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Speculative Design 101

Wednesday, 30 September 2015   (0 Comments)
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Is it possible to grow a new pair of trainers? Can a live sheep replace dialysis machines? Can a recorded library of electrical impulses choreograph dance moves? These ideas sound like something out of a dystopian novel or science fiction movie. The truth is that they’re real ideas researched and proposed by designers whose focus is on creating alternative visions of today’s society. They are speculative designers.

Designer and former head of the Design Interactions programme at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in the United Kingdom, Anthony Dunne, is a leading proponent of the design discipline. In a presentation to Kyoto Design Lab earlier this year, he creates the context to speculative design: “Futures are imagined for all sorts of reasons - from the futuristic scenarios of the tech industry to the imaginary worlds of science fiction cinema. Visual representation plays an important role, but the languages used to present futures are often hackneyed and repetitive, limiting their ability to inspire and provoke genuinely new thinking about possible futures.”

Carl di Silvo, Associate Professor in the Digital Media Program at the School of Literature, Media and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology, provides an additional definition of speculative design as “a practice of creating imaginative projections of alternative presents and possible futures using design representations and objects.”

Dunne views four different kinds of futures:

  1. Probable futures which emerge from our current skills and mindsets
  2. Potential futures which are often considered by scenario planners 20 years hence and imagine alternative realities to implement survival strategies
  3. Possible futures which look at what can be changed in, for example, economics, human psychology, ethics and politics – this is what we see in sci-fi movies
  4. Preferable futures which is the future that we want: this is where designers can imagine different kinds of realities

Speculative design explores how design intersects with science and technology to describe and embody that preferable future. Designers are able to ask ‘what if’ questions that provoke debate and reveal ethical, moral, technological, cultural and political scenarios about that future.

Dunne and his partner, Fiona Raby - professor of Industrial Design at the University of Applied Arts Vienna and a former member of the research and teaching staff at the RCA - run a design studio in London. Together they published Speculative Everything – Design, Future and Social Dreaming in 2013, a seminal academic text on speculative design which contains some examples of how the critical approach can be applied. In this presentation at the Resonate Festival in 2013, Dunne talks about some of the other projects that he and Raby have worked on themselves and also with students of the Design Interactions programme.

If you’re looking for other examples of speculative design, in January this year Design Indaba published a fascinating chronicle that perfectly encapsulates what the design discipline tries to achieve. Watch here to see how designers have imagined the possibilities of reshaping and refashioning the human body; fooling biometric scanners and a nano supermarket that shows possible future scenarios.

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