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Unreality by Design

Elvia Wilk speaks with design duo and educators Dunne & Raby about their recent work, how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected notions of the future and design as a practice of imagining alternative realities. Commissioned by Amber Husain.
Dunne & Raby, Technological Dream Series, No 1: Robots, 2007. Commissioned by Kunstmuseen Krefeld. Photograph: Per Tingleff

Design is traditionally seen as a realistic and practical field, aiming to land at the intersection of what looks good and what works well. But what does it mean to design aesthetic and functional solutions for ‘real’ problems in a world where reality itself is all wrong?

For decades the design duo Fiona Raby and Anthony Dunne have been reconsidering the ‘realistic’ as the basis for design by investigating subjects far outside the field. It’s no exaggeration to say that they have shaped a generation of Western design thinking, notably by leading design departments at the Royal College of Art in London and now at The New School in New York. Their landmark 2013 book Speculative Everything calls for designers to imagine alternative worlds rather than taking dominant narratives about the future for granted.

Today, objects are often designed as if in a vacuum; designers are asked to ignore the complex social and political ecologies in which they work in favour of fulfilling briefs based on notions of optimisation and efficiency. From benign-seeming ergonomic furniture that keeps workers awake on the job, to more obviously troubling examples like domestic-surveillance – Alexa and the self-driving car – design teams are expected to employ technologies without considering possible unintended effects or questioning the worldviews they reinforce.

Against these mainstream professional tendencies, Dunne & Raby, along with their collaborators and students, offer a gentle but powerful provocation to think differently. In their studio, design objects are treated not as neat and fragmentary solutions, but as catalysts for research and change. Take the Technological Dreams Series: No.1, Robots, from 2007, a group of simple-looking household robot prototypes with such character traits as nervousness and neediness – far from the supposedly impersonal and subservient smart fridge or alarm system. In works like these, human interaction is foregrounded. Design becomes ecological and entire systems, institutions and languages become topics for redesign.

Elvia Wilk spoke with Dunne & Raby about their recent work, how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected notions of the future, how the close quarters of ‘reality’ can be busted open and how ‘mindset’ may be more important a concept than ‘roadmap’ when it comes to effecting change. Within this framework, discussions can reroute from, say, the way design serves the human to what the human is, and what humans might want to become.

EW: A lot of your recent work challenges assumptions about realistic approaches to design. As you beautifully put it, ‘the word “unrealistic” often simply means “undesirable” to those in charge’. Reality is a political invention, used to close down the horizon of possibility. Assuming that reality is by design, the question is one of who gets to design it. How can designers resist the imperative to make work compatible with capitalist realism? Among others, your 2019 project An Archive of Impossible Objects seems to address this question.

AD & FR: If you are working within, or with industry, there’s probably not much designers can do on this front. But if you work in other contexts, such as academic research labs or small studios working mainly with cultural organisations, then there are other possibilities. As you say, in design, a fairly limited notion of what counts as ‘real’ quickly shuts down thinking about other ways life could be, deeming them unrealistic and void. But maybe this is where to start: to embrace the unreal in constructive ways.

Our ongoing research project An Archive of Impossible Objects begins to explore this idea through a collection of actual objects that belong to systems of reality besides our own. Rather than being outside of reality, in the unreal, we think of them as being different kinds of ‘real’ that remind us how the construction of reality is an ongoing project that has gone through many phases and consists of many variations.

Dunne & Raby, Designs for Fragile Personalities in Anxious Times, 2004–05. Photograph: Jason Evans

I’m a novelist, so when I think of ‘unrealities’ I think of storytelling, and how fiction and ‘reality’ reciprocally influence each other. Lately I have begun to think that this loop between the fictional and the actual is tightening, partly because finance capitalism relies on all sorts of fictions to function: statistics, money, speculative real estate, trend forecasts, fake news. Design fictions have a lot in common with speculative or science-fiction stories in the sense that they can expand or intervene in the set of social and political fictions like these, but there are differences in the way design does so. Could you speak to how design fiction is distinct from, say, science fiction?

Among the many kinds of speculative culture that exist, an interesting issue for us is how speculative forms of design practice can complement work being done in other fields. If you want to have a big impact, then film and TV seem more effective – see Black Mirror, for example. But one thing design does well in this area, maybe uniquely so, is to bring fragments from imaginary worlds into the space of the viewer, often in a form that echoes existing everyday objects, products and systems.

Unlike architecture or science-fiction cinema where whole cities and worlds can be represented, design materialises only small parts of fictional worlds. Maybe this fragmentary approach creates more room for the viewer to imagine the world such objects belong to for themselves. So perhaps another quality design brings to the conversation is a more suggestive and open-ended approach. But compared to literature and even architecture, where speculative forms of thought have existed for centuries, it’s still early days for design.

Unlike architecture or science-fiction cinema where whole cities and worlds can be represented, design materialises only small parts of fictional worlds.

All of us are currently living in New York, where first the pandemic and now the national uprising have redefined – redesigned? – daily life. I find it curious that the news often presents these events in terms of immediate design challenges: How can office spaces and apartments be reorganised to reduce contagion? How can masks and protective equipment be 3D-printed? Or even, how can city budgets be ‘redesigned’ so public services can be properly funded? Yet this goal-oriented, solutionist approach distracts us from asking questions about the systems that brought us here in the first place.

In one of your texts, you frame this exact conundrum in a series of questions:

What if teaching student designers to frame every issue, no matter how complex, as a problem to be solved squanders valuable creative and imaginative energy on the unachievable? What if design education’s focus on ‘making stuff real’ perpetuates everything that is wrong with current reality, ensuring that all possible futures are merely extrapolations of a dysfunctional present?01

With this in mind, how can designers operate as problem-solvers and also undermine the notion of problem solving?

This is something we really struggle with: the idea that design, without any grounding in economics, politics or even social theory, can solve massively complex problems that many other disciplines have been grappling with for decades. It diverts so much creative energy away from the things design can actually do.

To work in this space, designers need to collaborate more with people from fields like economics, law or political science and draw on very different kinds of disciplinary imaginations and knowledge, in order to go beyond critique and analysis to generate new ideas and possibilities. Again, not as solutions, but to expand our collective imaginative horizons and to challenge what people think is currently possible, or impossible. One thing design does do well is to give tangible form to different ideas, beliefs, and ways of seeing and making sense of the world – materialising ideas using the stuff of everyday life in ways that inspire and energise people.


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