Insights · June 23rd, 2022

Nick Foster – Head of Design at Google X and partner at Near Future Laboratory – has put together this rather nifty introduction to Design Fiction. This is the practice of creating tangible and evocative prototypes from possible near futures , to help discover and represent the consequences of decision making.

We’ve also full transcribed the video for you.

Design fiction is the practice of creating tangible and evocative prototypes from possible near futures to help discover and represent the consequences of decision making.

That’s the serious definition. But what does that actually mean? Where did it come from? What does it look like and who uses it? Let’s start with its origins.

This is Bruce Sterling, science fiction writer, cyberpunk creator, and all around futurist. And this is Julian Bleeker, an engineer, designer, and co founder of the near future laboratory. They met in Los Angeles in 2005. While Julian was a professor at the film school at USC, and Bruce was visionary in residence at Art Center College of Design. Over the course of their many conversations, Julian wondered to Bruce, if design and science fiction could work together somehow to tell stories through fictional objects. To that blue said, Sure, call it design fiction, stories about possible worlds that are told through designed artifacts. So that’s what kicked the whole design fiction thing off. But what’s it actually for?

Well, when it comes to thinking about futures, people tend to have a hard time. It turns out that our imaginations just aren’t that good. People get trapped in little loops of thinking, so futuristic stuff starts to look and feel the same. People have a habit of talking in very vague terms. They reference the last tech article they read, or the last sci fi film they saw. They produce images and videos of mind boggling new tech, utopian landscapes and magical moments. Alternatively, they rush to the other end of the spectrum, and show us dystopian ruins, societal collapse and endless disaster. It all starts to feel a bit like fantasy, rather than anything actually useful. Statistics predictions and trends are only so useful to that dotted line might go up and to the right. What does that really mean? And for whom? I don’t know that Gartner Hype Cycle roller coaster doesn’t show us what all those trends may actually look like, if they come to pass? How might lives actually change? And how might they stay the same? So what else could we do?

Let’s think about archaeologists for a second. They dig around in the dirt and discover a bit of pottery, or broken spoon or a few trinkets, and then set about building a whole narrative around their subjects. little hints of evidence help them understand details about those ancient lives, how their society worked, what was important who was in charge, and how they struggled or prospered. little glimpses of everyday lives betray significant stories, if you just look hard enough. In simple terms, design fiction is like archeology for the future. It captures potentially huge or inspiring shifts in technology, society or politics, in well known ordinary mundane things. Here’s something else to think about. Futures don’t just happen in isolation, they happen all together. Imagine if tomorrow’s archaeologists found a box of today’s breakfast cereal, sure, it would tell them what we ate. But it would also tell them where things were made, where they were sold, how they were sold, the technologies we had access to how our government worked, what was important in our society, what we cared about in our culture, and much, much more.

Design fiction takes an ordinary thing like a box of cereal, and uses it as a canvas to visualize insights, research and trends as if they had actually happened. bringing them together like this lets us experience these changes in ways that a chart never could and forces us to embrace the details in ways that a concept video never would. A design fiction prototype allows for the abstract to become real for a moment, it helps focus the conversation in a grounded way. It breaks down abstractions, and asks a group of people to think in detail about where the future might be headed, and how we’ll all experience it. Design fiction aims to capture the full context of our future so that we can feel like we’re really living in it.

Design fiction isn’t focused on the movie star. It’s interested in the production design in the corner of the frame. Design fiction isn’t obsessed with the latest glossy device. He wants to know what’s written in the little Terms and Conditions slip. Design fiction doesn’t want to script that bombastic launch event. Some of the world’s largest companies, organizations and governments now use design fiction as a way to dive deeper into the future with the hope of creating more realistic, engaging and rigorous visions over the last 15 years design fiction has grown to become a powerful tool in developing ideas, becoming instrumental in shaping the thinking of teams of designers, technologists, engineers, strategists and futurists. So that’s design fiction, the practice of creating tangible and evocative prototypes from possible near futures to help discover and represent the consequences of decision making. There’s much more to discuss, but we hope this has given you a taste.

Using Design Fiction with clients: YVR 2037

Nikolas Badminton and the team at the FUTURIST THINK TANK often use design fiction when working with clients to explore what their futures may look like.

One example of this is a project Nikolas led back in 2017 for Vancouver International Airport (YVR) when they were considered how best to engage the public in considering the services and design of the airport for the next 20 years. It was a perfect premise in which to explore design futures using design fiction as an anchor point.

Nikolas worked with his creative partners and the executives at YVR to weave together a number of stories to imagine the world of YVR 2037. A number of short design fiction stories were written:

These were summarized in this evocative video showcasing new ideas

The response was 18m+ impressions in local media, requests for more collaborative design sessions across multiple cities in BC’s Lower Mainland and new ideas coming to light. In 2022, they even unveiled a glassed in Island forest that is an exact replica of the vertical farm Nikolas imagined – you can see more about that here.

Using design fiction to imagine airport futures is not new and some 40+ years ago Ray and Charles Eames did just that with ‘The Expanding Airport’:

Reach out to Nikolas to discuss design fiction, explore how a futures keynote can ignite your event, or discuss your strategic foresight project. You can also see more about Nikolas at nikolasbadminton.com.

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Nikolas Badminton

Nikolas is the Chief Futurist of the Futurist Think Tank. He is world-renowned futurist speaker, a Fellow of The RSA, and has worked with over 300 of the world’s most impactful companies to establish strategic foresight capabilities, identify trends shaping our world, help anticipate unforeseen risks, and design equitable futures for all. In his new book – ‘Facing Our Futures’ – he challenges short-term thinking and provides executives and organizations with the foundations for futures design and the tools to ignite curiosity, create a framework for futures exploration, and shift their mindset from what is to WHAT IF…

Contact Nikolas