Image credit: Jay Ginsherman Provisional RGD
Speculative Everything is an introductory text to the world of Critical Design.
In this practice, designers create work that can educate, inspire or even disturb the public into considering possible futures and critical issues of our time. Think sci-fi, but as an object rather than a Hollywood film. The book argues the need for this practice and that designers should think of themselves as storytellers, similar to authors who write stories to inform audiences.
Author: Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby
Publisher: The MIT Press
Publishing Date: 2013
No. of pages: 240
Reviewed by: Jay Ginsherman Provisional RGD
Speculative Everything is the literary version of a giant design gallery and is well curated, each topic covered seamlessly flows into each other. The topics covered range from artificial intelligence, biotechnology to aging populations. Each topic is explored through examples of critical design pieces. These works are replicas of products that could exist in a parallel world or in our world to come. Such pieces include a parody utopian version of the New York Times, carnivorous technology that eats flies for fuel, and food made of cloned cells from dead celebrities. In addition, the book references artworks, films and sci-fi novels to illustrate how we designers can learn from other disciplines to tell inspiring stories.
I first heard of Speculative Everything when I was in my undergrad; it was all the rage, all the cool kids were reading it. I heard it mentioned again and again in a class titled Critical Approaches to Design that was then taught by Lewis Nicholson. The class taught us to think critically about problems and create work to bring awareness to the problem rather than jumping to a conclusion to solve it. As a result, students in this class created projects that were thought provoking, comical and often just plain disturbing.
Last January I finally got around to reading the book and immediately fell in love. I felt inspired, confused, and often disturbed by the works mention in the book, yet found all of them extremely thought provoking.
For example, the book mentioned two objects that could of been created in a world where David Attenborough, the narrator of Planet Earth, had become an industrial designer instead of a wildlife filmmaker. In this parallel universe, Attenborough establishes the Attenborough Design Group to explore how animal behaviour could be used to equip technology products with survival instincts; a Gesundheit radio, which sneezes periodically to expel potentially damaging dust, and Floppy Legs, a portable floppy disc drive that stands up if it detects liquid nearby. While reading this, I imagined if Attenborough where to replace Steve Jobs, would my iPad had arms to hold onto me like a koala when I took it on the subway. What if technology was built with a will to live rather than built in obsolescence?
"Legs of a hard drive pop up to save it from water damage."
During our book club meeting, I found that I was not the only one to fall in love with the whimsical and often questionable design work mentioned in this book; however we all were puzzled as to how we as commercial designers could make a living creating such critical work outside of the corporate world. I wish the book went into more detail on how these designers make a living creating non-commercial work.
We often found ourselves forgetting that the book was written in 2012. The topics were very relevant to issues and anxieties facing today’s world. For example, the mention of Bernd Hopfengaertner's film Belief Systems, depicts six scenarios that explore different aspects of a world where machines monitor human interactions. In one of these scenarios, a woman wants to buy a teapot. She walks up to a machine, and is shown hundreds of images of teapots on screen. The machine monitors micro expressions on her face and stops at one that brings her the most joy. In another scenario, a woman is identifying the muscle groups in her face in effort to hide her emotion that would be detected by machine algorithms. In relation to these examples, the book states “for many, Hopfengaertner's project is a cautionary tale fast-forwarding to a time when currently diverse technologies are combined to ease our every interaction with technology.” However, In 2018, this is not far from our reality. While I was reading this chapter, news broke out that Brexit and the Trump Presidential campaign used algorithms on Facebook to track potential voters and target them with ads that would best respond to their personal emotions.
Designers and the public at large can learn a lot from this book. Readers can uncover the issues that we will be facing in the decades and centuries to come. It challenges the reader to consider how what we create today contributes to the world of tomorrow. Speculative Everything reminds us that design does not just solve problems, it creates the world around us for the better or worse.
Jay Ginsherman is a Toronto based graphic designer and conceptual design thinker who also works as a fine artist, map maker, educator and occasionally, a drag queen. They currently work as a freelance designer working out of the Centre for Social Innovation as their home base.
About the reviewer