FeaturesSpecial topic: Design futures

XXV.2 March-April 2018
Page: 33
Digital Citation

SPECIAL TOPIC: Design Futures - Introduction

Christopher Le Dantec

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As interaction designers, our attention is often split. Much of our time is spent perfecting the details of the products and services currently circulating in the world: refining established interaction techniques, tightening visual design language for economy and communication, shoring up the pathways our customers follow to get professional and personal stuff done. The other part of our time is spent envisioning the next product or service—or even the next category of products and services.

By necessity, this work is less tethered to the daily constraints of style guides, user-interface toolkits, and interaction idioms that rule current platforms. Breaking out of the daily constraints, however, can be difficult. We have a well-honed understanding of how different interface elements affect usability and accessibility; and we have developed a vernacular in user experience that guides both customer and designer through complex tasks and technology-mediated encounters. Departing from these familiar contours often requires a change of frame, an intentional move that lets us interpret the world anew or interpret a world full of experiences to which we might not have personal access.


In this Special Topic on Design Futures, we have three perspectives on how we might go about this frame-breaking. Each of the articles considers different conceptual and methodological ways to move our attention and intention beyond the status quo, the familiar aesthetics, and the invisible structured and systemic biases we inhabit. By offering up lenses of varied focal length, these authors collectively provide a perspective that shifts the background and foreground in how we approach interaction design and the stepping out of familiar territory to explore and shape the future. A common thread running through this Special Topic is the need to identify and understand other perspectives: through a critical reflection on science fiction as a wellspring of inspiration; through Afrofuturism, to enable designers to embrace and understand underrepresented voices and imaginaries; or by turning to futures studies to structure and forecast a world yet to be.

We are always looking for new sources of inspiration and new ways to interpret the world: Breaking out of our familiar ruts is an important but difficult thing to do as a designer. Within computing, as Daniel Russell and Lana Yarosh point out, we often turn to science fiction as a source for that inspiration—using both an untethered imaginary of what future technology might be, coupled with the narrative ability that helps describe how that technology might be. But such vehicles of imagination have limitations. They tend to play on familiar tropes or draw from a limited range of experiences—the prescient influence ascribed to science fiction, as Russell and Yarosh point out, can be limited to white male authors.

Acknowledging these limitations takes work. A critical yet practical concession to the limits of science fiction as a resource for design fiction is one way forward. As Woodrow Winchester III explains, embracing alternate views through an intentional aesthetic move to Afrofuturism is another. While design fiction and Afrofuturism share a grounding in science fiction, Afrofuturism takes seriously the cultural context from which those speculative futures are created, rooting narrative and critical work in experiences of race and global black culture. We can look at examples like Sun Ra's story of cosmic escape in Space Is the Place, or the saga of the android Cindi Mayweather through Janelle Monae's three albums (Metropolis: The Chase Suite, The Arch Android, and The Electric Lady), or the advanced culture and technology of Wakanda in Ta-Nehisi Coates' Black Panther (and so much more in between). Each describes alternate worlds rooted in and responding to experiences of race and oppression. These imaginaries become tools for rethinking user experience and how technologies designed without considering race can blindly and unknowingly perpetuate exclusion and oppression.


Finally, while narrative forms are useful tools for gaining distance from contemporary assumptions of product form and social structure, they are not the only ways we might look outside to break the status quo. Futures studies shares much in common with design. Sandjar Kozubaev brings these links together through the practices that make up speculative design and their affinity with the kinds of image and experience manipulation that enables futurists to bring alternate framings to different commercial contexts. The structured approach to futures studies that Kozubaev describes gives designers another set of tools for thinking through the consequences of systemic change, whether social, political, economic, or environmental.

What I find most compelling about these perspectives is that they each provide a different set of affordances for interpreting our present social, political, and technical trajectories. We need not succumb to techno-determinism, the obvious iterative step commonly sought in human-centered design where the incremental nature of marginal gains makes it difficult to imagine alternate configurations. Instead, we can make a radical break, exploring experiences beyond what we find comfortable or easy to represent by developing and exploring fictional alternatives. Whether through design fiction, or Afrofuturism, or futures studies, designers can undertake a kind of "user" research in a world that does not (yet) exist. We can flip between utopian visions of the future where everyone is comfortable wearing a unitard and talking to an omnipresent computer; or reimagine our racist past, confronting the consequences of the systemic bigotry that underwrites all of modernity; or explore visions of the present where authoritarianism and demagoguery and bigotry fundamentally restructure society through complicit technologies of surveillance and control.

In the immortal words of Buckaroo Banzai, "No matter where you go... there you are." We have no choice but to confront what happens here and now, but to do so, we need to look outside the narratives and imaginaries that got us here in the first place.

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Christopher A. Le Dantec is an associate professor in the digital media program in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His research is focused on the intersection of participatory design, digital democracy, and smart cities. He is the author of Designing Publics (MIT Press). ledantec@gatech.edu

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