Dispatch 01 — Oct 18, 2019


Welcome to this first members only Dispatch from Sentiers, thanks for joining! One of the topics I’m very interested in but rarely feature on the weekly Sentiers is design. Since, at it’s core, everything I send is simply what I’m interested in, I decided to sift through all my recent unreads, research folders, and a few I’ve featured in the past on Sentiers at Work, to offer you a selection of design related articles. It’s not an intro or a best off, but rather what’s currently being shared in my feeds and drawing my attention. Be sure to hit reply to discuss if you have any thoughts on format, topic, or the actual pieces. And, you are getting a sneak preview of the new brand and template design, to be launched with No.100 next week. If you have a minute, tell me what you think or bugs you noticed.

Keywords → Scenius, Italian radical design, art and science, speculative design and design fiction.

Design Fiction as Pedagogic Practice

From “way back” in 2013, Matt Ward on the use of design fiction as a teaching tool. Excellent read, even if you aren’t a teacher or student, for his general view that “all design is fiction” and for the beginnings of his manifesto in the second part of the piece. With great points about fiction as a testing ground for reality; the decisions you make have consequences; space for experimentation; and think through making.

Design as a practice never exists in the here and now. Whether a week, month, year or decade away, designers produce propositions for a world that is yet to exist. Every decision we make is for a world and set of conditions that are yet to be, we are a contingent practice that operates at the boundaries of reality. What’s different is the temporality, possibility and practicality of the fictions that we write. […]

By focussing on the speculative and fictional, design is no longer constrained by the practical reality of todays material and economic restrictions. The part of our curriculum that concentrates on the fictional, pulls important parts of design practice into focus; narrative construction, user interactions, representations of affect, communication and contextualisation. […]

What first seems like a good idea, can have unexpected, unintended and undesirable consequences. Use fiction as a way to think through a full range of possible consequences. […]

As with any practice where contingency is mapped and explored, future ‘scenarios’ lay a framework for possibility. Once represented and articulated they can become a space of shared imagination and language. […]

DF creates a sandpit for reality, where life can be tried, test, critiqued and debated - a safe ground of play and opportunity.

Some Common Confusion Around Design Fiction

I’m not sure when I first became aware of Design Fiction back in the day but likely through BERG, Bruce Sterling or the fine folks at the Near Future Laboratory who, in their own words, “pioneered it.” Serendipitously enough, they sent a newsletter a couple of days ago (link above, scroll to “common confusion”) where one section aims to clear up some confusion around the practice and actually brings quite a bit of clarity and useful insights.

You are effectively bringing things back from the future, almost like some kind of time traveling anthropologist. When you bring this artifact back, you can engage the context of its existence — why does this exist? what kind of world surrounds it? who are the people and what are their goals and ambitions? […]

Design Fiction so you may get your ‘new possibilities’, but you will get something more valuable: a richer understanding of the results of your ideas. This ultimately better prepares you for what happens when your idea is in the world. It allows you to de-risk based on the unexpected outcomes (which always happen). […]

Creating an artifact forces you to get into the details of your future world in a way that writing a story does not. When writing, it is easy to skip over uncomfortable details in favor of the “big picture”. Design Fiction makes you sweat the details. Good design sweats the details through-and-through. […]

Design Fiction is called Design Fiction because it adheres to the principle of making-things-with-which-to-think.

The Radical Design Movement

I’m always up for reading up on a good scenius and although I’d heard of Archigram, Superstudio, and Archizoom, I’d never read up on the connections between them or knew that two were based in Florence. Good right-up on Radical Design and how it relates to speculative design.

As a result of this work, the Radical Design movement grew to give voice to a new generation of architects who wanted to critique the traditional methods of planning and question the very nature of what cities might become in the future. These architects adopted an explicitly speculative approach to both the critique of architecture and the envisionment of future cities. […]

Radical Design wanted to break from the past, whereas Speculative Design exhibits a greater degree of criticality of our journeys to, and visions of, such futures. […]

An enduring theme of Superstudio’s work was the natural environment, and much of their thinking was focussed on the use of space and how architecture could be a catalyst for social change. […]

Superstudio operated in the space between social criticism and irony. Irrespective of the scale and importance of the topic, their designs contained an element of irony. The aim of the work was to explore ideas and was not dependent on a final realization.

Also → Sasha Frere-Jones interviewing Brian Eno (including scenius), science and design in Italy always makes me think of Sterling’s Black Swan alt-history novelette. Finally, speaking of Archigram you might as well read Matt Jones’ The City Is A Battlesuit For Surviving The Future.

Age of Entanglement

Multiple caveats in this one; too simplified, too “magical thinking”, and the episode is a lot of us looking at her looking at things… but! I’m still a fan of her work and enjoyed the Neri Oxman episode on Abstract, where I noticed this passage (links to a specific moment, should work, otherwise it’s at 20m20s) about the relationship between science, engineering, design, and art. The link above is to her essay on the topic, she calls it the The Krebs Cycle of Creativity (KCC) and explains that it can be used as clock, microscope, compass, and gyroscope. As Oxman writes, “as with any speculative proposition, particularly when expressed graphically, there are many intellectual holes and cracks.” Still worth exploring.

The role of Science is to explain and predict the world around us; it ‘converts’ information into knowledge. The role of Engineering is to apply scientific knowledge to the development of solutions for empirical problems; it ‘converts’ knowledge into utility. The role of Design is to produce embodiments of solutions that maximize function and augment human experience; it ‘converts’ utility into behavior. The role of Art is to question human behavior and create awareness of the world around us; it ‘converts’ behavior into new perceptions of information, re-presenting the data that initiated the KCC in Science. […]

Good Design, for example, is good exploration: it questions certain belief systems—physical and immaterial—about the world. Then it releases some embodiments of these speculations into the world, contributing to the build-up of what we know as culture. […]

[C]entral (disciplinary) vision will get you far, but peripheral (antidisciplinary) vision will get you farther. […]

Knotty objects are bigger than the sum of their parts. Viewing them fuses multiple perspectives, thereby generating an expanded, more profound, vision of the world. Knotty objects are so knotty that one can no longer disentangle the disciplines or the disciplinary knowledge that contributed to their creation.

The city is my homescreen

Excellent essay by Dan Hill on mobiles, cities, strategic design, and the ways multiple disciplines of design (from interaction to urban planning, and including speculative) can work together. His main thesis here is that our focus on users results in products that might be great for the individual but bad for cities. I.e. Uber is useful and well designed for one user but the presence of hundreds more cars in city centres is bad for trafic and urban life. How can design be envisioned and practiced to bring the same kind of quality of experience while embedding the products or services more humanely and effectively in the fabric and systems of the city? The Oslo Bysykkel example is especially interesting to read through, and I love his definition of speculative design (highlighted below).

(Bonus points for mixing together Brand’s shearing layers, The Wire’s Bunk Moreland, and James Bridle.)

Unfortunately, although design practice has developed and stretched powerfully in order to help drive these technologies forwards, our core digital design disciplines, such as interaction design or service design, do not train us for these broader challenges. […]

Forcing that agenda will encourage designers using these contemporary and emerging technologies to break out beyond the bezels, to look up from pecking and pawing at those candy-coloured 180x180 icons and to engage with the reality of the context around them, and to see this as a rich, vibrant and endlessly inventive cultural and environmental terrain. […]

Making systems ‘seamful’, rather than seamless, in this way immediately asks more complex questions, provoking a more holistic approach to system design. Loading the homescreen into the city, metaphorically if not literally, requires us to engage with the impact of systems in terms of social fabric, of local cultural context, for example. How might such systems build trust rather than erode it? How might such systems knit together social fabric rather than shred it? These are design briefs to resolve. […]

Speculative design – sometimes design futures or design fiction – uses the processes and artefacts of design practice to address, uncover and articulate unknowns, often from a critical perspective. […]

Seeing design as forms of decision-making across these various aspects is where the real invention is required, the true design agenda. […]

“[T]he survival of the ordinary and the everyday; the survival of citizens over cities; of infrastructures of everyday dignity over big, signature, spectacular projects; of incremental change over instantaneous transformation; of the bazaar over the mall, the shared auto over the expressway” [Quoting Gautam Bahn]

Further Reading

  • ? What is Strategic Design practice?. “My main premise is that when working in complexity, strategy is less about knowing the exact path to take to achieve your goals, and more like wayfinding your way to one of many possible destinations.”
  • ? I’ve been following Jarrett Fuller’s excellent Scratching the Surface which you should check out (ear out?). I quite enjoyed his interview with Jenny Odell and I’m really looking forward to the one with Darran Anderson.
  • ? Included down here because I've previously mentioned this piece in both Sentiers and Sentiers at Work but highly recommended: On Foresight in Organisations. “I’m going to make a generalisation about all that scenario work, that it’s a way of systematising our navigation of uncertainty, by parsing what I think of as the possibility space into a series of alternative hypotheses about how change could unfold.”
  • ?✈️ Nike and Boeing Are Paying Sci-Fi Writers to Predict Their Futures. “They aim to do what science fiction has always done—build rich speculative worlds, describe that world’s bounty and perils, and, finally, envision how that future might fall to pieces.”
  • ? Design Thinking as Decision Framing. “It’s important to remember that whether talking Agile, DevOps, Lean, Design Thinking, what have you, they’re just lenses that you can look through. Sometimes they frame your thinking in value-adding ways. Sometimes they don’t. This constrains options, and can leave you with the wrong metaphors, framing thinking in suboptimal ways.”
  • Systems Thinking 101. “At the UnSchool, we have three core pillars that make up the foundation of all that we do: systems, sustainability, and design.  The systems component is the ability to see the world for its dynamic, interconnected, interdependent, and constantly changing set of relationships that make up the complex whole.”