Have you seen “Don’t look up”? The speculative Comedy/Disaster Movie on Netflix about two mediocre astronomers who try to warn mankind of an approaching comet that will destroy our planet Earth? Confronted with science denial, misleading media, and politics avoiding action it is perceived as an allegory for climate change. 

The critics differ between euphoric laudation “a satirical incision […] with only humor as an anesthetic” (New York Times) and critics that the film is too obvious, shallow, and shouty. Nonetheless, with 152.29 million hours watched globally in the week, December 27-January 2 the film is a record-breaker showing that people like to be entertained by alternative realities. Close enough to feel familiar, far away enough to challenge values and ideals. 

Speculative Design plays with possible realities. 

Like “Don’t look up” speculative design imagines other ways life could be. Speculative Design plays with possible realities: social, cultural, physical, and more. It just respects certain scientific impossibilities like precognition or perpetual motion. 

Speculative Design is looking at alternatives and finding tangible examples for discussions. It is an aesthetic expression proposing alternatives with inherent poetry and power to inspire. The design constructs in our minds a world of different ideals, values, and/or beliefs. 

Beyond Radical Design? 

Speculative Everything by Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby is the go-to-publication if you like to dive deeper into the relation of design, fiction, and social dreaming. Referring to the Radical period of Italian Design in the late 1960s, they continue to shift or connect design to avant-garde. Or as they put it: “This form of design thrives on imagination and aims to open up new perspectives on what is 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 & Raby 2013

In their first chapter and more often later, they emphasize the connective role design has between disciplines and how it feeds the profession’s imagination rethinking everyday life.
Besides the acknowledged value in advertising, fashion, applied arts, or architecture, the authors admit that product design sometimes struggles with this kind of speculative work at least at a professional level.

Design speculations can act as a catalyst for collectively redefining our relationship to reality.

Dunne & Raby

Designing for future scenarios is a very creative and imaginative process. From our experience, designers should feel free to draw on tools and techniques from both design thinking and the creative arts.

Tools

  • Storyboards
  • Interviews/questionnaires
  • Games
  • Role-play
  • Writing
  • Animation
  • Film, etc.

Methods

  • Fictional worlds
  • Cautionary tales
  • What if… scenarios
  • Counterfactual histories
  • Reductio ad absurdum
  • Artifacts from the future
  • Pre-figurative futures, etc.

Speculative Design opens new horizons

To understand why product design sometimes struggles with speculations at a professional level, we should look at Stuart Candy’s Future Cone from 2003.

Future Cone showing possible, plausible, preferable, and probable outcomes

Product designers are usually briefed on and measured by the plausible, preferable, and probable outcome of their work. Therefore, the possible or wild cards might be part of student work or a pitch deck but not billable hours. So, it’s foreseeable that designers miss a great chance for intellectual stretching and companies miss the chance to become disruptive at exactly the same moment.

Challenging and reimagining our relationship to reality is the advantage of speculative design.

Read the other stories

Props (of any kind: narrative, product, sketch, dummy) facilitate imagining. They question expectations, trigger social imagining and lead to critical reflection.

“For props to work, viewers have to suspend their disbelief, willingly. They have to agree to believe in it. This creates the most room for aesthetic experimentation because it frees the design from mimicking reality and referencing the already known.” (Dunne & Raby 2013)
Props are not a parody of the already known, they are elements in the aesthetics of unreality.

Non-binary person, looking at the camera, equipped with a metal belt which seems to be the source of menstruation like fluids
Menstruation Machine, Sputniko!

With the Menstruation Machine, Sputniko! questions all sort of ideals and beliefs. Opening the conversation for gender-specific rituals leading to biological necessities and much more.

All these “What if…” scenarios entertain and lead to reflection – whether they resonate with you or challenge you. The little utopians built with every speculative design case are an invitation to reflect and recode what you have taken for granted.

So, speculative design is like watching a good movie about other ways life could be – as stated above. If “Don’t look up!” made you aware of the coping mechanism society uses to react to the climate crisis, you might find remedy in speculative design if you feel stuck in the realm of probabilities. Both – fiction and speculative design – can lead you to the possible and rephrase your preferred; if you are willing to follow the premises.

In the following weeks, we will share with you three speculative design cases: Stay tuned and watch out.

Larissa Scherrer de Quadros

Marketing

Larissa, a seasoned marketing professional, excels in crafting tailored strategies for brands. Passionate about innovation, she embraces blockchain and circular economy principles with a motto: Don't wait for opportunities. Create them.

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