Why design fiction is design research—or should be.

Something of a continuation from my last post…

There’s no question that designers are broadening their contributions beyond the conventional practices of making things, spaces and visuals. Some “designers” are moving into the fringes where, we find more “wicked problems”, ones that involve purpose and society, economics and models for sustainability. I see design fiction as applicable to all of these as a method of design research and as a potentially important means of anticipating and planning.

There are scholars out there who write long papers and have lengthy discussions on what constitutes design research. Mostly, when I read them my head hurts but not always. I was reading a [rather old] discussion on Portigal’s site and this comment by Christopher Fahey caught my attention: “Design research doesn’t care about the economic and emotional factors going into whether or not a consumer can be compelled to buy a product, focusing only on how the product is used — which can include emotional and even economic factors. Design research is not concerned with “conversion.” Design fiction fits nicely here, but design research is big territory, so I’m sure that while the idea of designing things into the fabric of a speculative culture doesn’t meet all the criteria, in this instance it does. Because design fiction clearly exists outside of what Bleecker refers to as the “sweet-spot” of [Dubberly’s Venn diagram] the desirable, profitable, and possible, it is free to explore in the fringes of the maybe or the “what if?” These might include ideas like desirable and profitable, but not yet possible, or almost possible—possibly even just plausible [Bleecker].

There is already activity in design research that follows a similar track. “…design and design research share with engineering a fundamental interest in focusing on the world as it could be, on the imagination and realization of possible futures, as well as on the disclosure of new worlds. This implies a reflection of the contingencies of our world today, and of the practices for creating, imagining, and materializing new worlds” (Grand & Wiedmer, 2010, p2.).

“What if?”, can be an effective tool in design thinking. A simple question that erases conventional boundaries that can begin as simply as, “What if we do…?”, “What if we don’t…?”, “What if it does…?”, or “What if it doesn’t…?” can often start a journey onto innovative pathways, not always productive, but often yielding unexpected outcomes.

It could be argued that this type of thinking might find its greatest advantage beyond design, perhaps in politics, government, medicine or technology where solutions that seem, at first, universally positive, result in unexpected and unintended consequences. It seems to me that this is precisely the underpinning that we find in many science fiction narratives with dystopian futures.

In Allenby and Sarewitz’s The Techno-Human Condition, they identify an interesting characteristic that plagues designers (and the rest of us, too). We tend to see everything as a problem to be solved, when it is actually a condition to be acknowledged. The authors describe an approach that does not expect, “fundamental changes in human nature, or redemption through technology. (160)” As they mount their case, “Our problem is that we want to turn everything into a problem that can be solve, when those problems are in fact conditions…” This could include everything from climate change, to greed, spirituality, religious cultures, good, evil and their fluid interpretations. But these very characteristics of the argument they say are symptomatic of a, “world unable (and perhaps increasingly unable) to come to grips with what it does to itself. (160)”

Design fiction can contribute here, because it plays in a land of futuristic ethnography. It puts us in a different culture, (even if it’s just the culture of the next 20 minutes), and of the people mixed up in that culture. It becomes a story and gives legibility to options, examines scenarios and acknowledges conditions in the process. It can be a strong contribution, maybe even a critical step in analyzing what we make next.



Allenby, Braden & Sarewitz, Daniel. The Techno-Human Condition. MIT Press, Cambridge. 2011

Grand, Simon; Wiedmer, Martin. “Design Fiction: A Method Toolbox for Design Research in a Complex World”. University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland.


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