The intersection of design and futures thinking is where imagination, creativity, and innovation converge to shape the world of tomorrow.
In this post, we’ll dive into the relationship between the two disciplines and explore how this empowers designers to create meaningful change.
From discursive design to speculative design and design fiction, we'll examine various design-centric futures thinking methods and their role in strategic thinking and planning.
Book a 15-minute chat with Matt about futures thinking right now, direct in his calendar, and find out it could give your organisation the edge.
The power of design-centric futures thinking
Futures thinking provides designers with an appreciation of potential future scenarios, allowing them to anticipate, adapt, and design solutions for an ever-changing world.
This isn’t just about designing the future, the day after tomorrow. We miss a trick if we don’t use futures to create change in the here and now. We need to leverage the learning and insights to work with the inherent uncertainty the world throws at us.
The author and critic Samuel R. Delany nicely captures the essence of futures thinking through science fiction in this quote via The Manual of Design Fiction:
“The variety of worlds science fiction accustoms us to, through imagination, is training for thinking about the actual changes – sometimes catastrophic, often confusing – that the real-world funnels at us year after year. It helps us avoid feeling quite so gob smacked.”
The same could be said of design, and designers shaping future scenarios through their creative skills and perspectives. Julian Bleecker, a thought leader in the field of design fiction, once said:
“Design is a kind of authoring practice, crafting material visions of different kinds of possible worlds. Design’s various ways of articulating ideas in material to create social objects and experiences can be seen as a kind of practice close to writing fiction. This is a presentation about the relationship between design, science fiction, and the material elements that help tell visual stories about the future.”
Great futures work is grounded in researching futures intelligence, creativity, collaboration, participation, analysis, synthesis, sense-making, imagination, provocation, prototyping, storytelling….
When put like this, it’s clear that designers are well placed to contribute to the field of futures thinking.
Equally, futures thinking is an essential tool for designers.
The ability to recognise or envision a wide range of plausible futures is crucial in designing solutions that remain viable and adaptable over time.
As such, design-centric futures thinking involves not only anticipating but also contributing to shaping different future scenarios. It’s about understanding, articulating and confronting the implications.
This is especially important if we look at this from the perspective of the many drivers and long terms shifts that humanity faces.
From a more practical perspective, the ability to recognising a wide range of possible futures is crucial in designing solutions that remain viable and adaptable over time.
In service design, this can play a crucial role in anticipating the end of a service lifecycle.
Fellow SPARCKie Anne Dhir delivers a great talk on why we should anticipate the afterlife of dead services and the importance of thinking ahead.
We are seeing a shift towards circular design and circular economies as ways anticipating and creating a more sustainable and resilient future
In these conversations, the elements of futures thinking, and anticipation are implicitly baked in.
But designers can go further by harnessing a deliberately design-centric approach to futures thinking, much of which falls under the banner of discursive design.
Discursive design: conversations that shape tomorrow
Discursive design is a method that explores how design artefacts can create social and cultural discourse and is one way that design contributes to futures thinking.
As set out in the book Discursive Design, the term covers a broad spectrum of creative practices that includes:
- speculative design
- critical design
- design fiction
- adversarial design
- interrogative design
- radical design
- reflective design
These methods share a common goal of creating design artefacts that trigger intellectual engagement and discourse.
Discursive design has valuable contributions to offer society. It can elevate public awareness and address significant human concerns.
Ultimately, discursive design can influence policy and strategy development, and becomes a powerful tool for any organisation looking to create positive and meaningful impact.
Applications of discursive design are far-reaching, extending to policy-making, collaborative activism, counselling, and other practical uses.
Case studies include:
- The Euthanasia Coaster by Julijonas Urbonas. This controversial design concept imagines a roller coaster designed to humanely end the life of its passengers through a series of extreme g-forces. The project sparks debate on euthanasia, the ethics of designing for death, and the role of technology in human life.
- The Drone Aviary Project by Superflux. An immersive installation featuring a range of drones with different functions, exploring the possible roles drones might play in urban environments. It prompts discussions on surveillance, privacy, and the societal impact of emerging technologies.
- The Toaster Project by Thomas Thwaites. Thwaites, a British designer, attempted to build a toaster from scratch, starting with raw materials. The project highlights the complexity of seemingly simple products and raises questions about manufacturing processes, global supply chains, and consumer culture.
This is all stimulating, highly intellectual stuff, I hear you say – but why should a business care?
The theory of change plays a crucial role in shaping and informing strategy development and implementation.
It helps organisations, policymakers, and other stakeholders clearly define their objectives. It gives them a way to understand the pathways to achieve desired outcomes and establish the necessary steps to create meaningful change.
Discursive design plays a crucial role in provoking the underlying thinking, values and mindsets that inform a theory of change and how this relates to product policies, strategy, and culture.
Design fiction: storytelling through design
Design fiction is a design-centric futures thinking method that allows designers to create immersive narratives using design artefacts.
One compelling example is Red Team Defense, a French organisation that anticipates technological and military challenges facing the French army.
The project explores potential scenarios at the intersection of geopolitical, demographic, technological, and environmental concerns, halfway between the imaginary and the possible.
It is centred around two themes: energy and the living world.
Speculative design: envisioning new possibilities
Speculative design, another futures thinking method, challenges designers to envision alternative futures and create tangible artefacts that represent those possibilities.
The Collaborative Home AI Initiative (CHAI) is an insightful case study that delves into the challenges and potential solutions for ensuring the security of smart home technologies powered by artificial intelligence (AI).
The CHAI Project investigated the most effective methods for individuals to recognise and defend themselves against potential security threats associated with AI-driven smart home devices.
To understand these complex issues during their research, the project team used speculative design.
This approach helped raise critical issues about the design and use of technology in the future.
As a result, technology designers could recognise the implications of their decisions in advance and develop technologies that increase the chance of a more desirable future.
Dr Laura Benton and Professor Mina Vasalou from the UCL Knowledge Lab have interesting insights into the wider implications of AI in housing.
The benefits of integrating design and futures thinking
Integrating design and futures thinking offers significant benefits in strategic thinking and planning.
It helps organisations:
- anticipate and adapt to change more effectively
- identify new opportunities and risks
- enhance strategic decision making
- foster innovation and creative problem-solving
- create more resilient and sustainable solutions.
Design and futures thinking complement each other in several ways.
While design provides the creative skills and processes to materialise ideas, futures thinking offers the contextual understanding and long-term perspective needed to anticipate potential consequences.
Together, these disciplines enable designers to create more impactful and future-ready solutions.
Designers face challenges when incorporating futures thinking into their work, such as balancing short-term needs with long-term considerations and navigating the uncertainties of future scenarios.
However, these challenges also present opportunities for growth and innovation.
By embracing futures thinking designers can:
- develop more adaptable and resilient solutions
- push the boundaries of their creative practice
- foster a culture of continuous learning and curiosity
Designers are uniquely suited for futures work due to their:
- expertise in visualising complex ideas and concepts
- ability to synthesise diverse perspectives and information
- deep understanding of human-centred design
These qualities enable design companies to effectively navigate the complexities of futures thinking, creating impactful and meaningful change for individuals, organisations, and society.
Embrace the future of design in your organisation
Ready to explore the intersection of design and futures thinking for your organisation?
Book a consultation with me to unleash the potential of this powerful combination.
- Future Human by Design
- Discursive Design: critical, speculative, and alternative things by Bruce M. Tharp and Stephanie M. Tharp
- 'What is discursive design' by Bruce M. Tharp and Stephanie M. Tharp
- Red Team Defense