Your Way Out of the Present

Design as escapism

I like history a lot. I like the present maybe a little less, and I tell myself the future is something we can’t quiver in terror of, despite doing that all the time. I can never make up my mind really. Whether this is some outcropping of half-assed mindfulness or whatever you want to call it, it affects a lot of stuff, and in particular this thing called design I do.

There came a time in the past decade or two when the design industry became obsessed by “the future”. That is, imagining what could be, and thus making the future what the designer thinks it should be. After all, we’re the experts on deciding things for people right? In this school of thought, the designer presupposes that they can “invent the future.” The big idea is that the designer can examine, design stuff for, and then theoretically control what will happen by creating future possibilities. They call this “futures design.” Like plural. As in more than one future. Which one? Well no one really goes that far to say which one. I suppose this is because they know there’s a damn good chance they’re going to be wrong.

So essentially what this means is that what “futures” are about is pretending your way out of the present. Changing something that hasn’t happened. This is pretty amazing. No risk, only wiggle room. Because, you know, it hasn’t happened yet, and may never. How I didn’t get into this risk-free design zone boggles my mind, especially considering this is what I did in my masters.

This is however, nothing new. The modern practice of design as we know it, has always been about the future, about developing solutions to problems we as a species may or may not have.

The future is exciting to people because its not real. It’s make believe. It didn’t happen yet. The tales of the future are like a big, fluffy, white duvet you can wrap around you against the cold of having to walk the dog at six in the morning or paying the mortgage. This is fine if you like avoiding today, yesterday or doing anything about either.

I wish I could be an optimist, but you know, reality. One need only take a look around and realise that we don’t have the option in our world today anymore to not fix what we’re doing today and instead push brazenly into the future and pretend everything in between is going to be fine. This is how we got to the place we’re at today, in terms of income inequality, global environmental dumpster fire and the re-feudalisation of our world.

But maybe this isn’t such a bad thing after all

This article, Speculative design: 3 examples of design fiction, not only shows some interesting examples of what speculative design can do, but also a couple points on it’s value, from my former tutors no less.

Where typical design takes a look at small issues, speculative design broadens the scope and tries to tackle the biggest issues in society. It seeks to answer questions like:
  • How should design impact the entire world?
  • How can we design for a healthier ecosystem?
  • What can we do to influence future cultures?
  • How can future technologies impact our products and services—and vice versa?
  • What don’t we want to see from the future?

Not bad.

My main problem is blatantly jealousy of the fact that this imagining speculative futures (which is a lot like saying pretending possible possibilities) is a hell of a lot more popular, than trying to figure out how to get ourselves out of the collective pickle we’re in today. Starting over or from a clean/non-existing plate is always easier. It’s also just more interesting a lot of times to people. We all want to be wowed and impressed with new things we may never have be desperately ache over. Which is the actual problem, not the future.