Why Silicon Valley Hates TBD Catalog

TBD Catalog. It started as a workshop-based collaboration with 19 humans and a few algorithms who willingly allowed me to shepherd them through the thoughts in my head and help show what the world may be like in some odd but likely near future — represented as a product catalog rather than some old-fashioned output like a white paper or blog post.

TBD Catalog tells a story about the world we are likely to inhabit if the current moment’s exuberance for the things it gets exuberant about continues at its boom-bust cycle pace.

What exuberance am I talking about?

This exuberance for “disruption”, handcrafted algorithms, security, 3D printers, The Cloud, luxury-bespoke bicycle seats, bigger and bigger self-serving Big Data “data points”, stacks and stacks of weird service APIs, consumer-focused technical gadgets, an Internet of Things where everything is connected to everything (whatever that means), food printers, the end of privacy, algorithmic publishers beating up normal publishers, artisanal hand crafted lickity-split buzzy drone delivery, hype-curves with spectacular riches at the end, connected toilets, saws & axes, and etcetera.

This is an exuberance that we might generally localize to Silicon Valley California. It can now be said that this exuberance has spread to other geographic centers of unbridled enthusiasm, what with the San Francisco/Silicon Valley sprawl bursting at the seams with its $5000 a month studio “apartments” and its general lack of space for people to live and work and get a goddamn burrito that actually makes sense.

Maybe that’s not fair.

DonnelProfessionalDataEnlargement-01

Hold on — yes it is.

Although, okay — to appear to be fair I’ll say that Silicon Valley isn’t all that bad, even if it is sometimes quite severely selfish and myopically misguided.

A guy in his living room with a six pack of beer can have some bad ideas about what to do in the afternoon — shoot tin cans off the back fence, surveil his neighbor with a drone, maybe do dirt bike donuts on his neighbors front yard after those beers are gone.

A guy in his living room with $6 billion can have a normatively bad idea about what to do, and do real damage to normal, ordinary everyday humans.

Wait. Where was I?

megmulsy-TBD-2014-08-24_06-46-28

Oh right. TBD Catalog. A catalog of ideas, extrapolations, insights, points of view, opinions, statistically likely conclusions, satire (which is only satire until it comes to pass, like an App that says “Yo!” which would’ve been the kernel of a good joke until someone thought it would make a better App than a joke and now it’s no longer funny) — all represented as stuff that goes in your home. It’s also the weird crap you find at the checkout counter of your local corner convenience store. And your friendly, neighborhood Data Plumber who advertises on a badly Xeroxed flyer crumpled and shoved through your mail slot or slipped under the windshield wipers of your used self-driving Hyundai Siestafore..the one with the hacked Android DriveOS so you can take it off-road on the weekends without the disturbingly angelic Johannson bot voice you lease for $3.99/month warning you every 15 seconds “Parker..you’ve strayed off course. Please return to Highway 101.”

TBD Catalog is a container of ideas — some which may come to pass, some which probably already exist, some which definitely already exist in some form and some other things that are just plain brilliant ideas that no one in their right mind would dedicate a single dollar bill to create. Cause #ROI.

What is this TBD Catalog then? What does it do that these pre-modern techniques for creative strategizing do not do?

Design Fiction

It’s a collection of micro-fictions, little stories done up to take the form of a product catalog. They are symptoms of a future world. Each product an implication — all collectively implying the lived experience of someone’s likely normal ordinary everyday near future habitat. These are evocative little Macguffin-like clues at what you know may likely come to pass.

Producing a hint of a whiff of the near future is an alternative narrative strategy to the grand vision the old-fashioned futurists were likely to offer. And, ultimately — it’s this alternative narrative element that the PowerPoint deck and the ThinkTank white paper cannot offer. Those simply kill the fun in good, creative design work. They deaden the creative nervous system ruining the possibility of doing good design — of feeling inspired and invigorated. No one was ever invigorated by your typical PowerPoint or 87 page White Paper, were they?

Internet of Things Design Fiction

What are some of these Macguffins? TBD Catalog includes everything. Food to toilets. End-to-end solution, as they say. Life, love, loss, loungewear. From the future of ice cubes to the disposal of 3D printer waste material to “revolutionary” wound-spring PowerPaks.

In TBD Catalog you’ll find a whole thriving business ecosystem of data mangling and an underground of techniques and instruments to allow one to commit “servicide” — that’s social network suicide. There’s everything from shoddy, rusted out old surplus data manglers to the valet-clad, braided epaulet luxury vacation packages where you and your loved ones can hide or expunge all your data trail with the exclusivity and privacy you’ve come to expect from your privileged life.

Algoriture Design Fiction

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What sort of world does TBD Catalog come from? What is that near future it is telling us we may likely occupy?

It’s a world where Google and Facebook (or whatever they become) use data analytics to find your child’s perfect algorithmically matched playmate — and their probable soul mate.

It’s an “Internet of Things” world where everything, including the glass you drink with, the bar stool you sit on, and the bathroom door you lock behind you, is connected to everything else.

It’s a world where bland “Algoriture” algorithmic literature are written by Amazon’s data analytic-fed intelligent bots rather than normal, human authors.

Design Fiction

TBD Catalog intimates a world in which the well-heeled summon — as they do Uber cars today — on-demand force-presence security operators to help them recover their lost or stolen iPhone or shepherd them around Burning Man or Coachella.

In the near future of TBD Catalog luxury ice cubes are available for an extra fee in a drought-burdened world, 3D printers require child-safe locks to prevent printing choking hazards, modern plumbers plumb the erratic, clogged data drains of your analytics-generating connected home, and the number one film is 48% crowd funded and 64% algorithm written and the director is a bit of software written by some programmer in Sierra Leone.

BeholdDesignFiction

That’s TBD Catalog. That’s the “what.”

In Part 2, I’ll talk about Design Fiction — the “how.”

For now — check out TBD Catalog and get your copy. Also, read @sarahrich’s review: Your Mail-Order Future

The Future Silicon Valley’s Billionaires Don’t Want You To See

JCB_20082014_195202_7606-Edit

I want to share with you the latest book project from the Near Future Laboratory. It’s called TBD Catalog — the Design Fiction product catalog for the normal ordinary everyday near future.

You can get your own copy of TBD Catalog here in our own shop. We’re also a publisher now, in the modern sense.

TBD Catalog contains 166 products, 62 classifieds and advertisements to tell little stories about the world we are likely to inhabit if the exuberant venture capitalist handlers and computer programming day laborers of Silicon Valley have their way.

It’s a future quite different from the perfect, seamless, integrated, one-touch, Cloud-based advertising fakery used to make your pupils dilate with “wantfulness” — a want for cute connected family robots, software and plastic dongles ‘made with love’ and self-driving cars with impish earnest eager bumper faces and $9 drip coffee made with algorithmic precision and ordered ahead from an App.

The future represented in TBD Catalog starts with Silicon Valley’s breathless visions — and plops it down on the counter of your corner bodega. This is the future that comes in party colors. It’s the 3/$1.00 and buy one get one free future. Got your iPhone stolen? In the TBD future, if you’ve got ‘Find My Phone’ enabled, just use your Call For Backup App — we’ll send some licensed and disciplined toughs fresh back from Spec-Ops to knock on doors, fold their arms and growl imposingly if necessary. It’s the Uber of semi-private personal security.


 

Design Fiction


 

Design Fiction


 

With TBD Catalog our technique for employing Design Fiction was to follow today’s major “tech” trends and see where their hyperbole might likely wind up in some likely normal ordinary everyday near future — 3D Printers; Internet of Things; the Algorithmic Life; The Cloud; Machine Intelligence; New Funding Models; Mass Customization; Etcetera.

The TBD Catalog future is the near future ordinary. The constant low power and exploding battery future. The bad firmware bricked $800 device future. The lousy customer service phone menu UX and busted algorithms that send a hundred emails to the same customer and shift-reload doesn’t clear the error future. The bad monopoly network service conglomerate run like an accounting firm future.

That world. The one when ‘now’ becomes ‘then’ — after all the glitzy wearables/internet-of-things/self-driving car Kickstarter advertising TechCrunch blogger promises dull to their likely normal.

We did TBD Catalog because no one else has done so much to tell a story about the likely future beyond excruciating, mind-numbing white papers, link-bait blog posts and breathless “insights” from strategy agency reports that read as though they’re in league with the pundits who all basically work for the startups anyway. We wanted a perspective that was engaging, entertaining and probable while also insightful, generative and provocative.

Take a look around amongst the strata of futurists, insights reports, strategy assessments, TED Talks and the like. There is little to go on to ruminate about these trends beyond the vague “imagine a world..” fantasy scenarios and dreamy video pitches with earnest mandolin soundtracks. There are scant stories about a world when these trend-things are fully-vested within our lives in a way that doesn’t seem like the boom-cycle perfect world advertisement where we 3D print fresh licensed Opiline knife sets. The stories we get are either perfect utopia futures or the robot-zombie apocalyptic busted future with fascist jetpack cops chasing down malcontents.

TBD Catalog cuts through the middle to tell stories from a world where Nobel Prize winning technology is sitting on the counter of your corner liquor store in 23 different colors, all with a keychain and instructions on how to entertain your cat. This “ordinary” story is the one we’re working towards. These are the stories that are in short supply. Stories about our world when the extraordinary idea makes its inevitable journey to become the ordinary commodity thing that occasionally needs repair or a software patch for a security flaw.

TBD Catalog creates these sorts of stories by hinting at the implications of today’s ‘disruptions’ — by representing the kinds of products and services we might imagine in the near future and implying little corners of that near future world and the social lives around it. In TBD Catalog each product, service, classified advertisement and customer review is a bit of Design Fiction — a mix of trending topic plus designed object plus a small evocative story-description. Each Design Fiction is a little story about life in our likely near future world.

What are some of the stories in TBD Catalog?

TBD Catalog tells a story about a world in which every household has as many 3D printers as they now have electric toothbrushes, and a lease-licensed 3D printer material waste disposal unit.


 

Design Fiction

 

 


 

Algoriture Design Fiction


TBD Catalog reveals a world with bland “Algoriture” algorithmic literature optimized for trends, tastes and expectations and written by Amazon’s data analytic-fed intelligent bots rather than normal, human authors.

What about a world in which algorithms are so trusted, we allow them to find a playmate for our children, or the perfect “soul mate” for ourselves when we turn 18.

Internet of Things Design Fiction


 

MeWee Monitor hints at what an Internet of Things world might look like if everything — the glass you drink with, the bar stool you sit on, and the bathroom door you lock behind you and the chamber pot you sit upon  — is connected to everything else, and lets the world know what it’s doing.

Why did we do a product catalog from a likely future? The Near Future Laboratory is of the opinion that whatever “comes next” should be prototyped not just in hardware and software (which we do, and enjoy) but through compelling, engaging, tangible moments that play out near future scenarios. Not only the spot-on-perfect advertiser-scripted scenarios, but the more likely and realistic moments as well. This sort of prototyping has imminent value as a means of shaping an idea, reflecting on contingencies, making things better and feel more full-vested in the world.

Design Fiction is a form of prototyping an idea. It’s a way of  reflection that can take an idea, trend or concept and intimate it in a more material form that can generate conversations that then reshape the idea into something better. Design Fictions have a remarkable ability to make that materialized concept come to life in a much more embodied way than specifications, one-pager or items in a PowerPoint bullet list. TBD Catalog’s Design Fictions take the promise of extraordinary and weird Silicon Valley aspirations and turn them into the normal and ordinary props that come to life as part of our everyday lives.

Design Fictions have exceptional value from a pragmatic perspective. They are more than entertainment. Design Fiction can operate as a viable approach to design itself — a form of exercising hunches without committing to full-blown execution. Design Fiction can find the tangential implications and alternative possibilities of your instincts — and then show a path forward towards sketching, testing and materializing your ideas. As a catalog in which your idea might exist in the future. As a fictionalized quick start guide. As an instruction manual or bug report. As a blogger’s review or customer service script.

Design Fiction is a creative instrument. It is truly a form of prototyping. It is an approach to design and strategic foresight that is actually generative. Design Fictions provide the basis for viable ideas, even in the idiom of satire. In their second reads, they become more — each of the 166 products has a “..huh” moment. There are dozens and dozens of Kickstarters in here, surely. And a few things in TBD Catalog we here at the Near Future Laboratory have actually prototyped — for real. Even some we’re pursuing after having our own “..huh..that could work..” revelation.

Let me be clear — we here are not opposed to the “next new thing.”  We are eager to entertain. But also — we focus on creating ‘next new things’ everyday. TBD Catalog is meant to remind us that every cool trend, every ‘wow’ gadget, and even some Nobel Prize-winning technologies become entertainment devices for our house cats or a faster way to stream crappy online ads. We need those kinds of likely near future representations — as alternative as they are to the glowing reports in your favorite trends blog — to focus ourselves on the challenges this world faces in light of rapidly changing behaviors, expectations, desires, rituals and algorithms.

Welcome to your near future normal ordinary everyday.

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Buy TBD Catalog
Check out the work kit we used to create the products
Read more about Design Fiction

A Delightful Design Fiction Evening in San Francisco

Last October we gathered for a Laboratory day retreat and decided — so long as we’re all together — why don’t we make a thing of it. So, we arranged to do an evening’s gathering with our friends at IDEO. Scott Paterson from IDEO facilitated our way into IDEO’s splendid waterfront facility. We brought beer, IDEO brought beer, we had lots of beer and, most importantly, we shared with our audience some perspectives on Design Fiction. Our friend Ed Finn from Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination helped us set the metaphorical table. Sharing thoughts were Julian Bleecker, James Bridle, Nick Foster and Cliff Kuang from Wired facilitated the conversation.

It was “delightful”, as the kids are fond of saying nowadays. But, more delightful than the most delightful UX. Properly delightful in the way that a gathering of humans in a room can be delightful. A gathering to think, debate, discuss and laugh. Like a salon. We will be hosting more of these around the globe, as our Bureau of Delightful Design Fiction Evening Events spins-up and makes it Napoleonic plans.

D&F: A Design & Fiction Evening

Design & Fiction

https://designandfiction.eventbrite.com

We are the Near Future Laboratory. Welcome to us.

On Thursday October 24th we would like to meet up with you to talk about design. And fiction. And the ways of approaching the challenge of all challenges, whatever it may be. We’ll talk about expressing the opportunities those challenges raise as distinctly new tangible forms. As well as the essential value of mundane design.

We’ll talk about clarifying the present. We’ll talk about designing the future. And doing both of these things with design. And fiction.

Come and enjoy. We’ll be us, and we’ll also be James Bridle, a friend of ours.
There will be two and a half free regional beers for everyone.
Space is limited because we’re in a room. Sign up on Eventbrite, or you may become deflated.

WE'RE SERIOUS: EVEN THOUGH THIS IS A FREE EVENT, YOU MUST BE TICKETED TO ENTER. PLEASE DON'T SHOW UP WITHOUT A TICKET AS WE PROBABLY WON'T BE ABLE TO LET YOU IN.

Missed Opportunity – A Crank on a Camera

An idiomatic miss here with this little, darling, silly little camera. First read says to me that crank+camera equals either, like..advance-the-image or, like..crank-the-moving-film through.

The Sun & Cloud is a unique and innovative lo-fi camera designed to take simple and creative images. The creator said it best: “We never wanted cameras as precision machines, rather we imagine the camera as a sort of sketchbook, something with which you easily record bits of your life.”

What strikes you immediately about the Sun & Cloud is its unusually cubic shape and the the folding hand crank and solar panel, already making this a camera not like others you have seen. Superheadz wanted to give users ultimate freedom, so they built a camera that can be charged without needing to be tethered to a wall. Even with a completely dead battery, crank the Sun & Cloud for just one minute and you’ll have enough juice for between 4 and 8 pictures. With three customizable quick access buttons, you can easily select your favorite color and B&W filters. The Sun & Cloud is philosophically pure, and the lo-fi photos it takes reflect just that.

I’d much rather that if my imaging thing is going to have a crank on it. Like a moving film camera. Or even a still image camera with a crank..that advances the film. A bit heavy with irony, but a better start at the least. There are all sorts of new practices for image making that would come from enforcing old, relevant mechanical rituals in the age of digital things.

The hug-chest-palmss-on-cheeks // isn’t it darling? sensibility of a camera that needs the sun to see makes me want to throw up forever.

I suppose the fact that this darling little thing lets me crank a bit to take a photo when, otherwise — a camera’s battery may’ve gone flat is a bit of a thing. Like, when I used to shoot with an old Nikon F2A, I always knew I could take a photo even if the meter battery went out because it’s 100% mechanical otherwise. But, still..

Continue reading Missed Opportunity – A Crank on a Camera

Green Pages

Nick and I came back again to the Emerge 2013 event at Arizona State University to workshop an issue of “Green Pages”, the Laboratory’s ‘Quarterly Design & Technology Fiction Almanac.’

For those of you who haven’t subscribed, or don’t know about it, Green Pages is Design Fiction operationalized. Green Pages makes Design Fiction into something the entertainment industry can use directly.

In Part 1 of each issue we curate a careful selection of imminent and emerging technologies, provide a brief on each. In Part 2 we select a number of these and provide authored narrative and cinematic elements that are one-page diegetic prototypes, elements of fictions, Macguffins, props, prototypes, conceits, etc.

An example of Part 2 would be a one page plot synopsis, or a bit of production design for a prop informed by one of the technologies introduced in the issue.

The stories in Part 2 for this issue are especially good. They do not make the technical element central, but rather use it as stimulus for a proper narrative. We spent a lot of time unearthing good, dramatic, character-driven stuff that wasn’t ham-fisted techno-thriller fodder. I’m excited by these stories — they’re quite compelling, evocative moments of larger dramas that could easily see their way to being produced in some form — film, pilot, novel, etc.

Since this is the first time we’ve mentioned Green Pages here on the blog, I should say that it is a trade publication — it’s not an art project, or flight of design fancy. It’s an edited journal for a specific trade audience — producers, agents, writers, production designers, directors, etc. It’s not a PDF — we print it, authenticate each copy of each issue, and mail them out like normal, human print publications.

There has been interest beyond Hollywood for a publication like this. That’s partially because of the content but also some interest in the approach we take to translating raw technology ideas into compelling narratives — scenarios, they’re called in other domains.

For the workshop here at Emerge 2013, we thought the general approach to creating these Design Fictions and diegetic prototypes would be a worthwhile learning experience for folks at a large research university like ASU. For example, engineers and scientists who perhaps could learn how to translate technical stuff into compelling stories that help them round out the purely technical idea (wireless power distribution, for example) with issues and implications in a broader sense. Working in a room with engineers, policy gurus, creative writers all at once — everyone with their game-face on — was truly exciting and extremely productive. We had some excellent, exciting starters .We managed to get a solid bit of work on them the first day. Then on the second day we had some super exciting creative work — a screenplay excerpt, page one of a novel, a film synopsis, character casting notes and production design for a key prop of eco-thriller.

We’ll be working over the next weeks to clean up the material — in one and a half days it’s difficult to really complete a full issue, printing and binding and all that. But we were able to get the core done and hand out a few to the Emerge participants.

Good stuff.


Arizona, February 2013

From the desk of The Editors

Welcome to Issue 7 of Green Pages.

This is a milestone issue for a number of reasons.

Firstly, our subscriptions have more than doubled since we first launched — and that happened entirely by word of mouth. This kind of growth is unprecedented in the trade journal world.

We’ve also received an unprecedented number of recommendations from you, our subscribers, recommending colleagues for a complimentary issue. Thank you for the suggestions. We are working hard to follow through and vet your nominations.

We’re also excited because this issue was done in collaboration with the Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. This is the first time we’ve worked directly with a major research university. We hope this will set a new precedent for the way we create and curate our content.

Inside this issue you’ll find a diverse collection of our front pages containing concepts that range from biotech to counter-surveillance to prosthetic enhancements. There’s Swarm Robotics, Encoded Ballistics, Image-based Diagnostics, Foliage Penetrating Radar, Lab Grown Bone, Afterlife Cells, Surveillance Drone Mitigation, Depression Detection Systems, Lighter Than Air Vehicles, Billion Pixel Camera, Digitigrade Prostheses, Tracheal Scrubbers, Data Magnets, Predictive Vaccines, Nanoturbine Surfaces, Organ Printing, ‘Miracle Salt’, Svalbard Gene & Seed Bank, Vortex Ring Gun, and more. There are some very exciting, provocative research projects that are easily extended into the realm of story telling — and not all as purely techno-thrillers. We’ve developed several of these into one pages conceits and précis both cinematic and traditional narrative-based. We have some evocative production design as well.

Overall, we’re quite happy with this issue. We hope you enjoy it.

Dr. Bleecker and Mr. Foster (Eds.)

News from the Executive Suite, Los Angeles Bureau

Amongst the projects we publicly declare here on the Laboratory blog, there are probably x2 others that we don’t. We plan to change that ratio henceforth.

These are our “non-battery” powered projects. By that I mean that they are not traditional technocultural things — those things that have come to define the laboratory, from Flavonoid engineered prototypes to industrially fortified data vizualization software to game controllers for pets to studies in curious interaction rituals.

But, they are projects and they reflect the more complete aspects of the Laboratory as a practice. They are a reflection of our additional interests, curiosities and explorations. Some of them are exercises of a more proto-professional nature, to explore ways of studying the world around us, short probes into a field of practice about which we want to understand by doing rather than by idle observation. In sum, they represent ways that the Laboratory is always curious, always learning, never set or fixed in what it does and how it does it. This makes me understand the Laboratory as a practice. A bit like a studio. But, I understand now even more as we grow and as more people join in, that it is better to communicate the multivalent character of the Laboratory through more aspects of what we here do.

There are no “side projects” in this practice. There are we all who are always following our curiosities.

Curious Rituals

Curious Rituals is a project about gestures, postures and rituals people adopt when using digital technologies. It’s both a book documenting gestures we observed, and a design fiction film that speculates about their evolution

Location: Los Angeles, USA
Years: Summer 2012
Leader: Nicolas Nova
Method: Ethnography and prototyping

Curious Rituals was a research project conducted at Art Center College of Design (Pasadena) in July-August 2012 by Nicolas Nova (The Near Future Laboratory / HEAD-Genève), Katherine Miyake, Nancy Kwon and Walton Chiu from the media design program.

The project was about gestures, postures and digital rituals that typically emerged with the use of digital technologies (computers, mobile phones, sensors, robots, etc.): gestures such as recalibrating your smartphone doing an horizontal 8 sign with your hand, the swiping of wallet with RFID cards in public transports, etc. These practices can be seen as the results of a co-construction between technical/physical constraints, contextual variables, designers intents and people’s understanding. We can see them as an intriguing focus of interest to envision the future of material culture.

The aim of the project was to envision the future of gestures and rituals based on:

  1. A documentation of current digital gestures in a book format
  2. The making of a design fiction film that speculate about their evolution

“Curious Rituals” was produced as part of a research residency in the Media Design Program at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.

To Be Designed // Detroit // October 1-3

As the name of our Laboratory implies, we’re very interested in the hands-on, pragmatic ways in which one can imagine and then create things from and for the near future. In that sense, we design products and the like. Stuff. We make stuff. They are just things from and for the near future. Which shouldn’t be a problem. They just need to be designed with care and a sensitivity to what futures we expect or would like. Then the opportunities for that stuff is revealed.

Over the years we’ve developed an approach and a sensibility for thinking about the near future. It’s an approach that is object-based in that we make things — call them products, sometimes software, sometimes other kinds of wares. It’s a sensibility that is infused with the quotidian and everyday almost to the point of the mundane, because ultimately everything trends towards that and things seem more real and “read” easier when they simply exist without fanfare and hype. And always our approach is provocative, as in provoking conversations and stories and drama about the near future.

A few months ago, I asked a small group of friends to meet me and my Laboratory cohort in Detroit at the beginning of October. I wanted time together with friends whose work shares something with the Laboratory’s way of making and thinking. I wanted time to be less yammer-y and more hammer-y. The goal was to participate in a three day workshop. We were to make something and Detroit seemed like an apropos place to make a future thing that is more everyday than the future imagined in Palo Alto. Plus, it’s about midway between Los Angeles and London, more or less and I wanted to make it easy for friends from other parts to come, on their own dime, and do some work.

The work of the workshop was to make a Design Fiction product catalog using all the principles, approaches, tools and work kits that the Laboratory has gathered together over the years.

A bit of background, then.

When I first looked seriously at how science fiction shapes and informs the way we think about technology, it did not occur to me that one could do science fiction. Rather, one received it as packaged — in a book, a film, comic, a television series, etc.

Of course, I’d come to understand differently. When I wrote my dissertation and in subsequent projects, I came to realize that telling stories can happen in many ways besides novels and films. Objects can be evocative of stories — props and prototypes that our imagination begins to fill in with their reason for existing, their operation, their role.

In what I see as an addendum to that earlier work, pre-21st century work, I discussed the possibility that there’s a space for design-technology in between science fact and science fiction. The emphasis on technology-informed design is deliberate and its more a reflection of my own engineering background and interests than an attempt to cordon off other significant facets of design.

Design-technology makes sense in the idioms of science fact and science fiction so — here it is: Design Fiction is the deliberate and purposeful act of doing fiction through design. It’s telling stories by making things up, with an emphasis on “things” and their making.

So, this is what we did. With gracious support from the Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design we all gathered together for a quite intensive three days of making things up. The brief was simple: make up a product catalog from the near future.

Christian came along and helped represent the work of the workshop with some fantastic video documentation which will become part of the documentation output. In the meantime, here’s the teaser.

TO BE DESIGNED (teaser) from svanes on Vimeo.

 

That’s it. Very Design Fiction-y. This is the catalog that some creative agency might gin up as a prop to sit on a living room end table and barely get a moment of screen time in some science-fiction film. But, it’d be true to itself, rather than stuffed full of blank pages to make it puff up a bit and look tangible. Someone would take the brief seriously and fill it with things-that-could-be.

And so we did that — we made a Design Fiction product catalog. Something from the near future.

Why a product catalog?

The product catalog serves as a reification of the needs, wants, desires, ambitions, fears of people as decanted into made products and provided services. And it’s an everyday, tangible thing to which most anyone can relate and comprehend.

With a product catalog, there is no need to be explicit, didactic or theoretical about the characteristics of the world at some unspecified moment in the near future. The products in the catalog serve as stand-ins and props that are representative of the everyday drama implicit in their existence. You can imply quite a bit with this form. The product catalog begins an evocative conversation with the everyday of some near future world.

Our rough working model was the SkyMall catalog for its outlandish everyday-ness. Skymall is a reminder that the world and its perceived needs, deficits and dreams has an extreme diversity. We had many other catalogs as reference points, too. Everything from the canonically yellow, talmudic McMaster-Carr to Hammacher-Schlemmer to specialty hunting outfitters and archival Sears & Roebuck catalogs.

To readers of this blog, desire and need may be defined more by the considered and crafted high-order capitol-D Design products. Our approach was to be different. To be more everyday. To travel a bit further along the hype curve and a bit towards the 99 cents end of the long tail, where normal humans live.

At this end of the future product spectrum, we could season the products with a pinch of humor — specifically satire — in order to provide the necessary twinge of criticality that makes the catalog have different effects on the reader. Its more legible to a wider audience than a more pure critical theory approach to design. Humor is also more fun. And it also leads to many more probable near future products and services, in my opinion. Although we’re not trying to predict the future. We may be placing some side bets, though. Ultimately readers will find the catalog activates their imagination and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if its contents lead to actual, science fact products. (After all, the idea of Twitter is pretty hysterical even after its contributions to Green Revolutions and political take-downs. It’s more than a little bit of a satirical jab at our need to jabber. And don’t get me started about wheelie luggage. That must’ve seemed idiotic at first blush.)

For example, we sell a product — “Rejuvenating Ear Fresheners” — that is recommended by 4 out of 5 doctors for those who spend more than 70 hours per week in front of a screen. “Second Nature” re-engineers your food by neutralizing any GMOs with an easy spray application. “Armstrong” (“Pure Blood, Pure Focus”) home blood oxygenation kit relieves you from the burden — and danger — of breathing dust, pollen and toxin-laden air for up to three hours. “Carbon Rain” by Tactical Weather Systems provides extreme weather protection for your fight against big weather and is made of nanofibre ferrule and kevlar skin to protect you from El Nino events, acid rain, high-UV conditions, volcanic ash, &c.

And so on, like this, for 179 products.

We had three days and wanted a tangible outcome, so we collectively selected 30 to create a full product description — name, image, price, description, key-selling points and customer endorsements. With these we did a couple of iterations on an actual catalog that we could all gather around and discuss. Subsequently we’ll do the same for some significant portion of the remaining products and then produce and print the catalog, and figure out a good way to distribute it.

A few parenthetical notes.

Megan Mulholland who participated in the workshop did a wonderful write-up of the To Be Designed workshop itself. I could do no better so you may as well read what she wrote.

WorkKit-tumblr_manyb3K5OT1r3ntzxo12_r1_1280

 

We made a prototype of a Design Fiction Work Kit that was sent out to participants in advance of the workshop. It was quite a good bit of fun to make. It was also meant to be a sort of back-up chute if we got stuck for ideas. That didn’t happen — 179 reasonably suitable product ideas in an afternoon — so we didn’t get to use the kit directly, although I do think it set the tone and mood of the workshop indirectly. I think with a bit of refinement and some additions, the work kit could be a fantastic tool for future TBD events.
Continue reading To Be Designed // Detroit // October 1-3