Tag Archives: design research

The long litany of new and improved.

Artifact from the future.

Ed. note: I define an artifact from the future as something you might bring back as evidence that you were there. A sort of proof of what it is and what is there. Think Rod Taylor and the flower from The Time Machine.


Closing excerpts from a journal found in 2101.

I was born on this day in 1990. Somehow it seems as though my 111th birthday would be more auspicious, more cherished, more celebratory. They tell me I can live forever if I want. But the question that burns into my brain is, “Why?” What is left? What is there here that I should look forward too?

When I was a boy, before the surge, I remember  looking forward to going to the ocean. The trip couldn’t come soon enough and the days seemed like years until finally we would go. We would drive in a car, my parents and I, and I would stand there with my feet in the wet sand and feel the warm water lap at my toes. Perhaps it was the waiting that made it all so meaningful. We don’t wait anymore. We don’t have to. If I want the ocean to circle around my ankles and feel my feet sink into the soft, supple sand, I have only to plug-in. I can smell it, feel it, hear it, and see it. If I want, I can even dip my finger into the water and experience that unmistakably  intense saltiness. When I’m ready to come back, I simply unplug. I think that it is the ocean, but I know that it is not. I don’t have to wait for it.

Already I’ve had 3 organ replacements, grown from my own DNA, I’ve spent thousands upon thousands of hours in the V; the virtual world we have created out of our own fantasies, dreams and perversions. Nothing is real there, and there is no waiting. The crimes I have committed there are harmless they tell me, even therapeutic. It keeps us docile in the real world. But I think there is damage. I know there is.  It goes beyond the virtual. It wreaks havoc in my soul. People don’t believe in souls anymore. They don’t have to. If you never die, what’s the difference?

My avatar tells me that death is the final frontier the one thing you can’t experience in the V.

Soon I will know for certain. Here is my plan: It’s difficult to gain access to the mag train tunnel, but I’ve found a way in. They say that when a mag train hits you at 700 miles an hour you vaporize. I kind of like the thought of that.

There’s really no one to say goodbye to. If anyone wishes to pursue the vapor trail to me, my memories and persona are in the vault at the IABank on Prosser Strasse. My account number is #459LK077JE28977. If anyone wants to know.

Good luck with all this.


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In the future, synthetic humans are as common as automobiles today.

Don’t lie, wouldn’t it be fun to kick the tires?

In a previous blog, I posted a rambling essay on roboethics and the misuse of synths. However, in the world of The Lightstream Chronicles, most synths are used well within the limits of the law and those like Marie and Toei are almost ubiquitous. As we can see in page 79, Lee Chen’s houseboy is a synth, and a masseuse. People in the 22nd century look at synths the way people in the 21st century looked at cars. The wealthier you are the more likely you are to have more than one synth and probably more sophisticated in their design and feature set. Those in the lower income brackets might have an older or more basic model. You might even find those who are strapped for New Asia credits to be doing their own synth repairs and cobbling together parts from scrap or other models.

The average future family has one synth, like Marie, usually a domestic who doubles as a nanny, cooks cleans, and handles a variety of household chores. The price for a domestic synth varies based upon what the unit is capable of doing. Slightly analogous to the smart phone of the 21st century, the feature set of a synth can be augmented or uploaded with apps, called scripps, that could include features such as language proficiency, and levels of expertise such as in medicine or music. Scripps are moderately priced, but based on the model there are limitations to scripp memory. Special functions such as sex organs are another optional feature.

There is also a booming business in synth companions. At the top of the line are recent improvements on nearly human characteristics such as those present in Keiji-T. Keiji’s T-Class designation is, of course, reserved for the police force, however the domestic counterpart would be an H-Class. This class of synth can also be modeled to a near-exact visual duplicate grown from its owners DNA.

Synths can also be built to resemble any species or even combination of species. Nearly half of all domestic pets are synthetic. Popular cross-species varieties are Homo sapiens crossed with Canis Lupus Familiaris, Reptilia, Felidae, Ursidae, and Delphinidae. Many of these blends can also be done in the lab combining human DNA though the variations are considerably fewer.


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Evangelizing Design Fiction and topping it off with Syd Mead and Blade Runner

The last two weeks have been rapid-fire. I presented my thesis research at two different universities as part of the interview process for Assistant Professor design positions. The last one was, coincidentally, was in the precise location of the 2013 Emerge Conference. I had nothing to do with planning it this way it’s just how things worked out. In fact, I was so buried in the preparation for these interviews that the Emerge Conference dropped completely off my radar screen. So, as I am presenting on one part of the campus, about the idea of design fiction as a serious area of design research, Bruce Sterling and Brad Allenby, pivotal voices in future thinking, are presenting in another. It just seemed weird, especially since I had no idea it was going on until I got into town. Sterling, of course, is credited with creating the neologism known as “design fiction,” and though he probably has no idea that I exist, I think we are watching closely from similar perspectives. Note the similarities with his recent blog and my post from a few weeks ago.

It was an exhausting day of meetings and presentations, so I was anxious to get back to the hotel and decompress. Despite this I could not pass up the opportunity to trek across campus for a 6:30 screening of the digitally remastered 1987 classic, Blade Runner, in an awesome little theater with a shake-your-chair sound system. After the film, who else but Syd Mead shows up to field questions. Mead, complete with sunglasses, says he’s 79 years old, but there are no signs that he’s slowing down. He’s sharp as a tack and a bit feisty. Mead said that he is quite comfortable with revising his concepts or with ideas being outright rejected, as long as he gets paid. I think that some of the students saw his ‘show-me-the-money’ attitude as a bit arrogant, but Mead is a design and concept-art legend, he’s been working in the profession for a long time, and knows the way great designs and great art would rarely come to life without free enterprise. So, while some students may see the idea of commerce as a tool of capitalist oppression, Syd gets paid. Good for him.

All that being said, the presentations over the past couple of weeks went well, I think. I’m thinking that close to 100 turned out for my last one. Most of the comments were positive and encouraging. I may even have a few more converts to the web comic, but after the rigorous interview processes I have no idea where all of this will end up. Maybe none of it will turn into gainful employment, but they all add up to great experiences and the chance to share ideas with smart people.

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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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Back to design fiction

Strange that my last post was on the day Steve Jobs died. No relation, however. Part of the challenge in moving forward on the graphic novel is that this is also part of my thesis for my MFA. Hence, there are two parts, as I have blogged about before. The first part is the project itself. The second part is the scholarly work that gets me my degree, which will also authorize me to teach design. Without turning this into a lengthy excuse on why I have not blogged prior to this, suffice to say that between teaching and writing, visuals have taken something of a back seat.

New developments have occurred in the meantime. I have received word from Iridescent, the Journal of Design Research that my paper submitted last June has advanced to peer review. That surprised me. I guess it took so long that I had pretty much forgotten about it, and I think that a lot of papers that get submitted to these “Call for Papers” things sometimes go without a response at all. Of course, since June I have done a considerable amount of new writing on the subject and the whole idea of design fiction as it applies to my project. Clearly, at this point I’m seeing my effort at design fiction as both a work of fiction and a work of design, which definitely makes it a hybrid of that concept as defined by Sterling and Bleecker. Certainly, it makes it wildly ambitious, since it takes on many dimensions, including an interesting form of design research. I will elaborate on that in a different post.

As for the project, my thesis committee was pushing hard for more back-story. Imagine, asking questions like, “How did we get here?” I was considering this stuff possibly too tedious. Nevertheless, I think I have found some exciting new devices that can weave back-story into the body of the work without being boring. The fact is, I’ve done a lot of research into why and how the world got to the way I have depicted it in 2159 — why not weave it in?

Finally (for this post), I am staring down what they call 5th Quarter Review. This is the point in your thesis journey where you report to your committee on what the heck you are doing and show some work and progress. Theoretically, they can tell you to go back to the drawing board, or to look for some other career, or give you the thumbs up. In most cases, they tell you to make some additions and move forward. I have been staying in touch with them regularly and though we have had some bumps in the road, I think we are on the same page. My goal for 5QR is to have an entire scene from the book rendered, a couple of spreads of back-story and my thesis introduction, and outline complete. So, I will be busy this quarter, too.

Hopefully I will keep blogging throughout. Though I have plenty to talk about — no promises 🙂

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