Back in September 2012, I travelled to Detroit for a few days with Julian Bleecker and Nicolas Nova (two of my partners at the Near Future Laboratory). We invited many of our friends along too, for three days of discussions about the future. These friends included science fiction writers, designers, artists, engineers and makers, and we wanted to talk about a very particular type of future. For those of you who read my previous Core77 piece 'The Future Mundane,' this will come as no surprise. We wanted to talk about a future of middling indifference, of partly broken things, of background characters. A future where self-driving cars weren't a fantasy, but another place to be bored. A future where drones didn't draw gasps of awe, but eye-rolls of indifference. A future where today's 'technology' had become tomorrow's ho-hum.
Over three days, we ran a couple of workshops at the Henry Ford Museum and the university of Michigan discussing future product cycles, emerging behaviors and societies, but we had a very real purpose. Rather than facilitating a think tank, whose output was another written tome, blogpost or article, we wanted to produce a thing. A very real thing. A diegetic prototype. This thing was a catalog.
When we look at catalogs of any sort, they give us a tremendous understanding of the current state of things. In a very succinct way, they describe an entire society, its cultural norms, behaviors and tolerances. What's exciting about catalogs is that they become anthropological references over time. If you have ever picked up a catalog from the seventies for example, you'll instantly be transported to a place and time where the smallest details in shoe buffer design, TV remotes or advertisements tell much more about a society than any dry historical document. (As an aside, visit the Wishbook Archive and prepare to lose an entire afternoon).This contextual richness led us to a conversation about producing a catalog from the future. How might some of our discussions reach a logical conclusion and exist as a small business? How might that business advertise? How might new funding models affect purchases? Rather than simply discussing these things in the abstract we set about actually designing them. We assumed the role of small business owners, of associations and manufacturers. We began pitching to each other and building our brand. We pulled together images and copy to help sell our wares. In an exhausting three days, we transitioned through table discussions, Post-Its, filtering, voting, revision, expansion, design, review and production stages until, at the end of the event we had a rough blad of a catalog from the near future.
We believe pieces of design fiction such as this are powerful indeed. The future was rendered tangible, you could flick through it, page by page. You could see how society had responded to changes in cultural, technological, legislative and environmental changes. It was real.
Following the workshop, we returned to our studios and began developing the concept further. We refined the individual proposals, and added many, many more. We built an infrastructure model for distribution, parasiting off existing street furniture and asking further questions about the role of print. We built a brand and service model. We added different layers of investment, from double page advertising spreads to single line classifieds. Finally, the catalog was finished.
This methodology has great potential to build a much better understanding of design in the future than any hi-gloss rendering, vision video or think-piece. It's a future we can believe in because it's rooted in today's reality. It has upload errors, it has things which don't make sense. It has naff things. It's non-synchronous (with adverts for ice cube trays sitting next to 3D printer supplies). It pitches a world which is partly broken, of background characters, a future mundane.
The catalog is now available to purchase, and we welcome your comments. Please visit TBDCatalog.com for a more detailed description of the project from Julian, and the store to order your own copy.
We've got our hands on a copy here and have been thumbing through at our leisure—stay tuned for a proper review!
Nick Foster is a post-discipline designer with specialisms. He has over fifteen years experience in the design industry as an engineer, industrial designer and futurist for companies such as Dyson, Seymourpowell, Sony and Nokia. He received his MA from the Royal College of Art in London and currently lives in Oakland, where he is Staff Industrial Designer at Google. He is also a partner at the Near Future Laboratory, pioneering work in the field of Design Fiction