Designing has always been about futurism. Take the iPhone, for instance. Apple’s design seemed straight out of a science fiction novel. In making the iPhone, they had clearly thought beyond a product and ventured into the future of interaction. This was design fiction at its finest.
The concept – which is also called speculative design – uses narrative elements from fictional scenarios to demonstrate the benefits of a prototype. The iPhone could have been made in the early 2000s, except no one could envision a context for a touchscreen phone at that time.
Envisioning Possible Futures
Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report is a perfect example here. The technology to make the famous gesture interfaces used by Tom Cruise was already around. Yet it took the movie’s narrative to give the technology a relatable frame in which it could be used.
Companies have been investing in organised design fiction for years. Philips, for example, had unveiled a Microbial Home prototype in 2011 where the all appliances ran on human and food waste. The concept was part of Philips’ ‘far future’ division called Design Probes. Google has a similar moonshot factory named X, which came up with flying cars and modular phones.
Products developed with this philosophy aren’t necessarily intended to reach the real world. In 2016, a video called The Selfish Ledger leaked from within Google. It imagined a future where every bit of data is collected, and Google guides the behaviour of individuals to solve large-scale problems such as poverty.
The video is eerie, mostly because Google’s products are already presuming to make choices on our behalf. It was produced by X’s design head Nick Foster and was meant to be a warning to product teams at Google. This is where design fiction is perhaps most useful. In the rapid transformation that technology brings about, the video forces us to consider tech in a human context.
In 2015, Lancaster University in the UK ran a pilot programme around ageing ‘in place’ (alone at home) and the loneliness associated with it. They created a narrative around a self-administered euthanasia device which helped start the assisted death debate in the UK.
The framework of design fiction allows the creator and the audience to pose vital “what if” questions that imagine use cases with far-reaching implications. Using fiction to construct designs also brings cultural and social details to the forefront, something which an engineering-only approach lacks.