Monthly Archives: November 2012

In 2007 I started to sketch out a book with the very brilliant Mike Michael, it was a lot of fun, but it got lost in busy times. Some of the ideas I’ve presented in different places (at Nokia Advanced Design in mid-2008 and at Design Transfer in Berlin later in 2008), but I’ve never really written about it. Last week I stumbled upon the proposal and think it still has some merit. I’ve added and edited it to make it more readable for a blog post, I thought I’d put it here to see what you think:

We are supposedly living in an epoch in which time has speeded up, where we are forever looking to the future, indeed, where the future encroaches on the presented to form what Nowotny (2008:2) has called an ‘extended present’. Increasingly scholars have begun to interrogate our relations to the future and there is now an articulation of what it means to ‘study’ the future.

Design’s relationship to ‘the future’ is strange, it is always, to some extent future orientated. No mater what sort of design you do, it always exists in a future yet to be lived. Recent writing and ideas around ‘Design Fiction’ has highlighted the narrative qualities needed in producing engaging and provocative work. But I’d like to sketch out and explore the ways in which the future is –  or rather how complex and contradictory futures are – made and unmade in the context of design processes. In particular, the following is a sketch of a ‘typology of futures’ as they at once have shaped, and been mediated by, design.

As such, the underlying rationale of the proposal was to raise a series of issues for scholars and practitioners concerned with design (and these include not only designers, but also artists, policy makers, social scientists specialising in technology broadly defined). On the one hand, by looking in detail at ‘past’ and ‘present’ futures of design, the book aimed to engage with what can serve as a ‘viable’ future in design thought and practice. By interrogating this viability, we aimed to disentangle the variegated forms of design. On the other hand, by deploying a less linear, more topological model of temporality, we aimed to un-ravel (or re-ravel) its own historiography, and in the process explore methods and techniques by which design-and-future can be rendered radically ‘open’. The upshot is a contribution to design and design-associated disciplines that charts the changing futures of design, but also offers a range of practical and conceptual resources for the ‘doing’ of a Design Futures, that is the simultaneous making and unmaking of the fate of things to come.

In summary, the proposed volume aimed to do the following:

  • Provide an historical account of the ways in which the future has informed design practice and thinking;
  • Examine the range of futures that pervade contemporary design;
  • Reflect upon the linear temporal accounting of  these futures, and develop a topological analytic for ‘design futures’;
  • Elaborate the implications of this topological futuring for the ways in which designers (and design-associated scholars and practitioners);
  • Develop and set out a series of practical and conceptual sensibilities and ‘techniques’ for doing ‘topological futuring’ in design.

Towards a typology of ‘designs-and-futures’

The following is an attempt to characterise the various configurations of ‘designs-and-futures’. The aim is to start to formulate an understanding of the different forms the future in relation to design theory and practice. As such, we tried to develop a heuristic typology of designs-and-futures:

Tight curl futures

Tight curl futures are those that are created around little leaps of delimited imagination. Projects linked to proximal futures that confirm and concretise predominant visions of markets, users and technological progression (similar to Dunne + Raby‘s Affirmative Design). These futures have tight briefs and base their predictions on pre-existing and otherwise un-interrogated versions of ‘needs’ or ‘desires’ or ‘identities’. Tight curl futures are an intrinsic part of widespread social and material discourse and practice.

Design for the long now

In contrast to tight curl futures, and with reference to the writings of Stuart Brand, the definition of ‘design for the long now’ aims to  negate obsolescence and drive the desire to create a more ‘sustainable’ future. As such we consider how some designers strive to demarcate and project futures that contrast from, but are nevertheless indebted to, the present and its tight curl futures. As such these futures can be described in terms of a ‘long now’ which is fundamentally shaped by the present. This analysis will be particularly informed by recent work on the complex role of expectations in generating not only futures, but the ‘users’ of, and investors in, those futures.

Explicit utopianism

Explicit utopianism is contentful, directed and political design that addresses matters of ends and not just means.  Here design formulates and projects idealised needs, wants and uses, but also opens itself up to the potentiality of humans. As such design reconfigures around the realization of untapped positive capacities of those users. Here, those capacities are peculiarly accessible to the designer who now takes on the role of designer as architect of the future. Such utopianism is, of course, ‘of its time’, as the specificities of different utopian visions amply demonstrate. Understanding the presence of the present in these utopias allows us to not simply to debunk them, but to begin to rethink the relation of past, present and future in more iterative terms.

Design and the Doing of Crisis

Focusing on dystopian visions that necessitate design interventions of one sort or another – where Design becomes a long haul  ‘problem solving activity’ in which the prediction of a pessimistic future serves in reinvigorating the role  the designer and underpinning current actions. However, there is another dimension to this negativity – one that pervades all the preceding chapters: namely that tight curl, long now and utopian design all presuppose a negative future that is inevitable in the absence of the ‘right’ design. We explore these mirror images in terms of their performativity – that is, their enactment of particular futures in the present in order to constitute desired futures – in order to further nuance the iterative relationalities of past, present and future.

Predictions, Predications and Propositions

Through a glass, clearly – Inference, Prospects, Extrapolations and Guesswork

This part of the book aimed to develop a series of conceptual tools through which we aimed to reframe the relationship between design and the future. We began to think through the conditions of emergence for a suitable (or ‘fit for purpose’) design practice. We did this through a contrast with both the predicates and processes of a number of the key techniques through which designers have attempted to construct a speculative space for formulating representations of the future that are seen to have some credibility or validity. In taking a close look at ‘foresight’, ‘trend analysis’ and ‘prediction methods’, we aimed to crystallise our own conceptualizations of designs-and-futures and set out a range of propositions. In particular, we contrast the ‘closedness’ of the futures enacted through these techniques (which vary in valency from ‘hope’ to ‘hype’), with the provision of more ‘open futures’ (with their orientation towards ‘horizon’ – inherently vague and unreachable).

Open Futures

Here we tried to conceptualise a design whose relation to the future is altogether more open. As such we look to examples of design practice characterised by a concern with process, emergence, openness, fluidity, complexity, ambiguity, potential and multiplicity of use, function, relations and so on and so forth. Again, we stress that these qualities are not outside of ‘their time’. However, we also started to explore them in terms of the ways in which the re-stitch past-present-futures, and serve to contort to the linearity of temporality into more ‘topological’ configurations in which past, present and future become more difficult to disentangle, or rather, are collapsed together in the ‘event’ of the design.

Conclusion: Re-Conceptualising and Operationalising Futures-and-Designs

In the final chapter we aimed summarise the key themes of our discussions of futures-and designs: the iterative relation between past, present and future, the role of Design in the evocation of such iteration, the performativity associated with the future, the closed-ness and clarity of futures versus their openness and emergence. Out of these themes we formalised an array of concepts, including: topology, iterativity, perfomativity, openness, emergence. Our end goal was to operationalise these through a series of practical recommendations ranging from the development of particular sensibilities toward design as a discipline through to specific techniques of doing design.


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As an educator and a designer, I’ve spent most of the last decade thinking about and doing design education – but I’ve been in the thick of it, on the front line; giving lectures, writing briefs, managing curriculums, directing courses and giving tutorials. So I talk and think about design A LOT – the content and quality of ideas, how to progress ideas into realities, how to construct convincing narratives and engaging stories about speculations, how to best detail the material results of a designers imagination. But I rarely get the chance to try and put my thoughts together about ‘design education’ as a holistic overview. My personal research – with DWFE and before – has been as a practitioner and theorist(ish), without a focus on design education, however, over the last couple of years I’ve realised I’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge and experience that maybe worth sharing. Last week I was invited to Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar to discuss the future of design education. I used the opportunity to reflect on my practice as an educator, but also to set out a trajectory or strategy for the future of design education.

During my teaching career, my aim has been to enable students to develop a thoughtful, critical, creative and sustainable design practice. But beyond these well-meaning educational aims, the role of educators and academics is also to push the boundaries of their discipline. My drive is based not only on the transformation of my students, but also the transformation of design itself. This is by no means a small task, but for me, the role of higher education is to find new directions for the industries it feeds. Our graduates will, one day, be leaders – shaping our material culture in new ways. I hope their education will set them (and design) up on a new trajectory.

Design as a discipline is as varied and as large as any I know. In fact, one of the biggest challenges is to define actually what design is. Throughout the history of design, we’ve seen many different modes, names and conditions for designing. Here lies possibly the biggest challenge to design education, during design’s short and chequered history, designers, academics and to some extent markets have tried to delineate and define ‘this design from that’. Boundaries and borders are drawn to distinguish where one type of design starts and another one finishes. Walls are built to defend territories, markets and practices. Design is increasingly chopped into decreasing small bits. It is in these silos where the discipline gets stuck, frozen in a battle of nomenclature and method, arguing the fine differences between UX and IA, ultimately no one moves forward. But this becomes truly destructive is when it moves into education.

This is no big surprise; academics in their desire, by very definition, to be experts in a particular field, fragment the bigger picture. This limits growth and the possibility for change, but also jeopardises the education of their students. Why does this sit so uncomfortably with Design as against say History or English, Economics or Engineering? I would argue that this is due to the very nature of design as a practice, it is one for the generalist, design demands the negotiation of a multitude of different disciplines, skills and knowledge sets. In its practice it draws inspiration from subjects as diverse as philosophy and material science, in its implementation it uses both practical, material and conceptual skills. In our drive to give a closer definition of our discipline, we have limited the view of the world which we need to design for.

Seeing design beyond its disciplinary boundaries and beyond its definition as a ‘problem solving activity’ opens up new opportunities for it as a practice and profession. ‘Big business’ has begun to understand the value of design in the generation of new ideas and the role of designers as the instigators of invention. Business has also started to recognise that design has a strategic value in the predication and creation of new markets. Beyond its close relationship with free market capitalism, designers have begun to play a small role in public sector activity – from social care and health care, designers offer a new perspective on service innovation.

But these opportunities offer new challenges in the education of our students. The craft and manufacturing skills of the last century have little to do with the knowledge economy of this century. The social, environmental and political problems of today will not be solved by the tools and approaches educators have been teaching designers over the last 100 years. It was with this in mind that Goldsmiths – in particular John Wood – started the BA Design 20 years ago. He recognised the need to provide a interdisciplinary education to equip students with the tools to participate in social and environmental change.

In the last 20 years, the context and profession of design has changed dramatically. However, the ethos and ambition of the BA Design programme has become even more ‘contemporary’, in my opinion it has moved from being radical to sensible. Our curriculum has evolved and refined, our staff and students continue to challenge and experiment, but the original ambition has remained the same – a testament to John’s insight.

During my visit to Doha, I was excited to witness a city and country at a point of massive change. Qatar is like a petree dish for social and environmental transformation, everyday comes a new ambition and opportunity for growth and development.  The material environment is being built at such a rapid pace, the social and cultural infrastructure has little time to catch up. It felt like I was observing a giant country-wide experiment, a top down push to move the country in a new direction. The ambition of the Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and his second wife to move the country from a carbon-based economy to a knowledge-based economy is both smart and necessary. The investment and building of an infrastructure to support an future economy reminds me of Rem Koolhaus’ analysis of the development of Manhattan’s grid in 1807:

The Grid is, above all, a conceptual speculation. In spite of its apparent neutrality, it implies an intellectual program for the island: in its indifference to topography, to what exists, it claims the superiority of mental construction over reality…the land it divides, unoccupied; the population it describes, conjectural; the buildings it locates, phantoms; the activities it frames, nonexistent.

R. Koolhaas, Delirious New York, 1994

Doha feels empty, a place in waiting, preparing to be filled with a ‘phantom’ population, culture, economy and future. Maybe this is how Manhattan felt 200 hundred years ago. The heritage and identity of the Qatari way of life is being radically changed overnight, like a construction site that is demolished and rebuilt, forgetting key materials may cause long lasting damage. However, there is enormous potential there. The emerging design culture has far less baggage, the culture can reshape itself for the 21st century without decades of preconceptions and prejudices. It will hopefully aid Qatar in the leapfrogging necessary to allow for its economic transformation.