Tag Archives: Bruce Sterling

Is all science fiction automatically design fiction?

It is probably helpful to reference evolutionary geneticist and science lecturer David Kirby who coined the term “diegetic prototypes” (Kirby, 2010). It is Kirby’s assertion that scientists often use cinema to further their projects and interests. “The presentation of science within the cinematic framework can convince audiences of the validity of ideas and create public excitement about nascent technologies”(66). Kirby’s analysis included classic, technology-laden films such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Stephen Spielberg’s Minority Report, among others. In his view, scientists and engineers go to elaborate lengths to make these technologies as realistic as possible. “The most successful cinematic technologies are taken for granted by the characters in the diegesis, and thus, communicate to the audience that these are not extraordinary but rather everyday technologies. These technologies not only appear normal while on the screen, but they also fit seamlessly into the entire diegetic world”(50).

I think there are two specific variables to the answer. First, there is the perspective and intent of the creator, and second, the audience. The SF creator could be the author (in the case of literature) and the director (in the case of film). If we look at the archetypal stories of Philip K. Dick or Arthur C. Clarke, a sense of realism and plausible science make the speculative future seem more real, and believable. When Stanley Kubrick took 2001 to the screen, “Kubrick wanted absolute realism: he wanted the hardware on screen to look as though it really worked” (Bizony, 1994:81).

If you accept science fiction author Bruce Sterling’s (2012a) definition of design fiction as “…the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.” then deliberate intent is specific and we would have to examine our science fiction on a case-by-case basis.

When the designer becomes science fiction author the intent of design fiction is perhaps most obvious. Bleecker, Candy, Dunagan, Dunne & Raby all fall into this category, and I submit, so does my graphic novel. Perhaps a science fiction writer (using a heavy dose of creative license) might simply decide what the world will be like 147 years from now. But in the context of this project, the designer is compelled to follow a course of due diligence before speculating on the design, the culture and the infinite number of possibilities that could affect it. Many believe that technology will have the greatest affect on design by enabling designers to imagine things heretofore unimaginable. That technology and the subsequent advancements in biotech, artificial intelligence, medicine, energy and transportation will send ripples into politics, religion and humanity.

Though there are perhaps as many definitions of science fiction as there are science fiction authors, most would agree that, in the final analysis, it is about people.

“[Social] science fiction is that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance on human beings.” — Isaac Asimov, Science Fiction Writers of America Bulletin, 1951 1

The use of diegetic prototypes can suspend disbelief about the future scenarios, and through an examination of culture and context, individuals can contemplate present-day decisions that will affect the future on an individual basis.This brings us to the remaining variable: the audience. If design fictions can engage the average person-on-the-street to dialog about the imminent future, then perhaps individuals will become more aware of their ability to engage in discussion and thereby help to direct the future rather than being directed by it.

So, whether it is design fiction, science fiction or both, it is important that we not lose sight of its ability to make us think, and perhaps accept our responsibility to do so.


Bizony, P. (1994) 2001 Filming the Future. London: Arum Press Limited, p.81.


Kirby, D. (2010) The Future is Now: Diegetic Prototypes and the Role of Popular Films in Generating

Real-world Technological Development. Social Studies of Science, 40 (1), p.41-70.


Sterling, B. (2012a) Sci-Fi Writer Bruce Sterling Explains the Intriguing New Concept of Design

Fiction. Interviewed by Torie Bosch [radio] Tempe, AZ, March 2, 2012.


1. http://io9.com/5622186/how-many-defintions-of-science-fiction-are-there


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3rd Quarter Review – A new experience


After a few decades of professional life, I found the MFA thesis process at OSU to be an invigorating experience. Not that I have any grounds for comparison since this is my first masters degree, but after countless agency pitches, presentations to clients and employees, and various other song-and-dance routines, this was a real challenge. I came into the program noodling with the idea of epic design, which I have written about in previous posts and how design can be used holistically to impact all of the aspects of a brand or an experience. Having preached this mantra for the last half of my career and often to deaf ears, I saw the world of academia as something of the last stand. “Maybe these guys will get it.”

Also, simmering up there was this idea of a graphic novel in CGI. Encouraged by my first year advisor, the graphic novel idea didn’t seem to be as far-fetched as I thought. Can you actually do a thesis on a graphic novel, I wondered, or is this too good to be true? As things progressed, and my research into the art form of graphic narrative using sequential art (the fanciest name I could find for what is essentially a long comic), I felt more and more compelled to make it the core of my thesis.

For those of you who are new to the whole MFA Thesis process, essentially, as a student, you shop your thesis idea around the university looking to find like-minded professors who support the idea and are willing to serve on your committee (sort of a mentorship collective) with a single committee chair. Some professors that I thought would be a natural fit to the idea of communicating story using sequential art were less than enthusiastic, while others, peripherally related areas were more encouraging. Ultimately, I found my ideal team partly in the English department and two brilliant members from the Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design (ACCAD).

With the all-important committee established,  I still couldn’t shake the challenges posed to me from a couple of Design Department professors, like “What does this have to do with design?” and “Nice project for you, but how is this meaningful for anyone else?” And, of course, for me, I hate any kind of disapproval. While some might get discouraged, I get motivated. Around that time, I literally stumbled on the article from Julian Bleecker, on Design Fiction. And a host of related material from the edge where designers, futurists and even science fiction authors are asking why design can’t be more involved in the future. Instead of asking how much and how fast we might be asking, What if?”

Voila! I had my research component. In essence then, the graphic novel becomes the means to create the visual prototype for this future world and the designer gets to ask the holistic question of what design will be like a hundred years from now in the context of peoples lives wrapped in the narrative of a what will hopefully be a compelling story.

This brings us full-circle to the 3rd quarter review. This is where you put together your most coherent thoughts on the subject and present it to your committee. At this point, they can advise you to go forward, get real, or go home. I got the first. So, why do I write about this? The most exciting thing for me after all the presentations and pitches in the corporate world is that, in this environment, you can get the green light by presenting good thinking and strong evidence. This ever so rarely happens in the business world, which, I believe, is why so few genuinely “new” ideas come to light and why, so few companies leap ahead. Not that there is a shortage of brilliant minds thinking about brilliant ideas but that the corporate structure is not set up to ask the what if question, only the questions that center around better, faster, cheaper or just different.

Perhaps at the end of this adventure, my paper on the practice of design fiction will help not only designers but also decision makers, to think beyond all that. I close with a final quote from the great science fiction author and visionary, Bruce Sterling:

“The technoculture that we currently inhabit (it’s not the postmodern anymore, so we might haltingly call it a cyberneticized, globalized, liberal capitalism in financial collapse) well, it was neither rationally designed nor science-fictionally predicted. Why is that? What happened? Why are we like this now? What next, for heaven’s sake? Can’t we do better?

Rather than thinking outside the box—which was almost always a money box, quite frankly—we surely need a better understanding of boxes. Maybe some new, more general, creative project could map the limits of the imaginable within the contemporary technosocial milieu. Plug that imagination gap.

That effort has no 20th-century description. I rather doubt that it’s ever been tried.”1

1. Sterling, Bruce. “Design Fiction.” Interactions, Volume 16 Issue 3, May/June 2009. ACM New York. Online. (24)

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