Optimistic futurism

XV.3 May + June 2008
Page: 52
Digital Citation

COVER STORYOptimistic futurism

Richard Seymour

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What the hell happened to the future?

Everything was going just fine in the early 1950s, even though much of Europe, Japan, and the Soviet Union were still flattened under a shroud of ash and broken bricks. Even as the icy grip of the Cold War tightened, those of us who were growing up then found time to look with thrall and optimism into the future. Men went to the moon and back, Teflon and liquid crystals and lasers and Velcro changed our lives (as had nylon and cellulose before them). And although life wasn't unremitting fun, we could all sense a faint, underpinning mantra: Gradually, things were getting better.

And then suddenly it stopped.

I've been trying to isolate the moment when it came to a halt. Some say it was Jack Kennedy's assassination. Others claim it wasn't a single moment at all, but a gradual descent into collective depression after the Summer of Love didn't make good on its THC-fueled dreams. But as far as the U.K. is concerned, I'm absolutely sure I can trace it back to a specific moment: January 1, 1974.

The "Three-Day Week," as it came to be known, was a virtual halving of electricity output brought on by an energy crisis that arose from industrial action over coal mining in the U.K. It showed us Brits that we could no longer be considered world-class at all. We'd finally lost the ability to build big, exciting aeroplanes; Blue Streak, our own much-vaunted, independent nuclear delivery missile, was a dead duck; our railways were screwed; and we couldn't run a bath.

We suddenly realized we were crap.

A couple of years before that, people had run screaming from the initial screenings of "A Clockwork Orange," claiming that such a barbaric vision of a future dystopia couldn't possibly happen. Now the news slowly began to reveal that Little Alex's ultraviolence was a hideous creeping reality.

Then came several global depressions, the end of the Space Age, shrinking ozone layers, global warming, airplanes into buildings, rising fuel costs, and, bingo, here we are. Comprehensively screwed and wondering what we're doing here.

If you look around the now, poking your head in popular culture, you'll usually find a doomy view of the future promulgated—from Japan's manga and anime to your regular, everyday news reviews—nihilistic, postapocalyptic visions prevail.

We just don't seem to be shaking off this maudlin streak in Europe. The French, though, are an exception. And it comes from an unexpected quarter.

France has a highly developed adult-cartoon culture, fueled for a good 30 years by the brilliant foresight of the likes of Bilal and Moebius (Jean Giraud), both graphic novelists from the crucible of modern social imagery: Metal Hurlant. And it is in this unlikely medium that France's "optimistic futurism" is at its most obvious. Certainly it has its dark moments, but hidden within the pages of your average French cartoon you'll find a core of ebullient humanism trying to get out.

It's something we all need to see.

Designers cannot be, by definition, pessimists. It just doesn't go with the job. We're supposed to be defining the future, aren't we? Populating it with the kit and the buildings and the decor that everyone else is going to move into when they get there. If we can't see the world as a better place to live in, then what chance does anyone else have?

It's exciting listening to genuine design optimists, like Apple's Jonathan Ive, talk about how things are going to get progressively better. Easier. Faster. Simpler. Yummier. Or Gordon Murray's lyrical waxing about how he's left McLaren to "sort out city mobility." Or U.K. designer-cum-wizard Tom Heatherwick giggling like a schoolboy because he's turned a bridge in Paddington Basin into a living, breathing piece of mechanical ballet in front of yet another haughty Richard Rogers glasshouse.

It's exciting because I believe them.

And it's exciting because these people are embracing big, complicated issues that affect all of us, not just running away into a corner to design yet another salt-and-pepper pot for an Italian luxury goods company.

And it's exciting because, in this postconvergent world, we really can fix a lot of the stuff that didn't serve us well before. We can make sure that impossible-to-program crap like VCRs don't happen again. We can connect ourselves to virtually anyone around the planet, for any number of reasons and for a fraction of the price. We can fix shopping for disabled people. We could even convert a bus system into a book-your-seat personal limo service.

We can do almost anything we can imagine now, if we put our minds to it. Which puts us squarely in the same position as our forebears were in the early 16th century with a new age of technology and capability stretching out in front of us, as far as the eye can see, if we only choose to.

So now it's no longer down to what we can do—it's about what we should do. And that takes more than just imagination; it takes wisdom. For instance, distributing power generation to the point of use, such as in the infrastructures imagined in the Hydrogen economy, could utterly revolutionize the way we live.

It doesn't have to be done all at once. We can do it a bit at a time and still win. Even apparently tiny changes can still make a phenomenal difference. In the U.S. three years ago, five large schools got together to assess the impact that tiny folding aluminium scooters made on the daily trek to school. Fuel saving was calculated over a year when Mom wasn't using the SUV to take Junior to school, but instead walking with him while he scooted his little steed. They made a phenomenal discovery. Over only five schools, the fuel saving was an amazing 830,000 gallons of gasoline, almost enough to drive a compact European car to the Sun!

There's nothing on the planet that can't be made just that bit better (rather than just that bit different). But before you do it, you need to have an idea of where you want all this to go eventually, a vision of the future, with a set of stepping stones to let you get from the now into the future in an effective and efficient way. "Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future," an exquisitely illustrated comic strip, did this beautifully in the '50s and '60s, portraying a virtually utopian future with recognizable "emotional signposts" along the way. The planet-hopping shuttle rocket in this picture is surrounded by battered leather suitcases with Mars stickers on them. That's not because the illustrator/futurist Frank Hampson lacked the vision to imagine the luggage of the future—it was just his little way of saying: "It'll be everything you dreamed of, but with all your favourite, familiar stuff still there."

And that's what we should be doing: leading the way by visualizing and articulating achievable futures that get us out of this hole.

I'm pretty sure the folks at Apple don't call themselves optimistic futurists, but that's exactly what they are. My favorite Steve Jobs one-liner is: "It's not the consumer's job to know about the future; that's my job." And he's absolutely right.

Jurassic corporations need to learn from the mammals. The secret of the "next big thing" isn't lurking inside the consumer's head, waiting to be liberated by some well-paid focus group. It's inside the heads of the dreamers, the futurists, the utopians.

You and me.

And sometimes we get despondent and knocked back by the bean counters who tell us we're wrong and that the consumer is always right. Or by the supply chain, which says it can't be done. Or by the M.D. who can't see further than his own Excel spreadsheet.

But the difference is that we're the ones with the imagination to see beyond what things are, which is why we applied for art college in the first place, rather than accountancy or law.

If I wake up depressed tomorrow and design a really bad poster for hair gel, who's going to give a damn (other than the client)? If I get up and design a really bad train, though, I'm going to visit a trillion devils on thousands of people for years to come.

History tells us that before great business can happen, it first has to be a mission. And a mission starts with a dream.

As designers, we potentially hold enormous power. And with it comes responsibility. Wield it imaginatively and wisely.

And optimistically.

Or f@#k off and do something less dangerous.

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Richard Seymour
[email protected]

About the Author

Richard Seymour is one of Europe's best-known product designers. Trained as a graphic designer and illustrator initially, his career has taken him from book and record-sleeve design, though advertising and film production design to a commanding position on the international stage, with Seymourpowell—created in 1984 with Dick Powell and now regarded as one of the world's leading product design consultancies. Some of his clients include The Ford Motor Company, Virgin, Guinness, Tefal, Casio, Samsung, and Unilever. Seymourpowell has won numerous design awards for its work over the past 20 years, including the D&AD Silver Awards, the D&AD President's Award for Outstanding Contribution to Design, DBA Design Effectiveness Awards, and two nominations for the Prince Philip Design Prize. Richard is also the consultant global creative director of design to Unilever's Dove skincare brand. He was educated at the Central School of Art and Design and the Royal College of Art, where he recently served as visiting professor. He is a trustee of the Design Museum in London, past president of D&AD, and consultant design director to Lever Faberge in London and New York. For more information visit www.seymourpowell.com

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DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1353782.1353796

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©2008 ACM  1072-5220/08/0500  $5.00

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