Tag Archives: design culture

Defining Design Fiction

Now that Design Fiction is firmly at the core of my thesis and the undergirding of my graphic novel it is also one of my Google Alerts, along with Concept Art, Futurist, Comic Book and Graphic Novel, among others. And while it doesn’t generate quite as much buzz as these other topics I get at least one daily link of interest. The most reliable source of regular info would be Bruce Sterling’s Beyond the Beyond, Wired Blog. I think Sterling’s “design fiction” draws a wider, more inclusive circle. His features would include any focused narrative that makes a product or idea real or at least to gain in Julian Bleecker‘s words “cultural legibility”. On other sites I’ve seen project leaders, or design teams referring to the snippet stories of their UI or product concept as their “design fiction”.

Then there is David Kirby’s spin on the idea. Evolutionary geneticist and science lecturer Kirby calls these props “diegetic prototypes” (Kirby, 2010:1) and that design fiction, particularly in filmmaking,  becomes a purposeful, almost manipulative device to create acceptance of a concept or idea as some kind of future product placement.

Indeed, crafting a story around an idea, service, or product in a narrative context makes it appear more logical and coherent. In this respect most of the prevailing interpretations venn with Bleecker’s ideas of design fiction, but Bleecker’s vision seems to require a bit more than just a brief story or vignette — as does mine.  I think we would prefer more of the cultural context and a bit more drama surrounding the idea or product. As Bleecker says, (forgive me if I’ve used this quote before) “We can put the designed thing in a story and move it to the background as if it were mundane and quite ordinary — because it is, or would be. The attention is on the people and their dramatic tension, as it should be.” (Bleecker, 2009:37) Thus, design becomes that invisible collaborator with culture in making life seem as real in the future as it is real for us now. Bleecker adds, “A particularly rich context, a good story that involves people and their social practices rather than fetishizing the object and its imagined possibilities — this is what design fiction aspires to.” (Bleecker, 2009:27). I agree.

Of course, nobody’s definition is wrong and Sterling’s wider circle is a good thing. It brings more people into the conversation and more discussion on the topic. This is good.

 

Bleecker, Julian. 2009. Design Fiction: A short essay on design, science, fact and fiction.

Kirby, David. 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; 41–70, February 2010. http://www.sagepub.co.uk/journals

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Designing the future.

“Futurism was an artistic and social movement that originated in Italy in the early 20th century.” [1] But that’s not the kind of futurism I’m talking about. “Futurists… or futurologists are scientists and social scientists whose speciality is to attempt to systematically predict the future, whether that of human society in particular or of life on earth in general.” [2]  Though many futurist predictions have come to pass, it seems to me pretty iffy business and at the rate that things change the singularity may be not be such a wacky idea after all. There is a Wiki definition for the singularity, too. A comfortable definition could be the point at which technology becomes so advanced; predicting what will come next is impossible.

Of course, I am not a scientist or sociologist by training but I am a designer, and in many ways, designers are expected to call upon science and social science whenever they are designing. We are designing for people and society, after all. As a designer, if you’re not thinking that way, well, you should be.

So, like it or not, designers called upon to be some kind of a futurist. In my current pursuit of a dramatic design fiction, I have to ask myself, “What will design be like in 2159?” It’s more than a century away. Who can know? The answer is: part science, part design, and part fiction.

As I have argued, design and culture are inextricably linked, synergistically influencing one another. They will be producing and affecting one another whatever utopian or dystopian future you can imagine. Hence, some of my future design will be the result of speculation on a particular scientific thread, that if it remains connected, might produce something that functions or looks a certain way, and some of it will inevitably be done for sheer effect or mood (at the end of the day, this is dramatic story). Some of it will be garish or ugly; conditions that will probably not go away no matter how advanced we become.

Ah, but therein lies the drama. Good and evil are more than tenuous threads that you pull gently into a possible future — they are (in the British sense) bloody cables. Take it to the bank. There will be stunning achievements and dismal failures. While we will make beautiful things, solve epic problems and ease great suffering, not everything will be bright and shiny, sleek and effortless. We will also invent unimaginable horrors, new ways to sin and profane our creations.Regardless of how far our technology advances, the human condition remains more or less steadfast through the centuries.

As a Christian, I believe that we are created in the imago dei: the Image of God, that design, is a kind of divine inheritance from the Master Creator to the design pupil. But we live in changing times. The master narrative that I live by is very much under fire right now. Who knows? In 50 years, it may be outlawed. How will that affect design? One of the questions you stumble over when designers ask, “What if?”

I guess the designer has to be part philosopher, too. I’ll hit on the more nuts and bolts side of future design in another post.

[1], [2] Wikipedia

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Screenplay to graphic novel.

So, I have this screenplay… the assignment was to write a screenplay for a short film — no more than 30 pages. It began with a “pitch,” then a “treatment” and ultimately a series of drafts that produced a final submission. My first draft produced a 74-page screenplay that Phil graciously plowed through and marked up. “Tighten,” was the predominant scrawl. There were also good comments from the rest of the class about the believability of some of the characters, the amount of violence, etc. that provided a sort of focus group for the story (though most of the class, I think intimidated by the sheer length, passed on reading the whole thing). Nevertheless, Phil indulged my graduate student status and let me continue with my feature-length film script over the prescribed shorter version.

What became clear was that this was not a short story. There are lots of characters, the plot is complicated, and the setting is highly relevant to the way people act and the things that drive the story. There is more than a bit of story-telling here.

You have to add to this the anchor of my thesis which is what gets “made” in this fictive future — the design-fiction motive. It requires a level of research into science, government, medicine, crime, society, transportation and history to give context to the culture that begat these design changes.

The screenplay was written using a free, downloadable piece of software called Celtx that actually lets you convert your screenplay to comic book format. Though it was unable to read my mind, the conversion was a handy way of putting you in  the panels and pages mindset. A lot of tweaking is needed. I have continued writing and editing the story as well. As I have mentioned in previous posts, the comic format allows me to break all the screenplay rules of exposition and generally lay it out however I want since this is a reading and visualizing medium.

Already, then something of a change to my setting. In a perfect world I would have had the whole thing take place in Tokyo. I love that city and have spent a fair amount of time there. I understand the aesthetic and I can see it in some future fiction. However, it doesn’t play into my storyline. China is huge in my future which had me switch to Hong Kong another amazing city, but one that I have no visceral attachment to they way I have with Tokyo. But now as I have been spinning away at Hong Kong, I’m starting to think that you need to have some deep knowledge of the place to write about it even if it is a hundred and twenty years from now. So I took the script back to my screenwriter (me) and we hashed a new, and frankly much improved scenario.  I’ll share:

The government of New Asia, which accounts for 75% of the world’s population, is now headquartered in what was New York City. Officially renamed New Hong Kong (for the locals, it was easier to swallow than New Beijing) in 2079, most people have shortened it to HK2, some call it King Kong. The original Hong Kong is still Hong Kong. It was a gentle change of command; China repossessed it all. It was all perfectly legal and peaceful. Most former Americans reluctantly acquiesced. Bankruptcy is a bitch.

I’m excited about transforming New York into New Hong Kong and I am ever so much more familiar Manhattan. But strap yourselves in. It’s going to change a lot.

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Design and culture

On the more “scholarly” side of things, I’ve touched on the interplay of design and culture in previous posts. Here are some more direct thoughts on the subject.

The purposeful, systematic and creative activities that surround the work of design are based on our cultural requirements. They have changed over time. The stresses and requirements of the information age are profoundly different from the industrial age, or an agrarian society. Along with that, our human story has changed. What we find meaningful and our expectations for design have changed with that culture. Design and culture are, in fact, inextricably woven together constantly evolving producing new artifacts, data, entertainment, transportation, medicine, governments and behaviors to name a few. This interdependency between design and culture continues to evolve leaving a history from whence we can pluck an artifact or inventive solution to discover the design narrative, and the cultural influences that launched it into existence.

This design-culture universe continues to expand and inform our lives, our design and our narrative. The relationship is significant. What we design affects the culture. Technology can initiate formidable societal changes. Do these developments follow some cosmic algorithm? Are they purely reactionary to time and economic urgency? Or, do we have a choice about what can and should be made?

Pulling the thread on this idea, there is the connective relevance beyond my graphic novel project and into design practice and the way we think as designers. Are we too bound up in the client’s parameters, or the aesthetic edge? Does the world need a better looking can opener? What about a can that doesn’t need a can opener?

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More than a graphic novel

Let’s face it, I came to Ohio State to make a graphic novel. For me, it was the epitome of holistic design and a realization of “epic integration.” In the professional world, I was forever battling to make clients and decision-makers embrace the idea as it applies to brands and their stories — experiences. Over the years though, so much of your design sensibility becomes second nature, intuitive. What seems obvious to you is not obvious to everyone else. Thankfully the faculty prodded this out of me and as a result there was the discovery of design fiction.

Through design fiction, idea-objects gain knowledge mass and a sense of credibility. But design fiction is more than just constructing a set of plausible constraints through which a design might exist. Bleecker states that drama is of great importance. “We can put the designed thing in a story and move it to the background as if it were mundane and quite ordinary — because it is, or would be. The attention is on the people and their dramatic tension, as it should be.” (Bleecker, 2009:37) Thus, design becomes that invisible collaborator with culture in making life seem as real in the future as it is real for us now.

In fact, science fiction has a long history of introducing new technologies and artifacts that go on to become real world devices. The gesture-based interface of Minority Report or the multi-storey videos of Blade Runner are only two examples.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Evolutionary geneticist and science lecturer David Kirby calls these props “diegetic prototypes” (Kirby, 2010:1) “Film-makers and science consultants craft diegetic prototypes and enhance their realism by creating a full elaboration of the technological diegesis which includes any part of the fictional world concerning the technology. Through their actions they construct a filmic realism that implies self-consistency in both the real world and the story world.” (Kirby, 2010:46).

While design fiction can be used in filmmaking to create acceptance of a concept or idea as some kind of future product placement, that is not its greatest potential. “A particularly rich context, a good story that involves people and their social practices rather than fetishizing the object and its imagined possibilities — this is what design fiction aspires to.” (Bleecker, 2009:27).

Playing around with these concepts makes for a very rich exploration into a future design. Stay tuned for the story synopsis, characters and more – coming August 2011.

References:

Bleecker, Julian. 2009. Design Fiction: A short essay on design, science, fact and fiction. Online. http://www.nearfuturelaboratory.com

Kirby, David. 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; 41–70, February 2010. http://www.sagepub.co.uk/journals

 


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