My last post, “On Glass & Mud: A Critique of (Bad) Corporate Design Fiction“, generated a lot of discussion about commercial design futures. Mick Costigan suggested that I was being too “high-horse” in my criticism. He (and several others) suggested that we should focus on the positive aspects of doing futures work in a constrained organizational setting.
Several people also asked me for good examples of futures videos done right (that aren’t about mud). You should check out the comments in “On Glass & Mud” for a deeper discussion of ethics and responsibility in design futures.
In the mean time, here are three examples of what I think are excellent examples of design futures.
Children of Men
One of the best examples of design fiction that I have ever seen is “Children of Men“. As a feature-length film, it does more to represent the fine textures of everyday life in a well-researched future better than almost any other project (even if you don’t agree with the world it paints).
Check out Slavoj Zizek’s praise for the movie on YouTube (embed disabled for some annoying reason), in which he draws the crucial distinction between the foreground of the story and the background of the meaning. This is an important theme which differentiates overly narrow, autistic design fiction from rich, well-texture design fiction which does not ignore the material realities of change.
Song of the Machine
Outside of the feature film category, Superflux Studio’s “Song of the Machine”, winner of the Postscapes 2011 Prize for the Best Design Fiction, is an excellent example of how short videos about the future should be done.
I love “Song of the Machine” because it is grounded in serious research (optogenetics and augmented reality), but doesn’t make too big a big deal out of it. Instead, it focuses on the emotional, social and human aspects of how such technology might integrate with real life. The actor, Justin Pickard, still lives in a regular flat, the weather in London is still awful, and he still takes the Tube to work. Yes, you have AR overlays in the city-scape around you, but they aren’t so in your face as to or world-shaping as to be incredulous. And everyone is not rich, white, and perfectly psychologically balanced, either.
“Song of the Machine” does what any good futures project should do; it draws you in, challenges you, teaches you something new and leaves you looking at the world in a slightly different, hopefully better, way. Will AR-enabled optogenetics change the world? No, probably not for most of us. But they could allow a certain segment of society (the blind) to participate in regular, everyday life in a way that they currently can’t. And this video is pitch-perfect representation of how that might work and what life might be like as a result.
Fly Me to the Moon
Another excellent example is Heather Schlegel’s, “Fly Me to the Moon”. This short video was developed on the back of a serious futures project for the financial transaction company, SWIFT (and was a finalist for the “Most Important Futures Work” by the Association of Professional Futurists). It explores a future for electronic payment, but it is so much more than just that. It also explores issues of trust, identity, ease, convenience and technology, embedded in a real world of characters, emotion and social meaning.
Four friends sit around a restaurant table, chatting about old stories. One, a pilot (for commercial space tourism, it is revealed) discusses how fun it is flying into space. They have this discussion with the same kind of casual amazement that we would discuss a friend’s experience backstage at a concert for their favorite band. It is amazing, but not earth shattering. Why? Because like all things, it has already become part of the fabric of everyday life.
When the time comes to split the bill (a common, everyday activity), their banter reveals different perspectives about the cashless economy. One expresses concern over whether or not his data is really anonymous. Another dismisses his concerns as trivial. A third uses a key fob to pay the tip in the equivalent of frequent flyer miles.
All of this is subtle, nuanced and evocative, but also well researched and rich. It is also packed with strategic insight into consumer behavior. It works both as an excellent piece of futures research, and as an engaging piece of media and entertainment. And it does this with practically no special effects or high technology what-so-ever.
Towards Better Design Fiction
All of these examples are both measured and moving in equal parts. One is from the world of entertainment, another from academia and serious research, and the last from commercial foresight and corporate communications. And yet they they all have meaning and breadth far beyond their topic. Like Zizek said of Children of Men, their power is in their background detail. They address, even if just in passing, a wide range of other issues that reflect a rich investment in thinking about how the complex, messy future might be.
If these videos were selling a product, I’d buy it. If they were asking me to participate in a project, I’d participate. If they were highlighting a brand, I’d like it even more. If Corning has Asperger’s Syndrome, than designer futurists like Superflux and Heather Schlegel are the emotional geniuses on the block. Their videos appeal directly to the viewer in a clear, authentic way. You feel connected to the characters and their issues, and by implication, to the subject of the video and its sponsors.
The more design fiction can engage a broad, robust set of trends and emotions, the more effective it well be; whether corporate or otherwise. So stay positive and lets aim for more examples like these. “Thick” futures, ethical honesty and wonderful visual design. It couldn’t get any better than this.