures Amsterdam Meetup

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