Tobias Revell: Speculative Design has become separated from its critical origins

June 15, 2019

The artist, designer and educator at London College of Communication talks with James Auger and Ivica Mitrović about Speculative Design.

Tobias Revell is an artist, designer and educator living and working in London. He is Programme Director of Graphic Design Communication at the London College of Communication and is doing a PhD at Goldsmiths. He runs various studios and projects such as Strange Telemetry, Haunted Machines and Supra Systems Studio which all explore critical aspects at the interface of design and technology.

Your recent discussion with J. Paul Neeley looked interesting and quite timely for the long-term development of Speculative Design. Focusing on your point that it has ‘become separated from its critical origins; appropriated by mainstream business practice to become toothless, instrumental & banal’ – so, is it in its death throes, just another term to be exploited by middle management as they sell the snake oil to their clients, or can the approach be reclaimed? Where does your own practice sit within this critique (of Speculative Design)?

Hi James, thanks for this super simple first question to ease me in. Without being mealy-mouthed and academic about it, it depends a lot on the old ‘for what and by whom?’ I think the methods within and around what we might loosely identify as Speculative Design are really useful in education and some forms of design research but that doesn’t make it the Do This One Thing To Solve All Your Organisation’s/Species’ Problems that it is often presented as.

If I teach it I make sure to bring out the critical dimensions as the primary purpose of its deployment in an academic or research context. Anyone from big IT firms to local government can speculate and produce cool design fictions but are they intellectually taxing? Are they forcing the audience to confront a cognitive gap or dissonance? This is what it gave design I think, a somewhat accessible and material introduction to critical engagement with other affirmative design approaches. This also accounts for its success in commercial contexts.

Then there’s the reasonable critique that the canon of Speculative Design ends up in galleries or on post-it notes. That seems pretty accurate. I would struggle to come up with more than a dozen speculative projects that weren’t either laundering corporate irresponsibility through the medium of post-it notes or inaccessible gallery work. J. Paul’s working on fixing that, Extrapolation Factory are working on that … maybe it’s an American pragmatism thing.

In my PhD work there’s a bit more of a critique that design is inherently industrial (i.e. input to output) and so has struggled with the reality of the scale and complexity of the contemporary lived experience. I mean, you show me one good Speculative Design project about climate change or online harassment.

As for reclaiming it … I don’t know, why bother? It broadened the capabilities of design, it brought new relationships and tools and perhaps that’s enough. There are so many other interesting emerging practices out there that deserve attention. You wouldn’t remake Fawlty Towers, would you?

You are a bit of a cynical pessimist and J. Paul is one of the most optimistic people I have ever met. What was the outcome of the discussion?

It’s all an act, I just don’t take myself very seriously and it comes across as pessimism. J. Paul is legitimately super upbeat though.

It was a really great discussion. I know J. Paul from our time at the RCA so it wasn’t like we were new to this and in some ways our practices went similar directions. I run a design research company that uses Speculative Design techniques too – Strange Telemetry – so there’s some commonality of experience there and we had very similar stories of working with clients. We were in very strong agreement about the urgency of the climate crisis and the need to stop chin-stroking and tweeting outrage and such. I wondered whether we’d be able to do like the Italians in the 1970s and call a general designer’s strike.

I don’t think we fell out about anything. I’m very conciliatory in person and am allergic to confrontation.


The Monopoly of Legitimate Use (2013)

We (Ivica) first interviewed you for the UrbanIxD summer school in 2013. Since then many things have changed, including the commencement of your PhD at Goldsmiths. Could you reflect on how your work has evolved over the past six years?

Oh wow, I was really optimistic then, maybe I am too cynical now. I guess I’ve strayed almost entirely away from speculation except in client work where they’re all still pretty jazzed about it. I suppose the main thing has been a steer towards practical and technical exploration. If I want to do a project about AI for instance, the first thing I’ll do is try and build an AI. I started doing a lot more curating and organisational institutional stuff, I realised that I was at best a B+ practitioner and there’s loads of A’s out there who I’d be better off supporting with my time. So putting together conferences, festivals, getting folks into teaching and research, throwing resources around. I do much more of that kind of thing now.

And then obviously education and education management and are major parts of my life, I’ve gone from a visiting lecturer to managing departments and I’ve found ways to reconcile all these things pretty effectively now.

You have a successful practice, writing, exhibiting, presenting and teaching … Why do a PhD?

Institutional legitimacy, James. Seriously, a part of the world I’m in is you kind of need one and it’s expected. I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to do one where I could basically continue to do the practice and writing I was doing anyway but at a deeper level and simultaneously have great conversations with interesting people. I’ve seen so many people who valorise their PhD into this world-changing process and it becomes a really destructive obsession. I’m just approaching it as a big fun project and that seems to be a successful strategy so far.

The difficult bit, but the bit I was excited by, was looking back over seven years of practice and asking myself ‘what has this all been for?’ It’s a chance to stop just doing whatever comes into the inbox and think more strategically about what I want to be putting out in the world. I still don’t have the answer but I know a little bit better each project.

It’s when Speculative Design creeps into corporate strategy and marketing that it becomes a problem.

What is your experience of integrating speculative practices in formal (LCC) and informal (summer school) educational processes?

Both are really positive. Students from all over the world know about it before they get to MA level now, so it’s something that’s in the constituency of expectations they have from their experience, whatever the exact design subject is. It’s integrated into almost all postgraduate design courses at LCC in some way now, maybe not explicitly but certainly in the ways of thinking and attitude toward the subject. The summer schools were also interesting for similar reasons. We just had a bunch of folks from industry, artistic and educational backgrounds who wanted to learn something about this canon of work and how it was made. What they do with it after that is kind of up to them. I think it introduces them to a really legible practical version of a critical practice that they often build on in their own practices.

Again, in education it’s a really useful way of engaging students and others in difficult conversations about difficult issues and I wholeheartedly encourage its use in education, hence releasing loads of assets out on the Internet for anyone to use. It’s when it creeps into corporate strategy and marketing that it becomes a problem.

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.

I can’t really think of one or two examples I could select, I’d have to do so at the exclusion of others. I’m more generally inspired and energised by seeing most of the people I ‘grew up’ with and work with turning to increasingly more vocal activism and making hard, material work on things that matter, particularly in regard to the climate crisis. Folks have pulled together and off Twitter dot com into action; from going on climate marches every Friday to harassing corporate policy for change and making difficult personal commitments. More people are ‘practicing what they preach’ and that’s good news for everyone.

There’s just a lot of really angry people around at the moment and also, from my perspective at least, more opportunities for people to act on that anger than ever before. I’ve been spending a bit of time with some folks previously excluded from design education recently and found a real anger and excitement amongst them that has stuck with me.

I think many of us share a fear that design education in Europe (and in particular the UK) has lost its way due to high fees and the expectation to take on increasing numbers of students. How can we maintain standards – I mean ethics, criticality, responsibility, etc. in such a climate?

Ouch. I’m writing this in an airport on my way back from a meeting of design educators in Finland the day after the release of the Augar report which was the UK government’s review of higher education funding so it’s a pretty sore topic. The terms of the report were really reductionist; framing education as worthy only if it made an ‘economic’ contribution. I find some of the narrative around ‘industry-readiness’, innovation and growth in design education forums worrying. We become complicit in the culture war that government has declared on critical education if we start to redefine it in these terms. Education and design should serve the primary needs of social and spiritual well-being and public integrity. I find myself constantly having to pinch and remind myself (and others) about WHY we’re doing this; conforming to government strategy is a vehicle for these primary needs, not the end in itself. I ended up going off a bit on this at the beginning of my panel following four presentations peppered with terms of innovation and economic imperative with very little intellectual integrity.

All that said, I’m really lucky to work in a place and with a group of people where the marketisation of education is exploited as a means to an end and ethical principles in design and education and critical practice are the motive forces behind our work.

At LCC we talk a lot about organisational sophistication: In a big institution it’s easy to get bogged down in the minutiae of targets and REFs and impact and so on. If you approach these through the lens of ‘Does this improve the subject and our experience of it?’ then it’s really easy to prioritise and turn that system to your advantage. How can you move resources and interpret data and targets to the benefit of those with really interesting ideas who could use the help? That kind of understanding of the weaknesses and opportunities in quite a well-described system of values can be used to enormous advantage if you look past how much of a drag it can be; just keep your higher aims in mind.

But, the inverse can also be true. I’ve seen organisations and groups get bogged down as well but with the intellectual dimensions of their work so that they forget to even operate. I’ve worked in environments where endless critical nuanced debates just paralyse any hope of doing anything substantial. I actually find that significantly more frustrating than making sure I can get teams to hit survey targets.

I’ll undoubtedly get grief for this on Twitter dot com but I often find the ‘intellectual class’ can be as restrictive, counter-productive and self-destructive as the bureaucratic one. You can hold both world-views in your head at the same time and just get things done, you know?

Ultimately, those who control the spreadsheets win. Turns out ad-hoc organisational theories and a powerful command of Microsoft Excel are at the root of meaningful design processes. Rather than disparaging and complaining about the bureaucracy, find a way to turn it to your advantage. It’s not going to stop just because you don’t like it.

Augury (with Wesley Goatley, 2018)


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