“The contents of your shopping basket may change. Almost 30% of our food currently comes from the EU, and it is likely that some foods, such as fresh vegetables and fruit, will become more scarce and more expensive in the event of no deal.”
Today, Brexit would have happened if what eventually happened had not happened. The fears of a soft or a hard Brexit have been extended with a very abstract understanding of what might happen next.
As part of our regular internal Design Fiction exercises, we took something conflictual like Brexit and we placed it firmly in the context of a mundane archetype. Something everyone might experience in the future.
We bring a potential future to the present, not as a prediction but to create a shared understanding of a decision and to evaluate possible implications. The image above is how we translated the BBC headline into that type of mundane situation.
We are super excited and thrilled that the term “Design Fiction” is being heard beyond the relatively small community of designers who have been practicing it over the last decade or so. More organizations and teams are now coming to us looking for a fresh and different approach to addressing their needs, concerns, fears, failures and ambitions that the old PowerPoint and Post-it Design Processes simply cannot handle.
This is encouraging for us as we believe the practice of Design Fiction has enormous potential.
We are also concerned — concerned for the many perspectives that present a misconstrued perspective on Design Fiction.
Note #1: Design Fiction is about understanding implications of decision making. Design Fiction is like a design-based A/B test.
— Have an idea or a range of possible ideas?
Run it through the Design Fiction process to understand how these ideas might play themselves out. Design Fiction allows you to engage the implications of your ideas deeply by creating some possible/probable outcomes. In those engagements you are actually creating artifacts that exist in those possible/probable futures. The artifacts you create are things from the future. When you do Design Fiction, you are like some kind of time traveling anthropologist bringing back things you’ve found. When you create these artifacts, you are engaging the context of its existence — why does this exist? what kind of world surrounds it? who are the people and what are their goals and ambitions?
In this kind of Design Fiction process, the discussions with your team and other stakeholders are bound to yield new ideas. The primary activity though, is to work with your team and stakeholders to understand the implications of decision making. Implications come first. New ideas follow.
Yes, we know that organizations often want to be told the solution to their problems and Design Fiction can certainly help here, as just described. Design Fiction is about studying possible implications — not all of them ‘preferred’, but they are always pragmatic and aligned with reality — not reality distorted.
— How do we do this?
Through the Design Fiction process we create design-based tangible artifacts that represent those implications. Sometimes we refer to these artifacts as props, as if they were the objects from that future, brought back to today to be considered, discussed, mulled over, debated and reflected upon.
With Design Fiction so may get your ‘new possibilities’, but you will get something more valuable: a richer understanding of the results of your ideas, good, bad, normal. This ultimately better prepares you for what happens when your idea is in the world. It allows you to de-risk based on the unexpected outcomes (which always happen).
Design Fiction does something no other design process does — it analyzes the outcomes of decision making today, so you have a clearer perspective and understanding of your possible/probable futures.
Note #2: The Design Fiction process produces tangible future artifacts. It does not produce written stories about a future state. This is a common and understandable misconception, probably based on the fact that the word “Fiction” is in the name.
Design Fiction is not a literary style, nor a purely dystopian visual style, despite its roots in Science Fiction and more specifically the important work of Near Future Laboratory Ambassador, His Eminence, Bruce Sterling, one of the founding fathers of the cyberpunk genre and aesthetic.
If you end up with a draft of a short story or a few paragraphs of a typical UX interaction scenario, or a storyboard, or a little film of someone swiping on a screen to show how your App idea would work — you have not done Design Fiction.
What you’ve done is write a short story, which can only possibly be read as a short story. You haven’t created a designed artifact that is the result — an implication — of a set of decisions, current conditions and other inputs, and wrote something down about it.
What you should ideally produce is something a casual observer may mistake for a contemporary artefact, but which only reveals itself as a fiction on closer inspection. It should be very much “as if..” this thing really existed. It should feel real, normal, not some fantasy. Nor should it be construed as a representation of the future — like a short story, or an illustration of some kind of interaction. (My favorite example of an artifact based on a recent workshop? A pizza menu — from the near future. An actual menu that describes a future state of food tastes, ingredients, means of payment, etc.)
Note #3: Creating an artifact forces you to get into the details of your future world in a way that writing a story does not. When writing, it is easy to skip over uncomfortable details in favor of the “big picture”. Design Fiction makes you sweat the details. For example, if you create a Quick Start Guide for a Self Driving Car there are myriad topics that would need to be addressed to describe how to activate, switch into Uber mode, upgrade firmware, etcetera.
— What should you do then if Design Fiction is more than writing stories?
You should be creating artifacts from that world and going through the work of actually making them — not writing about them.
If you’re exploring a future of self-driving cars and the implications for urban policy, create a physical map for a city as might be given out to the local public, or tourists. What would be in the map and why? Have debates with stakeholders about the challenges that would be faced, the failures that might occur, the brand names of services, new kinds of signage, etcetera. Now you’re doing Design Fiction.
Note #4: Creating artifacts happens early.
Design Fiction is called Design Fiction because it adheres to the principle of making-things-with-which-to-think. If you do this at the end, you’ve missed the point of Design Fiction. You have missed the opportunity to discuss, discover with your team and stakeholders the implications of decision making.
Note #5: Design Fiction does not bias towards “perfect” or preferred outcomes — not because we wouldn’t like these, but because we’re pragmatic.
We are skeptical optimists. We have been doing this long enough to know that such things are always mired in the intractably complicated ways in which earnestly naive ideas (particularly from Silicon Valley) are disconnected from the way they are received and reacted to in the real world.
Most design processes fail to indicate the risks and challenges of decision making today. They are all “Blue Team” exercises that can only imagine the perfect outcomes. The world does not work this way. Decisions today never lead to ideal outcomes. Design Fiction allows you to run through multiple perspectives, multiple outcomes (Good. Neutral. Bad. Ugly.) It’s your “Red Team” exercise that goes along with the hopeful, optimistic outcome that explore a rich, wide, fulsome set of outcomes represented in tangible artifacts — Instagram Stories, YouTube Unboxing Videos, Customer Testimonial Videos (good ones, bad ones), a lower-thirds chyron crawl describing some epic fail of your idea as shown on Fox News, A Quick Start Guide that forces you to figure out how your “idea” would actually work so you can discover that even you can’t (yet) describe how it would actually work. These truly tangible futures help decision makers assess not only their “ideal” outcomes (which we always hope for and, if you’re honest, rarely get perfectly) but the neutral and completely failed outcomes.
When discussing and writing about the future of cities with autonomous vehicles, it is easy to skip over complex details in favor of the “big headlines”.
Any decision-maker serious about evaluating the key opportunities of an idea, investigating challenges and possible complications, must consider the details through-and-through. This is what Design Fiction is good at. It is good at understanding the implications of today’s decisions. It reveals the ways futures could come to life and shows what that looks like in the form of material objects — the tangible artifacts from the future. For example, the creation of a Quick Start Guide for a Self Driving Car reveals a myriad of topics that would need to be addressed to describe how to activate, switch into Uber mode, upgrade firmware, etcetera.
This is the reason why the Department of Mobility at the Canton of Geneva commissioned us to investigate their “what if” scenarios around automated driving. Using our loose Design Fiction process, we selected an artifact that could reveal the implications for urban policy. We wanted a popular artifact, intelligible by a large audience. We created a foldable map of Geneva and brought it back from the future to be given out to the local public or tourists. The point of doing Design Fiction is to create the artifact and going through the work of actually making them — not writing about them. Practically, we loaded OpenStreetMap layers into a Geographic Information System (QGIS) to organize and project the road segment data into a possible future. We iterated several times after discussing the results and using Illustrator to polish the details (e.g. remove road segments, highlight potential consequences) and imagine new legends (e.g. urban canyons, levels of automated traffic).
The foldable map format also gives opportunities to add content alongside the actual street plan. We expanded the world-building inserting descriptions of career opportunities, an upcoming Swiss federal vote on the topic and how the system of fleets of autonomous vehicles actually works with its pick-up and drop-off areas. This content hides provocations and simple hooks to generate discussions. The overall result shows how self-driving cars may have an influence on traffic, urban infrastructures and mobility in general.
The intention for the Department of Mobility at the Canton of Geneva was to generate debates about the challenges that would be faced, the failures that might occur, the services that might emerge, the new kinds of signage and rules, etcetera. The map was used in the context of a local event about the future of the city, along with a series of talks and workshops on various topics public institutions have to deal with (places for kids, agricultural facilities, urbanism against climate change, etc.). In this context, it acted as a tangible future for a group of people with conflicting opinions to exchange point of views. We found out that the discussion revolves around two main topics : the way urban traffic may be reconfigured and redefine what is acceptable on certain streets (e.g. pedestrian movements, presence of non-autonomous vehicles), and the energy infrastructure needed for this technology to happen.
In this project, we imagined the near future as a territory. Maps provide a popular support to tell us how humans, technology and nature co-evolve. They make you travel to a future without actually going there. They bring a future into the hands of an audience with an objective to better understand the implications of today’s socio-technological developments might have on everybody’s life. Finally, our experiment of mixing today’s datasets with future narratives opens the doors of a new practice that uses techniques in Data Science not to predict what comes next but to speculate on the implications of the work of Data Scientists (e.g. automation, augmented intelligence).