Can speculative design save the world?

Traditionally, design is about creating effective solutions to existing problems and human needs. Designers aim to generate creative, usable ideas for new or better designed products, services, structures, interfaces or pieces of communication. Sometimes in the process of doing this, they help make the world a better place.

Speculative design is the opposite of designing practical solutions – it is about generating ideas as an end in themselves, in order to question the status quo. It’s not a methodology, it is an attitude – a way of thinking, of questioning where society is going, of dreaming about how things might be.

There are many terms that cover this sort of conceptual design approach: speculative design, critical design, design fiction, design futures, antidesign, radical design, interrogative design, design for debate, adversarial design, discursive design, futurescaping, and some design art.¹

What does speculative design involve?

Because of its conceptual nature, speculative design could involve whatever the designer wants it to! However, as I understand it, speculative design generally involves the following:

  • challenging assumptions and preconceptions
  • being skeptical and questioning the status quo
  • addressing complex issues or problems
  • provoking thought and triggering debate
  • creating new possibilities, not just making existing things better/different
  • stepping outside the constraints of reality (marketplace, cost, production)
  • using hypothetical/fictional products or ideas to explore possible futures – designing for how things could be.

The key is in the word ‘speculative’. Speculation is defined by Cambridge Dictionary as “the activity of guessing possible answers to a question without having enough information to be certain”. Therefore speculative design could be seen as a way of guessing the future – not by trying to predict it, but by trying to change it by stimulating thought and action from individuals and organisations or governments.

Who’s practising speculative design?

Two key proponents of speculative design approaches are Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, formerly at Royal College of Art London and now teaching at the Graduate Institute for Design Ethnography and Social Thought at The New School in New York. Here’s how they describe their approach: “Dunne & Raby use design as a medium to stimulate discussion and debate amongst designers, industry and the public about the social, cultural and ethical implications of existing and emerging technologies.”²

Dunne & Raby's spymaker project Dunne & Raby’s spymaker project questioned the use of surveillance technology, and designed a mask for an assistance dog who could guide its handler to an unmonitored area.

“This potential to use the language of design to pose questions, provoke, and inspire is conceptual design’s defining feature.”

“We are not talking about a space for experimenting with how things are now, making them better or different, but about other possibilities altogether.” ²

Superflux is another studio practising speculative design. Founded by Anab Jain and Jon Arden in 2009, the studio describes itself as “Translating future uncertainty into present day choices.” They work for international organisations, government bodies, galleries and others, and describe their method as:

“By creating concrete experiences from the future, we want to transform decision making today.”³

Superflux Debates visualiser Debate visualiser, creating visual summaries of debates and conversations via an algorithm. Superflux

Dominic Wilcox is a designer whose work crosses over between design, art, craft and technology. He says “I’ve convinced myself that within everything that surrounds us, there are hundreds of ideas and connections waiting to be found. We just need to look hard enough.”He is currently encouraging children to be inventors of the future via his Little Inventors project.

“…there are hundreds of ideas and connections waiting to be found. We just need to look hard enough.” 4 Non-contact handshake device designed to make people who dislike each other feel more comfortable. Dominic Wilcox

Philips is one organisation that has taken speculative design approaches on board. Their Philips Design Probes initiative was a far-future project that explored possible lifestyle scenarios. “Each Design Probe exploration was a range of ‘narratives’ designed to stimulate discussion and debate.” The Philips manifesto includes these words:

“…we remain agents of change, endlessly inquisitive and provocative, challenging the obvious, stimulating creativity… We believe design can really make a difference. It helps envision a better future, but also makes those visions a reality”.5

A Philips Design Probe project investigating growing food inside your house

What form does speculative design take?

Speculative design is about ideas, so how can these ideas be extracted from the head of the designer (or design collaborators) in order to be understood by others? If speculative designers want their idea to provoke thought and create new possibilities, they need to communicate the idea in some way. This could be via sketches, prototypes, models, text descriptions, films, verbal descriptions or performances. It need not be in finished form or fully realised – just enough to trigger peoples’ imagination and give shape to the idea.

Do we need speculative design?

Because speculative design is removed from the reality of market pressures and production processes, it can be a space for exploring completely new ideas and questioning assumptions about the things we produce, the values we hold important, and the direction our society is going.

Unfortunately, stepping away from reality it is not a luxury most designers have. They’re busy designing for the needs of today. Designers are accountable to their clients and end users, and under pressure to produce results. However, designers are also in a position to influence and change things, whether through their own design choices, through collaboration with others, or by educating and communicating with those around them.

Most designers already use some level of speculative approach when brainstorming ideas, but these ideas are quickly reined in when the real-world constraints of today are applied.

Maybe it would be feasible for designers to spend a percentage of their time in ‘speculative’ mode to imagine possibilities for improving tomorrow, but switch to ‘realistic’ mode to produce solutions for today?

The outputs from speculative design may be strange drawings, arty events or weird models of impossible things, but the real outputs are the conversations those things provoke. So yes, in my opinion we need speculative design to keep us questioning the status quo and considering alternate futures rather than feeling we need to follow a pre-set path. What do you think?

  1. “2. A Map of Unreality.” In Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming, by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, 11-31. S.l.: MIT, 2014.
  2. “Biography.” Dunne & Raby. Accessed August 03, 2018.
  3. “Questions.” Superflux. Accessed August 03, 2018.
  4. “Biography.” Dominic Wilcox. October 17, 2017. Accessed August 03, 2018.
  5. “Philips 90 Years of Design.” Philips 90 Years. Accessed August 06, 2018.

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