What is design fiction?

Discover how forward-thinking designers are combining prototyping techniques with science fiction.

What is design fiction?

Andy Budd explores how science fiction impacts real designs

Like me, I'm sure many of you grew up on a diet of science fiction; imagining future worlds through the work of authors like Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick and William Gibson. Science fiction, or speculative fiction as purists prefer to call it, has the power to transport us into the future to ask important and difficult questions about the world we've created, including where experimental design will take us in the world of tomorrow.

What would it be like to live in a world dominated by surveillance (1984), constantly tracked by adverts (Minority Report), or surrounded by robot helpers (pretty much every sci-fi movie ever)?

What is design fiction?

Science fiction novels are where many great tech innovations start life

Of course, the questions posed by science fiction aren't really about the future; instead they're extrapolations of present concerns. Think of the Snowden revelations, ad retargeting, or articles like 'My Roomba tried to eat me'. By projecting concerns into the future, and taking them to their logical – and sometimes absurd – conclusion, authors can create safe spaces to discuss them.

This means that while science fiction can't be used to predict the future, it can be used to explore current trends. Or as William Gibson famously said, "The future is already here, it's just not very evenly distributed". A good piece of speculative fiction can make something new and novel feel almost inevitable.

Can speculative fiction create the future?

While speculative fiction is often used to explore moral conundrums, doing so can have unexpected (and sometimes negative) consequences. For instance, the oft-cited Minority Report primed audiences to expect a future where adverts could literally follow you around.

So when a tech company suggested the City of London used its connected recycling bins to track the MAC addresses of passing phones and target pedestrians with adverts (netm. ag/bins-276), you can bet that movie was front of the bin designer's mind. What the director undoubtedly meant as a warning, ended up becoming reality.

Seeing something on screen can have a powerful effect, making a vague concept feel solid and real. This is probably why there were no gasps of awe and wonder when the Oculus Rift came out; we've seen examples of VR in countless (admittedly terrible) movies like The Lawnmower Man. It's a piece of technology that felt like it was 30 years old by the time it arrived – the modern equivalent of the flying car or a personal jet-pack.

In the now-famous documentary
 How Shatner Changed the World, the makers argued that
the Star Trek communicator was the inspiration for the StarTAC mobile phone, while the first tablet to appear on screen wasn't in an Apple or Microsoft corporate video, but in the hands of the Next Generation crew.

Today we have seven teams battling for a $10 million XPRIZE to create a working Tricorder. Star Trek seems to be getting less and less fictional every day.

What is design fiction?

A vintage Star Trek Tricorder by Joe Haupt

Similarly, when a few months ago we passed the date that Back to the Future II was set, a surprising number of predicted inventions – from self-lacing boots to hoverboards – had indeed come to pass.

It would appear that science fiction movies have the amazing ability to imagine future products, free of the typical constraints, then inspire others to work out the details. If only there was some way real product companies could harness that power?

Are we being primed?

I'd always assumed this foreshadowing of future technologies was accidental, until I saw a presentation from a Microsoft executive who practically admitted that they liked to seed early product concepts into movies, presumably to prime the audience for future tech arrivals.

Since then, I've been highly sensitive to any brands I see in sci-fi movies, as a way of speculating on what the big technology companies may be working on. I wonder if Google Glass would have been any more successful if we'd seen Ethan Hunt wearing a pair in Mission Impossible 4?

Like many large tech companies such as IBM and Apple, Microsoft has used the field of speculative fiction to explore possible futurescapes for a long time.

A recent example of this is the Microsoft Office Labs vision of 2019 videos, which show lots of smiling people representing a wide-reaching demographic standing in front of giant glowing interactive sheets of glass as they go about their school, office or home life.

What is design fiction?

Microsoft Office Labs imagines a future filled with glowing transparent screens

It's easy to mock these glossy corporate videos, not least because of the impracticality of standing for long periods of time with your arms raised, interacting with giant transparent screens.

It's clear many of these videos draw more upon the storytelling tropes of Hollywood than the skills of the designer. However, while these large companies may have popularised the field of 'Design Fiction', small interaction design studios have started using similar storytelling techniques in their daily client work.

Design fiction in the design studio

The first time I saw design fiction from a small studio, it was the work BERG did for the publishing company Bonnier. Its Mag+ video created a rich picture of what a digital magazine might feel like in the future, well before the first iPad was available.

With an approach known as 'animatics' – essentially animated storyboards – it used a simple green-screen technique
to superimpose UI animations onto a mockup of a tablet, and breathe life into an inanimate product.

Using a video prototype meant the designers were able to do a much better job of communicating the experience than any set of wireframes or clickable prototype, with much less effort. Around the same time IDEO released a similar speculative design project, this time imagining the future of the book.

What is design fiction?

The team at BERG imagined the future of digital magazine before the iPad launch, using the power of ‘animatics’

The more I started to look at this form of speculative design, the more agencies and individuals I found exploring this technique – usually at the fringes of our industry in ad agencies or physical product companies. One thing they all seemed to have in common was a relationship with the Design Interactions course at the Royal College of Arts led by Dunne & Raby, the recognised leaders in the field of speculative design.

Of course, not everybody has a team of RCA graduates or the After Effects skills to create such realistic renderings, so at Clearleft we often mock up simpler effects using a combination of video, photography and animation in Keynote. It's amazing how a few simple tricks like this can breathe life into an otherwise flat and lifeless prototype!

Explore your vision with comics

Animation is fast becoming a core skill in the interaction designer's toolbox, but an even easier way to start exploring the field of design fiction is by using the same techniques you might find in the design of comics.

The team at Lowe's innovation lab in the US made liberal use of comic book techniques in order to both explore and communicate the vision for its Holoroom concept. It went as far as hiring science fiction authors to help create realistic narratives.

The Airbnb team did a similar thing when it hired Pixar artists to help visualise the future of its customer experience. In the case of Lowe's, this helped convince its management that an admittedly off-the-wall concept like a Holodeck (another Star Trek invention) could actually be made real.

What is design fiction?

Lowe’s used a comic book technique to imagine how its in-store helper robot might work

After pitching the comic book idea to his exec board, Kyle Nel from Lowe's explained, "It was a gamble, but they loved it. They totally got it, and started building on the ideas in the comic." For Airbnb, the visualisation gave it the insight it needed to double-down on its mobile strategy.


The good news is that you don't need to hire sci-fi writers and Pixar artists to do this effectively. Kevin Cheng has been using comic books to communicate design intent long before it became fashionable, and his book See What I Mean is a great primer in the field.

What is design fiction?

Kevin Cheng is known for his comics that explain design thinking

Similarly, UK designer Bonny Colville-Hyde is well known for her excellent workshops on UX comics, and we're hoping she'll run one of these at the UX London conference next May (see boxout for more from Bonny).

Where does projection end and fiction begin?

We've been using prototypes and storyboards to communicate design intent for years, but how is 'design fiction' any different? When does something stop being a simple communication tool and start being a work of design fiction?

At dConstruct this year, Nick Forster from the Near Future Laboratory explained how he broke design down into three categories; now, next, and future. You could argue that any piece of design work that falls outside of 'now or next' could be considered a work of design fiction.

As such, you may have found yourselves engaging in design fiction without even realising it; coming up with concepts for pitches or board presentations to give stakeholders a sense of what could be possible.

Recently a large, international high street bank asked us to imagine what online banking might look like in the future. We created a rich vision of how online banking could work across a range of devices, without worrying too much about the implementation details.

We knew that the concept would theoretically work, but we weren't limited by the company's existing technology stack. This freed us up to be more creative than we may have otherwise been, allowing us to leap over the now and next, and explore what the future of banking could hold.

What is design fiction?

Near Future Labroratory is a specialist studio dedicated to developing the ideas of the future

Companies like the Near Future Laboratory take design fiction to its natural conclusion by blurring the line between art and design with its TBD catalogue.

Its fictionalised mail order catalogue contains 166 products and services that could potentially exist in the future, sparking both ideas and debate in equal measure. Near Future Lab's collaborator The Extrapolation Factory also featured as part of the Designers of the Year exhibition at the London Design Museum.

The show was called 99c futures, and it explored the kind of products you might expect to see in a 99c store 20 years from now. Nick Forster calls this the 'Future Mundane' and believes the future will look a lot more normal than the sci-fi interface designers would have us believe.

Where to start

Designers might find it difficult to start selling design fiction as an activity to their clients right away. It could seem slightly wacky and off-beat at first, but you could take a leaf out of the Near Future Laboratory's book and start crafting sci-fi futures for yourselves.

On a smaller scale, design fiction could be used to sharpen your skills at an internal hack-event, or to demonstrate design thinking as part of a possible recruitment task. At Clearleft I've used Matt Jones' concept of Mujicomp to sharpen interns' design skills.

We set them the task of designing a future product they could imagine being sold in the Japanese lifestyle retailer Muji by allowing them to hack, combine and re-imagine random items bought from the store. This simple MacGuffin provides the opportunity to unlock a wealth of creativity from designers who might be used to getting briefs that focus on 'now' or 'next'.

What is design fiction?

The Near Future Laboratory created a real catalogue featuring 166 products from the future

Ultimately you could argue that all design is in some way a work of fiction – imagining something that doesn't yet exist, and then communicating that vision to clients, customers and tech partners. However, by freeing designers up from practical concerns and allowing them time and space to speculate, they may
just stumble onto their next big idea.

I believe design fiction is becoming an increasingly useful way to explore and communicate possible design futures. In order to create a better future, designers should be adding techniques for designing fiction to their toolbox today.

This article was originally published in net magazine issue 276. Buy it here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andy Budd co-founded Clearleft, one of the first UX agencies in the UK. In 2015 he curated the dConstruct conference on the theme of designing for the future.

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