What is Speculative Design?

6 min read Guest Blogger

What is Speculative Design? I get that question a lot, and sometimes I stumble trying to explain it because I believe it’s best portrayed through examples. And depending on who you talk to, you might get a different name for it: Critical Design, Design Fiction, Discursive Design, Interrogative Design, Ludic Design. Really, it’s all the same thing. And if you talk to Cameron Tonkinwise, he’d say it’s all “just design”.

However, we’ve begun to try and describe the work we’re doing and teaching at Speculative Futures, a meetup organization and consultancy I formed over a year ago in San Francisco. We use Speculative Design to describe work that uses design (products, services, scenarios) to address challenges and opportunities of the future.

We tend to look 5-10+ years forward and speculate on how things could be and what future we want or don’t want based on these scenarios. Our mission is to try to democratize the process and expose our members to the work and methods that have been culminated over the years.

Designers at a Speculative Futures workshop discuss the future of food in 2026.
Designers at a Speculative Futures workshop discuss the future of food in 2026.

I studied Speculative and Critical Design in graduate school. In fact, I tailored my entire thesis around this perspective and have been infatuated with it ever since.

Origins of the term

So where does the term ‘speculative design’ come from? Speculative design was originally coined by Anthony Dunne in the 90s, and, he, alongside Fiona Raby, pioneered this work which they formulated at the Royal College of Art’s Designing Interactions programme.

Since then, their students and others all over the world have created their own flavors to contribute to a much wider genre of Design Futurists that had already existed, all chipping away at different ways to look at the future through different disciplines and lenses. Even architects, such as Future Cities Lab, have been future-casting for decades, trying to anticipate new materials, changing landscapes, and future available technologies.

“Let’s call it critical design, that questions the cultural, social and ethical implications of emerging technologies. A form of design that can help us to define the most desirable futures, and avoid the least desirable.”

– Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby

Part of the message we try to deliver is that design also has an impact beyond the user. We design for our customer and all of their pain but what about the knock-on effects of our product within societies and ecosystems?

How might a future social, environmental or political climate influence our products or how could our products influence those climates in return? There’s a reciprocal relationship between what we design and the world they exist in. Consider how simple devices and economies have shaped the way we live, interact, and communicate over the last 10 years.

Speculative Design can facilitate ways to look forward but also consider this hidden impact, influence and future ecosystems. It can prepare us for these challenges and how we might need to design based on technologies available and the potential state of the world at that point in time. Better yet, how might we influence a better future by the strength of our product to consider a more holistic approach?

The challenges to come

Unfortunately, Speculative Design gets a bad rap. Mostly relegated to university programmes, R&D departments, or the occasional agency project where a company wants to envision the future, rarely do we see it as an integrated practice in design and business strategy. That is slowly changing. New technologies and volatile economies are prodding businesses to become more adaptive and proactive about future-casting so that they are more agile and prepared for challenges to come.

Businesses want to position themselves properly for disruptive technologies to arrive and to take advantage of markets early.

The advent of autonomous cars is a great example of how the world needs to look several years out to prepare infrastructures and policies to receive this new type of vehicle. However, as headlines of the first Tesla Auto Pilot fatality bubbled up earlier this year, we’re now starting to pay more attention to the potential dangers of this mode of transportation.

The ethical challenges in programming a car’s procedure in the event of an emergency becomes a difficult and charged topic in itself. Recently MIT did a study to gather opinion on a car’s programming to potentially kill or minimize a death toll.

“In general, people are comfortable with the idea that self-driving vehicles should be programmed to minimize the death toll.”

– MIT Technology Review

Speculative design and the autonomous car

Among many of the strategic frameworks used to understand the impact and implementation of the autonomous car, Speculative Design can help. In early 2015, I participated in a workshop conducted by Near Future Laboratories, a consultancy specializing in Design Fiction. The output was to design a quick-start guide for an autonomous car.

To prime us for the future, they plastered the room with articles from the future with headlines about potential problems such as accidents, child safety, and even environmental challenges such as water shortage (at the time California was experiencing a drought).

Several categories were presented for us to brainstorm around such as data ownership, insurance policies, emergencies, cleaning, and what to do if you leave your child in your car or if the car gets lost. These were all important topics to dig into to understand how to own and operate the vehicle but also how to deal with sensitive issues.

Near Future Lab’s Quick Start Guide for Autonomous Cars (2015)


Near Future Lab’s Quick Start Guide for Autonomous Cars (2015)

Companies in small pockets all over the world are using Speculative Design as both vision exercises, but also as ways to create agendas and strategies for business growth. Some larger companies are releasing “Vision Videos” to paint future worlds around their own technology. In 1987 Apple created the famous Knowledge Navigator video which involved a professor using a then-mythical touchscreen tablet with a personal assistant, teleconferencing and file sharing over the airwaves. This was years before the internet became commercially ubiquitous.

You see, there are many ways to speculate about the future, and while there has been fiery debate about the relevance or position of Speculative Design in our community, we can still use these exercises to face important topics head on, stimulate new conversations, and develop new perspectives for looking at problems. No matter what you call it, it’s still a form of ideation and synthesis. And once you attach it to a real problem and real science, it can be a platform for discovery and used to generate new products and set new agendas today. We need to stop being post-traumatic designers and start considering the issues that we know are imminent–overpopulation, disease, traffic, urban sprawl, climate change, food/water shortage and do the due diligence of addressing these issues today so we can lay the groundwork for the future we want and the future we have the power to design.