Design Fiction

This week I’ve been introduced to the concept and fascinating new worlds offered by the pursuit of design fiction. Science-fiction writer, Bruce Sterling, explains design fiction as:

an approach to design that speculates about new ideas through prototyping and storytelling

He says design fiction involves ‘the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change’, where diegetic is defined as ‘thinking seriously about potential objects and services’. In practice, design fiction sits comfortably in the ‘design’ world, rather than the ‘literary’ sphere, but is infused with key aspects of storytelling and imagination central to the development of a novel or short story. However, Sterling notes that the products of design fiction are worlds, rather than stories.

Fundamentally, design fiction revolves around the creation of prototypes for future worlds. Matthew Ward notes designers are inherently involved in a practice that never exists in the here and now, producing propositions for a world that is yet to exist. All proposals are to some degree, fictional, and many remain so, with tangible or realised results coming to exist along a spectrum of manifestations.

Ward reiterates the future-orientated nature of design stating that ‘by focusing on the speculative and fictional, design is no longer constrained by the practical reality of today’s material and economic restrictions’. Instead, fiction becomes a ‘teasing ground for reality’, allowing for the benefits of foresight to eventuate so that one can pretend ‘before they mess up the world’, so to speak.

Importantly, Sterling says, design fiction does not try to convince of anything. It is not a fraud, nor a lie, but rather a potential reality that could perceivably come into existence. He suggests we think of it as a second wind of the 1960s Futurism, perhaps with ‘a new consciousness’ for the present era.

Design fiction makes space for experimentation, allowing for what Ward calls ‘meandering play and unfettered exploration’ emerging from an ‘iterative experimental process’. Designers ask themselves how they (and others) may want to engage and locate themselves within the world.

However, Ward and researchers Knutz, Markussen, and Christensen recognise that things operating smoothly and ‘seamless[ly]’ produce some fairly bland fiction, and thus, there is a tendency towards worlds set in dystopia.

Yet, Knutz, Markussen, and Christensen also share examples that lie in a utopian reality, albeit one more ‘practical’ than one to emerge from or through, science fiction.

These researchers say design fiction raises the question of how what-if scenarios set up conditions for experimenting with – and the prototyping of – possible futures in design practice and research. They highlight the role of experimentation across creative disciplines, as is evidenced in works and approaches of Newton, Einstein, or Leonardo da Vinci. They say in design, art and architecture, experimentation can:

  • try out ideas about how to shape the future into a preferred state
  • criticise how capitalist interests, technology or design ideology constrain our everyday life
  • act as a central tactic in urban interventions for promotion social change

In their 2013 research paper titled, ‘The Role of Fiction in Experiments Within Design, Art & Architecture’, Knutz, Markussen, and Christensen approach real-life resolutions of projects that emerged from design fiction. They have also developed a typology through which design researchers can explain design fiction according to five criteria:

  1. ‘what-if’ scenarios as the basic construal principle of design fiction
  2. the manifestation of critique
  3. design aims
  4. materialisations and forms
  5. the aesthetic of design fictions

They demonstrate the relevance of this typological framework in regards to the development of Brasilia – The Perfect City.

The Brazilian capital was inaugurated in April 1960. The country’s former president, Juscelino Kubitschek decided the area that – like recent developments in Dubai – had previously been a desert should become an urban centre and invited the best Brazilian architects to present their designs for this new capital.

When seen from above, Brasilia resembles an airplane or a butterfly with a combination of straight and rounded shapes. The city is divided into areas where people live, with sporting and leisure area’s – as well as strokes of commercial areas; a highly organised, functionalist city with no likeness to the surrounding regions, which is characterized by poverty, disorganization and unstructured urban areas. Brasilia manifests the design rationale inherited from Le Corbusier and perhaps stated most explicitly in the Athen Chartre. According to this rational the city should be divided into work-zones, living-zones and leisure-zones, combined with highways, public  buildings and commercial areas. Everything is planned – nothing is left to coincidence. It demonstrates at that time a complete new architectural form, and calls into question the medieval city. (p. 3)

Knutz, Markussen, and Christensen then apply their typology to this case.

In the project Brasilia  (case 1) fiction integrates with reality in a completely different way: Brasilia has as its basic rule: What if we turn a desert into a hypermodern, functionalistic city, divided into work and living zones? It is critical by ignoring the existing local structures (of architecture in Brazil at that time) by molding new modern mega structures into the landscape. It propagates Modernism as the universal answer to urban planning. As a design aim, it wants to demonstrate a rigid totalitarian design program, materialized as an entire city, using an aesthetic that can be referred to as high ‘modernism’. (p. 7)

Before reading the Danish academics’ real-life examples of design fiction, I was still fairly muddled. But, these tangible realities gave me greater understanding of the wonderful opportunities design fiction has to offer both our real world and our imaginations, further our ideas of what is possible, if only we dare to ask, ‘what if?’. I hope I’ve been able to transfer some understanding of this innovative field to you, too, but if not, why not check out my classmate Mardy’s ponderings on the subject?


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