Part 2 – What is Speculative / Critical / Fiction / Design?

This post is part of a trilogy of posts to document my initial (and crude) investigations into Speculative Design and all its friends.

Part 1, is a collage of the snippets that tickled me the most in my initial (online) investigation on Speculative, Critical and Fiction Design.

In here l’ll elaborate on my understanding from 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

What is speculative design?

James Auger:

“Speculative design, closely related to critical design, explores new roles for design in relation to the cultural landscape’s influence on existing and emerging technologies, allowing us to think about the future (speculative futures) or criticize current practices (alternative presents).”

Source: Auger Loizeau blog August 2015

Raby and Dunne:

“At the other end of the spectrum conceptual design means a parallel space of speculation that uses hypothetical or more accurately, fictional products to explore possible technological futures.”

“For us, the purpose of speculation is to “unsettle the present rather than predict the future.”

“What we are interested in though, is the idea of possible futures and using them as tools to better understand the present and to discuss the kind of future people want, and, of course, ones people do not want.”

Source: Speculative Everything book


My attempt at articulating what I read:

Speculative design is the use of design to trigger debate and critical reflection on alternative, socially oriented narratives.

In today’s context of technological progress, It critically proposes alternative scenarios and poses what-if questions to challenge ideals and to generate debate around the kind of futures we may see as desirable for all (or not).


Broadly speaking, Speculative and Critical Design are proposed as catalysts for social dreaming through the:

  • Opposition to the hyper-commercialised design of today that uncritically makes technology easy to use and sexy, pushing consumption narratives. It reinforces the ‘status quo’ instead of questioning it
  • Repositioning of designers to focus on social and progressive politics and move away from constructing a reality driven by uncritical implementation of technology where we encourage consumption
  • Creation of spaces for debate and discussion through “what-if” questions and exploring alternative scenarios.


As I am reading, I am summarising the key bits in this one very long sketchnote. More sketchnotes on instagram


It sits under Conceptual Design and has lots of friends

Under the big umbrella of Conceptual Design, outside of industrial production and the marketplace, live a number of interconnected design approaches: critical design, design fiction, design futures, antidesign, radical design, interrogative design…

Broadly, they are all united by the principle of using the language of design to pose questions, provoke, and inspire.

It goes hand in hand with Critical Design

The term Critical Design was first used in Anthony Dunne’s book Hertzian Tales (1999) and later in Design Noir (2001).

“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.”

Source: Hertzian Tales (1999)/Dunne and Raby – from TobiasRevell Blog

Critical Design is:

  • A questioning of ideals, values and attitudes regarding technological progress
  • An exploration into alternative visions for everyday life away from the consumption related narratives embodied in the material culture of society.
  • Driven by social purposes
  • A critical thought translated into materiality.
  • A manifestation of our fascination with technology, a way of looking at how scientific discoveries move from the laboratory into everyday life through the marketplace.
  • Critical of the market-driven limitations of the technology industry
  • The space (and debate) created between fiction and reality

The boundaries between Critical and Speculative Design are not clear (to me at least). Therefore I am treating that what applies to critical, applies to speculative design

Closely linked to Design Fiction but in fact its opposite

“Design fiction is a type of speculative design (which itself is a relative of critical design). All of these related approaches use design in order to explore and critique future possibilities.[1][2] The term appears to have been coined by Bruce Sterling in his 2005 Book Shaping Things,[3] however Sterling himself is quoted as saying it was Julian Bleecker who “invented the interesting term”. “

Source: wikipedia

Even though they sit very close (and Wikipedia says it is a form of Speculative Design and therefore a relative of Critical Design) there is a key distinction in that design fiction seems to celebrate technology and be very much in the tech industry. Speculative design is critical of technological progress.

It is fictional but remains firmly functional

Speculative design objects are functional. They exist in a physical form. They invite people to imagine themselves in parallel realities and how they would want to be part of them.

People are Imaginers

I particularly like this way of articulating how people might engage with speculative design. It reinforces the move away from the hyper-commercialised, software development approach of design that looks at people as users thus prescribing ways of engaging, to being open to imagining possible interactions and interpretations.

It therefore challenges other notions like observation (much used in software development UX) and the communicative and clear aspect of the language of design. It does not prescribe, and as it is meant to facilitate imagining a certain level of ‘open for interpretation’ / what does this mean is needed to generate that debate. There is no prescribed usage, right /wrong, fail /succeed.
Another related distinction made in the book is the one between hypothesis and fiction. Referring to Vailinger, The Philosophy of “as if,” 268, that elaborates on the hypothesis as an expression of some reality (even if unknown) and has the ability to be verified, fiction is does not.

It’s Socially oriented

Design has become hyper-commercialized. It lives within industrial production and the market place. Generating wealth is its only value and purpose.

Speculative design explores the role of design in facilitating alternative visions rather than the one-dimensional reality driven by the industry and the governments. It goes beyond commercial applications, towards a more imaginative, social and political space.


Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming is written by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby and published by MIT Press.

For an in depth discussion of the how of speculative design, see James Auger, “Why Robot? Speculative Design, Domestication of Technology and the Considered Future.” PhD diss (London: Royal Collefe of Art, 2012) 153 -164

James Auger’s essay in the Journal of Human-Robot Interaction: Living With Robots: A Speculative Design Approach.

James Auger interview at

‘Sci-Fi Writer Bruce Sterling Explains the Intriguing New Concept of Design Fiction.’ Slate blog March 2, 2012

2 thoughts on “Part 2 – What is Speculative / Critical / Fiction / Design?

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