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Jill Nussbaum: How To Inspire The Future Through Design

Designers now sit at the boardroom table and are being asked to help companies decide on future investments.

Over the past 20 years, the concept of “Design Thinking” has been embraced by many companies and institutions. And now that designers often have a seat at the boardroom table or at internal design innovation centers, they’re being asked to help companies think through future investments in the next product, service, or platform.

These forward-facing ideas go beyond incremental change and explore how people will use emerging technologies. Surprisingly, there are few places to go when looking for a framework to think about these future scenarios. No “testing” or “failing” or “big data” can help out when imagining the future. As designers, we need to formulate a method to help think about technology-inspired scenarios and how to express those ideas; one that is based in human experience, visual expression, and good storytelling.

There are a few different approaches and terms floating around — user journeys, scenarios, simulation, and even “FUI” (Future User Interface). But none of them are used with any regularity and they are often stages of a longer creative process. They have various forms whether it be a corporately-created “vision” video on Youtube or a set of storyboard illustrations.

If designers and businesses can start to formalize this process and output, even just a bit, it will help designers and technologists around the world to conceive of new possibilities.

And what is often not taught or asked for by clients is a visual story, a story that is written in a visual language through storyboards, videos, sketches or physical objects. These stories require new skills from a designer — character development, dramatic tension, and clear premise, to name a few. Design stories must do more than illustrate a potential future. They need to be evocative, emotional, and most importantly, point to new possibilities. Design stories are optimistic, but grounded in realism. They are a near-term happy look at tomorrow, as opposed to science fiction which is often set in the dark, distant future.

Science fiction is a predecessor for these near-future narratives, and lends its name to the best term that I’ve heard to describe the form: Design Fiction. Coined in academic circles by Julian Bleecker, and widely used by Bruce Sterling, the concept of design fiction is a more near-future version of science fiction (referring to the next 3-10 years out), one that I would argue is visual in terms of composition and rooted in the craft of design. The name “design fiction” is more specific than other terms such as “scenarios” or “user journeys,” both of which are used as a narrative for presenting design solutions. Design fiction is oriented towards the future and concerns the design of the things and how people will experience them.

The recipe for good design fiction requires three main ingredients: a believable story; an encounter with a new technology, object or environment; and a provocation. Design fiction is essentially a prototype of an idea and represents one of several possible outcomes. These stories should be accessible enough that they can inspire anyone; they should be interesting enough that they grab attention, and they should be concise enough to be easily shareable.

Design fiction will play a key role in helping companies imagine a new way forward that is beyond the status quo. The form provides room for creativity and suspension of disbelief, just long enough for new ideas to emerge and be collectively embraced. Design fiction can be used to provoke discussion before embarking on a new investment or on a regular basis to help consider the impact of new technologies on the future of business.

The speed of technology and its impact on business will only continue to grow, and design fiction needs to move ahead of it. As designers, we need to assert our role in envisioning experiences that people value and that make their lives easier, happier, and more fulfilled. Design fiction should be part of every designer’s skill set and considered a form of ‘idea prototyping’ that clients ask for. It should be taught in schools, contests should encourage the form, and spark spirited public discussion.

Sound lofty and utopian? That’s exactly what it should be. Design fiction will help imagine our futures, and inspire and guide the technology that takes us there.

Jill Nussbaum is Executive Director of Product and Interaction Design at creative agency The Barbarian Group. She works with TBG’s clients to develop long-term product strategies and experiences while overseeing the Interaction Design group.

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