Broadly speaking, design projects may be split into three categories: now, next and future. Most of our time as designers is concerned with the now or next, but occasionally we are called upon to embrace projects which are overtly future facing in nature.
These projects are typically used as a platform to tell a story, be that a business projection, a socio-cultural exploration, or an illustration of new materials or technologies, so it comes as no surprise that one of the more significant inputs for many designers is science fiction cinema.
Science fiction works in the space between people and technology in much the same way as industrial design, and the two have an influential effect upon each other. If you have visited any design tumblr in the last six months you will no doubt have seen countless sketches and production stills from Oblivion, and design's (sometimes literal) impact on science fiction cinema is well documented. In some respects, it's difficult to divorce the two industries, but there is a key difference which often gets missed: For the sake of brevity, I need to be reductive, so if there is a line to be drawn between industrial design futurism and science fiction cinema, then that's the line between narrative, story and plot.
Industrial design futures require a story, a sequence of events that happen. In some cases they require a narrative—a way in which the story is told—but they almost never need a plot. Science fiction cinema, which has an implicit role as entertainment, requires a plot. Plots are difficult, complex and involved. Plots require significant development of character and space, leading to an aesthetic that drives the narrative forward.
When creating future visions, industrial designers have a habit of grabbing at cinematic aesthetics without a plot, leading to images, products and movies such as this:
Videos and presentations of this sort are plentiful indeed, and in some respects they have a place, yet they invariably seem banal, twee and idealistic to the point of fantasy. For this reason, it's often easy to scoff at such work and dismiss it out of hand.
In 2002, at the Clarion writing workshop, science fiction novelist Geoff Ryman expressed similar concerns about the prevalence of fantasy elements in his genre. Warp drives, invisibility and interstellar travel were becoming the norm in science fiction writing, distracting readers from critical subjects closer to home. He introduced the concept of 'Mundane Science Fiction,' which aimed to generate literature based on or near earth with a believable use of technology as it exists in the time the story is written.
As a counter to the fantasy-laden future worlds generated by our industry, I'd like to propose a design approach which I call 'The Future Mundane.' The approach consists of three major elements, which I will outline below.
1. The Future Mundane is filled with background talent.
Science fiction cinema needs to be entertaining in order to keep the attention of the audience. For a movie to be entertaining, it needs a narrative arc—a story of hope, despair, triumph or love. It needs a protagonist, hero or anti-hero. It typically needs something unusual to happen, an extraordinary event, something which drives the plot forward. As such, Hollywood typically pushes the narrative towards character extremes which provide clear roles: the hero, the villain, the femme fatale etc. The uncomfortable truth is that the vast majority of people don't come close to these caricatures, and it's fair to expect that they never will. Your customer won't need to save the world, they won't see a real gunfight, they won't win the lottery or fight a bad guy on the roof of a runaway train.
When designing for the future, designers regularly design for the hero, a trickle-down aspirational super-user intended to give us all something to hope for. But perhaps we could, for once, design for those innumerable, un-named characters of Hollywood, the extras or 'background talent.' Perhaps we should look past Bruce Willis and design for the 'man at bus stop', 'girl at bar' or 'taxi driver.' While this approach is less aspirational or sexy, these characters are much closer to the humans to whom you are telling your story. When your goal isn't entertainment, you don't need a hero.
So those are our characters, but what about the design itself? Spaceships, weapons and computers are plentiful in science fiction cinema, but what about corkscrews, soccer cleats, milk packaging or garden hoses? In the world of contemporary design awards (for what they are worth), we celebrate the design of background objects, but when we are asked to decipher and create the future we tend to revert back to whizz-bang items of wonder. When I encounter everyday design in science fiction cinema, I get a chill of excitement. From Korben's cigarettes in the Fifth Element, the parole officer in Elysium, and countless examples in Blade Runner, these pieces of design help us get a much better hold on our future than any holographic interface ever could. The future we design should understand this. The characters in our future will not necessarily need to save the world at every turn—most of them will simply live in it, quietly enjoying each day.
2. The Future Mundane is an accretive space
Take a look around you, it's likely that you're interacting with a contemporary piece of technology, be that a smartphone, tablet or laptop, but take a look further around the room. There may be things which are older, things which come from another time—an LED TV atop a vintage table, a Playstation next to a 60's vase, an iPad in a leather bag. If industrial design is in the business of making stuff, then we need to understand that this stuff piles up, favela-like. Humans are covetous, sentimental and resourceful; they cling to things.
When we render the future as a unique visual singularity, we remove from it any contemporary hooks. When designing a new screwdriver, it's important to remember that it will probably sit in a toolbox filled with other tools, perhaps inherited from a previous generation.
In order to communicate our vision, it may be helpful to incorporate the existing designed space in parallel with the new. On a very practical level, we should embrace legacy technologies when conceiving new ones. Ethnographic studies constantly highlight technology accretion: the drawer full of cables, the old interaction behaviors, the dusty hard drives, the mouse mats and inherited hardware. Rather than avoid this complexity, good science fiction embraces accretive spaces, where contemporary design and technology sits side by side with older artifacts. In some cases, this technique can be used to show potential disconnects between the new and established, places where technology sticks out like a sore thumb. This is a useful tool for all designers and using it well can help us depict a more tangible future.
3. The Future Mundane is a partly broken space.
As mentioned, the structure of science fiction cinema calls for extremes of character, event and environment. These are often visible through utopian or dystopian tropes in costume, architecture and design. At one end of the spectrum, we have seamless computer interactions, bright spacious architecture and glossy white surfaces. At the other, we have the dustbowl, the hacker slums and the gritty laboratory in the sewer.
These two categories are useful for building entertaining narrative structure, but the future probably won't be either of these things... at least not entirely. It'll be somewhere disappointingly middling: a partly broken space.
We often assume that the world of today would stun a visitor from fifty years ago. In truth, for every miraculous iPad there are countless partly broken realities: WiFi passwords, connectivity, battery life, privacy and compatibility amongst others. The real skill of creating a compelling and engaging view of the future lies not in designing the gloss, but in seeing beyond the gloss to the truths behind it. As Frederik Pohl famously said, "a good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam."
There are good examples in cinema, notably the cereal box from which John Anderton eats in Minority Report. As he puts it down, the singing cartoon on the front refuses to stop. He tries again but the animation continues, eventually leading him to throw the box across the room in frustration.
In the future, things will fail, but for the vast majority of the world this failure won't be 'the rocket is gonna crash into the planet,' but 'I can't get the audio to work on Skype.' The future will include taxes, illness, weather, transport delays and allergies. Things will break, things will fail to perform as promised, things will need fixing. Rendering the future as a partly broken space gives an audience something to hold onto, something relatable.
In parallel, we should consider how quickly our 'amazing new innovation' will become a normalized. Once technology finds it's way into mass communities it ceases to amaze, ceases to be seen as technology at all, it becomes a regular part of the tapestry of life. In truth, our most common reaction to technology is to focus on its failures, the frustrations, what it can't do or what we'd prefer it to do. Showing people smiling at their device as it reminds them about the arrival of their taxi is disingenuous. By isolating, understanding and portraying a partly broken space we are on the way to creating a more credible future.
Towards The Future Mundane
As part of a workshop I ran with Julian Bleecker at the Emerge conference in Arizona last year, we worked with a group of students to write, cast and shoot a short movie set in a mundane future. For us, the most logical place for this to take place was the liquor store, a place filled to the brim with technology once deemed incredible but now so fully absorbed into society that it becomes almost invisible. The ability to make fire instantly, digital time on your wrist, instant headache remedies, disposable writing tools, chemical power... all for under a dollar. This, to us, says much more about the future of design than any glossy proto-futuristic movie ever could. The movie was fun and challenging to produce (the whole project took just two days), but points at a future which we rarely see embraced in our industry.
More recently, Nicolas Nova and his team of students created a series of short films based around curious rituals, those digitally generated behaviors which come hand in hand with emerging technology. The 'Gerardo' segment is particularly pertinent to our discussion.
Let's be clear, this is not necessarily a new concept. There are many science fiction movies, or at least moments within them, which embrace a mundane approach.
The British TV miniseries "Black Mirror" contains some excellent moments of The Future Mundane. Whilst the series as a whole is designed as satire, often stepping into cautionary dystopian territory, there are some moments of genuine beauty, particularly in the episodes 'Be Right Back' and 'The Entire History of You.'
The new Spike Jonze movie Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix, feels like it could be right on the button, not really feeling like a science fiction movie at all, concentrating more on the relationship between people and technology (literally).
In closing, I'll address a couple of key counter arguments which may have been raised in this piece:
Counter one: What about visionary projects which act as a north star, an unattainable but exciting future?
Everyone has a different approach to their design work, and their process varies accordingly. Certain designers produce concepts and future visions that are deliberately unattainable, but give a strong thematic direction to their work. This is fine, and can be a useful tool as long as the audience is prepared to embrace it as such. If we start to view our dreams as reality, we may be doing little more than feeding the Walter Mitty within. Which is not to say the two approaches are mutually exclusive; one can sit within the other. Elon Musk, the Bay area's very own Tony Stark, recently released his vision for the Hyperloop, a 760mph passenger device which purports to move people from LA to San Francisco in 35 minutes. Whilst most people see the concept as difficult to the point of impossibility, what made it so compelling was not the sexy renders of passenger compartments and vehicle designs but the 57-page PDF that went with it. The document doesn't make it any more achievable, but by embracing of the mundane practicalities of such a project, Musk was able to make it more believable.
The Future Mundane doesn't seek to curtail dreams, just to ensure that dreams are rendered as vividly as possible.
Counter two: By assuming that the future will proceed as today, we won't embrace anything out of the ordinary.
Big things happen in the world. There are energy concerns, world wars, population problems, famines, information explosions and many more huge events peppering the history of mankind, but let's not fall into the trap of rendering extremes. Let's remember that against a backdrop of any future world shift, there will still be the common cold, there will still be breakfast, there will still be sport, there will still be work, there will still be almost every aspect of human life visible in some form. It may be strained or broken, but by approaching these mundane facets of life, we may actually be better prepared to tackle the larger issues.
In parallel, and on a more cautionary note, we should be wary of the tendency to assume that the future will be in some way better than today. Whilst many aspects of life are considerably improved from even forty years ago, it could be argued that other areas of life are significantly worse. The design industry has been creating utopian visions for over a hundred years, and it's clearly not working out. Maybe we should give it a rest, or at least come to accept that utopias are unachievable in every respect, a literal 'no place.'
Counter three: Not all design needs to so pragmatic.
I agree. Design tools can be used to develop not just products, but thinking. In this case design can indeed indulge in fantasy and storytelling, but it must be understood as such. Design has a very powerful role in creating stories from the future, not with the intent to produce artifacts but to act as a driver for critical discourse, conversation or thought. Just make sure this is clear beforehand.
The Future Mundane is not a manifesto nor a dogma: It is intended as an approach to help expand our notion of design for the future. As designers, we have a huge opportunity to play with time, technology and people. In designing the future, we are able to play with ideas and dreams in a way that very few people are able. For every fantasy fiction piece of design, I would love to see a counter concept. A concept for the everyman; a concept that knows what might not work and what might break; a concept that delivers amazing future technology whilst comfortably sitting atop a Victorian chest of drawers.
That'd be compelling. I'd watch that.
Editor's Note: We revisited the topic upon the release of Her.