Tag Archives: design fiction

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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Working on Hong Kong 2159.

Although I have not revealed the storyline for my graphic novel, I am prepared to reveal a little about the setting. As you guessed from the title it is set beyond the near future — 148 years to be exact. The city is Hong Kong. Without going into too much backstory, this is where the global government is located. Countries, as we know them, are gone. New Asia is the broader amalgamation of  the Asia of today, Europe and the former United States. The city has evolved through building continually upward. The “road car” is gone, replaced with the air version. With the advent of air taxis and all manner of flying craft, the top of the city is the new facade. Instead of entering at the bottom of a building and riding up and then to rooftops that are essentially abandoned places, the world becomes reversed. The show is at the top and so is the money and prestige. The layers as it were start at 150 stories and work their way down. Under 25 you find yourself in a city of disrepair and darkness. The bottom city is a place of crime and poverty, even in 2159. And while mankind has made quantum leaps in technology, crime has managed to keep pace in new and creative ways. Much of it legalized. But that’s going too far for today’s blog.

At any rate, the top world is where you will find all the advertising, the glamour, the enticements. Every rooftop now has a docking zone or an airlock (it gets windy up there) for patrons to offload and play. Lots to think about.  More to come in the August synopsis.


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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.


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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Preparing a paper.

Here’s a new twist, especially for those of you who have never seen me as particularly scholarly. Mastery is something like scholarly but not quite the same. Each requires a level of knowing, amassing some amount of information, expertise or experience. I think you can define mastery as a level attained at which point you are capable of passing it on to others. Scholarly, to me, is more about attaining a level of knowledge and then sharing the remaining questions with others. In scholarly, there is no finish line. I’d like to think there are some things I’ve mastered, but one of the great privileges of becoming a full-time student again is the ability to keep asking questions and to probe the great what if. Who wants to stop at mastery?

So much for the long introduction. At the encouragement of my thesis committee, I have been looking for ways to further the discussion of my thesis topic through symposiums, conferences and the like. Many of these more scholarly venues have a “Call for Papers” that goes out many months in advance of the event to get the latest thinking on issues that would enlighten, inspire or provoke discussion among members and attendees. Along those lines I think I may have found a good match for my topic. The International Design Alliance (IDA) hosts the 2011 IDA Congress. This event is dubbed ICOGRADA. To add to the “I” words, there is Iridescent: Icograda Journal of Design Research, which has extended a list of new topics for this years event. The one that caught my eye was, “Understanding How Graphic Design is Animated through Use.” Part of the description includes this, “Papers submitted under this theme might offer new modes of analysis with which to illuminate the public’s more complex, nuanced and subtle relationships with the emerging forms, methods and behaviors of graphic design practice.” I think the idea of design fiction visualized in a graphic novel might be the perfect discussion for this forum. I have a June 30 deadline. Should be interesting to see where this leads.

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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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Stardate 6.2.11

That’s a catchy title. I’ve just finished teaching my last class of Spring Quarter at OSU, I’ve survived my 3rd Quarter Review and made gigantic headway on my graphic novel script. Since my thesis is two-pronged, both a graphic novel project and a paper on the “design fiction” concept, I’m going to have to start journaling my thought process in earnest hence forth. To briefly recap for those of you who are new to the blog my project can be summarized as this:

1. Produce a full-length, science fiction, graphic novel in CGI. Explore this new visual style, push the constructs, the internal metalanguage, and the presentation,to make a new contribution to the art form and explore its relationship to design.

2. Write a paper that:

A) Journals the design process, not only the act of speculative design, narrative construction,and visual prototyping, but also the designer’s full-scale production.

B). Examines the practice of design fiction. For the designer, creating future fiction implicitly creates the circumstances in which he/she can freely throw open the doors of possibility and pose the question of “what if?” Testing the essence of design and designers for grounded imagination, design fiction is limited only by vision. It has implications for ideas like sustainability, communication, and wicked problems.

There is lots going on in both areas right now and a refreshing amount of chatter about the design fiction side of things.

Anyway, to make a long story longer, I have to start journaling on this more frequently. Herewith, some updates. I took a screenwriting class this quarter with Phil Garrett at OSU who has some great Hollywood experience. This course is the closest thing I could find at OSU to push me into completing what was initially just some random thoughts on what my story might be about. It turns out that Screenwriting 636 was the perfect prescription for me. Constructing characters and plot was just the beginning since I also had to develop all the essential dialog, describe the settings and all the essential components of a viable narrative. There was one wrinkle, however. Phil’s class calls for a thirty page screenplay — a 30 minute short film . I ran a bit long, at 75 pages, I ended up with a feature length script. Phil was more than generous and understanding by actually reading the whole thing.

Obviously this is a huge step and will hopefully set me up for a summer of aggressive work moving forward. Next steps on the script are to mold it into graphic novel format, but the basics are there. Before the summer is over I hope to have a basic panel count and storyboards complete.

Tomorrow (hopefully)  I’ll post an update on the progress gained through my Digital Cinematography class. No shortage of things to write about. Discipline!

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