Design fiction – rendering and writing

Per my previous post, I have sent out the first chapter of my graphic novel to a handful of individuals who are familiar with the finer points of the project. While I assemble their feedback I have found plenty to do. Another peer-reviewed journal has shown interest in my, “When designers ask, “What if?”  paper. This one is requesting major changes. I am fine with that, since I submitted the paper nearly a year ago and there is lots of new learning as well as new perspective on the issue of design fiction. In the next 4-6 weeks, it looks like I will have to, essentially, rewrite the piece to incorporate this and to satisfy reviewer requests. All in all: good preparation for my final thesis writing.

The design fiction idea

As my reviewers adeptly noted there is a fair amount of activity in the design fiction realm and suggested that I identify more of it in my paper. The fact is, that more and more of it is coming online every day — the bigger question may be, “Where do you stop?”  Discussions also circulate in the science fiction realm regarding the importance of that style to future thinking. Most of these are concerned with science fiction strictly in the prose narrative form.  picks up on the idea of thought experiments which is my first exposure to the term. In many ways, I think that it is at the core of design fiction.

My thesis is distinguishable (from the many flavors out there), because it defines design fiction with two key requirements:

1. Design fiction works within the drama, life, and culture. I believe I am on the same page with  Bleecker and Sterling on this. It’s not about fetishizing the object or design, a la Microsoft, Corning or Sony, but in the way it works with the fabric of the narrative. Some of the best examples of this are in movies like Minority Report, Blade Runner, or 2001: A Space Odyssey. In these movies, the design futures, like the gesture interface used by Tom Cruise, Blade Runner’s epic billboards and photovoltaic glass, or the pre-cursor to the iPad used by Kier Dullea and Gary Lockwood, are not the focus of the story. They are diegetic prototypes; part of the background that moves the story forward. In this way we are able to observe, if we choose, how the design affects people, how they use it and ponder its viability. In so doing, it also creates a model of their culture. This is a major distinction because it is design as it should be. (This is also the stuff of drama, of narrative, of graphic novels. More on this later.)

2. It must result in a visualization or prototype. For us to absorb and appreciate the fiction, it must seem real enough to pass into the realm of the ordinary… part of the story. Therein, we as observers, can begin to appreciate how design becomes invisible. As I was discussing with my thesis committee chair today, I am directly experiencing a demonstration of the effect. The characters in my graphic novel are using a variety of technological designs intuitively, as part of their everyday lives. They don’t think about the fact that they can make a telepathic call to someone across the city, or that they can lapse into the virtual with a few taps of their fingertips; that they can change their attire purely via thought process. This is the kind of design that they take for granted . It becomes part of the mesh of the story. By seeing that happen, we are able to accept the notion that it might happen and examine the ramifications that would ensue if it did.

The fact that I have to find a way to explain it, is obviously not for the characters involved in living it, but for those observing it. Through this medium we can look at the way these technologies have changed the lives of the characters and, perhaps, gain insight into the awesome power of design, technology and the decisions we make — about what to make. The benefit in this exercise, to the designer quickly rises to the surface.

I’ll speak more to the special significance of the graphic novel to all of this in the next post.

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