Speculative Design

Speculative Design is a design method or approach that is driven by curiosity. Though it overlooks physicality of their final product, it often provokes its audience in moments of reflections and initiate discussions of endless questions. Its beauty lies in its purpose to envision futuristic situations based on the current. However, the role of artist and designer becomes blurry and the fine line between them is debatable.


First defined as a design method by designers Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby - speculative design is where art collides with design. Its provocative and symbolism of freedom is derived through its interdisciplinary nature. The freedom also allows designers to contextualize and decide its completion. That said, most speculative designs stay in the prototyping phase. The 'Wabi-Sabi' approach is useful in these cases. It's a japanese technique that embraces creation of ideas in all its the roughness and incompletions. The "Memomile" (2014) is one example of a HCI project done in this matter. Though not fully functional, it encourages a sense of reflection and questioning of the design's durability of.

The approach comes with many names, another is "The Perceptual Bridge". In this definition James Auger argues that the success of a speculative design is only achievable through a connection and persuasive aspect of the scientific support. By showing the relationship between science and the design, it becomes more plausible for the public to comprehend. Mary Shelly's novel, "Frankenstein", is the perfect example. Though fictious, the theory was supported and based on the research of biophysicist, Doctor Luigi Galvani, on reviving a frog using electricity.

It's no doubt that speculative design have a great societal impact. Pathos thus plays an important criteria in such design approach. Speculative Design is currently reputable as a luxury vision, with the future often correlated with ideas of dystopia - filled with malnutrition, poverty, etc. Such romanticism of dystopia disregards inclusion of those already living them as reality. With that in mind, Liam Young illustrated a futuristic vision, of the "New City: Taobao Village", grounded with reality.

Innovation For All

Visual Abstractions

Re: Evaluation

Evaluation by Narration

Like the image of the Elephant in the Snake, from the story ‘The Little Prince’, stories have the qualities of: simulating imaginations and allowing interpretations. Stories are also communication vehicles and they essentially tell a collection of actions. Such characteristics is the reason why story-telling or narration plays a crucial part in design, whether it be to sell ideas, find inspiration (generate ideas) or even as a method to evaluate ideas.


There are many approaches of narration in the design process, one being through ‘Exploratory Play’. Similar to body storming techniques and the ’what if’ mindset, this approach lets designers imagine various combinations of scenarios. Narration or stories is also provides a “walk through” user experience. Its fluid and creative method makes it suitable for future oriented design ideations.

Narration also plays a part in the design process in that its a ‘Filtering’ factor. Through story-telling designers are able to simulate ideal situations, and fully translate ideas into reality. Ideating designs for ’Speculative Future’ is also an appropriate mindset with this approach. Essentially, it is a crucial factor in a successful P.O.C. (Proof of Concept), as it helps the public and others to understand your concept.

Story-telling is further found in cases of ‘Media Archeology’, the idea of looking back into history in attempt to understand new and emerging design ideas. Narration comes to play, through creation of ‘Alternative Presents’. An example discussed, is the ‘Centennial Light’, the oldest working light-bulb that still stands today since 1901. Unlike the trend of ‘Blackbox’ design in our current time of consumerism, the light has an extensive lifespan and encourages sustainable design. This inspired designs like ‘The Furby Organ’ by Look Mum No Computer; where ‘dead-media’ is recycled into a new functioning design, in order to continue the life-span of the product.

On the other hand, narration is used as a selling technique. The design industry is vast and filled with innovative ideas, and often it’s the way an idea is presented correlates to its success. Whether the design provides the best solution or not, idea narration is what truly sells a concept. Christoph Loch came up with the 4 levels of decision influences, including: strategy, politics, culture, and emotions.

The biggest question lies on the ethical aspects of narration and its approaches, as to some extent selling ideas through narration walks a fine line between communication and manipulation. This is most critical is instances of ‘Vision-Driven’ designs, as it often envisions designs viable for a hundred years in the future.

Although these manipulative-tendencies in narration may not be perceived explicitly, it’s often presented in a subliminal manner. Take for example, Disney’s control over the 21st century life ideals. Alongside its sister companies, Marvel, Star Wars, 20th Century Fox, Disney may potentially influence our perception of the ideal life — and this is evident in their repetitive story-line formula. Advertisement is another case of manipulative narration of ideas. Whether it be its make-the-world-a-better-place attitude, or its intimate and personalised approaches, they often sell by making the audience feel entitled to simplified ideals (lifestyle, problems, etc.). Furthermore, the reach of these media has become far more extensive than ever, influencing various cultures, age, gender, etc. This highlights the cruciality of critical thinking, when perceiving any form of narrations, and also when forming our own narrations. Other related case studies:

  • Iso Phone (MIT Media Lab)
  • The Golden Institute
  • Acoustic Botany
  • Zero (MIT)
  • Space X
The Question of The Prototype

The act of prototyping and/or the concept of prototypes are not foreign to the design industry, and the development of the design process itself relies heavily on iterations of various prototypings. By definition of the fundamental prototyping principle, prototypes are the manifestations (of design aspects) that in its simplest form, filters the qualities in which designers are interested, without distorting the understanding of the whole. Moreover, prototypes are not bound to a single solution, and as stated by O. Gutierrez they vary in methods like: game playing, system simulation, pilot prototyping, etc. Overall, its ambiguous, agile and efficient nature reputes prototypes as an appealing and creditable tool of research.

The Anatomy of Prototypes - Although the ambiguous spectrum of prototypes may be enticing, it can also be troubling and prevent designers to prototype in a more optimal and pragmatically useful way. As mentioned in Youn-Kyung Lim’s book, “The Anatomy of Prototypes”, unlike the many methods of prototyping, the industry is passive and rather ignorant when it comes to defining types of prototypes. What is a prototype? Which form of prototype is suitable or optimal for a particular research?


Fig.1 Shows a table in which Lim uncovers the characteristics or anatomy of prototypes in two dimensions, first being the filter dimensions, and second being the manifestation dimensions. The filter dimension covers five features, which designers can choose or eliminate from and adjust “incompleteness” in order to evaluate accordingly. The manifestation dimension focuses primarily on the physical formation of the prototype, like its choice of material, resolution and scope; though this dimension often falls into oversight, it is indeed a crucial factor that upholds the reputation of the final product. In whole, it is important that the two dimensions are considered when manifesting a prototype of design idea aspects of usability, ergonomics, aesthetics, performance, sustainability and ethics. The following examples will further examine how different prototypes and prototyping methods are considered in various design projects. It is also essential to note the purpose of prototyping, which H. Lichter categorized into:

  • Breadboard - Evaluating and Testing
  • Prototype Proper - Understanding user experience, needs and values
  • Pilot System - Idea generation
  • Presentation Prototype - Communication among designers and clients

To what extent in the design cycle is prototyping appropriate? - In 2016, a collaborative-fabrication case study, “RetroFab: A Design Tool for Retrofitting Physical Interfaces using Actuators, Sensors and 3D Printing” by Raf Ramakers, questions the boundaries of prototyping in HCI-focused projects. RetroFab is a tool that allows non-expert-users to customize an end-to-end design with fabrication provisions. Following a concept known as patching, the production results in custom mechanics and enclosure, which then retrofits (attach) to the legacy device. As a result, legacy devices are developed to become interconnective.

With retrofit and interconnectivity being the center focus of the project, design aspects like functionality and spatial structure become a priority. Subsequently, the project is therefore primarily developed in prototypical 3D-model software, Skanect and Microsoft Kinect. The tool proceeds with an automated 3D-scanning procedure of a chosen legacy object, which users can later alter its annotations and build the shape and mechanics placement of the new retrofit feature. This makeshift nature, or incompleteness, assures focus on particular design aspects and makes it the suitable prototype setting for set project. Moreover, unlike softwares like MixLab, RetroFab offers a more extensive automation that is capable in embedding electronic components that also retrofits the existing object’s user interface. And, in contrast to Davidoff’s or SwitchMate’s or Meld’s mechanical hijacking, the RetroFab tool provides users with custom fabricated set of controls to retrofit a wide variety of controls. The open-ended scope of the tool-kit creates a sense of flexibility and malleability, which once again follows the character of a prototype type.

Prototyping’s “Fake-it ‘till you make it!” Culture - Dan O’Sullivan’s and Tom Igoe’s study on “Physical Computing”, discusses the idea of embracing the computer not only merely as a passive or disconnected device, but a tool that bridges our (physical) human cognitions and (virtual) technical advancements - in hope to enhance interactive experiences. Brought to light in their text, is also the art of perceiving unfamiliar viewpoints, like the way computers view us humans, a concept that help inspire designers to experiment and prototype in unimaginable methods. With that said, the entire idea of physical computing works against the comfort of multimedia computers (desktop, laptop). Transducers plays as a key tool in prototyping these exotic interactive designs, as it enables the conversion of physical energy into electrical energy output - and in result, broadens the spectrum of ideas beyond multimedia computing. However in regards to prototyping a physical-computing design idea, O’Sullivan and Igoe strongly emphasizes that designers don’t fall into the technical seduction and blame it for the loss of designs; instead take advantage of the features provided by multimedia tech and settle for high-level of abstraction. Stage the technical technicality, but achieve the ideation through the physical-computing mindset.

Economic Principles of Prototyping - This similar fascination in the spectacle of the performing body is also evident in a case study by STEIM, titled “Machines for Living”. Since the 1960’s they’ve worked with artists and musicians in search to create the optimal electronic-music instrument, which balances the technological development and the avant-garde act of an expressive musical performance. This brought them to experiment with various transducers and its interconnectivity between the instruments, the player and the audience. Despite their good intentions and ambitious innovations, the design process traversed with its hamartia, the negligence of the economic principle of prototyping. The moral from the story is that prototypes don’t equate to a final product, and thus, efficiency is crucial; whether it be in terms of time, costs, or emotional investment.

Prototyping Interactive Designs - Next comes the question of prototype-fidelity in a UX/UI project. Though the traditional paper-prototyping may be sufficient in terms of material and resolution, the idea of a facilitator that verbally announces procedure could potentially alter the test of usability and weakens aspects of interaction design. Davide Bolchini’s 2009 case study on “Paper in Screen” prototyping (Fig.2), highlights Don Norman’s emphasis on the 3 levels of cognition and its importance in the development of mobile touch-screen interface.


The 3 levels being: visceral, behavioural, and reflective, which together contributes to a user’s emotional response. In this regards, the inadequacies (in the separation of paper and its relationship to the physical device) in paper-prototyping may bypass important elements of the user’s emotional experience; subsequently resulting in highly artificial evaluation results. Often, this dilemma is resolved through high-fidelity prototyping, but this requires investment of costs and time, which are unnecessary in early-stages of development. The ‘paper in screen’ method bridges interface design and device integration; which enables interactive evaluation and stimulates discussion in the design team, supports individual inspections, and enables bodystorming -- a real-life experiential context. Essentially, this inexpensive yet rich method of anticipation (of the interface integrated in the device) supports the current agile increase in demand for mobile applications, and therefore its success as a prototyping method.

The Experience & The User-Experience

Human-Computer Interaction & Methods

Overtime ideal design methodologies have evolved, this includes the current paradigm from the classic ‘User-Centred Design’ to the more complex concept of ‘Co-Design’. The User-Centred design approach, is most known by many, and often includes an orderly work flow between users, researchers and designers. Though it might have worked for past design developments, our current situation demands advancements in more particular design fields that focuses on emotional needs, experiences, connecting cultures, etc. The concept of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) is also an advanced design outlook, it can be defined as a competition between 3 paradigms: brains, tools and media. In short, as the design field continues to expand, it becomes more complex and requires support from more extensive methodologies. Thus comes the idea of Co-Design.

Unlike the past’s more selective and consecutive methods, the Co-Design approach evolves around the idea of openness, community and intermediary relations. In this new approach, a diverse team (of designers, users, stakeholders, etc.) is encouraged to collaboratively ideate and develop design concepts. This method is also known as “Participatory Design”. The role of designers in such situations may also vary, as one can play the role of researcher, facilitator, innovator, specialist, or provocateur.

The case study of Zurich Stadtforum, is one of the first local project that took on the Co-Design approach. Starting from 1997, 8 councils made of diverse representatives (including banks, businesses, experts, citizens, etc.) gathered for 10 meetings, in which they discuss the city planning for a certain area in Zurich City.


These so-called “open-meetings” was initiated in order to gather creative, varied, and overall balanced input. The nature of its method and team, the project resulted in the creation/development of a diverse area; evident it caring building sizes, businesses, people, etc. Though some may view its ’Open Start’ and ‘Open End’ approach successful, others argues its success. It is crucial to note, that overtime many of its public participants decreased; whether it be due to boredom or inclusive problems, many suggested other possibility of the Co-Design approach. One idea is to include public participation, not only through attendance in meetings, but also through probes. Much like the ‘Cultural Probes’ discussed in the text by Gaver, Dunne and Pacenti, such method is more interactive and can gain excellent personal information. Another way could also include through ethnographic videos.

Design in the Everyday

Some may say that design is everywhere, but is design everything? And what purpose does it hold? In today’s discussion we looked at what makes a design process, and examples of domesticated design examples.

To start, we were introduced to John M. Caroll, one of the earliest to study Human-Computer Interaction and minimalism in technology design. In Caroll’s book ‘Making Use’, he also noted 6 crucial characteristics and difficult properties of Design being:

  1. Clarifying the problem
  2. Identifying/Planning design methods
  3. Illustrating the solution
  4. Reducing the design to wherewithal
  5. Integrating diverse knowledge and skills
  6. Anticipating its impact on the human activity

The case study of De Laet and Mol’s essay on the Zimbabwe Bush Pump was also discussed in relation to Caroll’s guidelines. The Zimbabwe’s Bush Pump ‘B’ Type is known to be described as ‘fluid’ because of its physical design and due to the design process itself. Its creator, Dr. Morgan, was a firm believer in reduced/minimalistic design and sharing knowledge, and therefore gave away the plans of his idea as an open-sourced design for anyone to create with ease. Following its generous start, the design also required a particular design procedure known as ‘collaborative’ or ‘participatory’ design. Such methods of design requires a integration of diverse knowledge and skills. To begin, unlike many imported pumps, the Bush pump is created in Zimbabwe using local and sustainable materials. On a more social note, the installation of the pump also requires various skills such as the blessing of a ‘nganga’ (spiritual figure) and the community’s (women, men , children) team work when drilling the installation, as well as maintaining the conditions of the pump along the way. Last but most crucial is its anticipated impact on the human activity. Not only does the pump provides communities with water, sanitation and improve health conditions, but along with its installation the pump also builds nation. Since the text is arguably bias in its appraisal, we further questioned its method:

In the case that the community participation fails, what becomes of the design’s success? At what stage should the community play their role in a participatory design? The earlier the better! Not to be mistaken with Dieter Rams’ suggestion to avoid having too many designers in one project, the collaborative design encourages team work between diverse knowledge and skills.

Perspectives of Design

Looking back, we reflected on the timeline of 'Interaction Design', and how it is the way it is today. The discussion brings to perspective how humans and machines have developed and enriched experiences or ‘Interaction Design’ over time. Dating back to the industrial revolution, we reflected on the influential invention of the steam engine by James Watt in 1769. The impact of Trains were symbolic of growth of human interaction. Though it eased networking, communication, distribution of information, and made the world seemed smaller, it also painted the vision of individuals as part of a larger community.

As the development of new technologies continued to perpetuate, the interest in the diffusion of these innovations came into demand. Thus the start of the ‘World Expo’ in 1851. The Expo gave nations the opportunity to exchange their newest technology advancements with one another. However it also subsequently ignited a sense of competition that accelerated the pace of innovation development and led to the start of trade and patent wars.

Fast-forward the many creations that finally brought the first personal computer (PC) to the market in 1975. To further global networks and human interactions, the idea of the ‘Internet’ or the ‘World Wide Web’ (WWW) was born in 1989 by Sir Time Berners-Lee. Initially developed due to the demand for automated information-sharing between scientists in universities around the world, the phenomena now reach the general public.

With the world wide web made accessible to anyone with a PC, came the demand and creation of simple Graphic User Interface (GUI) and Infrastructures (Mouse, Modems, Fibre-optics, etc.). Microsoft and Apple were amongst the earliest companies to develop user-friendly operating systems like Windows and the MacOS. Early search engines were then developed by Yahoo, Altavista and Windows45; and later in 1998, Google created a more pronounced search engine.

In more recent times the development of IOT (Internet of Things) has also been in focus. The IOT is the concept of advancement of machine-to-machine interaction in order to improve human-to-human interaction! We then come to the discussion of Design in the Everyday, with subtopics of Computer Control, Computer Interface, Design Rules and Unruled, and Design Biased. We are exposed to Computer Control on the daily, whether it be in traffic lights or 3D-Printers. One of the earliest inventions of such system was founded by Basile Bouchon in 1725. Bouchon adapted the concept of the musical box and invented a way to control a loom with a perforated paper tape. Also known as the punch-card method, the system essentially bases on the idea of inserting a card into a machine that gives machine the working commands. This system was later developed by IBM into an early method of data storage used by early computers. As the one shift creates a rippling diffusion, so did the development of computer language, bringing us to the development of the G-Code used in 3D Printing.

Computer Interface innovation is another on-going tech development. Many successful creations were birthed by Xerox Parc, MIT Media Lab, Media Lab Europe and Google Research. It’s also interesting to note the influence of metaphors of the everyday life in many of these innovations. Amongst many, include the trash and file icons on the desktop.

Design Biased is another crucial point of discussion. Due to various reasons whether it be living conditions, upbringing, cultural background, we are indeed (subconsciously) biased thinkers. Car crash dummies, gender-based product marketing, and police vest are some amongst the many cases that highlights such bias and ignorance. And in many of these cases, such bias can dangerously influence one’s well-being/life. Take for example the car-crash dummies. These models have been built with a standard of a masculine figure. Unfortunately, since many car crash scenarios are based around these muscular-dummies, safety predictions are not tested for other genders or feminine-measurements. Thus, the unfortunate misaligned reality of safety, leading to worse chances of accidents for those without the ‘model’ measurements. Thus the emphasis on the importance of diversity in data collection and design teams in the design industry.

Other honourable mentions include: the World Fairs and the ‘Whole Earth Catalogue’ and their role in enhancing interactions, inventions like the PC around the 80’s that subsequently birthed advancements in GUI, Navigators, Search Engines, Infrastructure, etc. and the more known IOT, Mobile Phones and Social Media. Starting from the origin of the ‘Internet’ and the invention of the ’World Wide Web’ by Sir Tim Berners-Lee in 1989. What was initially developed due to the demand for automated information-sharing between scientists in universities around the world, the phenomena now reach the general public.

Deconstructing Interaction Design

One of the main questions we discussed today was, How does one define ‘Interaction Design’? Coming from different perspectives and experiences, the responses were quite eye-opening. In regards to a more conceptual view, one would say much like Löwgren & Stoltermann in their text “Thoughtful Interaction Design”, that indeed Interaction Design is a wholesome concept that weighs on limitations or restrictions as a spark for creativity.


"Interaction Design is the study of web-design, and app development." Is another popular answer that interaction designers usually resort to when asked about it by the general public. Its diversity and its interdisciplinary nature makes the subject difficult to describe to those without prior knowledge about the industry.

How would you describe Interaction Design to a child? Simple. Talking toaster. I found this response to the question most memorable. Though a caricature, the statement provides a descriptive explaination, in that Interaction Design works with usability of objects and technology developments - thus the speech advancement of the everyday appliance.

To continue, we reflected on our design process in our previous project, “Digital Fabrication”. The Excursive Method was also discussed as a concept of methodology. This method included stages of (respectively): Investigation, Play, Everyday, Tensions, Enactment, and Dissemination.