is an elusive notion. What it means and how it appears has changed over time. Before the term was coined, many people exhibited the traits, attitudes and skills that are associated to a “designer”. They were curious minds, craftspeople, problem-solvers, collaborators, facilitators of ideas,… Today, with the ever-growing number of disciplines and the cross-pollination of skills, drawing the boundaries of what design is and pinning down what is a designer feels no easier.

By nature design questions, provokes and inspire. It is rooted in the why and not just the how.

“Design is not a profession but an attitude”

— Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

Design is also a catalyst for change. It is shaped by its context: its relation to cultures, to other fields and to major issues of our times. There are almost too many battles to fight, too many issues to embrace. We talk plenty about technological acceleration, ecological disasters, the changing political landscape and the concerns they raise.

How will those things change our lives? How are those things changing what we need from design?

There is no such thing as neutral design. Like John Schaar said, “the is not some place we are going, but one we are creating. The paths are not be found, but made”. So what kind of path are we making ?

Like many others, I believe in design as a channel to change the status quo, not reinforce it.

A [speculative] design conference

A few months ago I flew over to San Francisco to attend the Primer Conference. It brought together people (ok, mainly designers) united by desire to explore how ideas turn into action, and to use design to do so.

All seem to be looking for alternatives to today’s narratives, and Primer is to be a good place to start. Dubbed as a speculative design conference, Primer18 gathered about twenty speakers from academia, the design industry and other independent practices. They showcased projects, outlined challenges, shared frameworks and touched on wider socio-political implication of design.

It’s been a while, and I feel I need to put down my rambling thoughts together, wondering about the nature of the conference, and what it tells us about our relationship with design today.

Did you say ‘speculative’ design?

Defining design offers much room for debate and discussion, and this naturally extends to associated fields including the one of speculative design that Primer associates itself with.

Many speakers at the conference touched on this challenge and shared their attempts to position the field, rationalise the practices and frame the attitudes. For example, Melissa Hui’s research investigates behaviours and rituals of ‘futures makers’, highlighting different mindsets and patterns. Bruce Tharp on the other hand, tries to codify project methodology patterns present in speculative projects.

Left: a peek into Melissa Huil’s research into the mindset and behaviours of futures makers. Right: snapshot of denominations for speculative design by Bruce Tharp.

One can easily get lost down this rabbit hole, forever trying to reach the perfect map of fields, to maintaining a growing list of labels and denominations. It is a valuable task to re-evaluate where these stand.

For practitioners, the codification of what is inherently an experimental process can feel more constraining than helping. Myself, I’m on the side of the “it’s just design” camp, and adhere to a very vague and holistic notion of what design is. That said, I also admit that a packaged, cleaned-up process also helps spreading methodologies and mindsets. But let’s remember it is not the be all and end all.

Elliot Montgomery’s unresolved mapping of Speculative Design in relation to other fields.

Bringing ideas to life

Julian Bleecker and Nick Foster from the Near Future Laboratory called out the tendency to theorise and make diagrams. For them, the key is make things real, get out in the world, let people engage with the discourse in order to change mindsets.

They believe that design, especially design futures, shouldn’t live in art galleries, where it becomes disconnected from the world. After all, there will be a mundane life in the future.

To them, design fiction projects have become too much of a performance that uses a language and aesthetic so unrelatable that people neither engage with the outcome nor the idea.

Left: The “newspaper of the future” from Near Future Laboratory in the wild. Right: their TBD catalog, which features a wide range of adverts for products that hint at a future that is yet to materialise.
Smart charging station, by Marcel Schouwenaar (The Incredible Machine, NL).

Marcel Schouwenaar’s smart charging station is a case for transparent algorithms, leading to the conversation about how we govern technology. The interactive prototype enabled policy makers and the public to physically engage with the idea and question the desirability of this path.

Choosing our battles

“Beyond the age of information, comes the age of choices.”

— Charles Eames

Designers as dreamers and makers of futures as well as alternatives. It’s a privilege, and a responsibility, to think of what may or could (be)come, and for who.

In our (ever-changing) environment, there are too many issues to investigate and answer to; from the social impact of a tiny button on social media, to the wider consequences of urban expansion, the ethics of technology or the upheaval of socio-political structures.

Tamara Alvarez and Elliot P. Montgomery

In their talk Geopolitics of the sky, Elliot P. Montgomery and Tamara Alvarez introduced a series of speculative design works examining the impact of a regulated access to the sky — the z-axis on which cities keep on growing. From social inequalities to rituals, what consequences does the vertical city bring

Stuart Candy brought alternative futures into people’s lives in unexpected ways using ‘postcards from the future’ following a community engagement workshop. It prompted the recipients of the postcards — a cross-section of Hawaii’s influential business, political and community leaders — to reflect about various directions Hawaii could take over the next generations.

Questions, not answers

What all those projects also show, is that (speculative) design isn’t always about pinning down the future. It’s also about opening up new perspectives and explore how things could be.

This means entering the realm of the unreal, the fictional, and the conceptual where we focus on ideas, issues and possibilities. Design then becomes a place for the experimentation of ideas, ideals and aesthetics. This dimension of design was also represented at the conference.

Burton Nitta’s projects draws of varied areas of science, to explore the future of how humans might fuel their body. They bring their diverse scenarios through graphics, animations, artefacts, costumes and performance featuring live algae.

The Algae Opera, by Burton Nitta, part of their After Agri project which investigates future evolution to our food systems.

Those weren’t the only bio-hacking projects seen at Primer. Ani Liu’s technological dreaming sits between design, art and science. Her projects are a testament to the experimental design process where questions matter more than answers.

Left: Kisses from the Future, a speculative love note of the future which creates unique signatures of bacteria that we leave each other. Right: Biota-records is a microbial record player designed to convert the microbes of your body into sound.

If all of this article feels like a wide-spread collection of ideas, it’s because it is. The world is messy, and those who venture into interrogating our reality have to be open to the many different possibilities.

Today, many people still turn to technology to bring those possibilities to life, to fix and fiddle with what is in front of them.

But if technology is the answer, what is the question?

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