Listen to this article
Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming, by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, MIT Press, RRP£19.95/$29.95, 200 pages
Designers are usually seen as problem solvers. Their function is to make a product better or more beautiful, or to make a process more efficient. But what if, instead of solving problems, they posed them? That is the premise behind Speculative Everything, the first book to look in detail at the kinds of results such an approach might throw up.
Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, professors at London’s Royal College of Art, have been the most articulate proponents of the idea of “critical design”. Their concern is not to design products to be sent out into a slightly uncertain future but rather to imagine how that future might be entirely different. The result is a series of scenarios that help to illuminate moral, ethical, political and aesthetic problems.
One example might be food. If we are going to engineer our meat in laboratories, how should it appear on the plate? Should it be the formless mass of cells, the spongy blob that would appear at the end of the process, or should it be beautified? Should it be made to look like a steak? Or something else?
Dunne and Raby are not alone in this field. Other designers have developed similar approaches, occasionally blending these with more conventional commissions. Yves Béhar, for example, when approached by the sportswear company Puma to design a new product, instead elected to analyse its processes, streamlining everything from packaging to ordering so that the company shaved a couple of large toes off its carbon footprint.
Then there is Jürgen Bey, who in addressing physical infrastructures such as railway systems or motorways has also asked questions about the psychological aspects of travel. Is speed always the most important thing, for instance, or should we be considering other aspects of the journey? Roads are expensive to build and to make them a little more beautiful would cost peanuts in relative terms.
Dunne and Raby’s work, as their title suggests, is as close to science fiction as it is to conventional design in attempting to envisage new worlds and often shocking scenarios. But what it is not about is attempting to precipitate a particular future. Critical design does not aim to “nudge” us towards a particular model; rather, it is about thinking through the implications of what just might happen.
The relationship between critical and conventional design might be likened to the difference between conceptual art and sculpture. The former is more about the idea than the artwork; its aim is to provoke. The latter is about the artwork itself, its beauty, its execution, its take on representation or abstraction.
The freedom allowed to the designers featured here enables them to examine intriguing possibilities, from machines that can read human emotions to huggable atomic mushroom clouds (“Designs for Fragile Personalities in Anxious Times”). That same freedom, however, keeps the authors flipping from one rather bizarre scenario to another, leaving things deliberately inconclusive.
Designers are usually well-intentioned: their motivation is to create a better landscape of products to improve our lives in small ways. But they also tend to operate within a commercial world, and this inevitably limits their freedom. Dunne and Raby’s solution is to propose a decoupling of design from consumerism. “It is often said,” they write, “that if something is conceptual, it is only an idea, but that is missing the point. It is because it is an idea that it is important.”
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture and design critic