Design fiction. Think now.

This week I gave my annual lecture to Foundations students on design fiction. The Foundations Program at The Ohio State University Department of Design is comprised primarily (though not entirely) of incoming freshmen aspiring to get into the program at the end of their first year. Out of roughly 90 hopefuls, as many as 60 could be selected.

 
Design fiction is something of an advanced topic for first-year students. It is a form of design research that goes beyond conventional forms of research and stretches into the theoretical. The stuff it yields (like all research) is knowledge, which should not be confused with the answer or the solution to a problem, rather it becomes one of the tools that designers can use in crafting better futures.

 
Knowledge is critical.
One of the things that I try to stress to students is the enormity of what we don’t know. At the end of their education students will know much more than they do know but there is an iceberg of information out of sight that we can’t even begin to comprehend. This is why research is so critical to design. The theoretical comes in when we try to think about the future, perhaps the thing we know the least about. We can examine the tangible present and the recorded past, but the future is a trajectory that is affected by an enormous number of variables outside our control. We like to think that we can predict it, but rarely are we on the mark. So design fiction is a way of visualizing the future along with its resident artifacts, and bring it into the present where we can examine it and ask ourselves if this is a future we want.

 
It is a different track. I recently attended the First International Conference on Anticipation. Anticipation is a completely new field of study. According to its founder Roberto Poli,

“An anticipatory behavior is a behavior that ‘uses’ the future in its actual decisional process. It is the process of using the future in the present, which includes a forward-looking stance and the use of that forwardlooking stance to effect a change in the present. Anticipation therefore includes two mandatory components: a forward-looking attitude and the use of the former’s result for action.”

For me, this highlights some key similarities in design fiction and anticipation. At one level, all futures are fictions. Using a future design— design that does not yet exist—to help us make decisions today is an appropriate a methodology for this new field. Concomitantly, designers need a sense of anticipation as they create new products, communications, places, experiences, organizations and systems.

 
The reality of technological convergence makes the future an unstable concept. The merging of cognitive science, genetics, nanotech, biotech, infotech, robotics, and artificial intelligence is like shuffling a dozen decks of cards. The combinations become mind-boggling. So while it may seem a bit advanced for first-year design students, from my perspective we cannot start soon enough to think about our profession as a crucial player in crafting what the future will look like. Design fiction—drawing from the future—will be an increasingly important tool.

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