The current taxonomy of the design profession is a mess. It makes the industry seem scattered and chaotic, which is ironic given the fact that designers generally tend to take great pride in their organizational abilities. Most forms of design that aren’t geared towards ‘solving [commercial] problems [for commercial benefit]’ are often looked down upon and don’t get enough recognition. To address these issues, Bruce and Stephanie Tharp propose a 4-segment system to categorize [industrial] design into more meaningful sub-fields. Categorized primarily on the basis of intent, these 4 ‘shelving units’ of their Design Garage are Commercial Design, Responsible Design, Experimental Design, and Discursive Design. Commercial Design comprises work oriented towards and driven by the market. Responsible Design, on the contrary, takes on a humanitarian approach and seeks to help those in need. Experimental Design is geared towards exploration and discovery, and Discursive Design seeks to express ideas and encourage discourse. While all of these ‘compartments’ are strong areas of practice within design by themselves, this system becomes especially powerful when ‘The Overlap’, i.e. hybridization of said compartments, is considered. In practice, these categories don’t always have explicit boundaries. In fact, most if not all design work can be placed into two or more of these categories. One of the most important outcomes of using this system is that it legitimizes several rather crucial forms of non-commercial design work by giving them a recognized umbrella, a well-defined category to belong to. This can be particularly helpful in making room for and encouraging the form of design work that we hope to do in this class, which deals with visualizing alternative futures and creating thought-provoking artifacts that provide a vision of how things could be instead of trying to only work around how things currently are.
This approach is commonly labeled ‘Speculative Design’, and that is precisely what Dunne and Raby advocate for in their book, ‘Speculative Everything’. While the widespread take on design being a problem-solving tool is valid and useful in most regards, limiting design to just that discounts its utility as a means of provoking thoughtful discussion and debate. Speculative Design offers a way to think outside of the limitations of the world as it is right now and speculate how things could be. However, that does not imply that Speculative Design is about predicting the future. Rather, it serves to the idea of a range of possible futures that can be used to understand people’s ideas and expectations about what they want their future to be. One key condition Dunne & Raby lay down is that these ‘possible futures’ should have believable paths leading to them from where we are currently, or else we risk getting into the zone of fantasy that has little to no practical utility. Dissatisfaction with the current form of the economy is what has led to increased interest in these forms of non-commercial design. Conceptual Design tries to leverage design to provoke and inspire rather than exclusively serving the needs of the market. Critical Design seeks to utilize Conceptual Design as a form of critique, a way to find alternatives that question and highlight the flaws of the status quo. The primary motivation behind Speculative Design (and all its sub-forms) is not to react to the material world but to act on ideals and attitudes, to provoke meaningful discussion and debate, and to provide not one but many possible visions of the future.
For me, all of this is refreshingly jarring; it truly challenges what I have long believed design to be, and I love it. Of course, there are lots of rabbit holes (such as the design vs. art debate) this discussion opens up that I hope to address as we proceed in this course. Through this discussion on Speculative and Critical Design, I am reminded of Hume’s Law, the classic is-ought problem, which questions any philosophical arguments that are made for what’s ought to be based merely on what is. The philosophical notions of descriptive vs. normative ethics appear to tie in quite closely with our subject matter here, with Speculative Design clearly advocating for normative thinking. I believe there’s a lot of insight that classical philosophy has to offer to the world of design, and I look forward to diving deeper into the philosophical roots and implications of the many different forms of design discussed here.
Helpful Resource: The Young Designer’s Guide to Speculative and Critical Design; offers concise overviews for the many terms we have discussed, and has a wealth of useful references as well.