Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Design is Storytelling

Design is many things: it's the giving of form, the shaping of experiences, and – oh, alright then – the solving of problems. In a broader sense, it is the distribution of ingenuity, translating ideas and intentions into realities. And in this light, design is also a matter of mapping and expanding possibility's horizons: telling new stories, and so conjuring paths to new worlds.

Design is Storytelling understands this. It's a new book by Ellen Lupton, senior curator of contemporary design at Cooper Hewitt (the Smithsonian Design Museum in New York), which is also the publisher of this slim and skilfully curated volume of ways to practice design in narrative mode.


At Situation Lab we're delighted that our imagination card game The Thing From The Future appears in the book as a key example of a design fiction tool. Design fiction is an object-oriented speculative idiom long developed and documented here as part of the wider transmedia landscape of experiential futures, which in turn deals with bringing future narratives to life by all means necessary.

In Lupton's words:
Many design projects are conceived as speculative proposals for the future. Exotic concept cars and lavishly art-directed videos for tech companies celebrate the wonders of growth and innovation. Other veins of design fiction are more critical. ...

The Thing from the Future, created by Stuart Candy and Jeff Watson, is a game that helps teams and individuals build stories about the future. ... The game can be played with groups of students or in community-based workshops as a co-creation activity.

[It] is a storytelling machine. Turning the design process backwards, it uses signals from a distant world to inspire new thinking. Candy calls this process reverse archaeology. [link] The results can be humorous or provocative as well as practical. The game stimulates serious conversations about social and environmental sustainability.

Design is Storytelling shares several examples of #FutureThing prompts, generated using the original four-suit edition, together with some witty sample responses that are playfully illustrated by Jennifer Tobias (see p. 51).


The book is filled with useful tools, and this game is not the only explicitly futures-related one: there's also the cone of plausibility (aka cone of possibility, aka cone of uncertainty; pp. 43-45), and the 2x2 matrix, a widely used process for scenario generation (pp. 46-47).

I want to acknowledge the relevance of Lupton's storytelling-centred collection to work that we've plotted here since 02006, and take the opportunity that the book presents to consider, from a personal vantage point, how I've seen design's self-understanding evolving to take advantage of the potential in the design/futures intersection which has been our focus throughout that time.

It's heartening to take stock of how things have changed.

When I first started teaching futures to design students, as a guest lecturer in Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby's Royal College of Art program early in 02009 (while completing a PhD on futures and design), there was precious little awareness of futures thinking or methods apparent in design education anywhere. Except for some pioneering hybrid practitioners, such as Lloyd Walker, Cindy Frewen, and Jason Tester, there seemed scant overlap between the two worlds (although no doubt precursors and parallels will keep coming to light). My introduction of foresight concepts and methods to design students at the RCA –– not least the cone of possibility itself* –– tapped a kind of latent energy on both sides that heavily influenced my decision to bring futures thinking more systematically to designers.

The next year, Nathan Shedroff asked me to create a foresight course in the Design MBA at California College of the Arts. Strategic Foresight is now a core part of the curriculum (the class is usually run by Jake Dunagan). The scenario-generation phase for that first time I ran the course was led by Jay Ogilvy, a former Yale philosopher professor and cofounder of Global Business Network, who at GBN had created a step-by-step process for teaching 2x2 scenario generation. Thanks to GBN's influence, and I believe in large part to Jay's pedagogy, this had become the most widely used way of creating scenarios for organisations around the world. It's gratifying to find Jay's methodological contribution recognised in Design is Storytelling (p. 47). Readers interested in the approach of a hybrid consulting futurist and philosopher should seek out his excellent book Creating Better Futures (OUP, 02002) and more recent journal article Facing the Fold (Foresight, 02011).

At the end of 02011 I delivered the closing keynote at AIGA's annual conference, a terrific platform for bringing futures-related ideas to wider attention in the design community. The talk was a little weird, but it helped opened up multiple continuing conversations and collaborations.

And meanwhile, OCAD University took the groundbreaking step of offering the first foresight-focused program in a design institution, the MDes in Strategic Foresight and Innovation (SFI). In 02013, OCAD U lured me away from Melbourne and a full-time consulting role at Arup, to Toronto, where I was the first external tenure-track SFI faculty hire, brought on as the program doubled in size to accommodate both full- and part-time cohorts. There, collaborating with wonderful colleagues Greg Van Alstyne and Suzanne Stein, I integrated experiential futures approaches (design fiction, live action roleplaying, etc) into the core curriculum, and led seven iterations of the Foresight Studio over three years. SFI is easily the largest graduate program at Canada's biggest art and design school, and it has by now unleashed well over 100 hybrid design/futures folks into organisations around the country and the world.

At the same time, Carnegie Mellon University's School of Design has been integrating a form of systems literacy throughout the curriculum, under the banner of transition design. This effort, initiated by Head of School Terry Irwin with Gideon Kossoff, Peter Scupelli and Cameron Tonkinwise (who is now at UNSW), has incorporated a futures perspective since its inception [pdf link]. It has been gradually rolled out across the CMU design curriculum, top to bottom, over the past several years. December wrapped up my first semester on faculty, where I taught the Senior Design Studio alongside Terry Irwin and Stacie Rohrbach, and we formally brought transition design ideas to undergrads for the first time.

Our students tackled a variety of wicked problems (food, water, gentrification, air quality, and so on), mapping their contours historically and in the present before using futures tools to examine alternative pathways for the coming decades, and generating stories (visions) for the year 02050 to inspire design interventions for the long term. Methods and heuristics we covered included the cone of possibilities, scenario generation, and design fiction / experiential futures (i.e., methodological staples that have found their way from futures to the pages of Design is Storytelling); as well as some others as yet less widely known in the design world, like environmental scanning and three horizons.

Currently, working with colleagues including Peter Scupelli (who has now taught futures at CMU for some five years), Dan Lockton, Molly Steenson, Terry Irwin, and many others, I'm working on braiding a foresight thread through the undergraduate design curriculum. The intention is for it to become part of the standard repertoire of competencies used by and expected of 21st century designers.

So it's nearly a decade that my colleagues and I have been working to deliberately infuse futures methods into design education; and there are of course many other strands in this bigger story alongside the ones I can recount from first-hand experience. But this is a personal story that reinforces Ellen Lupton's core insight: design's storytelling – and worldbuilding – potential, though always present, has lately been moving from marginal to something much more central.

There's a wealth of further fuel for that fire in Design is Storytelling, both futures-flavoured and not, and the book manages to be both highly attractive and, in the best sense, utilitarian, while documenting a moment in time where design's recognition of its narrative possibilities and responsibilities only continues to grow. Check it out.

Related:
> The Thing from the Future
> TFTF UNESCO French/English edition
> Reverse archaeology 02013 / 02008
> Object oriented futuring
> Strategic foresight and the Design MBA
> Introducing futures at the RCA 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Where we begin and end

Last week, I got married. My darling and I floated down a river outside Melbourne with two of our oldest, dearest friends.

We each chose something to read aloud to mark the occasion.

Of all the things I might have thought to read, I'd selected part of a personal essay by the great Ursula Le Guin.

On the morning of the ceremony, immediately on waking I found a different idea in mind, and ended up writing something myself to say later that day instead.

But Le Guin's words came back to me yesterday when I learned that she had died.

They seem appropriate to share now.

Dogs don't know what they look like. Dogs don't even know what size they are. No doubt it's our fault, for breeding them into such weird shapes and sizes. My brother's dachshund, standing tall at eight inches, would attack a Great Dane in the full conviction that she could tear it apart.

Dogs don't notice when they put their paws in the quiche. Dogs don't know where they begin and end.

Cats know exactly where they begin and end. When they walk slowly out the door that you are holding open for them, and pause, leaving their tail just an inch or two inside the door, they know it. They know you have to keep holding the door open. That is why their tail is there. It is a cat's way of maintaining a relationship.

A lot of us humans are like dogs: we really don't know what size we are, how we're shaped, what we look like. The most extreme example of this ignorance must be the people who design the seats on airplanes. At the other extreme, the people who have the most accurate, vivid sense of their own appearance may be dancers. What dancers look like is, after all, what they do.

For old people, beauty doesn't come free with the hormones, the way it does for the young. It has to do with bones. It has to do with who the person is. More and more clearly it has to do with what shines through those gnarly faces and bodies.

We're like dogs, maybe: we don't really know where we begin and end. In space, yes; but in time, no.

When I was thirteen and fourteen I felt like a whippet suddenly trapped inside a great lumpy Saint Bernard. I wonder if boys don't often feel something like that as they get their growth. They're forever being told that they're supposed to be big and strong, but I think some of them miss being slight and lithe. A child's body is very easy to live in. An adult body isn't. The change is hard. And it's such a tremendous change that it's no wonder a lot of adolescents don't know who they are. They look in the mirror—that is me? Who's me?

And then it happens again, when you're sixty or seventy.

My mother died at eighty-three, of cancer, in pain, her spleen enlarged so that her body was misshapen. Is that the person I see when I think of her? Sometimes. I wish it were not. It is a true image, yet it blurs, it clouds, a truer image. It is one memory among fifty years of memories of my mother. It is the last in time. Beneath it, behind it is a deeper, complex, ever-changing image, made from imagination, hearsay, photographs, memories. I see a little red-haired child in the mountains of Colorado, a sad-faced, delicate college girl, a kind, smiling young mother, a brilliantly intellectual woman, a peerless flirt, a serious artist, a splendid cook—I see her rocking, weeding, writing, laughing—I see the turquoise bracelets on her delicate, freckled arm—I see, for a moment, all that at once, I glimpse what no mirror can reflect, the spirit flashing out across the years, beautiful.

That must be what the great artists see and paint. That must be why the tired, aged faces in Rembrandt's portraits give us such delight: they show us beauty not skin-deep but life-deep. In Brian Lanker's album of photographs I Dream a World, face after wrinkled face tells us that getting old can be worth the trouble if it gives you time to do some soul making. Not all the dancing we do is danced with the body.

Ursula K. Le Guin, 2013. The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. Boston: Shambhala, pp. 163-170.*

* My abridgment. No words altered.

Related:
> The act of imagination
Dreaming together
Auld Lang Syne (aiglatson edition)