[1] Thesis Found:
Erik van der Veen – Shaking Future Snow Globes

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Speculative design is a design niche that uses speculation to come up with possible future scenarios. This type of design has recently been getting more attention because of the present-day issues it taps into. The acceleration of technological innovation and the connected environmental costs raise questions about our future. Questions about the impact of these changes on society, but also questions about the new roles and practices of design in general and graphic design in particular. In this thesis, I reflect on the history of speculation to see if there are things to learn for speculative practices in graphic design.
The future is inevitably uncertain. Because of this, people have always been wanting to uncover it. In ancient times, this used to be the job of prophets, seers and soothsayers. Later on, writers started exploring possible futures in their literature. The most famous genres of speculative fiction are utopian, dystopian, and more recently science fiction. Genres that inspired artists and designers to come up with their own scenarios and materialise them. Speculative scenarios from the past teach us a couple of things.
Speculative future scenarios can have a number of functions. They can evoke emotions, both positive and negative. Positive emotions can inspire people. Negative emotions can serve to warn people of certain futures. In literature, speculative future scenarios were also often used as a covert way of reflecting on/criticizing the now. In utopian/dystopian fiction, we often see more complex, layered structures. Sometimes it is left open to the reader to decide if the described scenario is preferable. Graphic designers can use these different functions when thinking of the effect they want to create with their own speculative projects.
There are many methods to construct speculative scenarios. for instance, it is possible to start with the large political and social structures that make up a world and fill in details from there on. it is also possible to start with a single idea, which you then extrapolate the bigger structures from.
Science fiction is a genre of fantastic tales that seeks plausibility against a background of science. Science fiction makes use of a valuable trick. It combines spectacular, high-adventure storylines with more in-depth intellectual layers. The spectacular layer keeps the reader's attention, while the deeper layers often make the reader reflect on ethical or philosophical questions about technology.
Graphic design is often seen as a very practical and commercial discipline, this is seen as a bad thing. However, if we look at successful speculative projects made by graphic designers, we notice the designers managed to use this practical and commercial in their advantage. Graphic design known the language of the general public. This can be exploited to involve a broad audience in the reflections upon the worlds of tomorrow.


§2:Future & Speculation
§3:Historical Speculation
§4:The U/Eu/Dystopia
§5:The Secret Trick of SciFi
§6:Ideological Builders
§7:Props ≠ Products
§8:Speculative Graphic Design


Of all applied arts, graphic design is the discipline struggling hardest to lose its image of being practical and business oriented [1]. In fashion design, for instance, it is broadly accepted of designers to present garments that are unwearable in daily life. The garment designs are in turn intended to inspire or to communicate a statement. Architecture is another example of an applied art with a rich intellectual and theoretical tradition. The practice does not limit itself to what is actually built there is space for experimentation and theoretical research–something the discipline draws its status from.

With graphic design, this is different. Graphic design is traditionally seen as a serving profession with a strict division of roles[2]. The graphic designer is merely a link in a commercial production chain. At the start of the chain is the client. The client needs the graphic designer to add value to a product so it can be sold to the consumer with a maximal profit. In return, the designer expects the client to supply him with work and an income.

This traditional image of graphic design doesn't necessarily correspond to reality. Many graphic designers nowadays work partially or entirely autonomous and initiate their own projects. [1][2] Projects in which they, next to the role of designer, take on various roles of, for instance, researcher, producer, thinker, editor, writer, programmer and artist. These projects offer the designer a space for artistic and theoretical exploration. This lets the designer engage in experimentations that could question the practice and values of graphic design itself, or turn into projects that are more focused on specific social issues.

The design world already is familiar with subgenres of design that operate outside the commercial world: critical design, design fiction, design futures, anti-design, design for debate and radical design, to name a few [3]. These forms of design aren't strictly fully separated categories. These subgenres merely serve as general definitions for designers to describe what they are doing.

A form of design that has recently gotten more attention is speculative design[1]. Speculative design envisions scenarios on future technologies that do not exist yet. In a broader interpretation, speculative design creates completely different worlds that provoke and broaden our view of what is possible. Speculative design uses design to present these scenario’s, in which it differentiates itself from for instance design fiction, which uses narrative elements to present the future of design [4].

What could explain the growing interest for speculative design is the acceleration of technological innovation in the past decades [5]. Computer technology is omnipresent and we are becoming more and more dependent on it. Devices are getting smaller, smarter and more powerful. The internet is growing and more people, things and knowledge is getting connected to it. These innovations are gradually changing us, our behaviours and our surroundings. This impact gives rise to a lot of debate: optimists see new possibilities for future innovations, critics call for caution in the changes that might follow.

This is where speculative design can step into the picture. Speculative designs could function as a window into the worlds of tomorrow. First of all, speculative design can provoke our imagination and thus stimulate ideas for new solutions. Ideas might be more realisable than before, because of current technological progress. Secondly, by showing us different possible scenarios, it can make us think of how preferable a particular outcome of the future might be to us. Thirdly, it can reveal certain tendencies of the present. Finally, by being confronted with worlds that aren’t existing right now,—no matter if they are closer to dream or nightmare—we become conscious of the world we currently live in. The comparison between both worlds gives us a starting point for a discussion about the changes we want to make and what to improve or maintain. In short, speculative design can guide change by making us contemplate about the times we live in now, and inspire us to think about better ways of shaping our world.

Speculative design isn’t only interesting for it’s potential as a useful tool for thinking about a changing world, it is the product of it, too. Technological changes disrupted the traditional design practice. The growth of the internet opened up new possibilities for the distribution and financing of projects. Design tools became more accessible and design knowledge easier to find. This wasn’t only beneficial for designers, but also amateurs could start designing themselves [6]. These shifts started to put traditional design conventions under pressure and started questioning designers about their values and intentions. This made designers reconsider the future of their profession and caused them to try out new forms of working.

Although speculative design has been often discussed in the general design discourse, it is not yet that much talked about in graphic design discipline in particular. In the general design field, speculative practices are better described, discussed and documented. In graphic design, it is still not clear what we could expected from speculative practices.

In this text I would like to explore speculative design and put it into a broader context. I will mainly investigate the historical background of speculative practices to see if there will be things to learn. First, we will look from a historical perspective at the way people used to speculate about possible futures. Afterwards, we will look at some “schoolbook examples” of speculative projects. Then, we will go into speculative design a little bit more extensively. To finish, I will answer the question: “What are the lessons speculative graphic design can learn, looking at speculative practices from a historical perspective?”


Design terms like speculative and critical are, in practice, vulnerable of being perceived as pretentious hollow shells used in a specific design elite’s jargon. To avoid this form of use, we will look at the terminology of speculative design before going into its practices.
The verb to speculate comes from late 16th century latin speculātus, which means: watch over, explore. It’s a derivate of specula, meaning watch-tower, which comes from specere: to look, to regard [7].
To speculate has multiple meanings. The first is: “to engage in thought or reflection”. The second is: “to indulge in conjectural thought”, which is the act of formulating an opinion or theory without sufficient evidence. The third meaning of speculation is a financial one: “to engage in any business transaction involving considerable risk or the chance of large gains, especially to buy and sell commodities, stocks, etc., in the expectation of a quick or very large profit.”. Just like the second meaning of the word, one engages in an act one does not know the outcome of. In finance, this would be investing money without the certainty of profit. In research it could indicate the act of finding an explanation for a problem without having empiric evidence to backup the assertion. In finances, speculation is often connected with gaining large amounts of money. This may sound like gambling, yet there is a difference. The speculant uses strategies or tactics to make guesses. In gambling, the outcome is always left to chance.
The meaning of ‘speculative’ in speculative design lies somewhere between the second and third definition. It takes the freedom to imagine alternative worlds without having to backup the assumptions with facts. However, it might use certain strategies to make guesses. ‘What is the point of speculating if it isn’t supported by facts?’, you might ask. The answer to this question lies in the concept of the Future.

The alternative worlds in speculative design are often situated in the future. The future is a time that will happen after the present. The future is the not yet and about to be. The future is something we can’t escape from, because the passing of time is inevitable. In western culture, time is envisioned as a linear passing of events. The future is something that will always stay abstract, it never is but always will be , for the time of our consciousness is always in the present. Even when we reminisce times of the past or imagine the future, we are in the present. Because our current understanding of the laws of physics tells us it is impossible to travel back and forth in time.

The future is always a big factor of uncertainty in our lives, and its inevitable and unknown nature can even evoke anxiety. This is one of the main reasons people have been always willing to uncover the future. Prophets, seers and soothsayers have claimed to have seen it. Although science has never had such claims, there is a scientific study of the future named futurology. Futurologists try to predict or forecast the future with the use of scientific models. They try to work in a scientific way: use as much real data and use as little assumptions as possible. However, in the futurological community, there is consensus about the impossibility to predict the future. It is currently impossible to account for all factors influencing the course of events leading to the future. Because of this, futurology focuses on the creation of multiple models for possible futures instead of predicting one monolithic future.

The future and speculation stay tightly intertwined. The future is unknown and even the science that tries to uncover parts does not come further than broad suggestions. Discussing the future will stay speculation, gut feelings, presumptions, informed and wild guesses.

Another category of speculative future is retrofuturism [8]. Retrofuturism is a cultural phenomenon that involves future ideas of the past. Retrofuturism could be subdivided in two overlapping categories: retrofuturism and futuristic retro.
Retrofuturism involves futures as they were envisioned in the past. We can also describe them as futures that never were. These futures often give us a strange feeling of nostalgia, since they exist in a no-space of future and past at the same time.
An example of retrofuturism could be architectural styles Googie, Raygun Gothic and Streamline Moderne [9]. These styles were futuristic in their time. Googie architecture often involves light-feeling glass construction combined with dynamic arched curves and star shapes. This style was later caricaturized in The Jetsons. The style originated in the 1940’s; a time when new technologies like jet engines, nuclear energy and space travel gave people the feeling they were entering a new era. Googie architecture resonated with this feeling. The same goes for Streamline Moderne, massive glass or light-colored stone buildings with rounded corners. They seem to be built for a society that never existed. William Gibson perfectly describes the alienating relation we can have with this kind of architecture in his short story, The Gernsback Continuum [10]. A photographer is commissioned to photograph Streamline Moderne architecture and gets lured into the schizophrenic nospace of a “tomorrow that never was”, bringing him feverish daydreams of the perfect people that could have inhabited this space.
Another example of retrofuturism is the music/internet phenomenon of vaporwave [11]. Vaporwave uses the futuristic nostalgia from the early days of the internet combined with muzak from capitalist no-spaces like the office, the training video or the shopping mall. By twisting and changing this muzak, vaporwave artists try to exaggerate the alienating and hyperreal properties of the virtual plaza. A reimagining of a future from the past.

The other side of retrofuturism is futuristic retro. Futuristic retro looks at styles from past times and imagines how it would be if modern technologies would be around in those days. An example of this are styles like steampunk. Steampunk takes the aesthetic of late 19th century steam-engines and cogwheel-machinery and imagines modern technology on top of it. They are creating anachronic or alternative histories, like cowboys flying steam powered planes.

Retrofuturism shows us a number of important ideas on future speculation. It shows future speculations could also be situated in the past, by being voluntary anachronisms or by showing a outdated speculation. Half future, half past, but certainly not present. Both forms of speculative futures could be meaningful places to visit. Secondly, it shows speculations from the past have not always become reality but did serve a purpose: Googie embodied peoples feelings of progression, but also critiqued those insofar as they were never realized. Lastly, it shows there have been speculations in the past.

Concluding, the future is both inevitable and unknown. This makes people willing to predict it, which is unfortunately impossible. The only thing we can do is speculate and like futurism, come up with multiple scenarios.


Even in the early days of civilization, humans have been speculating about, and imagining their future. This was done in a number of different manners. Sometimes it was a prediction of prophets or soothsayers, later a philosophical essays and works of fiction. These future images didn’t always serve the same purpose. Some were meant to be predictions that were expected to become reality, whereas others served as alternative realities that that were meant to provoke contemplation on the current one. What these worlds had in common was the possibility of their worlds—that weren't real yet—to become reality.

The cave painting in Lascaux could be seen as the earliest material clue of an image that depicted the future. According to one of the interpretations, the paintings were produced to enhance the possibility of a prosperous hunt. If the hunters depicted the catching of the animal, their chances of success improved. This shows that these hunters did not only have a notion of a complex idea like “the future”, but they were also aware they could influence it. However, it remains a question if the visualisations were strategic or ritualistic in nature.

The first written futures could be found in the sacred scriptures of the jews [12]. The jewish people lacked a glorious past to be proud of, but they did have a terrible past that they wanted to forget. Because of this, they relied on the predictions of prophets to boost their collective self-esteem. According to these prophecies, the jews were awaiting a grand future. They had a special place in God's plan. The past was interpreted in retrospect as a series of fulfilled prophecies on the way until God would proclaim His Holy Kingdom. In this case we see that the predicting of the future serves the purpose of giving feelings of hope and pride.

Predictions can also have a practical value. The Greek doctor Hippocrates wrote about this in 400 B.C. Hippocrates called the art of prediction an excellent activity for physicians. When a doctor was able to predict the course of a disease, he would be prepared for what was still coming. There wasn’t enough time to heal every patient. It was more efficient to predict which patient was surely going to die. No energy had to be wasted on hopeless cases.

Plato, a contemporary of Hippocrates, used his book The Republic to put forward his design for the perfect society [13]. The Republic isn’t a prediction, but a proposal for an alternative that could exist, and according to Plato, should exist.

Plato’s approach might seem rational, but not all of his contemporaries were like him. In ancient Rome, there was a strong belief that the future could be revealed by all kind of seers[12]. These soothsayers used all kinds of inherited techniques for prediction. Their techniques were once based on empirical observations, but lost their original meaning over time. Previous generations would, for instance, look at the sky and the flight behavior of birds to forecast the weather, or look at the organs of deceased cattle to determine the cause of death. The Roman seers like augur or haruspex used similar predictors such as flight behavior and animal organs to predict all kinds of unrelated business. Through these rituals, the seers communicated visions about the will of the gods or predictions on economy.
The Romans were so dependant on predictions that even the senate consulted a book of predictions. These Sibylline Books were once bought by the “half-legendary” king Tarquinius Superbus and were full of Greek hexametric verses. The books were exclusively meant for use by the senate, but the Roman population also wanted to profit from these verses. This led to false copies of the book being sold on the black market. For safety reasons, the senate ordered the burning of 2000 of these copies in 12 B.C..
Lucian found this course of affairs so absurd that he wrote the satirical novel: The True History[12][14]. The book dealt with future predictions that were meant to entertain and critique simultaneously. It contains ideas about extraterrestrial life and travels to mars and venus. Two decennia before its invention, it can be seen as the first work of science fiction.


In 1516, Thomas More published Utopia [16]. In this book, More tells us about the land of Utopia, of which the social and legal organisation seem to be perfect. Utopia isn’t a future prediction. On the contrary, More situates the country in the present, even in a physical place on earth: the new world, the just discovered Americas.
The story is told through a conversation More has with traveler Raphael Hythlodaeus. Hythlodaeus is from Utopia and is willing to tell More and his friend all about it. His description is very detailed. Every part of the Utopian society is being described. You would almost think Utopia is real. Nevertheless, More supplies the reader with intelligent hints that indicate Utopia is a fictional place. U-topia is Greek for Non-Place. Hythlodaeus, the name of More’s Utopian friend is Greek for “dispenser of nonsense”. The Utopian names are filled with these kind of clues.
There has been a lot of discussion on More’s intentions. Some believe More wanted to show us a blueprint of the perfect society—something More deeply believed in as the best possible option for humanity, something we should all strive for. Some even believe More tries to propagate an early form of communist ideology. This interpretation is the easiest one and some say it explains its complex layered structure.
More’s book could also be seen as an inventive way of critique. More himself was a big fan of Lucian’s satirical work, but being critical or satirical wasn’t that easy in 16th century England. A minor disagreement with the king could get you thrown in jail or even killed. Utopia was More’s way to covertly comment on the England of his days. By showing a world in which everything was perfectly organised, he silently showed what reality was lacking. The contrast made the chaos and absurdity of 16th century England apparent.

Although More’s book is not a future prediction, it has been very influential to the field of speculative fiction. Utopian fiction has become a genre in itself. The name of More’s fictional country is nowadays synonym for “the perfect society”.
Opposed to the concept of utopia, the concept of the dystopia emerged. The dystopia is antonym of the utopia, the name meaning “not good place”. The word was first used by English philosopher J. S. Mills in a speech addressing the bad policies of the Irish government[17]. Since then the word has been used for undesirable models of society. Dystopias commonly contain totalitarian governments, post-apocalyptic anarchistic wastelands, catastrophic environmental disasters and dehumanization. The worlds are commonly but not necessarily set in the future. Dystopias can be found in novels, movies and videogames. It is also argued that the word utopia should be used as an umbrella term for both dystopia and eutopia [18]. Eutopia (good-place) should be used for good/desirable places.

The most famous examples of future dystopia in literature are George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The dystopia can have a number of functions. Some dystopia function as a warning when the author observes a trend he perceives as dangerous. To show the public the dangers of the trend, the writer constructs an exaggerated version of it. We see this structure very clearly in the British television series Black Mirror [18]. The show takes trends surrounding smartphone and social media use and exaggerates them to absurd levels, creating disturbing scenarios that might serve as a warning.
George Orwell’s 1984 follows the classic structure of a world in which mass surveillance and censorship have gone to extreme levels [19]. The book shows a place no one would ever like to inhabit.
Some dystopias follow a much more complex approach. Huxley’s society in his novel Brave New World really plays with the thin line between utopia and dystopia [20]. The world he describes is somehow perfect. People are constructed on a conveyor belt, their place in society defined before construction. Everything is controlled and taken care of. Society is designed to create a happy and carefree existence for every inhabitant. This is being payed for by loss of freedom and cultural depth. Brainwash during sleep by slogans that play on repeat while they sleep. The state supplies everyone with a daily dose of drugs that will keep them in a pleasant mood. The book follows a couple of inhabitants of this world, among which a couple of misfits. The world is shown from different viewpoints. This structure plays with the idea of the eutopia and dystopia itself. What might be heaven for some might be a hell for others.
Utopia and dystopia show us ingenious examples of more complex methods of thinking about the future. It doesn't always have to be clear at once if a scenario is preferable or not.


The concept of the u-, eu- and dystopia is often used in the literature genre of Science fiction (SciFi). SciFi is not always given great credibility [22]. It is often seen as a childish genre of fantastic but unreal tales of aliens and starships, a view primarily based on prejudice and misconception. In fact, Brave New World and 1984 fall under the genre of SciFi, but are not seen as such by critics because they are “too well written to be SciFi”.
SciFi can be defined as: “a genre of fantastic tales that seeks plausibility against a background of science”. Eric Rabkin, Professor in English Language and Literature calls Science Fiction, “the most important genre today” for it provides, “the language of the modern world”[23]. 1984’s Big Brother is nowadays used when talked about privacy, Star Wars became the name of the United States’ space defence system.
The powerful aspect of science fiction is the combination of both emotional and intellectual excitement. It plays with our senses, offers us bizarre extraordinary inventions give us the feeling of discovering new worlds. But for a good science fiction writer this is just the start. As Frederik Pohl says: “A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam[3].”. Science fiction makes us think of the implications of technological growth, but gets our attention by offering fantastic high adventure stories.
For example, Mary Shelley's novel, Frankenstein [24][25][26][27], tells the fantastic story of a crazy professor creating a monster out of loose body parts. A story that could be seen as a bizarre modern fairy tale, but at the same time it raises ethical questions. What would happen if an egocentric scientist used technology irresponsibly? Is it moral to create an individual? How would this be for the creature?

As with utopia, the genre often shows us critique on social structures, or specific for SciFi, science itself. For example, in Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift tells us about the island of laputa. Above this island we find a floating rock inhabited by scientists. The scientists exact tribute from the farmers that are living below them. If the farmers refuse to pay, the scientists manipulate an array of magnets that makes the island float in such a manner that the floating rock threatens to crush the farmers below. The story doesn't only give us an entertaining adventurous tale next to an exploration of magnet technology, but also shows us power structures as we have known them for ages and thus questions the power of science itself.

SciFi questions our present and future often using contemporary phenomena as a starting point and reversing or extrapolating them [18]. An example are the novels, Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Both the stories start from the idea of patriarchy, but both the books criticize it in a different manner. Herland reverses the idea by showing a world led by women [29]. The Handmaid’s Tale extrapolates patriarchy and shows an extreme totalitarian patriarchal society [30].

Over the past decades, we’ve seen the border between SciFi and reality dissolve. Flat displays, drones, the internet, artificial intelligence, pocket computers; all technology once proposed in SciFi. This predictive social power, combined with SciFi’s ability to imagine the social consequences of innovation makes it an interesting genre for developers [23]. They use SciFi as a source of inspiration; The first mobile phone Motorola made was inspired by a “communicator” from Star Trek. But more importantly, tech-companies hire SciFi writers to speculate on the social, practical and ethical implications of their products.
Google, for instance, had a team of writers speculating on what a regular day would be like wearing Google Glasses . The stories are then used to optimize the design. Apple, Microsoft, Oculus, Siemens, and Intel are known to hire or support science fiction writers [24].
When we study SciFi, we recognize some things that were mentioned before. We see its use of the concept of the u- and dystopia. We also see it uses different ways of storytelling, to serve different purposes. storytelling is a very fruitful way to present a fictional world. To get to know how this could be done without a story, we will have to look at other disciplines.


Futurism was a avant-garde art movement in Italy at the beginning of the 20th century [33]. The movement’s aim wasn't to predict the future. Its aim was to reject all conservatism in art and embrace the industrial machine aesthetics of the 20th century, glorifying speed, acceleration, technology, youth and violence. The movement was launched with Filippo Marinetti’s futurist manifesto, in which he stated:
We stand on the last promontory of the centuries!... Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.” [34]
Marinetti was a poet but other disciplines joined the movement by writing their specific manifestoes.
Although it took the futurists some time to find a common style they managed to find a way to translate their ideas of fast-paced violence of the industrial age. Their paintings showing movement, racing cars, man and machine merging into a flow of hard geometric shapes of light. Painter Giacomo Balla wrote:
No one thought a normal electric light could be an inspiring object to a painter. I want to prove romantic moonlight could be beaten by the light of the electric light”. [33]
Futurism was a strong ideological movement. An ideology that, shared a lot of ideas with fascism and, ironically enough, glorified patriotism and war. A war that came and left many futurists dead or severely traumatised.

Constant Nieuwenhuys was an artist that also wanted to embrace technology. But in contrast to the futurists, Constant wanted to apply the technology to make the world a better place[35][36]. He envisioned a anti-capitalist society where, as Sarah Goldhagen puts it,
The post-revolutionary individual would wander from one leisure environment to another in search of new sensations. Beholden to no one, he would sleep, eat, recreate, and procreate where and when he wanted. Self-fulfillment and self-satisfaction were Constant's social goals. Deductive reasoning, goal-oriented production, the construction and betterment of a political community--all these were eschewed” [37].
The inhabitant of this world would be the Homo Ludens, the playing man, from a concept of Dutch historian Johan Huizinga. Constant called the world New Babylon and visually presented it in paintings and maquettes.

Constant’s Utopic vision spoke to a lot of young architects. At the same time of Constant’s developing of New Babylon, avant-garde architecture studios started to develop radical new ideas of future cities, among them the collective Archigram [38][39][40][41]. Archigram developed hypothetical projects in which they explored new ways of designing building often starting from a technological view. With technology conventions of static architecture were challegent. A city could be one big moving vehicle as we see in Archigram's project: The Walking City, or a city could be a framework in which modular buildings could be plugged in and out, as we see in: Plug-In city.
Archigram's projects where hypothetical but not impossible, they were all technological plausible scenarios meant to challenge the view on what was possible.
The Italian studio Superstudio and Archizoom pushed the boundaries even further, posing alternative models for looking at space and setting up the conditions for new societies [39][40][42]. Thinking of technology on an even more philosophical and ideological level. Hoping to create a world free of material boundaries where alternative communities could live a life of total freedom.
Superstudio imagined a all encompassing grid extending across the entire surface of the planet, that served as a metaphor of how we could new rational ways of resource distribution.

With the futurists came an embrace of the technological future. Technology would change our world and we had to be ready to change. With Constant and the radical architects of Archigram, Archizoom and Superstudio, we see the transformation of the utopian concept from story to blueprint. Ideology driven proposals for the real world, visualised in maquettes and graphic renders. These examples also show us that, although literature is a very fruitful medium to show fictional world through narrative, design also offers possibilities for showing theories and ideas about the future.


So the question remains: what is speculative design? The term speculative design was popularized by designers Dunne & Raby in their book Speculative Everything in 2013 [3]. In their book they offer a clear view on what speculative design is to them. They substantiate this view with examples from past and present design projects from different disciplines. The book isn't a manifesto, it defines speculative design in a rather open way, yet it delimits the genre enough to specify various methods of dealing with speculative design.
To Dunne & Raby, speculative design is a way of thinking of big problems like climate change, overpopulation and water shortage with design. Critical design (a design genre earlier coined by Dunne & Raby) has been fruitful in reflecting upon- and critiquing society. However, it has been less active in looking for solutions. Speculative design uses the critical design ways of thinking but also opens up new fields. It could be a place to dream of new worlds, find alternatives to our current way of doing things.

In Speculative Everything, Dunne & Raby sum up the functions speculative design can have. Not so coincidentally, these include functions we have already seen in the historical examples of speculation: raising awareness, satire, critique, inspiration, reflection, highbrow entertainment, aesthetic exploration and a catalyst for change. To Dunne & Raby, Critique and catalysing change are the most important ones. Consumerist capitalism as we know it already puts a large strain on our environment. At the same time, new technologies start being developed that will change the world as we know it even further. If product designers will be more critical on what they design and consumers on what they buy, we together could start a change. Speculative design could explore the future possibilities in a critical way to make us reflect on the now and think of what we want in the future.

Dunne & Raby describe a couple of methods to start speculating:
Fictional worlds can be a good way to speculate from a top-down perspective. You start with a few general assumptions about, for instance, governmental structure, climate or technological advancement and then imagine what this would imply for the world. Very clear types of fictional worlds is are the utopia and dystopia.
A more bottom-up way of speculating is starting with a detail and then extrapolating from there. blowing it up, starting at a detail and deriving a whole world from it. An example of extrapolating is the British tv-show Black Mirror [19]. The show envisioned exaggerations of phenomena connected to smartphone- and social media use. Starting from a single aspect and then inventing a whole universe that would fit its consequences.
A very structured way of reflecting upon a complicated problem is with a thought experiment. It’s a method mostly used in philosophy and mathematics. In a thought experiment you start with a set of rules or limitations. From here you start building a world or concept using the pre-set conditions.
In reductio ad absurdum you try to prove a statement is false by taking its implications to the extreme. This method could lead to humorful outcomes that put the initial statement to question. Although Dunne & Raby don’t connect this method directly to speculative design, it still could be a useful way in thinking of unforeseen outcomes and implications.
You could also start with something that is true and then asking yourself what would happen if it were different. An example: What would happen when bob ross taught people how to code? This is what is called a counterfactual. a brother of the counter is the What if. What ifs look like counterfactuals but they are more forward-looking. Maybe it’s the most important question of speculative design. “What If?” was even the title of the speculative design themed Dutch Design Week in 2015. The event was promoted with posters stating “what ifs” like: “What if my toilet could talk to my doctor?”, What if time could be stored in a battery?” [44].

An example of a project of Dunne & Raby is Designs for an Overpopulated Planet, No. 1, Foragers [3][44]. In this project, Dunne & Raby assumed there will be a future of overpopulation and governments that did not care about feeding everyone. People would start to come up with innovative solutions themselves. In this case, a series of prosthetic devices that functioned as extensions of the digestive system. With these body-augmenting devices the foragers, as Dunne & Raby called these future innovative inventors, could extract nutrients from their environment that people nowadays have no access to.
To show this scenario. Dunne & Raby designed the devices these foragers would wear/use. As with other projects of Dunne & Raby, these objects serve more as props rather than prototypes. “It was very important that they clearly signaled their unreality so that the viewers were aware they were looking at ideas, not products.”, They say themselves. The objects were shown in use on a series of photographs and a video animation. The pictures showed the foragers in nature but wearing sporty clothes to break the expectations that this community of people would be an isolated anti-technology cult.

It’s interesting to see how Dunne & Raby approach the materialisation of their scenarios. It shows an intelligent way of designing the object and presenting it. Nevertheless, it still feels very abstract and less accessible for a broad audience compared to literature.


Initially, the term speculative design wasn’t welcomed by graphic designers with great enthusiasm. Speculative design reminded graphic designers too much of the graphic design term “spec design” [1]. The “spec” in spec design stands for speculative as well, but refers to the financial definition of speculation. Spec design is a way of working where the client asks for examples of the design before agreeing on a fee [45]. Mostly, spec design assignments involve a group of candidates competing for the job. The clients asks everyone to send an (often low res, or blurred) example of a proposal to decide who will get the job.
This kind of design is called speculative, because the candidate designers invest time in designing a proposal with a high risk of being turned down. Spec design as a way of working has been getting lots of critique. It gives too much power to the client, minimizes the role of the knowledge and taste of the designer, makes the design process overly superficial and doesn’t create an open space of fruitful client-designer collaboration.

Despite the bad connotations that came with the term, there has been a graphic design exhibition around this theme. In 2014, a selection of prominent graphic design studios held an exhibition in the SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco, All Possible Futures [46]. This show claimed to explore the possibilities of speculation in the field of graphic design.
In the exhibition catalog, Jon Sueda researches what speculation means for graphic designers[1]. It features interviews with and text by graphic designers that explore their experiences with and thoughts on speculation. From the start of this publication, it becomes apparent the interpretation of speculative is different from Dunne & Raby’s. Sueda explains:

The works in All Possible Futures embody a wide range of approaches to the idea of speculation. They encompass everything from self-generated provocations to experimental work created ‘in parallel’ with client-based projects to unique situations where commissions have been tackled with a high level of autonomy and critical investigation … Some projects were made for clients and exist in a real-world context, while others might otherwise have gone unnoticed: failed proposals, formal experiments, sketches, incomplete thoughts.

It seems like Sueda includes everything that isn’t a conventional commercial design solution.
His examples also show this. Sueda starts the publication with an anecdote about designer Peter Bil’ak. Bil’ak presented a client a proposal for a new visual identity. The identity however, challenges the conventional way we look at a visual identity, and moreover, the technology for realising his project doesn’t exist yet. The client in the end rejected the proposal. Sueda calls this proposal speculative. Bil’ak rethinks the conventional visual identity, resulting in thinking of a new tool. The proposal gets rejected so stays in the “not yet”.
Other examples Sueda names are the work of Ed Fella, a designer that started to making non-commercial work parallel to his commercial work, and Dexter Sinister’s Meta-the-difference-between-the-2-Font-4-D, a font featured in the exhibition. The font started off as a self-initiated project in 2010 but was adopted by Kadist Art Foundation in 2013. At this point the font stopped being speculative, it is argued in the publication.

Sueda points out the commercial image of graphic design limits its possibilities. There always needs to be a client, offering money, for a project to start. Clients mostly pay for conventional designs, not for a risky experimental design. Remarkably a lot of the projects featured in All Possible Futures are very much tied to this criticized commercial practice. They are still products a designer would make for a client, like a typeface or a visual identity.
In comparison, Dunne & Raby’s projects are all completely detached from commercial clients. The client might be a museum or other exhibition space but the promotion of this client is never the main goal. The main goal is to make people think about future scenarios. The “design” is used as a tool to accomplish this goal.
In graphic design, the equivalent of this way of working would mean: using graphic design as a tool to make people think of future scenarios. So, using the knowledge and techniques graphic design distinguishes itself with from other design disciplines. Very practical, this could mean, posters, books, and websites/apps.

So it almost seems All Possible Futures hijacked the term speculative to gather a variety of big graphic design names and exhibit an incoherent range of experimental works. Luckily, there are studios that use graphic design to speculate about the future: Metahaven and Next Nature Network.

Metahaven is a studio for design and research. In its projects Metahaven often designs commercial corporate identities for existing (like Wikileaks and the self-proclaimed sovereign state of Sealand) and non-existing institutions to deliver social and political commentary [46]. Facestate was a project of Metahaven in which they present a scenario where a social media platform becomes the government (or the other way around)[3][47]. The project both explores possibilities, poses warnings and relates to contemporary topics like social media, politics, transparency and privacy. Metahaven uses graphic design as a tool to present this idea, in this example, by designing the identity of the social-media/government Facestate.
The corporate identity is in graphic design a well-known “product”, often associated with the most commercial side of the profession. The corporate identity of a company tells who they are and what they stand for. With this commercial and ideological meaning of the identity, it lends itself as vessel for social or political critique. This is a good example of how graphic designers can use their expertise to make speculative projects.

Another studio using graphic design tools to show future speculations is Next Nature Network [48]. Next Nature Network researches the changing relationship between nature and technology. They make use of objects, but also of graphic design formats like the website and the book to make people think about the way nature and technology are coevolving.
An perfect example of such a project is the In Vitro Meat Cookbook[49]. This project questions how lab-grown meat could solve environmental issues, reduce animal suffering and change our food culture. The project does this by, in the shape of a cookbook, showing 48 innovative and thought provoking future “recipes”.
The cookbook is a format that for graphic designers has a familiar language. So as with the corporate identity, it could be used as a vessel for speculative ideas. What is smart about the format of a cookbook in particular is that it is an already familiar format to the public. This makes the project accessible for a broad audience.
We see this approach more often in projects of Next Nature. In another project they wanted to question the future of nanotechnology [50]. To get the audience to think, they developed hypothetical consumer products that were exhibited in a supermarket bus. Nanotechnology is an abstract topic for the general public, but by talking about it in a mundane format: the language of supermarket corporate identity, brochures and commercials, Next Nature succeeds to make the topic graspable.

Sueda may claim the commercial image limits graphic designs possibilities, but he also overlooks the advantage the commercial knowledge gives the designer. The graphic designer is familiar with the language that stands closest to the general public, the graphic design knows how to sell ideas.


What can graphic designers learn from the history of future speculation?

First of all, don’t worry about failing to predict the future. Speculation is the act of formulation a theory or idea based on assumptions. In speculative design these theories/ideas are about the future, or another place that doesn’t exist yet. The future is inevitably unknowable. Therefore, we have to rely on speculation when envisioning its course.

Secondly, think about the function your speculation has. Graphic designers don’t always want to create the same effect with their designs. The different functions of speculation give a range of possibilities to consider. Speculations could be purely practical predictions or mere entertainment. However, speculations could also be a way to evoke a wider range of emotions. These could be positive emotions, such as pride about what we have or are going to accomplish. But it could also evoke negative emotions like fear, which could serve as warnings. Speculations can make us think about the future, about where we would like to be, and where we wouldn’t. Speculations can also be a covert way to make people reflect on the now, or criticize the way things are going. It is also possible to create a more complex speculation by layering these functions. We saw this happen in science fiction literature and the overlapping genres of utopian- and dystopian fiction. Utopian/eutopian/dystopian literature also taught us you don’t always have to be super clear in saying a scenario is preferable or not. Sometimes it is more interesting to let people judge themselves, or show that there are more sides to a story.

Third, think about the method you will apply to speculate. We have seen that there are as many methods of speculating as reasons why to do so. Taken together these methods could be summed-up in top-down and bottom-up approaches. With top-down approaches, you start with the large structures that make up a world and fill in the gaps from there. With the bottom-up approaches, you start from a single idea and build a world around extrapolating the consequences.

Fourth, combine abstract topics with entertainment and exciting visuals. By combining high intellectual excitement with high emotional excitement, you can appeal to a broad audience. Some will be directly tempted by the deeper questions, but some need to be lured in with entertainment. This is a trick we can learn from science fiction.

And finally, make use of the expertises graphic design already possesses. Graphic design is sometimes called practical and commercial but in speculative practices graphic designers should take full advantage of these characteristics. Graphic designers should exploit their expertise in the media they commonly use and their knowledge of visualising and selling ideas. Selling ideas in visual languages people are already familiar with only benefits the communicative process.


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