Asperger’s Design Fiction
I’m a fan of design-based futures work (a.k.a. “design fiction“). Videos, in particular, can be a very effective way of engaging people in complex, subtle and nuanced explorations of the future.
I always applaud companies that give it a shot, especially when it represents a big step away from “business as usual” for them. That is why it is too bad that a lot of corporate design fiction suffers from the commercial equivalent of Asperger’s Syndrome.
Take the enormously popular “A Day Made of Glass“. This slick, high-gloss, promotional video from glass manufacturer Corning received over 17 million views on YouTube and garnered widespread media coverage. So much so, in fact, that Corning made a second one, soon to be released at its own stylish launch party somewhere in New York (*See Update, below). Marketing Daily called it, “the most watched corporate video of all time.”
Reactions to the video varied. Most were positive; design and architecture students in particular (not to mention glass manufacturers and those in the CPG business) gushed over it. One typical comment was:
Love this! … It would be awesome to see this level of technological, lifestyle integration… the idealist in me gets really excited about it.
But not everyone was so positive. YouTube user (apocalex13) commented:
Remember those “house of the future” videos from the 60’s, 70’s, etc. and how stupid they look now either because the ideas were eclipsed by modern technology… or just because fashions simply changed? I’m wondering what the reactions to this video 20-30 years down the line would be like…
Fortunately, we don’t have to wait 20 or 30 years to see their reactions. Take the following comments from Corning’s official YouTube channel, for example:
If the future looks like this I’m going to kill myself… (laksmann)
I wonder how much Congolians are going to have to be killed for one house, with all the precious metals needed (eethry)
Am I the only one who doesn’t want to be connected to every single person every second of every day? (smitty5ca)
Well apparently the economy is good again in the near future looking forward to that! (judefox2010)
A Thin View of the Future…
Are these users (and this post) just being mean-spirited? Short-sighted? Pessimistic? “It is just a video, for crying out loud”, you say.
Therein lies the challenge of consumer-oriented design fiction (and futures work in general). These kinds of videos take no consideration of the social, political and economic changes going on around us; changes so profound and fundamental that they make touch-screen glass look like a 2-bit side act to the real drama of the coming decade. Widespread unemployment, a climate crisis, resource shortages, political re-allignment, labor unrest, and both more outrageous and more mundane scientific advances such as anti-biotic immunity, cheap cell phones and the end of privacy will have far more industry-shattering impact than anything so simple and narrow-minded as ubiquitous information displays.
On the other hand, the production value of the Corning video is extraordinary. Like those Microsoft “Visions of the Future“, they are well-produced, accessible, and beautiful. And they should be; Corning paid a small fortune to ad agency Doremus to make their video.
For perspective, Doremus is owned by The Omnicom Group, one of the world’s largest ad agencies. Omnicom has nearly 70,000 employees worldwide and $12 billion in revenue. Their behind the scenes blog post lists a huge team involved in its creation; a creative director, film maker, camera lead and executive producer (each with their own staff, I am sure), not to mention a full production house (Rough House) and a dedicated special effects agency (Westernized Productions). The design, planning and execution of such a task must have taken months, so you can guess how much such high-end production would cost.
Compared to the big budget, big-bang output of teams like Doremus, most futurists don’t have a chance. Who cares about those pesky details of what the future might really look like when you’ve got over 17 million page views! “Stop whining,” I hear the ad agents among you saying. “Haven’t you read Zero History? Bigend wins in the end!”
…That No One Buys
Fortunately, it isn’t just us futures nerds and science-fiction authors that see right through the worst examples of shallow futurism. It only takes a second to realize that most such efforts are just glossy advertisement, with about as much consideration for how things might really turn out as the average Budweiser commercial. The parody of Microsoft’s Vision of the Future, below, is a perfect example of the kind of response any sane, reasonably intelligent person should have.
Sophisticated clients such as Corning and others who commission this work should take note: despite the widespread attention given to videos like this, consumers see right through the special effects and glitzy production to the substance beneath. If there is no real substance beneath, it will come back to haunt you.
When it comes to futures work, high-gloss production is no substitute for real ideas and considered implications. Your message may be widely publicized and you might get tons of page views. The more you spend, the more likely you will also be to receive awards from your industry buddies. But you will look silly and naive to the savvy consumers you so desire to attract. Opinion-shapers like these will not only ignore your message, but most likely ridicule you in public to their friends and colleagues.
By ignoring the careful and considered analysis of real futures practitioners – practitioners who provide industry-critical strategy advice every day to mainstream corporations and governments around the world – you make yourself look foolish and inauthentic to those who you are most desperate to impress.
In the end, Doremus’ behind the scenes blog post has over 20 pages of spam selling Viagra, sunglasses and university degrees. This is the real future we are living into and this is the ultimate fate of Asperger’s Design Fiction.
Counterpoint: A Future Made of Mud
See the video above for a good counterpoint. This is actually a documentary exploring the tradition of mud architecture in Mali, called “The Future of Mud“. It is “thick” in all the ways that the Corning video is “thin”. It evokes personality, emotion, generational struggles, changing social conditions, economic progress and structural change. It highlights individual people’s relationship and reaction to these changes. How do they reconcile the tensions of tradition and comfort versus novelty and uncertainty? Do they embrace them? Do they reject them?
Nothing in this video is clean, and not just because of the subject matter (mud). Although not explicitly a “futurist” video, it speaks more profoundly and authentically to the kinds of change the vast majority of the world is experiencing now and will likely experience in the future.
We are unlikely to see this level of sophisticated thinking emerge from most design fiction, but it tackles exactly the kinds of issues that many will be struggling with in the future. As Bruce Sterling said, “Corning doesn’t sell mud.”
That said, we still need more video in futures work and more futures work in product design. So instead of discouraging the use of video to engage and communicate, designers and futurists working on these projects should consider the follow criteria for making high-quality futures videos that are also profound and thoughtfully reflective of future change.
- Don’t stare at your navel: Yes, you may be a glass company (or soda company or whatever), but that doesn’t mean the world revolves around glass. Futures and scenario planning is about exploring how larger, external factors will impact your market segment over time. Many changes internal to your market are likely to influence the future (technology, etc.), but the more important ones will likely have to do with forces outside of your control (the economy, attitudes towards consumption, political disposition, etc.). Consider how a broader array of forces will impact who your customers are, what they care about and how this might affect your product.
- Don’t extrapolate to infinity: It is a natural human tendency to look at today’s trends and extrapolate them into the future forever. Don’t. Instead, look at the system of forces which drive or hinder change in your industry, then play those out in a systematic way.
- Don’t fetishize technology: In short, social change matters more than technological change. See Andrew Curry’s excellent “The 1910 Time Traveller” for more detail.
- Don’t ignore what people care about: What is really important to the segment you are trying to reach? Often, it is themselves and the people around them. If you sell a product targeted at young, technology savvy people, consider what makes them tick. Do they care about IP? Do they like to share or horde? Are they private or public? Consider how (and why) people will interact differently relative to these issues in the future. Who will be in charge? Where will they work? How will they feel about each other? The emotional, social aspects of the future are far more important to most people than the technological and material ones. The more you connect with issues that people care about, but in a new or surprising way, the more people will care about your production and the more effective your videos will be.
- Don’t dumb it down: You don’t have to write a thesis on identity politics in the 21st century in order to do a good futures video. But don’t ignore the things that are likely to effect your subject in the future, either. Most people, especially those viewing your work on the web, will be relatively savvy and sophisticated viewers; doubly so if they actually care about the subject at hand. The more layers and sophistication you can add, the more they’ll appreciate and enjoy the money you spent thinking about it.
In the end, it is all about layers and depth. If you are going to spend a fortune on a design fiction video, at least listen to your futures consultants. It is their job to consider these elements in the same way it is your job to consider the camera, lighting and pacing of a video.
The take-away message is not, “Don’t take a risk on design fiction”. Quite the opposite. The message is, “Take a risk on design fiction, but be sure to do it right so that you get the maximum impact and reward for your time.” Hire (and listen to) what your futures consultants have to say. Working together, you will be able to make just as slick and high-gloss a production as before, except this time it will actually be rich and meaningful, as well.
UPDATE: This just in; reader Jim Spohrer sent word that the official Corning “Day Made of Glass, Version 2” is out. It is more of the same. Check out the glass wall in the Redwoods at 4:18, or have a look at the saccharine “Behind the Scenes” video starring Keanu Reeves’ and Russell Brand’s love child. I shudder to think…
UPDATE 2: See my follow-up post “Good Examples of Design Fiction”, based on the comments and discussion below.