Design Fiction: A Tool For Visualising Possible Futures

“This work isn’t about making predictions, it’s about creating tools; tools that help to connect our present and future selves so that we can be active participants in creating a future we want”.

Anab Jain, Superflux


At the 2017 TED conference ‘The Future You’ in Vancouver, Anab Jain gave a lecture entitled ‘Why We Need to Imagine Different Futures’. In her lecture, Anab talked about creating experiences that help people to touch, see and feel the potential of the world we are creating. She was able to illustrate this point by showing a short film which depicted an intelligent drone patrolling a very recognisable street scene and using facial recognition software to issue on the spot fines for anti-social behaviour. Using the film as a prop, Anab was able to paint a powerful and vivid picture of what a possible future might look like based on the trajectory of the technologies and trends we see around us today.

I first became aware of Anab through another piece of work she had produced along with her team at Superflux. I’ve used her brilliant short film Uninvited Guests on many occasions in order to illustrate the negative impact of poor design and open up a dialogue on the subject. I’ve found that because Design Fiction and Speculative Design make potential futures tangible, in turn, they provoke a level of debate which is more structured and far richer than we could otherwise achieve.

Bright colours are used to represent “smart objects” in the film Uninvited Guests

Bright colours are used to represent “smart objects” in the film Uninvited Guests

Design Fiction is, therefore, a powerful tool which is often used to tackle difficult and challenging subjects. Dr Anna Whicher, Head of Design Policy at PDR Wales wrote a fascinating blog on the subject of using design fiction to prototype new policies. In her post, Anna describes using design fiction in a political context to provoke dialogue, engagement and also raise questions and reflections on aspects of the UK’s proposed Assisted Dying Bill that would change the law to allow doctors to help terminally ill people end their lives. Engaging with community groups and older people in a number of workshops, the team created a design fiction called SOULAGE; essentially a self-administered euthanasia wearable. A physical artefact which can be passed around a room and worn by participants evokes a level of emotion and understanding which a powerpoint presentation or pitch never could. Tools such as these help us start to think about how the policies, products and services we design will influence the routines of all our lives and how this will in turn change our cultures, beliefs and preferences.

SOULAJE a fictional euthanasia wearable

SOULAJE a fictional euthanasia wearable

Inspired by the likes of Superflux and PDR I created a set of my own design fiction provocations based on some work I had done with public sector leaders around designing the future of local public services. The set of magazine front covers and posters I created felt more like speculative prototyping than speculative design but nevertheless painted a far better picture of a possible future than I had managed to achieve during my original work.

A set of low fidelity design fiction provocations

A set of low fidelity design fiction provocations

Back in February, we kicked off our discovery sessions around the 10 ‘how might we’ questions that make up our current exploration pipeline. We wanted to use the sessions to help colleagues think transformatively about our processes, services and products; so they provided the perfect opportunity for us to test out the use of 2D design fiction. We designed a new set of Bromford posters around political, environmental, social and technological themes to help us explore some of the growing tensions between human and machine agency and provoke conversation around the type of future we want to create. The point of the exercise wasn’t necessarily to identify how to move towards the futures we illustrated, but rather use them as a way of generating some interesting and critical conversation around the problem.

Now we are nearing the end of our discovery sessions we are pleased with how the posters have worked as a visualisation tool. Design Fiction as a tool is certainly something that we would like to explore further and whether the artefacts we produce raise curiosity, surprise, anger or humour, it is the conversation that they inspire that provides the greatest opportunity for us; and curating that conversation is something that we will only get better at the more we use these types of tools.

Set #1 - Helping us to explore the future of construction  


Set #2 - Helping us to explore the future of maintaining homes and places


Set #3 - Helping us to explore the future of service delivery


Set #4 - Helping us to explore the future of community


Simon Penny, Design Lead

Service designer, passionate about using design to find innovative solutions to the most pressing social issues.