Transdisciplinary Design

Throwing a Brick at My Baby

Posted on November 24, 2021

A designer I spoke with recently gave me the advice that when you get stuck, “Throw a brick at your baby.” In this metaphor, my baby is speculative design and this essay is the brick.

I fell in love with speculative design when I first encountered it in 2019 during Design Week Portland. Up until then, it had never occurred to me that design could be anything beyond graphic or product design. My brain expanded in a way it never had before, and the deeper I ventured into the field, the more I loved it. Finding speculative design felt like finding a light in the darkness, a doorway through which I was able to find something tangible to hold on to, to move towards, in a time where everything felt hopeless. I have since taken workshops, classes, and read many books on the subject, but until last week I hadn’t encountered the criticisms. 

Speculative design is defined by Dunne & Raby in the seminal text Speculative Everything as “…to use design as a means of speculating how things could be…This form of design thrives on imagination and aims to open up new perspectives on what are sometimes called wicked problems, to create spaces for discussion and debate about alternative ways of being, and to inspire and encourage people’s imaginations to flow freely” (Dunne 2). This typically takes the form of “objects made to inspire thought about alternative futures [which] are the product of a designer’s specific concerns and reflect [these concerns] strongly” (Light). There is a typical aesthetic to these objects and how they are presented, usually very sleek, modern, and sterile – which reflects the taste of the overwhelmingly white, eurocentric, male, academic, and middle class designers in the discipline.

 

 “In a gallery, only people who already agree with you can hear you scream.” – Cameron Tonkwise (Auger 89)

 

In the article “Questioning the ‘critical’ in Speculative Critical Design” by Luiza Prado and Pedro Oliviera, they state “…the vast majority of the body of work currently available in the field has concentrated its efforts on envisioning near futures that deal with issues that seem much more tangible to their own privileged crowd. Projects that clearly reflect the fear of losing first-world privileges — gastronomical, civil or cultural — in a bleak, dystopic future abound, while practitioners seem to be blissfully unaware (or unwilling to acknowledge, in some cases) of other realities” (Prado).

The authors of Beyond Speculative Design: Past, Present, Future, ask: “To speculate seems too difficult when our realities fluctuate so readily…how can we possibly speculate when times are so unstable? How do we imagine alternatives whilst we are struggling to cope with the here and now?” (Auger 168)

Hearing these critiques (among others presented by my classmates, and in the comments section of the Design & Violence website at MoMA (Thackara)) felt like a kick in the stomach, mostly because I knew they were right. It reminded me of the moment of disorientation I experience every time I’m faced with the reality of my privilege, of the deep shame and embarrassment that I didn’t see it before. 

I was also struck by how clearly something inside of me is sure that speculative design still has value despite the critiques. During a speculative futures workshop I took with the Design Futures Initiative this year, I was introduced to the concept of participatory futures. I had already been facilitating participatory and collaborative futures in my own design practice, but having a name to put to it was deeply affirming and expansive.

My guess at where participatory futures lies. Image via Elliott Montgomery

While traditionally speculative design has been an activity for the aforementioned privileged groups, participatory futures is a way of democratizing the visioning process, tapping into the inherent ‘collective intelligence’ of communities, and co-creating potential futures to inform choices in the present moment (Basra). If we want to uplift diverse voices in the field of speculative design, this is one of the ways to do it.

Once a community can vision a preferable future, it allows them to articulate it, to fight for it, to begin to build it. Yes, the navel – gazing, product based speculative design has its shortcomings, but within it lies a seed of something deeply powerful. The mindset shift that is prompted by the “anticipatory consciousness” that speculative design provokes is an incredibly profound tool that can be applied to many different contexts. “Those who can perceive the working of futures on the present have a different orientation in attempting to manage personal or mutual benefit, and, indeed, different power to those for whom such things are obscure” (Light). This power can be applied to empowering disenfranchised communities, uplifting marginalized voices, strengthening grassroots organizations, building open source frameworks to generate movement towards facing our wicked problems, and much more. It is our responsibility as practitioners to utilize this power in a mindful, straightforward and benevolent manner.

Participatory futures vs traditional futures. Image via Ann Light.

This will not be the last brick I throw at this baby, and despite the discomfort and disorienting nature of this work I look forward to pushing forward my ability as a facilitator to hold space for communities to begin to unlock their power through speculative futures.

 

Futures as a tangible path forward.

Futures as a method of backcasting from defined preferable outcomes.

Futures as a vessel to explore and articulate what we do & don’t want.

Futures as a method of optimism in darkness.

Futures as a form of empowerment.

Futures as a practice of hope.

 

By Grace Mervin

 


 

Sources:

Auger, James, et al., editors. Beyond Speculative Design: Past, Present, Future. SpeculativeEdu, 2021.

Basra, Santini. “Remote Participatory Futuring.” Medium, https://medium.com/andthen-journal/remote-participatory-futuring-c53ae4626ff8. Accessed 22 November 2021.

Dunne, Anthony, and Fiona Raby. Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. The MIT Press, 2013.

Light, Ann. Collaborative speculation: Anticipation, inclusion and designing counterfactual futures for appropriation. Futures, vol 134, December 2021.

Montgomery, Elliott P. Mapping Speculative Design. https://epmid.com/Mapping-Speculative-Design. Accessed 22 November 2021.

Prado, Luiza and Pedro Oliviera. “Questioning the “critical” in Speculative & Critical Design.” Medium, https://medium.com/a-parede/questioning-the-critical-in-speculative-critical-design-5a355cac2ca4. Accessed 22 November 2021.

Thackara, John. Republic of Salvation (Michael Burton & Michiko Nitta). Design & Violence Website. MoMA. https://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2013/designandviolence/ republic-of-salivation-michael-burton-and-michiko-nitta/. Accessed 12 November 2021.

Woebken, Chris and Elliott P. Montgomery. Extrapolation Factory Operator’s Manual. 2016.