I see Speculative Design as a discipline that seeks to help us understand anew our current state through the design of future products and services. Also sometimes called critical design, design futures, or design fiction, and I think of these variations emerging from the particular focus, interest, or intent of the designer. Speculative Design disconnects design from the immediate needs of industry and the marketplace, and lets us use design to ask new kinds of questions. In this practice we design future products and services as a way to expand our understanding of what is possible, make tangible these futures, build empathy for our futures selves and others, and to interrogate the future that these products and services exist in. This exploration helps us to understand the implications of emerging technologies, gives us new ways of thinking about our current values, and can help direct us to act in ways today that will lead us into more preferable futures. I run many Speculative Design projects in my own practice, and at Neeley Worldwide I help other organizations explore the value of Speculative Design for research and strategy development purposes.
Most of the design work that I undertake has a significant technological component, and I've found Amara's law to be an important concept to keep top of mind. When we look to the future we tend to think about technology moving forward in a linear progression, but in reality improvements happen in a exponential fashion. This means that we over estimate its effects in the short run, and underestimate technology's impact in the long run. This understanding changes the way that we consider design proposals as we look forward towards the future.
The above chart is drawn from Dunne & Raby's (and Stewart Candy's) view of future cone's of possibilitiy, with the added curve to express the exponential nature of change. The shades indicate (moving from the inner to outer) probable, possible, and plausible futures, with the black line a potential preferable future. This view is one that has strongly influenced my design approach. Too often we talk about and design for highly probable futures, suggesting perhaps that the future is in some way set. Rather, time spent exploring the all possibilities & and even speculating on ideas at the edges of plausibility help reframe the view of our current state and remind us just how malleable the future is. Keeping this breadth in mind, and exploring throughout, helps us to not confirm our current trajectory, but to have serious discussions about new trajectories and preferable futures.
I've been very inspired by Dunne & Raby's a/b. Emerging from their practice, and explored extensively within Design Interactions at the RCA, (a) represents design as it is generally understood and how it typically operates today, and (b) suggests a sort of critical, and speculative design, one disconnected from the constraints and incentives of industry & the market. Many of these comparisons are profound, and this new view opens up expansive new opportunities for design. One comparison that has left a big impression on me is that of user/person. To design for the messy, complex, contradictory people that we are, rather than the perfect consumers that we are supposed to be is an extremely honest and inspiring starting point that leads us to exciting new kinds of outcomes.