Beyond Design Thinking

Speculative Design and other design disciplines to generate disruptive ideas.

What is the role of design nowadays?

Design is invisible because it has always been there.

Design from its conception as a discipline has consisted of mediating between the needs and motivations of people to make tangible all those ideas that ranged from a product, a service, a business or even something as ephemeral as an experience.

The problem with design is that it is so embedded in all aspects of our life that for most people this word sounds distant, almost non-existent, not to mention invisible. As it was always there for the general public, they do not see design beyond an “aesthetic” discipline. Who has not said the phrase “this is a designer object”?

It seems that bit by bit Design is taking off the invisibility cloak. The value that it brings to business and companies, where design is not only aesthetics but also process and strategy, is increasingly understood.

One of the causes of this understanding of the discipline and of making its value visible is the Design Thinking methodology, where it is proposed to ‚Äúdemocratize‚ÄĚ the process that designers use when conceiving solutions.

We have long known the importance of putting people at the center, and the value of Design Thinking as a people-focused problem-solving tool is widely known. But, can we use Design Thinking to create disruptive solutions? And to solve intrinsic problems in society? In this article we will talk about what Design Thinking consists of and the variants of Speculative Design: Critical Design, Future Design and Design Fiction. And how each of them can help us reflect, understand reality and innovate.

Types of design disciplines: Design Thinking and Speculative Design

To try to explain what ways design has to act, we propose this graphic where:

  • Axis A:¬† ‚ÄúPresent / future‚ÄĚ talks about where the solutions look in terms of temporal vision.
  • Axis B:¬†“Actionable / reflective” speaks of the practicality of the solutions, whether it is in a decisive way or as an exercise in reflection.

To better understand we have divided Design as a practice into the following blocks:

  • Block 1: Design Thinking
  • Block 2: Speculative Design
    2.a. Design Futures
    2.b. Design Fiction
    2.c. Critical Design

Gr√°fico con las disciplinas de dise√Īo, y los dos grandes bloques de Design Thinking y Speculative design

BLOCK 1. Design Thinking

What characterizes it?

Design Thinking is a problem solving methodology whose ultimate goal is to align the real needs of people with what is technologically viable to generate value.

Characteristics

  • Contextual: Considers all the factors that affect the problem-solution.
  • Creative: Explores new ways of doing things.
  • Practical:¬†The process is carried out “doing”, all the thought carried out is reflected in the real world: it is technologically feasible, and can be tested.
  • Transdisciplinary: It resorts to psychology, anthropology, engineering, economics…
  • User-centric: Focuses on meeting people’s needs and generating value for design users.
  • Analytical: Reformulates the problem according to its context.
  • Iterative: Proposed solutions are continuously tested to see that they work. It is not composed of a sequence of steps to follow but a set of tools that can be used at will to explore a problem and its solutions, that entails trial and error. The more iterations, the more refined the final design will be.
  • Strategic: Supports key stakeholder objectives.

What is it for?

Design Thinking is a tool that generates innovation, it is used to create products and services, improve processes, or define business models. If you want to go deeper, you can read this post.

BLOCK 2. Speculative Design

What characterizes it?

Speculative Design is the branch of design that looks at the world from different perspectives and questions the Status Quo to achieve a better understanding of society and its relationship with reality.

Characteristics:

  • Critic: Questions the Status Quo.
  • Mundane / Customary: it‚Äôs based on an everyday context, focused on the day-to-day life of people.
  • Diegetic: Narrative, descriptive, that tells a story, and at the same time belongs to the story.
  • Inclusive: Includes diverse, different people with different points of view.
  • Transdisciplinary: Use psychology, anthropology, design, engineering, economics, politics, art … To build a realistic and credible world.
  • Unexpected: Who deals with what has never been seen, cannot assume that what is valid now may be valid in the future. The world is paradoxical, it flows and is full of contradictions.
  • Attracting: Draws attention, involves, encourages curiosity and empathy. Use irony or fashions to attract people to the stage.
  • Social: It is accessible, encourages interaction or dialogue.

What is it for?

Speculative Design opens up new perspectives, serves to better understand the present and what we want and do not want to see in the future. It is used to create spaces for discussion and debate on alternative ways of doing things, to inspire and encourage people to let their imagination run wild, and to redefine our relationship with reality.
Within this broad concept, several design branches are included. Between them:

  • CRITICAL DESIGN
  • DESIGN FUTURE
  • DESIGN FICTION

2.a. Critical Design

What characterizes it?

Critical Design is the branch of design that focuses on sharing a critical vision of social, cultural or ethical aspects in a non-evident way and thus, generating reflection and debate.

Characteristics:

  • Contextual: Its message is born from the social context and only makes sense within the context in which it is presented.
  • Creative: Explores new ways of interpreting the reality in which we live.
  • Practical: The process is carried out “doing”, the thought is projected in the real world and allows to be questioned.
  • Transdisciplinary: Resort to psychology, anthropology, politics, art …
  • Critic: Question the Status Quo in today’s society.
  • Diegetic: Narrative, descriptive, that tells a story, and at the same time belongs to the story.
  • Unexpected: It presents something that surprises and that opens new doors of reflection.
  • Attracting: Draws attention, involves, encourages curiosity and empathy. Use irony or fashions to attract people to the stage.
  • Social: It focuses on exposing intrinsic problems in society and generating debate among people.
  • Artistic: Includes artistic thinking in the design process.

What is it for?

Critical Design raises questions, it is used to create spaces, objects, design concepts, art pieces… that question the Status Quo.

Proyecto The School of Constructed Realities, del estudio Dunne & Raby “The School of Constructed Realities”, by Dunne & Raby.

In the studio Dunne & Raby are experts in this type of design, for example: their project “The School of Constructed Realities” (1) resents, in a short narrative, an unconventional fictional school – ‚Äúdeveloped specifically to face the challenges and the conditions of the 21st century ‚ÄĚ- where sets of subjects are studied that will allow students to design a new reality. The text, from the beginning, raises the possibility of a different educational system. At the center, the subjects are presented in pairs, and these combinations and their themes are created to surprise and amuse, to catch the reader’s attention and intrigue what combination of subjects will be next. Course titles, such as “The History of Propaganda, Conspiracy Theories, Hoaxes, and Publicity” or “The Suspension, Destruction, and Production of Disbelief‚ÄĚ, touch on current issues in our society.

Overall, the narrative invites us to reflect on the social problems of the 21st century and how new imaginaries can inspire us to change reality.

2.b. Design Futures

What characterizes it?

Design Futures is the discipline that designs new products, services or systems inspired by possible futures that serve as context, that pose future problems or consider the possible consequences of that same design in the future.

Characteristics:

  • Contextual: Considers all the factors that affect the problem-solution.
  • Creative: Explore new ways of doing things.
  • Practical: The process is carried out “doing”, all the thought carried out is reflected in the real world: it is technologically viable, and it can be tested and questioned.
  • Transdisciplinary: Use psychology, anthropology, engineering, economics, politics, art…
  • User-centric: Focuses on meeting people’s needs and generating value for design users.
  • Analytical: Considers all the factors that affect the problem-solution and reformulates the problem according to its context.
  • Iterative: Proposed solutions are continuously tested to see that they work. It is not composed of a sequence of steps to follow but a set of tools that can be used at will to explore a problem and its solutions, that entails trial and error.
  • Strategic: Supports key stakeholder goals.
  • Critic: It asks how the future could be better.
  • Diegetic: Narrative, descriptive, that tells a story, and at the same time belongs to the story.
  • Inclusive: Includes diverse, different people with different points of view.
  • Disruptive: Deals with the never seen, cannot assume that what is valid now may be valid in the future. The world is paradoxical, it flows and is full of contradictions.
  • Attracting: Draws attention, involves, encourages curiosity and empathy. Use irony or fashions to attract people to the stage.
  • Social: It is accessible, encourages interaction or dialogue.

What is it for?

Futures Design is a strategic framework to work on, it is used to create products and services, improve processes, define business models, which lead to desirable futures … While DT focuses on solving people’s needs , future design is dedicated to imagining how people could live better in the future.

A clear example is the approaches of technology companies that present us their Utopias of technoprogress. For example, Microsoft’s representations of how it sees the future.

2.c. Design Fiction

What characterizes it?

Design Fiction is a branch of design that creates mundane imaginaries where disruptive visions of our society arise.

Characteristics

  • Contextual: Create fictional but possible contexts.
  • Creative: Explore new ways of doing things.
  • Practical: The process is carried out “doing”, the thought is projected in the real world and allows to be questioned.
  • Transdisciplinary: Use psychology, anthropology, engineering, economics, politics, art…
  • Critic: Question the Status Quo.
  • Mundane / Customary: The created contexts represent worldly scenes, which anyone could reach.
  • Diegetic: Narrative, descriptive, that tells a story, and at the same time belongs to the story.
  • Inclusive: Includes diverse, different people with different points of view.
  • Unexpected: Who deals with what has never been seen, cannot assume that what is valid now may be valid in the future. The world is paradoxical, it flows and is full of contradictions.
  • Attracting: Draws attention, involves, encourages curiosity and empathy. Use irony or fashion to attract people to the stage.
  • Social: It is accessible, encourages interaction or dialogue.

What is it for?

It serves to create realistic imaginary (neither utopian nor dystopian, but with a range of grays), which could happen, be happening or could have happened.

When these imaginaries help us to reflect and generate a critical vision of the present, they are also part of critical design. A well-known example of Design Fiction and Critical Design could be the TV show Black Mirror.

Fotograma del episodio ¬†Still from the episode “Nosedive” from the Netflix series Black Mirror.

If combined with Future Thinking, and inspired by emerging trends or technologies, it can be a powerful strategic tool to create possible future contexts. The studio Superflux creates future scenarios in this way. The most recent example that we can find on their website is the Mitigation of Shock project (2017-2019) (2). This project reconstructs an apartment to show what life would be like in 2050: Its objective is to transfer the data and projections obtained by scientific studies and interviews with experts on the effects of climate change, which are intangible, to a tangible format in space and weather.

Proyecto “Mitigation of Shock” by Superflux.

The representation is based on a real apartment. The setting is not science fiction; the apartment, the Ikea furniture, the common utilities today … There are links with the present that give realism to the experience and help us to intimately connect the scene, which some would classify as a dystopian future, with the present all over.

Over this, points are added that give context to the future world: Discarded newspapers and a radio station, as well as a simulation of a window showing what the world would look like outside the apartment. These details help to move us to 2050, to generate a sense of authenticity, of reality in the future. It helps us to perceive the experience as something mundane, the house does not belong to a madman, but to real people like us, who have had to adapt to the circumstances.

CONCLUSIONS

The great failure of Design Thinking is that it is very realistic.

Design Thinking is a reliable and safe methodology to get to know our user or our client and find solutions that really satisfy their current needs and add value to them. During the Design Thinking process, solutions are built from evidence, from the information collected from the user and what surrounds him. Traditional Design Thinking focuses on the present, and proposes solutions that will be widely accepted by consumers. Still, this methodology has its limits.

When innovation is disruptive: It solves problems that we did not know we had, improves our lives in ways that we do not even imagine, or involves radical social change, we cannot rely solely on what already exists or what the user needs. This type of innovation is carried out by questioning reality and taking risks. The different branches of Speculative Design help us to imagine new scenarios and question reality, facilitating and making the path of this type of innovation safer.

Whatever you do, put people at the center, be it to create solutions or reflect on hypotheticals; if it is for the former, we invite you to take a look at our Creation services and projects.

Annex

(1) The School of Constructed Realities, Dunne & Raby
(2) Mitigation of Shock, Superflux (2017-2019)

Published at 22/02/2021

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