Part of my job is to work in projects that required me to explore different directions for the future of a product. The core idea is of this jobs is: visualize and communicate how my company or clients want the future to look like. Thinking about this kind of work reminded me of a debate among designers around the idea of fictional work. Which are the merits of creating fictional work? Would our energy be better spent on known, well defined problems? Where (if anywhere) in the design process does fictional work fit? I want to explore this topic a bit and give my take on some aspects of it.

This article has four parts where I will unravel the topic and give my opinion about this debate. First, we’ll take a look at some criticisms to fictional design. Then we’ll check a model of the creative process to understand where to position fictional design. After that we’ll explore different types of fictional design and its potential uses. Finally we’ll end up with some do's and don'ts while creating fictional designs.

The cult to practicality

A well written example of one view in this debate lives in an article called The dribbblisation of design.

This article critizices in the tendency of the dribbble community to value “superficial work” and the focus of some designers on aesthetics and visuals in detriment of other more “structural” aspects of design. [Dribbble] is a social-network-like website where designers can upload images of their work. These images get commented, liked and remixed by other members. Think Instagram but only about design. Many things uploaded in dribbble are nice looking images without the surrounding business or tech context. Few of them include details about their creation process or the messy bits of design.

While the rest of the article moves away from this criticism into other product design related aspects, rereading it recently served as a spark to think critically about the topic.

Even though unconstrained imagination over functionality isn’t what you’d want most designers to focus on most of the time, there are situations where speculation, aesthetics and extrapolation are necessary tools that can serve practical purposes (besides getting likes in social media and a pretty portfolio).

Before diving into the matter of speculative and fictional design, let’s take a look at the creative process and see where and how ideas get formed and realized.

Ideas, making up, making real and the steps of creation

While creating something new, there are three key steps** that an idea must pass through to become a finalized product.

The first step happens inside our brains. This is the spark that drives us to  create, imagine and solve problems. All potential options are open at this point and there is no limit on what we can imagine. This unlimited freedom also means that we’re the only ones who understand what we have in our mind.

The second step is the “making up” phase of creation, where we shape and transmit our ideas in a way that is shareable with others. This step is extremely variable among different projects, timescales, teams and professions. One person might need only a sketch to show others what they mean and start executing. Others might need to have a detailed project plan and many blueprints before they move a finger. No matter how well defined the plans are, there is one last step to bring the finalized product to life.

The third step is the “making real” phase where all plans, prototypes, blueprints and come together and the creators execute. This execution might be in a team, as individuals or  even as a nation or a species. The important part is that this step realizes (makes real) the object that will embody all the work set until now.

A blueprint is an archetypical example of the second step. Real enough to be communicated but unrealized enough to be malleable.

It’s on the second step (making up) where the lines of what is useful or not are a bit blurred. Sometimes the road is clear, the constraints are set and thus creators can step immediately to think about the specifics of execution. Other times the problem isn’t clearly defined, the consequences unpredictable and the constraints unknown. Depending on the case, ideas might need to be developed in a purposeful but more playful way.

Speculative design, forecasting and prototyping

Speculative design work*** can ignore some aspects of reality in the name of achieving its objectives. This practice is not exclusive to digital product design and serves as a trigger of innovation, inspiration and advancement.

Philips Microbial Home - an exercise in design fiction imagining a reality where our domestic functions (eating, waste management, energy) are integrated and work together as one sustainable ecosystem.

This type of work can start as an exercise in design fiction. Design fiction creates stories about alternative realities and artifacts to make this future tangible. This inspires us to make this future come true, avoid it from happening or materializing, or lets us imagine how it could be. This is a powerful practice both for inspiration as well as for warning. Design fiction can help us imagine a bright future or the unintended consequences that new technology and solutions might bring.

Design fiction isn’t only created to think about flying cars or spaceships but also to understand how things like a real name policy can affect a queer person while trying to keep their identity private or how would a mother’s day special offer might feel for somebody who’s mom just passed away.

It can also be applied at the macro space where designers can think about systemic, planet level things. Things like the environmental and financial impact of cryptocurrencies across time, or asking how will humanity communicate in a fully virtualized environment.
Closer to daily work for most designers, a more “probable future” based speculative work can also help as a way of forecasting what the future will look like by observing and researching trends that exist in society and project what will happen in the short and medium term.

Exercises in forecasting are a practical way of staying ahead of the curve while still keeping a grasp on the present. Prototypes are normally the tool for communicating the results and ideas from these forecasts to a wider audience. If done right, they can bring about many creative, business and social benefits. After all, a couple of pictures or a physical object can be a great tool to tickle the imagination and make the future more tangible.

So, where can we go from here? A couple of ideas:

Tips on making fictional designs

Design Fiction – Reflections of an Interaction Designer
Belief Systems by Frank Hopfgartner - What happens when a machine can accurately read our minds?

Visualize something very abstract

Imagine trying to explain a digital patient record. On the surface it might sound a bit boring but when showing the possible uses (telemedicine, robotic surgeries across the world, having all your health info on your phone) it becomes much more understandable, real and usable.  

Making a very specific audience excited

Showing car owners how an Augmented Reality headset can help them fix the right part on their car when something breaks or show it remotely to their mechanics can reveal the usefulness of this technology to a previously uninterested person. The key is to focus the visualization on which problem it is solving and not in the showcased technology.

2020: The Year of AR and VR for Education and Training - EON Reality
Even though it's a bit cliché, this type of image explain how Virtual Reality shows objects inside the headset and how these objects can be interacted with

Explain ideas to people outside of your circle

Wireframes and diagrams**** are good for detailed discussion and decision making. They’re not great as tools for introducing an unfamiliar idea to an unfamiliar audience. A well crafted, high fidelity image serves as a better introduction for making the unfamiliar relatable and understandable.

Dig for questions and new paths

Let’s say you are tired of zoom calls. Let’s assume we want to change the way that video calls work. Many compelling visions can be drawn and expressed to try to find original and innovative solutions. Doing schematic designs on dynamic environments such as video calls doesn’t express intention correctly and asks too much from the imagination of an audience.

Mockup of the Dynabook conceived by Xerox PARC's Alan Kay, 1970s. Source:...
The Dynabook (Alan Kay) mockup showed in the 70s how a personal device for education and computing could look like, 30 or so years before it was possible

Set early stage design direction

You want to inspire and point to a North Star. Showing style boards and key screen designs can serve as a tool for bringing a team together and direct efforts to a tangible outcome. People get inspired by images.

The pitfalls of making fictional, flashy designs

Not explaining the scope of your work

Framing a speculative effort as something more concrete than what it is leaves the door open to dismissal, as it shows that the designer is either not aware that there’s more to do than what they did or they’re intentionally misleading, both things being obviously not good.  

Not taking into account *any* restrictions or constraints to frame the work

Doing designs without restrictions or constraints amounts to creating digital art. Very valuable in its own right, yet, where there aren’t any restrictions or constraints there is no problem to be solved.

Becoming too attached to solutions at this stage

Stakeholders can get attached to fictional designs. Always be transparent about the purpose of a fictional design while showing it to an audience. If it looks great and feels very polished, it’s easy think it’s done. Not being clear about this can result in expensive confusions.

Patching over real design problems with prettiness

It’s easy to hide sloppy fundamentals with stellar visual design (not only in product design and often on purpose). If you’re making it look nice to hide something that doesn’t work well, the truth will come out with time.

Final thoughts

There are many reasons to explore fictional design. From fuelling profit through innovation to fuelling our imaginations through fictional aesthetics, there is space for design to dream about different worlds. Let’s keep working in the present with all our constraints and conditions but let’s not forget that imagination is also part of our work.

Notes & further reading

* By "digital product designers" I meant anybody working on UX, UI, Interaction Design, Creative Technology and related fields and practices.

** Framework inspired on the Making part of the book The body in pain by Elaine Scarry

*** In this definition I speak about speculative design as design which is not based entirely on known parameters but reflects on an imagined future. Not used in the formal sense as defined in the book Speculative Everything by Fiona Dunne and Anthony Dunne

**** In this context, wireframes are low fidelity visualizations of user interfaces which serve to express