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Design Fiction

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Abstract

Design fiction is the creation and use of real-seeming hypothetical objects, and other media, to explore imaginary narratives and contexts. This chapter appears in the expanded and revised edition of Universal Methods of Design.
Design Phase:
83
Design fiction is the creation and use of real-seeming hypothetical
objects, and other media, to explore imaginary narratives and contexts.
The key difference between design fiction and ordinary prototyping is that it is not a matter of
exploring functionality, but imaginability: what might it be like if a certain thing existed, or if a par-
ticular cultural or historical situation were the case?
In design fiction, the designer typically produces an artifact or film showing part of a story-world as
if that world were real. High-fidelity, polished, real-seeming representations of not-yet-possible or
counterfactual propositions are a hallmark of the method. Some classic examples can be found in
certain props or interactions from cinema, like the gestural interface in Minority Report.1 This exam-
ple also shows how such speculative and narrative exploration may help uncover possibilities for
affecting design and change practically too: after the film’s release, that interface, as well as other,
then imaginary technologies from it, ended up being pursued in real life.2 There are many instances
of fictional representations influencing actual designs, sometimes years or decades later.3
A popular recent addition to the toolkit, design fiction can be connected to the longstanding practice
of concept design (exemplified by the sleek “concept car” unveiled at an auto show, usually not
intended for production). It is also related to an array of methodological developments around the
exploration of imaginary contexts or longer-range futures than practical design for the “adjacent
possible” traditionally considers, such as speculative design,4 experiential futures,5 worldbuilding,6
and critical making.7 Design fiction is a central example of discursive design, an area of practice
where “the primary design intention is not utilitarian in the typical sense but rather to communicate
particular ideas and to rouse reflection. The material language, traditions, and characteristics of
design are employed for immaterial aims.”8
For designers, this embrace of speculation involves relaxing one or more of the traditional human-
centered design constraints of desirability, feasibility, and viability (or desirable, buildable, and
profitable).9 This opens up an enormous range of possibilities. If a designer can use design fiction
to tackle the telling of just about any story imaginable, then she will want to focus careful attention
on which stories to tell: not all such explorations are equally appropriate, generative, or useful. How
far to push into territories different from the present—temporally, thematically, and narratively? The
answer depends on factors including the nature of the design space (e.g., how fast it is changing);
the context for the conversation (e.g., the purposes of enabling public debate or artistic exploration
might require entirely different approaches from product development or organizational strategy),
as well as the imaginative openness of the intended audience.
Chapter contribution by Stuart Candy
RESEARCH METHOD • RESEARCH DELIVERABLE
38 Design Fiction
Quantitative
Qualitative
Behavioral
Attitudinal
82 Universal Methods of Design
Innovative
Adapted
Traditional
Exploratory
Generative
Evaluative
Participatory
Observational
Self reporting
Expert review
Design process See also How Might We • Prototyping • Transition Design
Image Courtesy of Dylan Vitone
Players from the NASA Jet Propulsion
Laboratory use design fiction card game
The Thing from the Future (2nd ed.)10
at a workshop in May 2019, with con-
tents modified to reflect their operating
context, in order to scaffold imagination
and generate future artifact ideas around
possible space missions
Part of a design fiction project set in 2030, U.S. Earth Force.11
Project by Stuart Candy, commissioned by Institute for the Future (IFTF) and World Bank
Climate Investment Funds (CIF).
1. Bleecker, Julian. “Design Fiction: A Short
Essay on Design Fact and Fiction.” Near-
Future Laboratory. (2009, 17 March).
2. McDowell, Alex. “Storytelling Shapes the
Future.” Journal of Futures Studies 23, no. 3
(2019): 105–112.
3. Shedroff, Nathan and Chris Noessel.
Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from
Science Fiction. New York: Rosenfeld Media,
2012.
4. Dunne, Anthony and Fiona Raby.
Speculative Everything. Cambridge, MA: MIT
Press, 2013.
5. Candy, Stuart and Jake Dunagan.
“Designing an Experiential Scenario” Futures
86 (2017): 136–153.
6. See note 2 above.
7. Hertz Garnet. What Is Critical Making?
Current 07. 2016 http://current.ecad/ca/
what-is-critical-making
8. Tharp, Bruce M. & Stephanie M Tharp.
Discursive Design: Critical, Speculative
and Alternative Things. Cambridge, MA: MIT
Press, 2019.
9. Sterling, Bruce. Design Fiction:
Anticonventional Objects. (2013, October 10)
Wired.com. https://www.wired.com/2013/10/
design-fiction-anticonventional-objects/
10. Candy, Stuart and Jeff Watson. The
Thing from the Future. 2nd ed. [Card game.]
Pittsburgh, PA/Los Angeles, CA: Situation
Lab, 2018.
11. Candy, Stuart. “Gaming Futures Literacy”
In: Riel Miller, Transforming the Future:
Anticipation in the 21st Century. New York:
Routledge/UNESCO, 2018.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Design Fiction: A Short Essay on Design Fact and Fiction
  • Julian Bleecker
Bleecker, Julian. "Design Fiction: A Short Essay on Design Fact and Fiction." Near-Future Laboratory. (2009, 17 March).
What Is Critical Making? Current 07
  • Hertz Garnet
Hertz Garnet. What Is Critical Making? Current 07. 2016 http://current.ecad/ca/ what-is-critical-making
Design Fiction: Anticonventional Objects
  • Bruce Sterling
Sterling, Bruce. Design Fiction: Anticonventional Objects. (2013, October 10)
The Thing from the Future
  • Stuart Candy
  • Jeff Watson
Candy, Stuart and Jeff Watson. The Thing from the Future. 2nd ed. [Card game.]
Gaming Futures Literacy" In: Riel Miller, Transforming the Future: Anticipation in the 21st Century
  • Stuart Candy
Candy, Stuart. "Gaming Futures Literacy" In: Riel Miller, Transforming the Future: Anticipation in the 21st Century. New York: Routledge/UNESCO, 2018.