Part 1 – What is Speculative / Critical / Fiction / Design?

Part 1, is a collage of the snippets that tickled me the most in my initial (online) investigation on Speculative, Critical and Fiction Design (I know the latter is really Design Fiction but, hey ho, it didn’t work with the other 2 and I like trilogies…).

Part 2, will be about what I find in the book ‘Speculative everything’ by Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby.

For part 3, I will go through the work surrounding ‘Speculative – Post-Design Practice or New Utopia?’ Link 1 Link 2

Source: Critical Design FAQs – Dunne&Raby

Critical Design uses speculative design proposals to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role products play in everyday life. It is more of an attitude than anything else, a position rather than a method. (…) Its opposite is affirmative design: design that reinforces the status quo.

The term Critical Design was first used in Anthony Dunne’s book Hertzian Tales (1999) and later in Design Noir (2001). Since then many other people have developed their own variations.

It is definitely not art. It might borrow heavily from art in terms of methods and approaches but that’s it. We expect art to be shocking and extreme. Critical Design needs to be closer to the everyday, that’s where its power to disturb comes from. Too weird and it will be dismissed as art, too normal and it will be effortlessly assimilated. If it is regarded as art it is easier to deal with, but if it remains as design it is more disturbing, it suggests that the everyday as we know it could be different, that things could change.

One of critical Design’s roles is to question the limited range of emotional and psychological experiences offered through designed products. Design is assumed to only make things nice, it’s as though all designers have taken an unspoken Hippocratic oath, this limits and prevents us from fully engaging with and designing for the complexities of human nature which of course is not always nice. It is more about the positive use of negativity, not negativity for its own sake, but to draw attention to a scary possibility in the form of a cautionary tale.

A danger for critical design is that it ends up as a form of sophisticated design entertainment: 90% humour 10% critique. It needs to avoid this situation by identifying and engaging with complex and challenging issues. Areas like Future Forecasting would benefit from its more gritty view of human nature and ability to make abstract issues tangible. It could also play a role in public debates about the social, cultural and ethical impact on everyday life of emerging and future technologies.

Source: Auger Loizeau

Speculative design combines informed, hypothetical extrapolations of an emerging technology’s development with a deep consideration of the cultural landscape into which it might be deployed, to speculate on future products, systems and services. These speculations are then used to examine and encourage dialogue on the impact a specific technology may have on our everyday lives. The familiar and engaging nature of the designed output is intended to facilitate discourse with a broad audience: from experts in the field such as scientists, engineers and designers to the consumers and users of technological products and systems.

Source: non-progress dogma: speculative design as counter-constraint – Crap Futures

Speculative design borrows practical methods from its commercial counterparts like industrial and graphic design, but as a form of enquiry it de-couples this practice from direct market imperatives, in turn creating a space to:

  1. Arrange emerging (not yet available) technological ‘elements’ to hypothesise future products and artefacts, or
  2. Apply alternative plans, motivations, or ideologies to those currently driving technological development, in order to facilitate new arrangements of existing elements, and
  3. Develop new perspectives on big systems.

With the purpose of:

  1. Asking ‘What is a better future (or present)?’
  2. Generating a better understanding of the potential implications of a specific (disruptive) technology in various contexts and on multiple scales – with a particular focus on everyday life.
  3. Moving design ‘upstream’ – to not simply package technology at the end of the technological journey but to impact and influence that journey from its genesis.

Speculative design aims not to spoon-feed audiences on how they should feel about a particular technology but rather to help people draw their own, hopefully better informed, conclusions. (…) Speculative design asks: What would life be like if we had such products? It can act as a cultural and behavioural litmus test, trying out applications before they happen and allowing for adjustments to be made. Its agenda is to facilitate a more democratic and considered approach to technological development.


Source: Speculative – Post-Design Practice or New Utopia?

From the about page

Speculative design is a critical design practice that comprises or is in relation to a number of similar practices, such as critical design, design fiction, design futures, anti-design, radical design, interrogative design, discursive design, adversarial design and so on. The focus is on a discursive activity founded in critical thinking and dialogue which questions design practice. The basic reference of the speculative (and critical) design practice is primarily the radical Italian architecture and design practice in the 1960s and 1970s. The founding principles of the radical approach, resistance to modernism and technological domination, focus on social topics, re-thinking of the profession, very often through a political prism as well, today figure as the main characteristics of speculative and critical practices.

Source: Luiza Prado ‘Speculative and critical design – interview at futurefemmes


Image by Luiza Prado @futurefemmes

Also, worth checking out: A Parede

Source: Ben Stopher & Tobias Revell : Reflections on the SCD Summer School at LCC, UAL.

Speculative and Critical Design is a contentious term. Critical Design was first coined by Tony Dunne in Hertzian Tales (1999) as an approach to design ‘…challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role products play in everyday life. It is more of an attitude than anything else, a position rather than a method.

James Auger developed the term speculative design during his time with Dunne at the RCA saying that it ‘…combines informed, hypothetical extrapolations of an emerging technology’s development with a deep consideration of the cultural landscape into which it might be deployed, to speculate on future products, systems and services.

Along the way these two terms became conflated and combined to form the umbrella term ‘Speculative and Critical Design’ which has since become the cover-all for a set of inquisitive, future-orientated and critical design practices, methods and ideals.

SCD invites these students to think wider and deeper about their design process and practice, how they integrate with the needs of people for whom they are designing and provides a radical framework for iterative concept testing. Most importantly, it invites them to consider the nature of a design problem, question the standard approach of just adding technology and actually think about when not designing is the best solution.

Source: What is Speculative Design – Phil Balagtas

And depending on who you talk to, you might get a different name for it: Critical Design, Design Fiction, Discursive Design, Interrogative Design, Ludic Design. Really, it’s all the same thing. And if you talk to Cameron Tonkinwise, he’d say it’s all “just design”.

No matter what you call it, it’s still a form of ideation and synthesis.

We use Speculative Design to describe work that uses design (products, services, scenarios) to address challenges and opportunities of the future. We tend to look 5-10+ years forward and speculate on how things could be and what future we want or don’t want based on these scenarios.

The term was originally coined by Anthony Dunne in the 90s, and, he, alongside Fiona Raby, pioneered this work which they formulated at the Royal College of Art’s Designing Interactions programme. Since then, their students and others all over the world have created their own flavors to contribute to a much wider genre of Design Futurists that had already existed, all chipping away at different ways to look at the future through different disciplines and lenses. Even architects, such as Future Cities Lab, have been future-casting for decades, trying to anticipate new materials, changing landscapes, and future available technologies.

“Let’s call it critical design, that questions the cultural, social and ethical implications of emerging technologies. A form of design that can help us to define the most desirable futures, and avoid the least desirable.”

– Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby

Part of the message we try to deliver is that design also has an impact beyond the user. We design for our customer and all of their pain but what about the knock-on effects of our product within societies and ecosystems? How might a future social, environmental or political climate influence our products or how could our products influence those climates in return?

Speculative Design can facilitate ways to look forward but also consider this hidden impact, influence and future ecosystems.

Unfortunately, Speculative Design gets a bad rap. Mostly relegated to university programmes, R&D departments, or the occasional agency project where a company wants to envision the future, rarely do we see it as an integrated practice in design and business strategy. That is slowly changing. New technologies and volatile economies are prodding businesses to become more adaptive and proactive about future-casting so that they are more agile and prepared for challenges to come. Businesses want to position themselves properly for disruptive technologies to arrive and to take advantage of markets early.

We need to stop being post-traumatic designers and start considering the issues that we know are imminent–overpopulation, disease, traffic, urban sprawl, climate change, food/water shortage and do the due diligence of addressing these issues today so we can lay the groundwork for the future we want and the future we have the power to design.

Watch Phil’s talk for ‘UX New Zeland 2016’:

Source: Just Design – Cameron Tonkinwise

Designing that does not already
Future, Fiction, Speculate, Criticize, Provoke, Discourse, Interrogate, Probe, Play,
is inadequate designing.

Not all (commercial) designing does all those things, but it should.

Design is unique for focusing on everyday things of use, handlable equipment and furnishings, whether those are products, communications or environments (up to the scale of interiors).

(on Speculative Design)

(…) they must be materialized as things. These might not be operational — they are speculations — but they should be operable, able to be handled and physically experienced.

To be speculative, to serve the purpose of opening contexts up to radically distinct possibilities, ones that are quite distinct from what is plausible or probable, speculative design must never have a consistent style or mode. Each speculative design should be done in multiple modes, for a diverse set of distinct audiences.

There is nothing whatsoever motivating about utopias. Nobody pays good money to see situations in which everything is fixed for good and so nothing happens.

Speculative and Critical Designs can and must be more than things a designer made; they must make people be speculative and critical.

Source: On Speculative Design – Benjamin H. Bratton 

Note: This was a rather dense article that I decided to list here but not engage with at this point, where I am still very superficially trying to understand what is speculative design, who started it and what are the key things to consider.

‘As an alternative perspective, speculation is not ephemeral or disengaged’

Bruce Sterling’s working definition of “Design Fiction” as “the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change” remains a serviceable one for SD, but is also (true to his point) an incomplete assignment. What comes after the suspension, and what homology is there between the prototype and the change?


On Medium, the tag ‘Speculative Design‘ has the following related tags:

Screen Shot 2017-01-14 at 19.44.31.png

Speculation Futures Club looks at past speculative narratives, like those of Ursula K. Le Guin, and past attempts at creating technological utopia, like Chile’s Cybersyn.

What about meetups? San Fran only.




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