If you happened to miss last year's inaugural PRIMER17 conference, well, you have another crack at rubbing shoulders and exchanging best practices with others devoted to speculative design, strategic foresight, design futures, and discursive design in general. PRIMER18 will be taking place this May 3–5 at several sites in the SF Bay Area. (Discounts! Core77 readers can take advantage of a 25% discount with web registration code CORE77P18; Educators and non-profits 50% off with EduDiscount50off; and Student tickets are $95 with a valid student ID–contact firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Speakers include Nick Foster, Head of Design, Google X, and Julian Bleeker, Co-founder and CTO of Omata. Both also co-founders of the Near Future Laboratory.
This year's keynote speakers are futurist and Carnegie Mellon professor, Stuart Candy, and multi-platform designer, Ani Liu fresh from the MIT Media Lab. Others such as Nick Foster, Head of Design at Google X along with his Near Futures Laboratory partner Julian Bleecker will also be sharing the stage. Twenty speakers from industry, academia, and independent practice will speak and run workshops involving present-day project opportunities and challenges, practical and critical frameworks, the sociopolitical implications of design, and no less than the future of humanity itself (which includes speculative practice).
We had the pleasure of attending last year and met the brainchild behind PRIMER and the increasingly international Speculative Futures meetup group, Phil Balagtas. We caught up with him again in the run-up to this year's conference.
Phil Balagtas, Experience Design Director at McKinsey & Company
Where did the PRIMER conference come from? PRIMER culminated out of the interest of the speculative design community we were building in San Francisco. We started our first meetup in April 2015 as an experiment to see if there were others in the Bay Area that were interested in Speculative & Critical Design (SCD). Interest grew quickly and we were thrilled by the feedback and reaction of people in the design community—many people had never heard of speculative design and wanted to know more. So we decided to organize a "glorified meetup" in Feb 2017. It was only meant to be a one day event where we would fly in some of our favorite designers. But the more we worked on it, the more it turned into a full-fledged conference.
What is your background and relation to speculative design / design futures? I discovered SCD when I was at the California College of the Arts pursuing my masters in 2009. I was desperately seeking a topic area for my thesis and saw Dunne & Raby in the documentary, Objectified. I was fascinated at how they looked at design and what the future meant for designers and interaction design. I quickly started researching everything that was coming out of the RCA and found more and more examples of critical design. It would eventually shape my thesis that year. After school, I was a bit discouraged w/ my work so I got a job in software in Silicon Valley, all the while poking at SCD and smuggling it into design thinking sessions with our clients hoping it would instill some urgency about the impact they were having on society with their products. But we always found challenges and had to scale back the "speculation" to meet business needs. Years later, I saw a project by the agency, Method, called Method Money (see video below) win an interaction design award. While, not entirely a critical design piece, it gave me hope that there were still others out there practicing speculative design and that it was not just relegated to art schools or museums. That's when I decided to start the Speculative Futures Meetup. So for the past 3 years, we've hosted speakers and I've curated workshops to help our community learn how to think about the future through speculative design. I also speak and teach workshops around the world on the topic. I'll be at InteractOhio from April 25–26 speaking to a digital marketing crowd.
Why call it "Primer"? We weren't sure what to call this "glorified meetup" at first. I knew I wanted it to have its own unique name. At my day job (at the time I was a designer at General Electric) we always talked about "priming" our customers for design thinking. And always creating a "primer" deck to help introduce people to new ideas. I thought it was perfect for the conference. We believe it means that the things we speculate about, the cultural, economic, political, environmental implications are "priming" our audience and society for possible futures. And we've created this platform not just to share work but to really ignite a concern about how things could be, and how we can avert the dangers and fortify opportunities for designing a better tomorrow.
What has been most surprising for you? The most surprising thing has really been the growth of our Speculative Futures meetup community. We never intended it to grow beyond San Francisco, but the more I spoke in other cities, the more people wanted to help and grow their own local communities. We're now in 6 cities worldwide: San Francisco, Austin, Indiana, New York, London, Berlin, and soon Australia.
A day of workshops: Actionable Futures Toolkit (Sami Niemelä; Transgenerational Futures (Alana Aquilino); Foresight and Innovation approaches (Frank Spencer); and the Speculative City (Matt Wizinsky).
What's been a great outcome of the conference? I still recall something someone said at PRIMER 17–"It's nice to know that I'm not alone." I think the most rewarding thing about the conference is seeing people who've come from all over and meet each other and feel thrilled to know there are others out there practicing this work and sharing the same ideas and methodologies. We just want to connect the world, really. We strongly believe in the mission of using speculative design to deliver new agendas at a global scale. So the more people that meet and are inspired and can go back to their home and keep the fire burning and spread the methodologies and ideas, the more grateful we are.
What do you see in PRIMER's future? We have some exciting announcements we're going to make at PRIMER 18 and all I can say is "growth". The meet ups are already growing and working at a grassroots level. But we're looking forward to how PRIMER can connect even more communities outside of design globally. At PRIMER 18 we've decided to extend our invitation to Futurists, Strategic Foresight practitioners, and even Sci-fi authors. We believe we are all in the same family and can help each other imagine, grow and execute real-world strategies. So you're going to hear from a lot of different people at PRIMER 18, not just Speculative Designers.
Bruce and Stephanie Tharp lead a husband-and-wife design studio in Ann Arbor, Michigan where they also are professors at the University of Michigan's Stamps School of Art & Design. Their studio has licensed and commissioned products and projects for companies like Ligne Roset, Moet-Hennessy, The Art Institute of Chicago, Crate&Barrel, Kikkerland, and Design Ideas. Educated in mechanical engineering, sociocultural anthropology, and industrial design, their practice and teaching crosses disciplinary boundaries of design, business, engineering, and healthcare, as well as the four fields of design: commercial, responsible, experimental, and discursive design. They are currently finishing a book project on discursive design.