Part 3 – What is Speculative / Critical / Fiction / Design?

This post is the final part of a trilogy of posts that 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.

Part 2, highlights from the book: ‘Speculative everything’ by Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby.

This post grabs relevant passages from Speculative – Post-Design Practice or New Utopia? available from:

Exhibition website:

Out of all the reading I have done, this is the most complete take on things, perhaps because it looks at all the people and concepts that are mentioned on the other 2 parts and makes the connections between them clear. It also adds a more global lenses to the thing and exposes the western centricity of it all.

Discursive and Critical Design Practice

From the modernist perspective, design has been primarily regarded as a problem solving practice, usually dealing with problems detected by other professions. In this sense, the mission of design is closely linked to the needs of the industry or, in a broader sense, the creation of a better living standard. From such modernist perspective, design is seen as a service activity that primarily addresses clients’ needs.

However, as graphic designer and publicist Dejan Kršić points out, design has always been a signifying practice that generates, analyses, distributes, mediates and reproduces social meaning, especially nowadays, in the context of the new social, technological, media and economic conditions.
In their research, these new designers relate to diverse fields of science, primarily computer sciences and engineering, sociology, psychology, architecture, and, in the recent times, increasingly to bio-technology, all with the goal of critically reflecting on the development and role of technology in societyDesigners re-think the role of technology in everyday life, without dealing with the applications of technology, but rather by considering its implications. Turning away from the commercial aspects of design with the focus on the demands of the market, they are now engaged with a broader social context. The new designers use design as a medium and focus on concepts and artefacts, and, rather than solving problems, ask questions and open issues to discussion.
(…) “critical design”,has dealt with the aesthetics of the use of new technologies in the context of electronic products.⁵ However, over the years, and in collaboration with Fiona Raby, he expanded the focus of his activities to the cultural, social and ethical implications of new technologies, and, most recently, on speculations about broader social, economic and political issues.

Speculating through Design: a question instead of an answer

Speculative design is a critical design practice that comprises or is related to a series of similar practices known under the following names: critical design, design fiction, future design, anti-design, radical design, interrogative design, discursive design, adversarial design, futurescape, design art, transitional design etc.
Speculative futures exist as projections of the lineage in future. The alternative reality presents a shift from the lineage at some point in the past to re-imagine our technological present.
Speculative design is a discursive practice, based on critical thinking and dialogue, which questions the practice of design (and its modernist defnition). However, the speculative design approach takes the critical practice one step further, towards imagination and visions of possible scenarios.
James Auger, says that this design moves away from the constraints of the commercial practice (steered by the market);  uses fiction and speculates on future products, services, systems and worlds, thus reflectively examining the role and impact of new technologies on everyday life; and initiates dialogue between experts (scientists, engineers and designers) and users of new technologies (the audience).⁷
And, whereas traditional design actually legitimises the status quo, speculative design envisages and anticipates the future, at the same time helping us to understand and re-think the world of today. This approach is most often based on the question “what if?”, examining the interrelation between potential changes in the technological development and social relations. Rather than engaging only with a future that we desire, this approach also deals with the future we fear might come true if we fail to critically consider the role of new technologies in the society.
Such an approach to design does not focus on meeting the current and future consumer needs, but rather on re-thinking the technological future that reflects the complexity of today’s world. Speculative practice opens space for discussing and considering alternative possibilities and options, and imagining and redefining our relation to reality itself. Through its imagination and radical approach, by using design as a medium, it propels thinking, raises awareness, questions, provokes action, opens discussions, and can offer alternatives that are necessary in the today’s world.
By the creation of imaginary worlds, and by designing fictions, we actually question the world we live in – its values, functions, its metabolism, as well as the expectations of its inhabitants.

Ramia Mazé underlines that design practices can never be neutral – there are always critical and political issues, as well as alternatives and futures linked to them.¹¹

Thus, Dunne and Raby emphasize the potential of speculative design for large-scale social and political issues, such as democracy or sustainability or the alternatives to the existing capitalist model.¹²
It should be kept in mind, therefore, that the purpose of speculative design fictions should not be utopian or dystopian science fiction visions of the future, but dialogue on what the future can be.


However, let’s keep in mind that one of the main goals of speculation is the inclusion of the public in the re-thinking and dialogue on new technological realities and new social relations.Also, a successful speculative project is necessarily connected to the research of a social context, and is fundamentally directed towards the individual needs and desires.
The process can be split in a few steps: the first one implies critical design research to define a design space. After this, speculative concepts and ideas are generated and further developed to finally articulate forms which are suitable for communication.
Design is also in close contact with the new technologies and consumer society, popular media and pop culture, which is why today it boasts a significant media and social impact. Pop-culture forms, through novels, films, computer games and so on, often seem to be better platforms for speculative projects than galleries and museums (actually, that is a natural environment for design).²²
Speculative practice is related to two basic concepts: speculation on possible futures and the design of an alternative present. Speculation on the future generates scenarios of the future that critically question the concept of development, the implementation and use of new technologies and their wider social implications. The concept of an alternative present refers to the creation of parallel urban technological realities.
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Speculative fictions do not exist solely in a futurist vacuum, because the past (i.e. the present we live in) fundamentally impacts our designed vision of the future. As opposed to the open form of science fiction, in speculative fiction there is a link between the present and the imaginary future.²³ Therefore, when re-thinking the future we must think about technologies and social relations that can emerge from the current world we live in. We must bring into question the assumptions and prejudice we have about the role of products and services in everyday life. The extension of the everyday into the future is what makes speculative design fiction powerful and profoundly intriguing.
However, the success and impact of a speculative approach, as perceived by the target audience, primarily depends on the believability of the designed artefacts and potential scenarios of the future. The concepts materialize and communicate in the form of narrative or documentary video and film fictions, functional products (prototypes),software applications, instructional videos, user manuals, graphs/diagrams,  news reports, fashion accessories, etc. The so-called “diegetic prototypes” originate in cinematography where they exist as fictional but entirely functional objects whereas in speculative scenarios they serve to create the suspension of disbelief about change.²⁵
Speculative scenarios are open-ended and offer the audience the possibility of personal interpretation. They frequently include humour, often of the dark variety, close to satire, which activates the audience on an emotional and intellectual level, in a way similar to literature and film. Speculative scenarios are often unusual, curious, occasionally even disturbing, but desirable and attractive to the audience. However, only concepts that successfully communicate with the suspension of disbelief, actually provoke attention, emotions, and stimulate thinking and discussion, which, after all, is the main goal of speculative practice.

Design Practice for the 21st Century or a New Utopia?

In an online discussion on the occasion of the exhibition Design and Violence showcased at the MoMA, the critics of this “Eurocentric” approach point out the
privileged “Western” position stating that criticism is only possible outside of this comfort zone, by taking a position and organising activities in the “real world”. ²⁷
James Auger
Currently, I view speculative design as a counter to normative design and its role in the world – a form of design that can operate free from the constraints imposed on market-based models – constraints of economics, aesthetics, technology, politics, ethics and history.
At this time there are three basic themes: 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.
Nicolas Nova
In the Near Future Laboratory, we are interested in a variant called “design fiction”. This variant Bruce Sterling described as: “The deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change”. That is the best definition we have come up with. e important word here is “diegetic”. It means that you are thinking very seriously about potential objects and services and trying to get people to concentrate on those, rather than entire worlds, political trends or geopolitical strategies. It is not a kind of fiction. It is a kind of design. It tells worlds, rather than stories. In our case, we take an even narrower definition: the depiction of products / services / situations as if they had already existed or had occurred so that we can learn how to innovate and create new opportunities.
Matt Ward

Critical and Speculative Design as educational practice

Critical and speculative design opens up a “natural” / “safe” space for designers to learn without the economic constraints of commercial practice. Although some argue this does not prepare students for the commercial world, I would argue the opposite – it equips them with tactics to manage their role in a complex, changing, dynamic world (which is the role of education).
The innovation trap

There is so much pressure and hype about the role of technology in the disruption of markets. Companies and investors have become hungry (ravenous) for “visionaries”; people who can predict the future of <insert anything>. This makes speculative design an attractive practice – not only do designers become attuned to the change role and function of technology, they also concentrate on what people want and do. Their superpower is the aesthetic articulation of these possibilities; narratives that allow for the colonisation of the future. The big worry for me, is that critical and speculative design become the advertising arm of venture capital. The evangelists of

Silicon Valley, in search for the next big disruption, without the humility to understand the fragility and power of their future trajectories.
Cultural production / enquiry
In this mode, Critical and speculative design operates at the intersection of art and research, but it is something distinctly different, it is Design. There is an aesthetic enquiry into the way the world could be, highlighting problems, opportunities and ethical complexities. It tries to produce material that resonates with our current cultural and social context. It responds to dynamics of discourse, markets, science and economics in order to reflect and advance our understanding of the human / material condition.

Ramia Mazé

Critical practices can take forms that are critical of phenomena within design itself
or they may take forms that are critical of phenomena outside of design. An obvious example is hacking – hacking can be understood both as a specific method or
skill, engaging a critique of design methods and skills through those very same

methods and skills. Hacking can also be understood as an ideological and political stance in relation to issues of ownership and authorship, for example, as a critique

of proprietary systems, industrialized production or media hegemony. Designers
may be critical of many things, therefore,the important questions imply: “Critical of
what? In what forms?”
However, the most urgent questions for speculative and critical design today are: “Critical for whom? By whom?”,the questions that Luiza Prado, among others, asks in order to reveal the biases and politics embedded in design.
I argue for the term “critical practices” (rather than the niche term/genre of “critical design) to characterize what I understand as a more substantial and growing development of “criticality” across design.
Increasing reflexivity is especially at stake for “post-industrial” design.
Design today engages in society in unprecedented and powerful ways, yet our
traditional education is still based on the Industrial Age concerns about material
production and consumption. Engaging “other” people, practices, values and futures
demands different foundations – which is the responsibility of design education and
research to build. This will open the space for asking “for who”, raising questions about who does design, who participates in design, who benefts from design, as well as other issues of power, class, ethnic, global, and gender dimensions involved. Reflexivity in design is not about intellectualizing or navel-gazing, but about an increased engagement in aspects of design practice (including its consequences “outside of” design). Design practices are not neutral – there are always critical-political issues, others, alternatives and futures involved.

Michael Smyth

The real strength of speculative design lies in its ability to create narratives
that challenge our preconceptions about products and services and their role in everyday life. By locating these visions in familiar, while at the same time slightly ambiguous settings, speculative design has the power to make us stop and think, it can present us with narratives that subvert and twist our expectations of the future and subsequently our understanding of the present.

Cameron Tonkinwise

Speculative (Critical) Design names a particular style of design practice that is obsessed with ambiguity. This style involves a game that negotiates careful
contradictions: the artefacts must be immediately and recognizably of the
highest design quality. They should have a highly refined finish in their materiality that looks expensively crafted. However, this should also be combined with
something paranoically visceral. The artefacts must be quickly recognizable as
very distinct from mainstream commercial design. The artefacts should appear to
be highly functional but toward a purpose that seems implausible. What they accomplish should seem to viewers to lie exactly between the silly and the scary. The ultimate aim of the design is to appear to be thought-provoking. To do this, the artifact should indicate that its context is near-future. If it is too futuristic, it will appear to be mere speculation; if it is too close to the present, viewers will expect it to evidence a researched critical understanding of its topic. More effective Speculative (Critical) Design plays exploit popular current fears. The designer should withdraw behind modernist art claims of the artifact speaking for itself on the one hand, and postmodern art claims about the death of the author on the other. Whatever debates viewers have or do not have about the artifact are in no way the concern of the designer.
Speculative: As global consumer lifestyles have spread across the
world, they seem to degrade the capacity of communities and organizations to create compelling visions of alternative ways of living. Designers need to revive a capacity to imagine and share very dfferen future lifestyles that expand our sense of
what is preferable beyond what is currently considered probable and even plausible.
Speculative (Critical) Design should be a regular source for rich pictures of diverse

“social fictions” (as opposed to techno-fetishizing “science ficction”). Critical: Design is a process for evaluating possible futures before they are materialized. Designers must creatively foresee a wide range of socio-material consequences as possibly arising from different design options. Speculative (Critical) Design should be constantly struggling to stay ahead of current sociotechnical developments with affectively persuasive warnings about the futures being afforded by the release of those products and services.  Design: the profession of design appears to be primarily about the creation of artefacts, whether communications, products or environments. But the practice of design is actually about persuading a wide range of actors – fellow designers, suppliers, investors, logistics managers, users, etc. – to work together on materializing a future in which such an artifact exists. Speculative (Critical) Design should name the process orchestrating the debates through which groups of people come to decide to work together on realizing a particular future.

Francisco Laranjo

First of all, while design as criticism is relatively new to product and interaction
design, it has a rich history not only within architecture but also graphic design. This
is often overlooked and this mode of approaching design is recurrently presented as novelty. Secondly, “critical design” became synonymous of a vague “what if”

mode of design predominantly practiced by white, middle-class Europeans, generating predictable dystopian visions of the world dressed as visionary that were—and are—already a reality in the Global South. It was not interested in producing critical arguments towards preferred futures, but indulging in technology-infused, portfolio building in rarefied environments as art museums. Finally, with the publication of Dunne and Raby’s Speculative Everything (2013), “critical design” fully embraced a convenient interchangeability with “speculative design” to form an ambiguous, unaccountable umbrella under which designers can produce work that is of limited value and inaccessible to society at large.

Speculative design that is not contextual, does not consider race, class or gender and proposes only generic universal formulas can only be myopic and cannot contribute with substance to what other disciplines are producing in response to the struggles of our time.

“What if?” – two or three notes on speculation

On the one hand, “speculative” really implies a relatively broad scope of connotations, and on the other, it also implies a kind of precision and even exclusiveness of its own contextualisation. In its basic meaning, in the context of analysing design as a practice, this term unambiguously highlights its active analytical, intellectual and discursive dimension, which is a direct link to the notion of critical design.
Another important aspect results from film and literature traditions of so-called speculative fiction whose capacity to imagine possible realms is shared with the idea of so-called design fiction. And finally, the very practice of “speculation” in design is almost unavoidably inspired by possibilities of certain variance, noise and unbalance of the dynamic relations between societies, technologies and humans, where it shares the same focus with interaction design.
Since it is not oriented only to mass production of real physical products but rather to an opportunity to re-think conditions in which such products might become part of our everyday lives and the resulting consequences/implications, speculative design often uses narrative techniques found in video, film, television or the mass media in general. Namely, speculative design prototypes (or prototypes that emerged as the result of speculative approach) are extremely interdependent with the imagined context for which they have been initially designed, and therefore, to become understandable, they require their story to be told in a clear and intelligible manner that is closest to our everyday experience.
Consequently, speculative design finds its natural environment in popular culture, and the language it uses seems to be strangely familiar, no matter whether
we grew up watching The Twilight Zone (1959 – 2003) or Black Mirror (2009 series, 2011), the two superb examples of speculative fiction that belong to pure mainstream.
The power of speculative design is very close to the suggestive power of those bizarre satirical stories in as much as it deals with scenarios which are, from our perspective, not only imaginable, but they seem to have already been present. Whether they are displaced in the near future or they exist on the “side” within an alternate present, they can tell us something about ourselves here and now, about the technology we use and the way the technology influences the society and our everyday lives, and about the role that design can play in that context and not necessarily in this order.
The power and public resonance of these projects  is based precisely on the cunning overlapping of two alternative, completely juxtaposed, reverse mirror views of the present.

Many other activities on the local scene can be retrospectively marked as close to the speculative approach, such as guest visits and production of works for a host of various exhibitions, festivals and other similar events organized by the Bureau of Contemporary Art Practice – Kontejner, or several projects by the designer Lina Kovačević, such as A Set for Romantic Online Dinner and Future Artefacts, which use artefact design to recombine conventional everyday scenarios creating a kind of hybrid between the past, present and future.
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Now, I am going to let this sit in a corner of my brain and see if something will come out this week, as I am taking the ‘Artefacts from the future’ course at CIID.
And, next on my reading list:

Inspired by the real-life breakthroughs covered in the pages of MIT Technology Review, writers Nick Harkaway, Bruce Sterling, and Paola Antonelli join emerging authors from around the world to envision the future of the Internet, biotechnology, computing, and more.

At a time when it is fundamental to be critical, the word has become ubiquitous, cool, vague and open to debate. The first issue of Modes of Criticism constitutes a critique of critical design, with particular attention to graphic design. It compiles a variety of contributions, ranging from academic to informal and interview to fiction, with the goal of challenging and questioning what the critical in design can and should be.

17 thoughts on “Part 3 – What is Speculative / Critical / Fiction / Design?

  1. Super relevant article:
    “It pulls from a lot of different fields of study and practice: Radical Design from the 1970s; Experimental Design; Adversary Design; Discursive Design; Design for debate; Design for Fiction and Transitional Design. In each case, the exercise was to take a defined step away from mainstream commercial design practices, setting up a new angle to do design from.”


  2. View at
    Some references, precedents and inspirations
    There are many interesting and very talented people working in different areas of design, futures, speculative design and design fictions of various kinds. Over the weeks with different groups, we looked at and discussed a number of projects and tools from people and groups including: Dunne and Raby; Superflux; Stuart Candy and Jake Dunagan; Near Future Laboratory; Strange Telemetry; Extrapolation Factory; Natalie Jeremijenko; Interaction Research Studio at Goldsmiths; The Onion; Changeist; The Yes Men; Anne Galloway; Iohanna Nicenboim; Vytas Jankauskas; Luiza Prado and Pedro Oliveira, Luke Sturgeon; Keiichi Matsuda; James Auger and Julian Hanna; Matthew Buchholz; Simon Stålenhag; Jakub Różalski; Benjamin Bratton; James Bridle; Simone Rebaudengo; Loove Broms; Veronica Ranner; Daisy Ginsberg; Timo Arnall; Sputniko, Warren Ellis; Darren Cullen; Bruce Sterling, Charlie Brooker; Alison Jackson and others. (I also wanted to show them Scarfolk and the Framley Examiner, but I think the Britishness might have just been too confusing.)


  3. “Where are we left then? If we envision projects to address homelessness today, we are absolved of needing to worry about it tomorrow. If, instead, we envision what homelessness looks like tomorrow, then we need not worry about today—our hyperstitious ways will materialize the answers. Our real projects are fake, so we must rely on our fictions? ”


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