Suspension of disbelief, a journey into Design Fiction
Spaceships, video conferencing on tiny devices the same size as a wristwatch, machines that heated our meals far more quickly than any oven. These technologies were once the stuff of science fiction. People either believed they would be coming much later or not at all. But, one by one, they did. In the race to hold dominion of the last frontier the US and Russia began to send people into space in 1961. Space age, near instantaneous heating was made possible int the home from 1967 with the introduction of counter top microwave ovens. Many science fiction books, films and television shows predicted the extension of the telephone into a video conferencing device but webcams and Skype are now the norm on ADSL lines and with the rise of smartphones we’ll soon be able to stand anywhere and see and talk to somebody else who is also anywhere.
What I’m trying to get at with this science fiction is coming true rant is that at some point inventions which seem now to be absolutely common sense and taken for granted, were once the stuff of fantasy. It is here that I introduce the concept of Design Fiction. Design fiction sounds complicated and “new age” but really what it means is letting your imagination go while rounding out an idea. How often do we pull ourselves up on an idea because it seems to farfetched, expensive or trivial. Design Fiction is the excuse to carry through with that idea and express its form, function and use within a fictional world that you create. Lets take for example I have an idea for a new kind of umbrella which is clear so that the user can still see the sky and has LED lights on each point so that tall people (I’m 6’1″) can see them on a busy street at night and avoid getting poked in the eye. In Design Fiction I would then write a short (or long) story about a beautiful girl using this fantastic umbrella and how she meets the 6’1” love of here life by not poking him in the eye on a blustery Melbourne night. This story allows the designer o fully think through some of the design advantages and flaws long before the designing or manufacture stage, thus saving time and money while create a more thought out product. (That means you Myki…)
Here is a Manifesto for Design Fiction by Matt Ward with the full text of his blog found here.
1. All design is ideological
The social, cultural and political basis of those ideologies need to be exposed, interpreted and explored. In DF the ideological drive is laid bare for all to see. Deconstructing the economic and political underpinning of design is an essential skill to develop.
2. Fiction as a testing ground for reality
As with any practice where contingency is mapped and explored, future ‘scenarios’ lay a framework for possibility. Once represented and articulated they can become a space of shared imagination and language.
3. Re-inscribing behaviour and responsibility
In imagining the norms, morals and aspirations of our fictional protagonists, we set up behavioural trajectories for action. By scripting use, designers frame expectations and opportunity. If Madeleine Akrich is right in her assertion that ‘technical objects contain and produce a specific geography of responsibilities’, then the opportunity to re-assign these responsibilities is an exciting possibility.
4. The decisions you make have consequences: prototype them in the stories you tell
What first seems like a good idea, can have unexpected, unintended and undesirable consequences. Use fiction as a way to think through a full range of possible consequences. The interesting (and often dangerous) impacts of objects happen on the outskirts of intention, like a ripple effect on reality. Pretend before you mess the world up.
5. Normalise to persuade
New ideas, objects and behaviours are difficult to imagine and assimilate into our view of our everyday lives. Prototyping banality allows for the imaginative leap it takes to place one self in a future context.
6. Make space for experimentation
Developing a rich experimental design process is key to a continually improving and innovating practice. By suspending the rules of reality, DF allows for meandering play and unfettered exploration. Allow the material and meaning of design to emerge from an iterative experimental process.
7. Think through making
DF as a pedagogic practice allows students to think about the future (consequences, possibilities, actions and events) through the very material of their practice. In the construction of the aesthetic of the future, you can manipulate your own thinking about how you want to engage and locate yourself in the world.
8. Things that work don’t create interesting stories
One of the biggest hurdles in making Design Fictions is that the better that objects work, the more ‘seamless’ the world is run, the more boring the fiction is. Tension, loss, love, pain and fear (etc.) are all more interesting emotions to explore. Hence the tendency towards either dystopian or corporate idealist narratives. Finding the uncomfortable haunting fiction that surround an object, the place where social life starts to break down and fracture is far more interesting than a world that ‘just works’.
9. Build from ideas to aesthetics
The idea of aesthetic originality is difficult to comprehend. We live in a world where it is commonly believed that everything is a remix. In design it’s common to reference, borrow and “quote” form from the past. Opening up your source code to expose your visual references can be creatively productive. However, this can also lead to visual trends that fail to move the form and discipline forward. Instead, build aesthetics from the ground up, develop ideas the create a logic of aesthetic decision making.
10. Things live in their interaction with their context
The complex social dynamics that emerge from the insertion of a new object into a stable context should be prototyped in fiction. By ‘acting out’ new forms of interaction we can see if our ideas have a place in the world.
11. People are the protagonists in the production of reality
In design it’s essential to know your users, in DF it’s equally as important; research your central characters, make three dimensional characters not ‘personas’.
12. Craft the narrative
Too much DF seems to be produced by people who have never read any fiction. If you’re using fiction as a method, immerse yourself in the literary world. Understand how fiction works, what makes a good story and how to build complex, subtle and engaging stories.
13. Don’t mistake the training for the race
What I’m discussing here is design education, not all design or even design fiction. Therefore it’s important to understand student work as a side effect of learning. All to often I see work being presented and critiqued as if it was ‘professional practice’. The work created by students at college is to push their understanding of a discipline, not produce design as it exists in the cut and thrust of industry (fictional or not). This doesn’t mean that the quality of the work is weaker, it’s just doing a different thing. DF creates a sandpit for reality, where life can be tried, test, critiqued and debated – a safe ground of play and opportunity.
14. Understand what your fiction is doing in reality
Don’t allow DF to be an excuse for poorly conceived, weakly thought through design work. Just because your ideas live in a fictional domain it doesn’t mean that you can get away from important design decisions. All DF operates in the world – it does something to somebody: be clear and articulate about its intension, create a framework to test its success.