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Speculative Design: Playing Devil's Advocate

Speculative designs that escape from conventional capitalist systems offer visonary directions forward

At least according to its dictionary definition, design is a straightforward process with an unambiguous objective: to ‘do or plan something with a specific purpose in mind’. While this is certainly an adequate explanation for everyday use, it is a little superficial, representing design only within conventional capitalist systems. But must design always target a specific purpose? What can design mean and achieve if liberated from the demands of corporate shareholders and brand strategists?

Since the 1960s, a number of irreverent ‘speculative designers’ have explored the potential of such emancipated practice. Working against the homogenising interests of big business, their activities are typified by a liberated approach to the final outcome or product. Free from the obligation to produce some commercially viable ‘thing’, they are released to use design instead as a research tool – a vehicle to unlock new ideas rather than new markets. However, this speculative design should not be conflated with futurological musing. Even when its visions seemingly lack practical credibility, they often maintain at their core a nuanced appreciation of human needs, desires and psychology. Radicalism alone isn’t sufficient for good speculative design.

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Clive Sinclair in his C5 tricycle, which was voted one of the ‘biggest innovation disasters’ of all time

Consider the example of British designer Clive Sinclair’s infamous C5: a flopped concept for a battery-assisted personal urban tricycle (how much more radical does it get?). While the C5 challenged a global reliance on large, inefficient petrol vehicles and the damaging hydrocarbon industry they sustain, it also vitally overlooked how people want to experience travel. Despite his admirable futurism, Sinclair failed to understand society. But if speculative design isn’t about launching new products and convincing the world they need them, then how does it work?

This rejection of the conventional doctrine on creative productivity can be traced back to the work of the Italian Superstudio group. Initially interested in architecture as a force for positive change, the design collective’s optimism was eroded by the cultural climate of the ’60s. Deeply dissatisfied with the repetitive products of Modernist orthodoxy, their 1969 a work Il Monumento Continuo satirised such formulaic banality by proposing a gridded superstructure intended eventually to completely cover the planet’s surface (think of the racing grid scenes from Tron but multiplied exponentially). It spawned photomontage visions of a poetic but disconcerting potential future – aestheticised cautions of the global ‘sameness’ engendered by a reliance on generic urban planning and design. Was this the world we wanted?

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In Tron, a computer programmer is moved inside the mainframe computer where he tries to get back out by interracting with various programs

Superstudio’s sarcastic motifs are now well worn as go-to precedents for speculative design’s early gestation, but their pertinence is far from dulled.  They insist upon the need for designers to acknowledge their potency in the shaping of the future, rather than passively relying on repackaging past creations. More significantly, they call for us all to live as engaged citizens instead of receptive consumers. It’s this campaign for an ongoing dialogue that lies at the centre of the collective’s ambitions.

Speculative designers often generate such intellectual demands – their creations typically provide fewer answers than they do frame questions. Although Superstudio’s work is sometimes understood as ‘anti-design’, they were not trying to be maliciously obstructive. They, like ideological descendants since, were rather seeking to acknowledge the layered and non-linear nature of change through time.  To quote William Gibson, famed speculative fiction novelist, ‘The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.’ We must be selective about the futures we bring upon the masses. The best speculative design offers ‘nucleation points’ from which the citizen can extrapolate and assess a potential future, attractive or dystopian.

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The Vision of a Continuous Monument by Superstudio

Given all this relativism and scope for subjectivity, it’s not surprising that some question the distinction between speculative design and art. The notion of defined purpose is most commonly the trait by which we tell them apart. While such labelling debates are frankly immaterial in a world infatuated with interdisciplinarity, Superstudio’s ‘critical design’ practice throws up more meaningful questions about how we move our world forward. After all, how constructive can you be when your discourse is founded on critique?

The answer lies again with thoughtfulness and engagement. Speculative design might not have the perfect answer, but it’s nearly always better to at least know that the problem exists. In this way, its practitioners serve society as the proverbial devil’s advocate. Their subversive work guides our collective move forward, not by indicating an ideal destination, but rather by offering directions along the way.

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