Design Fiction – What is it?


Design Fiction is a practice that explores and criticises possible futures by creating speculative scenarios and using designed artifacts as storytelling devices. It questions and creates discourse over subjects and ideas that we might not have yet considered. Design Fiction gives us the ability to create a free space for discourse and speculation as well as a glimpse into future possibilities so we can build awareness and react without actually being in the situation. In this way it facilitates and fosters debate.


Its history


Design Fiction’s conceptual foundation is Critical Design, which was popularized by Anthony Dunne and Fionna Raby, but can be traced back to the Radical Designers of the 70’s. After the world wars, people became suspicious of the modernist faith in human reason, judgement and of technological progress.

Architecture and design groups like Superstudio, Archizoom and Archigram started questioning the disciplines they practiced and the established structures their work was perpetuating. They thought about how people interacted with their products and speculated on the impact of their creations through questions such as:

  • What if we don’t need more buildings?
  • What if a couch wasn’t just for sitting?
  • What if people don’t want to live in cities anymore?
  • What if cities could move?

…and a lot more “What if’s”

Later in the 90s, product designer Anthony Dunne and architect Fiona Raby began researching and creating design objects that followed this tradition of critical thought. They established the Design Interactions Department at the Royal College of Art as a hub for professionals in the area of Critical Design. They also developed tools that formed the foundation of Design Fiction and its methodology.

The term itself was coined in 2005 by science fiction author Bruce Sterling in his book “Shaping Things,” where he spoke about the history of objects, their connection to their context, and their future.

Robot 4: Needy One, 2007 Technological Dream Series:
No. 1, Robots © Dunne & Raby – Photo: Per Tingle

Examples


A big concern at the moment is technology and its advancements and how we won’t be able to predict all of its consequences.

This theme of unintended technological consequences is present, for example in the Black Mirror episode, Be Right Back. (Spoiler Alert!) In this episode a woman loses her partner in an accident and orders an experimental AI replacement in an attempt to deal with grief. She quickly realizes that he is not her deceased partner and this was not the ideal scenario she was hoping for.

When Eugenia Kuyda launched Replika – an AI chatbot – that she created to deal with the death of a close friend, people were very fast to compare the app to the AI in the Black Mirror episode and questioned if Replika couldn’t end up having a similar outcome.

Red Silk of Fate by artist Sputniko! (Hiromi Ozaki), is another example of a very complete Design Fiction project that intersects mythological themes. Sputniko! was inspired by an East Asian myth that says that the gods tie a red string of fate between people who are destined to fall in love.


Still from Red Silk of Fate music video © Sputniko!
In this project she worked with scientist from NIAS to genetically engineer silkworms to spin the "Red String of Fate" inserting genes that produce oxytocin, a social-bonding "love" hormone, and the genes of a red-glowing coral into silkworm eggs.

She then produced a music video that shows the speculative scenario where these worms could be created. (Spoiler Alert!) It tells the story of an awkward aspiring genetic engineer who creates the worms in order to win over the heart of her crush. She sews these strings in her favorite scarf but soon realizes that the string might have different powers than what she expected.
Design Fiction projects can also be more personal and poetic without losing their contextual relevance, like for example the project Tear Gun by designer Yi-Fei Chen, which deals with the difficulties of communication as a foreigner even in a technological world where everyone and everything is connected.

After not being able to speak up for herself in class, Yi-Fei Chen designed the Tear gun, a machine that could help her and others express what they can’t say in words and turn their fragilities into strength.

Tear Gun © Yen-An Chen

Real life applications


Even if Design Fiction deals mainly with theoretical scenarios, it can also have real life applications. First and foremost, it can act as a cautionary tale that helps the general public deal with the possible future implications of existing technology.

Public entities can also use this practice when raising awareness in areas such as health and the environment as it can live in public spaces, such as museums or the internet. Design Fiction can be static and it can ask for the participation of spectators, making them aware of these scenarios by letting them be part of the narrative.

Companies that want to innovate and remain relevant in the future can also be participants and creators in Design Fiction.





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