News from Notopia

This Insta side project combines several of my long-standing interests and concerns. Combining thinking about the near future and directions in what it means to be be a designer with my ‘anti martech’ and collage aesthetic, the aim is to bring to life unintended and unforeseen consequences of product design and societal movements that are currently in vogue.

What is a designer?

For many years I followed along in the Digital Design press. I probably should have contributed to it, but I was busy writing plays and the like. My main criticism was that these amazing designers were doing amazing, creative work for short-sighted companies peddling trash for profit. Very slowly design ethics started to come into play, mostly through belated self-examination around climate change.

Other practices, once hidden or marginal, started to emerge; Participatory design and service design are two areas of note here, both taking ‘the end user’ and democratising the design process.

While design studios are still pumping out crap in the service of profit there has been a healthy examination of the processes and intents of design. The UK design council, which championed the double-diamond methodology, has published a report called ‘System-shifting design’ which is well worth reading.

The current paradigm of user-centred risk-reducing innovation can only generate ‘viable’ products that are possible, profitable (effective) and desirable (useful). In itself useful but this system does not account for system-shift, long-term harms, unintended consequences, alternative values and so on.

This model is great - it's dramatic in the best way (dramturgical) but needs to be deepened and more widely adopted to address the societal system-shift that is needed (or not depending on your politics) to create ‘viable’ products. The model needs to be strengthened to the point where insights gained would actively lead you not create something to avoid harms.

This deepening is not ‘disruption’, the lead tenet of the cult of techbros the world over, it deals with the here and now and tries to engage with it and move it on. Disruption generally speaking is unwarranted vandalism, just with lots of money behind it. Disruption is the cry of people who either want to make a lot of money from trashing an existing industry and/or people who lack the emotional matuturity to conduct design evolution in conjunction with the people it effects.

In short, it’s design with a conscience that is addressing things as they are and make them better where better includes concepts like equality of access, enhancement of health, assessment of harm and so on.

Design fiction

One practice that has emerged from this time of change in design is Design Fiction. In this practice designers (or just, you know, people) carry out creative recontextualisation workshops to generate alternative futures for existing or projected products or services.

An example of this is the TBD Catalog from Near Future Labs (sector leader). This is a reimagined Seers style catalog from the near future complete with large format ads, small ads and product description. Produced about ten years ago it has ads for works of ‘Algoriture’ (AI literature) to create one of a kind books, ‘Radio just a radio’ to show the attachment to analog devices, ‘PlayData playdate matching service’ based on a survey of your child’s strengths and weaknesses - and plenty more. The genius is that it combines leaading ideas with the grubby commercial reality of making money by catering to people's fears and dreams.

“Design Fiction is about creating provocations, about prodding ideas to make them thorough, considered, alive and in-the-world. It is about activating the imagination, providing seeds of inspiration and insight. Design Fiction is about shifting one’s sense of what is possible by making the extraordinary feel ordinary.”

This is an early example but there are some more digital examples here including an Ikea Catalog. Excellent!

'Screen tan' to look good, 'Dataflage' to protect your photos in the wild.

Now this resonates very deeply with me because, of course, doing things like writing plays is very much about imagining such futures. As an example my (unproduced) play ‘Things we left behind’ imagines the UK in the grip of an ISIS invasion. The question I was thinking about at the time (around 2012) was what conditions were needed for apparently liberal and progressive people to become the people they never thought they would be - enemies ready to commit violence on their once neighbours. It is entirely a design fiction and includes near-future conceptual artefacts like a massive UN camp over the border of Scotland, black markets and so on.

Where in the past I might have thought of this kind of practice as solely creative (eg for producing pure fiction, world design, ganibg) I now think design fiction can and must be applied in a commercial or societal context. Ways of thinking that cannot be used in the belly of the beast (capitalism) are pretty much doomed to irrelevance at the planetary scale. It's all very well to be writing plays and presenting them to like minded people but en-masse people simply don't care - if we are going to have a decent future then we should be baking this kind of thinking into design and governance processes. As the consequnces of Design thinking are 1/ rethinging products to make them more equitable and future-facing 2/ showing potential harms that will need governance to control this practice could be a very powerful tool in creation and decision making around legalality and regulation.

This is a fascinating area for me as it crosses over all my interests and skills - narration, writing, design of digital and print artefacts, ethics, philosophy, psychology, dramaturgy. The process itself, of getting people together to create design fiction, is also highly interesting and could be of use at many many places I have worked. [Insert small diatribe about how Innovation in organisations is not innovative enough!]

Which brings us to Notopias.

Notopias - the future real

I need to write a lot more about this idea, which I have been thinking about for a while. In essence Notopias are future spaces which refuse to indulge in either Utopian or Dystopian thinking.

While Utopias and Dystopias can be useful thought experiments they are also extreme by nature. In my view they actually distract from the urgency of the now. You can’t do anything with either.

Extreme dystopias become fatalist deadends (I would argue that QAnon is a dystopian project) and extreme utopias tend towards facism. Neither is free of influence, dogma and attendant, distracting anxiety.

Notopias are the natural dwelling ground of creativity and design fiction. Not real, removed in time, a ‘TAZ’, or space to play out and imagine the best of ourselves and the worst to create a just about realistic take on the near future that encourages us to stop and look at what we are doing.

Notopia news

So those are the currents behind on Insta. It’s also a bit of fun and a nice provocation for me to put my design hat on.

A whole 5 posts at the moment, but there will be more. Looking to make it a weekly practice.