Reading I: What is Discursive Design? What is Speculative Design?

As I’ve reached a point in my education where I feel like I’ve gained a wide degree of knowledge and skills, I’m starting to ask “why?” What is my purpose as a designer? Where do I fit in? Throughout the years I’ve felt insecurity as a student, as the co-op program seemingly favors corporate jobs and rigid portfolios over risk-taking and experimentation. So, I was excited this week to see the readings shed some light and clarity on the many fields of design, their unique intentions and approaches, and reason for validation.

Bruce and Stephanie Tharp’s “ The 4 Fields of Industrial Design” begins to break it down for us in what they call “the Design Garage”. This “garage” holds 4 fields of design: Commercial, Responsible, Experimental and Discursive. Throughout the reading, they stress the importance of understanding the why, or the primary driver. Identifying these drivers/intentions of design can aid understanding and focus of projects, which overall leads to better communication between designer and consumer.

As our Speculative City studio has already embarked on exploring one of these fields, discursive design, I wanted to dig deeper to really grasp its meaning. Discursive design seems to be the umbrella term for a broad range of practice in the design world. At its core, it’s about starting conversation. It considers design a tool for thinking, rather than doing, and works to communicate ideas through interaction. While the intention of all terms under the “discursive design” umbrella is to engage intellect, each is unique in their approach and effect.

Branching off of discursive design, speculative design was described in our last class as “design without a happy ending.” I felt “Speculative Everything” by Dunne and Raby really expanded on that quote by describing speculative design as a rejection of problem solving (a traditional approach to design thinking), and more an invitation to freethinking. There is no inherent “good” or “bad”, just imaginations of what COULD be. Speculative design pushes process. If we can imagine many futures, desired and undesired, we can have better discussions about the futures we want and how to achieve them.

Considering the Probable/Plausible/Possible/Preferable chart, the aim is to create scenarios that push boundaries and ask questions, but always remain in a realm of possibility. This section of the reading from “Speculative Everything” really reminded me of one of my favorite Netflix series, Black Mirror. While the futures illustrated in Black Mirror may seem far off initially, many are actually already happening or taking form in some way. This begs the viewer to look beyond the entertaining level of the show and think critically about the implication of these near technologies, societies, etc., to reflect on our own values, beliefs and ideas. While many episodes paint the future as a technological dystopia, its that level of provocation that gets people talking. Dunne and Raby touched on this as a necessity of speculative design by stating, “They (possible futures) usually take the form of scenarios, often starting with a what-if question, and are intended to open up spaces of debate and discussion; therefore, they are by necessity provocative, intentionally simplified, and fictional.” I’m eager, in this course, to take this same approach Black Mirror applies to creating future scenarios, and apply it to my own design process to expand critical thinking and imagine new horizons.

Reading//1 Sebastian Ruehl

What is discursive Design, what is speculative Design

I remember the first time someone showed me one of the Pablo Picasso’s masterpieces when I was very young. I looked at it and just couldn’t figure out what the meaning of it is. It was so different from everything else I saw before that was considered art. Is there are meaning at all in these strange forms and figures? Until this point art was always something beautiful to me. Something you look at and find it pleasing without any disturbance.

Looking at discursive Design I felt something similar. But Now I’m older and I get the idea. Art, ether in music, film or on a wall was always the number one medium to spread ideas. And ideas are nutrient for discourse which is major for change. That’s what discursive design is about. It demands change. The problem is, when talking about Design, that it’s considered highly commercially. It doesn’t matter if you are a graphic or industrial designer, due to the dogma of value (money), you have to design it the way it gets sold. So if you want to design something that is not directly connected with making money, discursive Design has some tools to offer. I really depends on the message you want to communicate. An idea is also an ideal and here it gets really interesting. So as an discursive Designer you try to convert your message into something visual and by that people can understand it and relate to it. Sometimes these pieces are very iconic, like the TV helmet by Walter Pichler, that wants us to question our consumer behaviour; sometimes it’s very subtle like the Statistical Clock, that make us question our behaviour. Its about making people think and question things they never thought about.

Speculative Design on the other hand is a very different approach. Although it sounds like predicting the future it is more like shaping it. The Designer working in this field always try to find new ways of producing and creating valuable products. Like discursive design it’s non-profit based always in a change. It has it’s focus on the human scale not on big systems and is so for very neutral and rational. Due to it not being bond onto the capitalistic aspects of design, one can experiment a lot of different techniques create value without worrying about the market. Maybe that’s what’s true expressions is about.

For me the interesting part is when you start combining the different kinds of design and not thinking to much about how and where to sell my products. I great thing is, as a student, I can do exactly that. All the stuff I created during my study has no need of being sold or even judged by someone. Maybe we need something like that, a forum where everyone could just create there ideas and turn them into ideals without the pressure of the market we got so used to.

In the end I’m still not sure what Picasso wanted to express with his paintings but I’m still thinking about it. Maybe that’s what it is about.

Reading Discussion #1

Our first two passages this semester have already been encouraging to me in the questions I’m wondering about at this point in school; is my co-op experience an accurate illustration of what working in my industry is really like? Will I always be told to take an image from Pinterest and be asked to make 7 changes, and then make a tech pack for the garment in four colors? Understanding more about conceptual design is leading me to understand better that I want to truly think creatively and serve the public designs that will be attractive to them because of the way they are made to feel or think about my work. I hope to work beyond the ‘garage shelf’ of Commercial Design and move beyond the soul motivation of making profit (The 4 Fields of Industrial Design, Bruce and Stephanie M Tharp).

I found the first article about the 4 fields of industrial design helpful in bringing clarity, as we can categorize design widely but efficiently in considering the motivation for design. That commercial design is looking to make profit, responsible design seeks to help those in need, experimental design is primarily exploring, and discursive design’s priority is to express ideas. Reading this has already helped me communicate better with my co-op adviser that in my next job, I’m hoping to move away from commercial design.

Moving into the second reading, ‘Speculative Everything’ dove into the way design was largely radical in the 60’s and 70’s and then later “hyper-commercialized” in the 80’s and the way that has shaped the design attitudes we’re taught today. Understanding the changes that have impacted the industry I’m entering today explained a lot about what I’ve already learned in studying the history of influential designers. We can all pretty easily identify the visual changes between these decades, and understand that the political climate had a lot to do with this, but grasping the changes in the motives of designers makes it easier to understand the outcome.

Even though this is only our first week in Spec City, I’m beginning to delve into the trajectory of this class and have greater vision for how it can influence my discipline and affect my other classes this semester. Speculative Everything says, “one of the main purposes of conceptual design… is to provide an alternative context to design that is driven entirely by market forces” and that “by speculating more… we can help set in place today factors that will increase the probability of more desirable futures happening.” As a fashion design class, my peers have prodded an ongoing conversation about our disappointment in the commercial aspect of our jobs and the ways we wish we could move more conceptually in practice and outside of class projects. Our best hope is to become influencers and move our generation not only to more radical design, but in conceptual design, towards designing for a future that could do more than walk down a seasonal runway. Clothes that can have positive impact, shrink our carbon imprints in production, and have more ethical manufacturing.

Last semester in Design Communication, I created a project based on the themes of our changing climate and considered the worst case scenario, most extreme conditions, and how we might be dressing living in desert conditions across climates that newly have to adapt. This was one of my first experiences with speculative design and I’m excited to see how I could better ideate for the same prompt after this semester.

an old project as my first experience with speculative design