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


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.

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

A fictional newspaper from 2018 that imagines possible futures of data and football


How will the so-called beautiful game of global football be different in a world where sport itself, and the culture of the fans who love it, is altered by the rush of data, quantification, analytics and digital delivery? What might a high-stakes match of the near future be like when every move is measured, and every tactic forecast by silicon? What will the technologically savvy supporter and the lifelong fan alike experience differently when Big Data takes on the game?

Launched at the National Football Museum in Manchester last week, our latest project, Winning Formula, explores these questions and some of the more unreal features of data-driven football future.


Winning Formula touches on more easily seen aspects of performance analytics, and new ways to depict and consume football in media, but also explores near-future possibilities hiding just below the surface, possible phenomena such as data manipulation as a kind of doping, the impacts of high-frequency sport betting, or politics related to data-based services like media, measurement and reporting. Commissioned by National Football Museum, Future Everything and CCCB, the result of our investigation takes the form of a newspaper sports section from April 2018. This hypothetical daily European tabloid called ‘Today’ is an exemplar of the way we use narrative and Design Fiction to create an engaging, thought-provoking perspective on a possible, plausible near future world that need not result in either a PowerPoint deck nor corporate white paper. The mundane form of a disposable daily newspaper, coming to you from April 2018 puts into the hands of everybody a possible day in the future when data, both large and small, alters some aspects of sports, from training to commentary, enhancements to prosthetics, rulings to viewing.

Winning Fomula

Some implications that the newspaper highlights are:

  • New measures of player and team performances
  • Data manipulation as a form of doping
  • High-frequency betting
  • Communication (sensors, images) hacking
  • Enhanced data services (TV and games)
  • New language to describe players and their roles
  • Tactics, micro-strategies and their readability
  • A resurgence of the local, artisanal, working-class lager

When parents purchase the DNA kit that their kid’s route to athletic excellence

The Molecular Football™ algorithm automatically produces snapshots of systems and micro-tactics such as: The Born Again Christmas Tree, The Spinal Trap, Perpetual Motion, or Zugzwang

In this project we mixed foresight techniques such as horizon scanning and scenario development to capture weak signals and posit disruptions in technology and society with a design approach to create fictional narratives of the future that focus on the implications behind the signals. We applied unusual approaches to interweaving everything from raw videogame datasets to rich description of artifacts and advertising from a hypothetical future to forecasts about politics, genomics, law, finance, technology, ethics, and climate change informed our design of both narrative and visuals contained within the quotidian vessel of the newspaper frame.

Winning Fomula

The project will be exhibited at the National Football Museum in Manchester until April 3, 2014 as part of the Future Everything festival. Last Friday, it was inserted in 130,000 copies of the Manchester Evening News. It will be part of the Big Bang Data exhibition at CCCB in Barcelona from May 9 to October 26, 2014, and at Fundación Telefónica in Madrid in 2015.

Winning Formula is a Near Future Laboratory project commissioned and produced by FutureEverything, National Football Museum, Centre for Contemporary Culture Barcelona – CCCB, and Fundación Telefónica, supported by ECAS, a European Commission Culture Fund project and MEDIAPRO.

It is international, transdisciplinary effort that involved futurists, technologists, designers, and writers stretching from Europe, South America to the US, and is an example of a number of small practices and studios working in close collaboration. The project was conceived and directed by Fabien Girardin of Near Future Laboratory, and developed in tight collaboration with futurists Scott Smith of Changeist and Philippe Gargov of Seeklup. It was designed with Bestiario and includes the writing of Natalie Kane, Margot Baldassi, Christophe Kuchly and Valéry Mba Aboghe, and the translations of Eva Fernández García, Raphael Cosmidis with the help of Fanny Negre.


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

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.


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.)

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.

A Few Things The Laboratory Did In 2012

As the year ends, tradition calls for a review of the several initiatives we engaged in during 2012. The exercise entails looking back in time with the support social network activities and more personal logs to keep track of gratifying rencontres and significant milestones at the Near Future Laboratory.


In Barcelona we spent the year “sketching with data”, an approach to innovate with data we presented in various conferences and institutions from the high-tech cabarets such as Strata in San Francisco; or Red Innova in Madrid to the more cozy settings of the IAAC architecture school in Barcelona. These speaking engagements were part of a polishing phase that reports on the our evolving practice fed by the accumulated experiences in producing services with data. For instance, we discussed our investigation on the roles of a retail bank in the ‘smart’ city of the near future. Our client had fairly good ideas of the potentials of a real-time information platform. This is the kind of service a bank is extremely familiar with. However, they had limited knowledge on the specific information that could feed and emerge from this kind of platform. As part of our consulting work, we regularly sketched advanced dashboard for participants of the project to explore and interrogate their data with fresh perspectives. The use of the prototypes helped the the different stakeholders in the project craft and tune indicators that qualify commercial activities. This experience still feeds the development of the client’s future services and products based on data.

Another gratifying outcome of the work around “sketching with data” was the release in June and November of the alpha and beta versions of Quadirgram (see Unveiling Quadrigram). The product resulted from a collaboration with our friends at Bestiario and responds to the increasing demand of clients to think (e.g. sketch) freely with data. The tool is meant to diffuse the power of information visualization within organizations and eventually reach the hands of people with knowledge and ideas of what data mean. We had the opportunity to influence many aspects of the product development and release process (engineering, user-experience, go to market strategy, client/investor/provider meetings) and now Fabien proudly sits in the advisory board of the company.

7513631392_f4fa8d162f_bOther fruitful collaborations took place along the year, each of them bringing their unique set of experiences. I am particularly grateful to have joined forces with Urbanscale, Claro Partners, Interactive Things, Lift, Data Side and Pop-up Urbain. While a good share of the work stayed within confidential settings, we reserved efforts for self-started initiatives such as:

  • Ville Vivante: an ‘urban demo’ that took the form of a visual animation and eight posters deployed at the Geneva central station (project led by Lift Conference, in collaboration with Interactive Things).
  • Footoscope: a deciphering tool for football amateurs developed in collaboration with Philippe Gargov of Pop-up Urbain. Its interface provides a perspective on the morphology and tactics of a football team according to raw data on its passing game transformed into indicators and visualizations.

Finally, we kept some quiet moments to contribute to academia with reviews for Sensors, CHI, CSCW and Just-In-Time Sociology, teach a postgraduate course on the design of ‘data services’ and published of the paper New tools for studying visitor behaviors in museums: a case study at the Louvre co-authored with Yuji Yoshimura, UPF and MIT on a follow-up investigation of our hyper-congestion study at the Louvre.


At the Swiss bureau, things were geographically a bit more complicated since part of this year has been spent in Los Angeles, CA for a visiting researchers’ stay at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

Overall, 2012 was split between four types of activities:

  1. Design fiction projects that aimed at proposing various near future worlds along with a reflection on technological usage. More specifically, we worked on three projects: Corner Convenience (the near future of corner convenience stores as an exploration of technological trajectories), Curious Rituals (about gesture carried out with digital technologies), To Be Designed (a design workshop that aimed at producing a catalogue of near future objects). What we learned in these projects is basically how futures research can take different shapes, how design can be an original language to rebuild a sense of the future and how certain objects can be brought to the table as “conversation-enablers”.
  2. Client projects: three (big) field studies in the US, Switzerland and France, a series of co-creation workshops, and contributing to the production of three conference proved to be very fruitful and satisfying.
  3. Teaching in different institutions: HEAD-Geneva (where I also obtained a research grant for a project about design and ethnography), ENSCI-Les Ateliers (for a workshop with Raphael Grignani), Les Gobelins Annecy, SUPSI Lugano, University of Montpellier.
  4. Book writing: the game controller book will be released in French in the coming days and Laurent Bolli and myself are working on the English edition.

2012 was also spent on the road with talks and lectures spent here and there, some highlights:


The bulk of the year from a Los Angeles perspective was spent conceiving, organizing and producing the To Be Designed / Detroit event. This was sort of a big deal for us. It counts as the start of a series of workshops that the Laboratory facilitates to both discover the material, designed, fictional props that are conversation starters for thinking about different kinds of futures.

While we are still working on the post-event production of a catalog from the future, the overall structure and concept was a significant goal of the event. What we wanted to do was create an environment where a group could “do” design fiction.

The theme of TBD/DTW was on the role of everyday, quotidian things that surround us. Without being normative about it — just the crap that sits in and amongst the significant infrastructure of life. Batteries, pens, knives, pool floats, outerwear, etc. These are the things that, for TBD/DTW, we focused on. In the near future we’ll cohere the workshop’s results in a catalog of these things. We’re still sorting out the precise production and publication.


To go along with this goal of creating a workshop environment to do design fiction, we created a work kit composed of a some more everyday objects — a deck of custom designed playing cards, dice, note cards, a resource book, etc. The kit was meant to prompt the creation of unexpected future things through the combination and objects, attributes and design actions. Much like “Mad Libs”, but for objects. This was a theme generally last year — the creation of tools for the imagination. Resources that help prompt discussions and ideation. In the coming year, we’ll work on refining the work kit and testing it in other contexts.

Informing the workshop was the “Corner Convenience” newspaper and Corner Convenience film that we made for Emerge 2012. Rhys was the prime mover for the concept — to reflect upon the exceptional innovation that lives around us, even in the corner Quick-E-Mart or neighborhood bodega. We take for granted the things that are now 0.99¢ or 3 for $1. But many of those things embody incredible technical, scientific, logistical and manufacturing innovations that would drop the jaws of someone who travled forward from even half a century ago. For the film at Emerge, Nick and I looked forward to imagine what the convenience store of the near future would hold.

There were a couple of workshops and conferences. There was the Gaming the Game event at UC Davis in Davis California. And a fun workshop at the Walker Art Center on design fiction. Actually — that’s where I first tried this strategy of thinking through the ordinary evolution of things like garden hoses and digital cameras.

Also, did a workshop at the Anderson Ranch with Casey Reas on digital photography and Processing. That was fun. A good re-entry into the world of programming, which I’m continuing cause if everything goes to heck, it’s good to still be able to dig ditches.

Speaking of which, we’re continuing to develop the “Humans” app in the evenings. This is a way of getting back into programming but also with something I’d like, which is a way to get more of a Windows 8 style view onto my friends by aggregating their service “updates” and “status” and “photos” in one place, rather than having to go to services (which aren’t Human) first.

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.



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

Tom Sachs // Mars Program

So I have just returned from a multipurpose trip, one of whose purposes was to see the Tom Sachs exhibition at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City. This is the Tom Sachs show done in collaboration with NASA (and a crop of creative partners, like Creative Time, but that’s less typical than collaborating with NASA.) Much like his studio’s “Space Program” exhibition from a few years ago at the Gagosian in Beverly Hills, this exhibition takes as its theme space travel only this time instead of a mission to the moon, it’s a mission to Mars. The specifics of the work is mostly in the details of it’s preparation and a bit in its demonstration. The way Sachs’ studio runs — as best as I can discern from the artist talk — is quite thorough. The studio treats the mission quite playfully-seriously. So, much like astronauts may work quite hard on physical fitness and the like, the studio does as well — doing morning runs, coordinated limbering exercises, weights and the like. In the videos showing the preparation work, you see the studio in appropriate era fitness clothing doing exercises idiomatic of the sort you might see in the context of astronaut preparation. They’re doing it all with a playful spirit, but evidently it’s taken quite seriously.

The script to the exhibition was fairly close to the “Space Program” — at least insofar as the space travel bits. The exploration and excavation of the martian surface had some variations of course, but otherwise it was quite similar. It’s the same Saturn V rocket and the astronauts (again, both women) travel in the LEM — I suspect it’s the exact same one as “Space Program”, but it is a lunar excursion module, rather than some speculative martian excursion module.

The collaboration with NASA brings a very intriguing “design fiction” angle to the project insofar as the studio, according to the artist talk, worked quite closely with NASA scientists. To what ends, I’m not entirely sure of course, but the collaboration is there. In a way this is somewhat like Kubrick working with the rocket scientists of his era in order to understand the needs and constraints of rocket ships basically before there were rocket ships.

Sachs enjoys the patina of bricolage so his interpretations have a certain hand-made-ness and found-materials-that-are-perfectly-fine-ness to the work. This sculptural quality makes them deliberately playful. I find this more than simply playful though, but I can’t quite get to the bottom of it. It’s ingenious in a certain way. Ingenious craftwork. To use a basketball as the main living module of the Odyssey from 2001 is fun at the same time that is subverts the tendency I might have to make the model indiscernable from the real thing, at least as far as the material goes. This is just my own perception and interpretation of this choice, but I feel like it’s something I’d like to learn from. ((Oftentimes we’ll make thins with the same level of resolution and fidelity one would expect from a “real” object. I can think of various reasons and rationales for subverting this “reality” as a way to enter into a different set of conversations — perhaps to reflect more of the craftwork, the individuality of an idea or object, or to bring in a conversation about artisinal qualities.))

One thing Sachs said during the artist talk that was nice to hear — not a surprise, just something that brought into focus perhaps one of the reasons that I enjoy his work, aside from the fact that its about golden-era space travel — was this: “I see no problem synthesizing science with fiction”. So this statement explicates his own approach to the work and captures that relationship with ‘real scientist’ and the interpretative qualities of his demonstrations and sculptural constructions together with my own interest in designing with fiction.

Moon Graffiti

Of course, because we’re doing audio design and audio projects around here, I’m excited about most any audio thing that’s a new thing. I mean..I bought a whole iPod Shuffle just so I could try out (and try to make) Music for Shuffle sorts of things. That seems to be a wonderful design brief. (I’m not at all sure what “music for shuffle” means, but that’s the fun figure that out.)

Anyway — I just found out this wonderful new contemporary radio drama that is just way more thoughtful and way better than fucking stoopid Prairie Home Companion. GOD i hate that radio show. I can’t turn the radio off quickly enough when that stoopid theme song starts playing.

The new *good thing? It’s called “The Truth”, and it’s not — it’s fiction. Slightly swerved, curved moments. Their lovely tagline is “Movies for your Ear” which is brilliant. Cause it’s theatrical, brief little moments. Very contemporary moments. I just listened to my first bit of Design Fiction Radio Drama in that sense. It’s called “Moon Graffiti” and it’s the other lunar landing story — the one where the astronauts — Buzz and Neil — are stranded. And that generally known William Safire letter In Event of Moon Disaster has to be read by President Nixon.

It’s a project by Jonathan Mitchell and his posse of actors, producers, engineers, etc.

I want to be a part of it. I want to help produce these things and make them and craft them and work on them. Can anyone help me do that?

In this sense it falls in line with my other, other favorite bit of Apollo Era Design Fiction, Tom Sachs’ “Space Program”.

It’s Design Fiction..and it’s radio drama. Brilliant.