Course: Design Thinking Seminar, Fall 2017
Timeline: 4 weeks
Prompt: Choose a book about design and write a short review. The assignment was meant to be an opportunities to explore different areas within design and become familiar with a topic that interested us.
Speculative design (similar to critical design) is a method of investigating societal issues by imagining and representing possible futures. Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby's book, Speculative Everything, is a seminal book in the field.
I found speculative design to be an interesting subfield due to its proximity to installation art, science fiction, and critical design. It is fun and interesting at face value, but I was also interested by questions of its usefulness. Media like Black Mirror serves a similar purpose, but at least reaches a mainstream audience— typically, the audience for speculative or critical designs is more niche.
Before writing this review, I also read Dunne & Raby's earlier book, Design Noir: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects to familiarize myself further with their work.
Situating Speculative Design: A Review of Speculative Everything by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby
When I removed my copy of Speculative Everything from its packaging, I was struck by its beauty. This book can equally be displayed on a coffee table and flipped through by a houseguest as it can be perused on a sophisticated level. Its multitude of examples allow for consumption in an episodic manner. The glossy pages, high-resolution photographs, striking dust-jacket, and hefty weight resemble an art book more-so than a design book, and its contents are equally ambiguous. Dunne and Raby, however, are eager to maintain their position firmly in the world of design, while asserting a desire for a redefinition of design practice itself.
Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby published the earlier texts Design Noir (2001) and Hertzian Tales (2005), both of which both explore the electromagnetic spectrum in everyday life. They expanded the scope of their exploration from electronics to the world as a whole in Speculative Everything, published in 2013 by MIT Press. The book is now the authoritative voice for speculative design. Speculative design is a method through which designers explore alternative possibilities for reality. Often dealing with technological or social ideas, the designer unsettles the audience and sparks debate about the most desirable future. Speculative design objects often function as synecdoche, meant to urge the viewer to imagine their contextual world. In this way, the design artifact functions as an entry point to a thought experiment, in which the viewer participates as designer themselves. Dunne and Raby separate design from industry and propose that design can be a tool to enact social change.
Speculative Everything, simply put, is enjoyable. The book is large but spacious, and expertly crafted. Kellenberger-White produced a typeface unique to this book, evidence of the thought that went into its presentation. The book is not difficult to read, however it does offer substantial food for thought. It functions almost as an encyclopedia, for if a reader were to commit each cited designer to memory, they would have established a robust knowledge of the field’s major (and minor) players.
Speculative design produces fascinating projects, as illustrated by the examples within this volume. One striking example is Thomas Thwaite’s The Toaster Project from 2009. In order to explore the void of understanding between consumers and every day technology, Thwaite set out to build a toaster from scratch. After nine months of extracting minerals from the earth with his own hands and smelting iron ore in his mother’s microwave, he had created a toaster-like object that almost worked. The more significant final product of Thwaite’s project is a book about the toaster. This process-based approach is part of what distinguishes speculative design from art, and also is part of why, like Thwaite’s toaster, most speculative design projects require explanation.
Throughout the book, Dunne and Raby often pause to re-assert that this is not art. They claim that speculative design stands separate from art because to label these projects “design” rather than “art” provokes a different interpretation from the observer. The pieces are taken seriously as artifacts from a possible future.
At the same time that Dunne and Raby separate themselves from art, they also reject association with certain types of design, particularly design thinking. Their explanation is that design thinking sets out to solve a specific problem, while speculative design points out problems. Yet, the unspoken rationale for this rejection is not the meat of design thinking, but rather its reputation: a packaged corporate tool. At the heart of “Speculative Everything” is an absolute rejection of capitalism in favor of social re-imagining.
Dunne & Raby’s assertion that speculative design is not design thinking considers only the goal, and not the process. Considering that “design thinking” is about “thinking” and that design in general is concerned with process, process might be a more effective metric to compare the two fields. Speculative design and design thinking are, in fact, intimately connected because they share similar framing strategies, iterative processes, and limiting factors.
Design thinking is concerned with re-framing a subject, whether it be an organizational structure or a concrete product. The designer must discard all assumptions about and surrounding the subject. Is speculative design not a version of this same process? In most cases, the subject for speculative design more abstract than a product; however, this is symptomatic of its placement outside of industry. Speculative design works on a grander scale than design thinking, yet both widen the framework of their subjects to imagine new possibilities.
Second, Dunne and Raby arrived at their current model of speculative design through an iterative process. Early in their careers, they avoided displaying work in galleries because they perceived gallery space as elitist; instead, they would place speculative designs in unexpected places such as peoples’ homes and storefront windows. Eventually they found that the work was inextricable from its context and they eventually began to favor the gallery as a neutral display space, where the work could speak for itself. Dunne and Raby experimented with the best way to display their work; received feedback from users; and adjusted their method to achieve the most favorable end result. As we know, design thinkers utilize a similar iterative process.
Design thinking and speculative design also share limiting factors: time, money, and resources. No reasonable person would tell you that either is necessarily “bad,” although they are not utilized more because many people would view them as an unnecessary luxury. Though speculative design is useful to provoke ethical thought, I would be curious to know if it has led to any real-life benefit beyond simply disturbing the comfort of its (mostly academic) audience.
Despite its obscurity, speculative design is worthwhile as an avenue through which to explore possible futures and meditate upon the implications of our actions. Speculative Everything is an excellent starting point for this exploration. Unfortunately, Dunne and Raby display their weakness through the negative assertions: “We are not Art!” and “We are not Design Thinking!” This defensive tone betrays the vulnerability of speculative design as a field. I hope that in future decades, speculative designers comes to confidently and elegantly embrace their intimate relationship with both art and design thinking.
Dunne, A. and Raby, F. (2013) Speculative Everything. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Dunne, A. (2005) Hertzian Tales. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Dunne, A. and Raby, F. (2001) Design Noir: The Secret Life of Everyday Objects. Boston: Birkhauser Press.