© 2013 ellathompson


Design fiction. Fictional design. DF. It’s a thing, apparently. A big thing. What is this thing, you say? Well, it is the interplay between fiction and design.

… Aaand what is that?

According to Bruce Sterling – a dude of some sort of importance and knowledge and esteem in this area – it is the “deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change”.

And what on earth does that mean?

Another definition provided by Bosch’s article: “an approach to design that speculates about new ideas through prototyping and storytelling”.

Ehhhhhhhhh. Nope. Still not following.

WELL. Design fiction is imagining a potential world. Not necessarily a world, but some form of place. Hypothetical tools for a future reality. An almost attainable reality. But not quite yet, and maybe not ever.

Yeah – no – I don’t completely get it either. My question is what is it used for? A lot of things are thrown around in Ward’s article – literature, education, technology consultancy, advertising and marketing, cinema. In the end, it seems like the final decision is story-writing. Or something like that. Or that and design education? Or is design education just education regarding design fiction… ? Argh, welcome to my mind.

I feel like this term has a strong science-fiction orientation. Science fiction. Design fiction. Sci-fi. Desi-fi. Same difference. Its most understandable settings of application – to me – are cinema and TV and video games… Like Avatar, The Sims, and so on. But apparently it has a lot more potential for application…


Anyway, the two readings speak of design fiction quite differently. Sterling stresses design over fiction, claiming that design fiction “tells worlds rather than stories”. He emphasises design fiction as a professional practice. Ward – on the other hand – stresses fiction over design, and design fiction as a pedagogic practice.

Design fiction works on the edge of reality. Design fictioneers (I’m calling them that, kay?) produce propositions for a world yet to exist. But it needs to be a believable world. Hence the emphasis placed on diegetic quality in these dreamt worlds. My interpretation: the goal is for the designed world to become almost attainable. Because things are so much more fascinating when you can’t quite reach them.


What confuses me about Ward’s article is how he begins to discuss design fiction in terms of some business proposal or design that will eventually be implemented somehow and affect our future world – something that needs to consider factors like fit to market, economic viability, brand alignment, as well as social, cultural, political, economic underpinnings of the design. And THEN he goes on and talks about how we need to design a world that screws up. Because a world that “just works” is boring. Wait – WHAT? Make a world that malfunctions? … Terrorism? D: WHAT KIND OF ARTICLE IS THIS?! But I get the vague impression that – in that moment – he is speaking of stories. Because he says the word stories. Ha. Nice work, me. “Things that work don’t make interesting stories”; a broken world full of tension, loss, love, pain, fear is far more interesting than a smooth-running world.

So this brings me back to my original question – how is design fiction implemented? What is it used for? And in which settings? IS THIS REAL OR IMAGINARY?!


A lot of interesting tips and points in Ward’s article:

  • It is best to push aside practical limitations of reality, and instead focus on the fiction. This provides space for experimentation, space without rules of reality.
  • Use fiction as a testing ground for reality. Imagine. Prototype. Test possibilities. Test consequences. There may be unexpected consequences. Pretend before you mess the world up.
  • Immerse yourself in the literary world and craft the narrative.
  • Learning means using an open approach, rather than professional practice. Student work is “a side effect of learning”.


Some bits I didn’t completely grasp / disagreed with:

  • Build aesthetics from the ground up. Everything is a remix of other things. Originality is difficult. – So, the best way is simply to not draw from stuff? Well, it’s kinda impossible not to…
  • Imagine the fictional protagonists. Their characteristics and behavioural trajectories for action. … So are we writing a story again? 
  • Know your users – Well, FIRST I need to know what the hell users are. Please. Pretty please?
  • An education curriculum that works to develop skills and knowledge it takes to be designer (what sorts of skills?), and encourages students to push the boundaries of the discipline (what boundaries?).


In Bosch’s article, Sterling – like Ward – stresses the importance of the word ‘diegetic’ in regards to design fiction. The word encourages focus on specific tools – “potential objects and services” – of the hypothetical world. Sterling offers a bit more specificity to design fiction by stating an actual form of design fiction: videos (in his opinion, the “most effective design fictions”). He explains audience attraction towards design fictions – e.g. “future gadgets” are fascinating because of their relevance to the audience and potential to exist (a common phrase: “that would be cool if it existed”). So, design fictions need to be based on compelling ideas – that is, they need to play towards what the audience wants.

But then he goes on to say that ideas which don’t do this are stupid. He uses the wacky idea of someone being able to “flap [their] arms and fly to the moon” as an example. Yeah, I can see his point. But – at the same time – I don’t think you should ever write something off as a stupid idea. What about Harry Potter? Sure, it’s far-fetched, but every child who reads it probably ends up with a strange craving to be able to fly on a broomstick. That story manages to suspend disbelief about the most impossible things. But, does this even count as a design fiction? Or does design fiction have to be based more on science-fiction? Where do we draw the line between fantasy and sci-fi in relation to design fiction?

Sterling ends by explaining the weight of design fiction in futurism. Whatever that is. I suppose it’s a new approach towards designing a better-functioning world. A new “consciousness”, as he puts it. Designers supposedly have all the power in building the future. Wait – designers – does that include us? Media and communication students? Coz that’s pretty damn cool.


Despite this post containing a number of my cynical thoughts on the subject, I actually really enjoyed these readings. I got a lot out of them. They made far more sense than the Argyris reading. Thank God. I particularly enjoyed Ward’s fun phrase, “sandpit for reality”. Hehehehe… fun. If ya wanna, go check out my friend, Tiana’s, blog post about design fiction.



One Comment

  1. tianakoutsis
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 11:39 pm | #

    haha oh ella, cheers for the random mention xoxo

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