Design Fiction

Anthony Dunne's call for mass speculation (in political science, genetics, ethics, economics, pretty much every discipline) is founded on a refreshing optimism. Dunne: "Today we don't just need solutions, we also need dreams." He is right—designers that are too polite to take chances and postulate wild hypotheses are doomed to simply churn out next year's model. So Dunne's idealized designer functions kind of similar to a science-fiction author, an individual engaged in a projective practice that aspires to produce novelty and innovation rather than style. Ironically, in a recent article for interactions, sci-fi author and design provocateur Bruce Sterling lamented that fiction could stand to learn a lot from design:

Design and literature don't talk together much, but design has more to offer literature at the moment than literature can offer to design. Design seeks out ways to jump over its own conceptual walls-scenarios, user observation, brainstorming, rapid prototyping, critical design, speculative design.

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence isn't it? On one hand we have Dunne calling for audacious imagination and on the other we have Sterling expressing an admiration for pragmatism and decidedly un-speculative exercises like QA. Elsewhere in the same essay Sterling outlines why the technologies in sci-fi are always lacking in plausibility:

They're imaginary. Imaginary products can never maim the consumer, they get no user feedback, and lawsuits and regulatory boards are not a problem. That's why their design is glamorously fantastic and, therefore, basically, crap.

Dunne and Sterling make good foils for one another—the friction between their respective positions is exactly the energy that cross-disciplinary design thinkers need to harness.

For further reading on design fiction please note Julian Bleecker's essay on the topic.

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This is an interesting debate of ideas. Thanks for publishing it. I tend to think that the imagination is a nice place to start, and that sci-fi can actually do a good job of inspiring design. When at its best, I think a viewer or reader is always testing the probability of a sci-fi technology. I happen to like the type of sci-fi that makes a bold move to extremes for the completely speculative, while rooting themselves in real science for those areas where we do have some knowledge. The best of this in television is Doctor Who, where you have plausible explanations of relativity, and quantum mechanics, alongside very comical aliens, and space invasions.

When I go into a furniture design store, I often see many beautiful chairs. Then I sit in those chairs; and to my horror I find that many beautiful chairs are totally uncomfortable. Apparently the designer's imagination has not been constrained by functionality. Hopefully, those beautiful-uncomfortable chairs are comfortable to someone else. But then there is the precedent of 6 inch high heel shoes and Victorian corsets and for that matter 200 mph sports cars crawling in LA traffic.

When design slips into fantasy fiction that is a physical impossibility (e.g. totally uncomfortable); then it is probably good for wowing but not for walking.

Imaginative design give physical possibility to seemingly impossible configurations. New technology can be part of imaginative design in that it allows otherwise impossible physical configurations (e.g. the suspension bridge); but the elegance and functionality of a bridge is in the hands of the designer.

I would like every chair in my dining room to be totally different. I don't just want the wood to be carved a little differently. I want different materials and shapes;I want the metal, the fiberglass, the plastic, the paper, the fabric to be used in unexpected ways. But whether modern or classic; each chair must be comfortable and affordable.