Design Fiction: Imagining Futures

Frank Lloyd Wright's plan for Ellis Island, envisioned in a comic book, absolutely superb. Copyright 2005 - The New York Times.

It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s Architecture!

I stumbled upon this fantastic article in the New York Times from all the way back in 2005. It covers a comic book: “The Manhattan Guardian” in which prolific author Grant Morrison weaves together the fantasy and reality of New York into a new DC comic city, “Cinderella City”.

Much of the Cinderella City looks like the New York of today: grimy subway stations, soaring buildings, busy street scenes. But Grant Morrison, … also laced it with architectural marvels that were proposed but never actually constructed.

I love the story of Grant Morrison reading through architectural literature hunting for the grandest examples of unrealized visions for New York. Included is a hotel Antonio Gaudi designed in 1903, along with the mega complex Ellis Island Key, a domed superstructure dreamt up by Frank Lloyd Wright before he passed away.

Comic books are amazing for their ability to explore alternate realities. While most of those realities are populated with incredible physical specimens with dubious fashion sense, the deep principle is the exploration of worlds where anything is possible. It’s a landscape that can be addictive.

Mr. Morrison, who lives in Glasgow, said by embellishing on the existing New York he was tapping into his favorite comic book power: the ability to create alternative realities. “Things as they are have never really been enough for me,” he said.

Design Fiction – a world to explore

As a designer I love the fantasy within comic books. There are no limitations of physics, no clients with shareholders, no production cycles with budgets and balance sheets. They are free beyond hollywood where ideas have to be realized in believable ways within the complex requirements of the moving image.

What happens if designers are given more freedom to fantasize? What narratives of possibilities could be created if design research, linked to deep human observation, could break free from the handcuffs of feasibility, and play openly?

Below is a favourite quote from Science Fiction author and visionary, Bruce Sterling;

I’m a science fiction writer, and as I became more familiar with design, it struck me that the futuristic objects and services within science fiction are quite badly designed…  The emotional payoff of the science fiction genre is the sense of wonder it conveys. Science fiction “design” therefore demands some whiz-bang, whereas industrial design requires safety, utility, serviceability, cost constraints, appearance, and shelf appeal. To these old-school ID virtues nowadays we might add sustainability and a decent interface.

In his article, [no longer available online], he explores the limitations inherent in being a writer and communicating through the written medium ideas that are unimaginable.

I like the metaphorical parallel of designer author. The author, armed with the medium of the science fiction pulp linked to a specific niche demographic willing and eager to believe the unbelievable, each trying to outdo one another with the most extreme possibilities. It sounds like design to me, replace pulp with tv commercials, and science fiction with cell phones and you might see what I mean.

After reading the article I emailed Bruce and was amazed to get a response. Some highlights include his differentiation between design fiction and any other form of design:

“My feeling is that “design” has clients, while “fiction” by its  nature has an audience.  So, while a persona scenario is aimed at a client, a work of design fiction uses design thinking but is aimed at some larger segment of the public. In other words, design fiction is for somebody who didn’t commission that service and isn’t paying for it.”

That intrigues me. Academic design research has yet to really find it’s identity, Bruce Sterling is beginning to outline a vision that could put design academia into context. And to clarify the value of design process within design fiction:

“Although I do write short stories which are design fiction, I don’t think that written texts are a particularly interesting kind of design fiction.  I think that the stuff that really has it going on is (a) imaginary gadgets and (b) futurist interventions — fake ads, street theater, think-and-do labs with a public interface.  It’s stuff that is intended to mess with the heads of the public without putting on any literary clothing.

“For instance, if really you want to mess with an iPad concept, a 3,000 word short story on the web would get  you maybe 200 readers,  while a well-executed fake iPad YouTube video might well get you 300,000 hits, especially if it was designed from the get-go to be witty, eye-catching and viral.”

Sounds like a great outline for a creative lab. Imagine really stirring up the ideation studio, mixing comic book writers and illustrators, science fiction authors, along with designers, model makers and engineers. Hmm… side project anyone?

Design Fiction Practitioners

Below is a quick break down of some superb design studios and individuals who might fit into the category of design fiction. This is hopefully the tip of an ice burg I still have to discover.

Carpal Skin - protective glove. 2009-2010, Acrylic Composites Museum of Science, Boston.

Neri Oxman at MIT, running the material ecology lab.

Neri’s exploration of emerging materials science is a blend of architecture and nature. Her style is provocative and playful, exploring the leading edge of the dialogue of how things will be made in the future. While there is a broad vision and intent behind her work, there is no singular client, only investors who sponsor and participate in particular experiments. Her projects have been presented in MoMA and push the boundaries of digital fabrication.

Here is her website, which offers a little window into her research.

Design Philips Probe into home agriculture. This design fiction is a product that integrates wetlands, fish, hydroponics and solar for a closed loop farm production. The irony is that many find it too believable and are asking to order the product.

Design Probes, Philips, Clive van Heerden.

Clive van Heerden runs one of the most free-thinking and provocative design research labs I have ever seen. The lab produces “design probes” that create “provocations” of the future, around topics that Clive’s teams identify as being important for exploration. His team then looks into the responses from these probes to look for trends and design opportunities. Probes include “Digital Tattoo” and Future Food, and range from odd and shocking, to the surprisingly believable.

Their website is a little difficult to navigate, but worth the effort.

I have no idea what this is, but it looks intriguing. Photo by Julian Bleecker, from their flickr gallery of projects from 2009. The link above is to their excellent essay on design fiction.

Near Future Laboratory

A while ago I found this excellent essay from the Near Future laboratory outlining a vision of design fiction. Their web site is an excellent resource and the studio looks like a superb place to play. I’ll have to dive in deeper to understand more, stay tuned.

Above image and design by Geoff Manaugh, Tim Maly and Liam Young. These "Green Throated - Coal Gulls" are an example of future organisms adapted from scientific industrial experiments. Link above to a superb blog with a very unique structure.

Liam Young, Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today

I’ve only recently discovered Liam Young and the network of creative minds he collaborates with, and there is so much to explore. The blog “Tomorrows Thoughts Today” is structured into “fast thoughts” – books being launched, events and current projects, “medium thoughts” – upcoming events and ideas, “slow thoughts” – long term visionary ideas unfolding at a broad range of conceptual levels. Much, much more to come.

Please let me know in the comments if there are any other creative studios and thinkers that you think may fall into this realm of design fiction?

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2 Comments on “Design Fiction: Imagining Futures”

  1. Anselm Vereertbrugghen says:

    Nice, article on a fascinating topic.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. […] utopias. Industrial Design doesn’t really explore this. I’ve written previously about Design Fiction, and thoroughly enjoy the insightful work that comes out of the Philips Design Probes, but these […]


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