On Spec: Design Speculative

Posted July 3, 2017 in Design

Design Thinking’s goth cousin is starting to grow up. Speculative Design allows for the product of the design process to operate outside of normal constraints. James Delaney explores the field.

Existing on the outer fringes of design practice for the past 20 years or more, Speculative Design and the practice thereof seems destined to have its day in the sun in the very near future. Over the last year or so, this practice and method has begun to surface in one-day workshops at Silicon Valley productivity conferences — a sure sign of its imminent commodification and co-opting into mainstream practice.

I met with James Delaney, an independent designer and developer based in Dublin who has been following these developments closely. In May this year, Delaney gave a lecture at at UXCamp in IADT which acted as an introduction to Speculative Design, covering its history and looking at a few historical, contemporary and Irish examples.


So, what is Speculative Design?

“It can be taken to refer to the practice of designers engaging with possible implications of future developments on society, by making designed things and experiences that will hopefully help us to make more informed steps towards preferable futures. The common methodology of these projects is to use the language of design to speak to the ethical, cultural, and political day-to-day practices of a future imagined world, that generate discussion about this particular topic. Whether it be climate change; body dysmorphia; or any pressing current matter. This creation is commonly informed by emergency technologies, or ‘weak signals’ on the horizon.”

Speculative Design is more an umbrella term which covers a host of approaches, Delaney notes: “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.”

“But there is no field of research and practice more foundational than Critical Design, which became cemented in the design canon in about 1990, by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby with their book “Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience, and Critical Design”. It was a collection of six essays which sought to explore and develop a practice of designing product objects that questioned the status quo. Their form and function speaking from an alternative world born out of possible technological and social futures.”

One outcome of Dunne & Raby’s practice was the Faraday Chair, a device that would protect the user from electromagnetic fields invading our homes through the proliferation of electronic devices. Its creators proposed that “it might even be a retreat, a new place to dream, away from the constant bombardment of telecommunication and electronic radiation”.

Speculative Design allows for the product of the design process to operate outside of normal constraints, with the focus able to shift away from direct impact and usage and allowing for more oblique successes.

One noteworthy example was the Audio Tooth Implant, created by James Auger in 2001.

“Auger is credited with having coined the term ‘Speculative Design’,” Delaney notes. “The piece was a false tooth which would act as an audio receiver, for cell phone or other audio to be fed directly through the jaw.

Although the piece was not functional, it was presented as real. It was picked up by Time as one of the coolest inventions of the year, and covered as a real invention by Wired Magazine and the BBC.”

“At a base level, you build an object from the future that implies a world,” he continues. “Better examples build an object or an experience from the future that describes a world … and then show how its hacked. Take a Design Fiction like Superflux’s work in 2015, “Uninvited Guests.” This was about connected objects, and presented a narrative about an elderly widower. His sons and daughters are around the world, and want to know “how’s dad doing?”. So they buy him a series of connected objects. In the narrative the elderly man is shown getting all around these things. For example: he has a connected stick that counts his steps, so he has a deal made with the local youth where “you come knock on the door, I’ll give you a can of beer now, you get a few steps on that, you come back and you get another can.”

In the final scene the man goes in to his room, throws books on the bed until he knows the weight is correct, and then goes back down and watches telly, and he gets a “Night dad, love you”, from his children.”

Examples in Ireland exist very much on a threshold between art, design, and activism. “So, I think when you want to look at an Irish context, for people who are doing projects I think are more interesting and more worthy of putting our eyes on, you’re have to start looking at the artist and activist communities.”

“To start, Kerry Guinan ran for election in 2016, in a project called Liberate Art. And it wasn’t a joke, she really did run for it. She went through the system of doing it and more or less prototyped and got a real experience of “well, here’s a future we could have.” So, a completely speculative idea, but the fact is she did it for real. She didn’t do it in a gallery, and just say “what a project! Could you imagine?” There is no imagine. There is “I did. Let’s talk about that.”

“I’d also argue that the “Home Sweet Home” project – that is the occupation of Apollo House – is possibly one of the greatest speculative design projects, if you want to use that term for it. Because, once again, it moved into areas that I think the practice needs to go. That is prototyping in the real world. And in my mind, this is a group of people that prototyped an alternative lived [unintelligible] in Dublin. “This doesn’t have to be like this anymore.”

“The last example is Mock Border, a project by a group of activists. They asked “What will a hard border look like with Brexit?” Just creating this experience of the future, and getting people to live through it, to figure out is this good?; is this bad?; is this preferable?; can we build on this? If it was like this what decisions should we take if that’s what the reality is going to be in the future?”

With these examples and others, Delaney says to watch out for more direct evidence of Speculative Design in the near future. “Design Thinking’s goth cousin is starting to grow up. If design is a lynchpin for all of society – because everything is mediated through design – designers are at the final point of production of those socio-technical systems. And Speculative Design is a way of thinking about the politics of design. Its consolidated teachings are making their way into rooms filled with Interaction Designers; Policy Makers; Product Managers; and Design Thinkers. Its methodologies and practices are coming for a workshop near you.”

To see James’s work visit jamesdelaney.ie/

Words: David Wall

Image Credits:

James Augur, The Soyuz Chair – Nick Ballon

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