Lunchtime Talk: Designing With Fiction
Sam Kinsley is a Research Fellow at the Digital Cultures Research Centre, a department of UWE based in the Studio that studies attention and its economies, connected communities, play (video gaming) and pervasive and participatory media. Sam conducted his PhD research on the topic of future orientation in research and development and in 2009 he published a journal article on "vision" videos, a cinematic method of showing possible future technologies. In last Friday's Lunchtime Talk, he gave us an insight into this world of designing with fiction, discussing the uses and peculiarities of the art form.
Sam started with the observation that technology invention used to largely take place in corporate environments that required significant investment, but in recent times the discipline has expanded to encompass a wider range of skills and is taking place in more diverse creative spaces. Coming about as a result of this shift, Design Fiction makes use of storytelling techniques to realise conceptions of future technologies, particularly through the medium of film.
For Sam there seems to be something slightly oxymoronic about the term Design Fiction, bringing together as it does the process of planning for something material to be created with the description of things that are imaginary. In response to this, he cited Matt Jones of creative organization BERG, who described film as a good way of displaying conceptual objects that would promote activity or have activity happening around them, embedding their functionality into a representation of life to lend a sense of reality to the design.
Sam offered some examples that demonstrated this technique, first playing us a video by Apple from 1988 that showed the use of a fictitious device called the Knowledge Navigator: essentially a computerized personal assistant, which was created before the advent of the internet or, indeed, Siri. He told us that the production notes about the creation of the film made reference to William Gibson's novel Neuromancer, showing the influence of science fiction being brought into the design process.
We watched a segment from the sci-fi film Minority Report, for which a company called Oblong Industries fabricated a holographic screen technology with an associated gestural interface system which they are now apparently in the process of selling in the real world. This falsified technology is displayed in a realistically integrated manner, helping to drive the narrative of the film and Sam suggested that such examples of designing with fiction help to provide a new grammar that can be used to describe ways in which such technological advances might be enacted.
Sam then showed us one of Microsoft's Future Visions series of videos, which also show a futuristic version of our world augmented by the artificial inclusion of speculative advances in technology. Referring to the work of David Kirby (University of Manchester), Sam suggested that these videos lend a sense of physical reality to the technologies depicted through their integration into the world of the story; the underlying aim of which is to demonstrate a public need for new technologies, as well as the viability and benevolence thereof. As a commercial activity, this blending of design and sci-fi evokes a sense of creative foresight that helps to sell a brand in the present.
By abrading the cultural delineation between the achievable and the imaginable, such marketing mobilizes the idea of turning the desirability of products into profitability for a company without the need to consider the immediate achievability of concepts and so avoiding the physical prototyping elements of invention.
We then watched a concept video produced by BERG, before the release of Apple's iPad, that demonstrated the use of a tablet device for post-paper magazine reading and a video they produced in collaboration with creative communications agency Dentsu for a Media Surfaces project. The latter focused on the ambient delivery of incidental media, integrating feeds and notifications into devices such as clocks to explore the possibilities of bringing app culture into daily life in a discreet manner.
BERG's videos are contemporary in appearance, in contrast with the sleek futurism of Microsoft's adverts and this reflects a difference in purpose. BERG's Design Fictions could be seen as an initial stage of an iterative design process, tailoring its imaginings to fit in with daily life as we know it rather than projecting an idealised vision of a possible future.
Sam explained that the new grammar of Design Fiction emerges at the intersection of product invention (at the point of conception) and what the experimental designer Julian Bleecker of Near Future Laboratories calls the 'reality effects' of these ideas. The principal elements of this grammar are the embodiment of a relationship between people and new technologies (touch and gesture, haptic feedback and cues, etc.) and the evocation of a material correspondence between the fictional design and the real world.
In closing, Sam listed some suggested guides for the practice of Design Fiction: firstly from Matt Jones, who suggested that designers should imagine many versions of the material qualities of interfaces, developing a "rulespace" for physical interaction of which representations can be fine tuned to communicate a feeling of "rightness". Jones asserts that creating this intuitively refined "rulespace" is the only part of the process that is not faked and thus constitutes the real work of Design Fiction: inventing through simulation.
Julian Bleecker suggests that the objects in Design Fictions should tell stories for people, rather than creating scenarios for users. He explains that there are many possible futures and that designers should thus work with a broad range of scenarios in mind, rapidly producing plans that are based on unusual market models and alien worlds.
Sam left us with these quotes:
"The best way to predict the future is to invent it." -Alan Kay, 1971
"Space may be the final frontier, but it's made in a Hollywood basement." -Red Hot Chilli Peppers, "Californication"
Following on from this Lunchtime Talk, Sam has been invited to speak at Design Wales Forum's "10 Things I Learnt" event, which will feature speakers established in industry as leading thinkers, practitioners, technologists and designers discussing aspects of design, technology and business strategy. For more information on this event, visit: http://www.designwalesforum.org/page/10-things-march-9-2012
Lunchtime Talks are an ongoing series of presentations and discussions by Studio residents and associates. They take place at 13:00 on Fridays and are free and open to everybody who’s interested in what we do. For the full programme of talks, please visit: http://www.pmstudio.co.uk/events.