All Possible Futures

Can ‘speculative design’ unlock a hitherto unrealised potential for graphic design to go beyond business as usual?

The trouble with graphic design is that it lacks ideas. That probably sounds preposterous, but I’m not talking about the creative concepts and strategies that designers generate for individual projects as part of their everyday work. We have those in abundance. What I’m getting at is larger, over-arching ideas – theories, if you like – about the nature of practice and new or alternative ways of going about being a designer. When an idea of this kind does come along, as happened a few years ago with the challenge of First Things First, or more recently with critical design, design’s mainstream is hugely reluctant to acknowledge and explore it. There is a deep, apparently inbuilt resistance to anything that seems to question, let alone endanger, the perpetuation of business as usual. Design’s commercial imperatives appear to be permanently at odds with attempts to position graphic design as a more investigative mode of practice.

It also needs to be said that emerging ideas in graphic design often turn out to be new versions of old ideas. This could be because the idea has never completely taken root in the first place, requiring periodic restatement. Or it could be – a worrying thought but we should consider it – that graphic communication is only capable of supporting a limited number of over-arching
ideas, so the same ones keep coming up rephrased or reframed to make them appear to be novel, at least at first sight.

All of this was in my mind when I heard about All Possible Futures, an exhibition curated by John Sueda, an American design teacher, for the SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco. I wasn’t able to see the show, which closed in February, but handily there is a pocket book published after the event by Bedford Press, an imprint of the Architectural Association in London. This contains one small monochrome image by each of the 37 designers or design teams that participated – among them Åbäke, Peter Bil’ak, Catalogtree, Daniel Eatock, Mevis & Van Deursen, Radim Peško and Martin Venezky – as well as several pages of installation photos. In truth, it’s not possible to deduce very much from the pictures. The intriguing aspect of the book is the written part. This is a rare graphic design publication focused on ideas.

Sueda zeros in on what he calls speculative work and outlines his field of concern by recalling a dinner conversation in 2003 with Peter Bil’ak, who told him about an identity proposal for the Dutch ministry of agriculture that had been rejected. Not only was it highly understated, with no standardised mark, but it also required technology for implementation that didn’t actually exist at the time – Sueda included the project in his show. Hearing similar tales from other colleagues about unrealised speculative projects, he began to wonder about making them visible in the cause of promoting debate.

“What would graphic design look like,” he asks, “if our discipline supported such speculative practices as a legitimate area of enquiry?”

This is a good question but it hinges on how we define the term “speculative practices”. Does this represent a coherent way of thinking and working that is either widely present already in graphic design, or has the potential to become so? At the risk of stretching a tentative concept to breaking point, Sueda includes real-world projects produced for clients alongside self-generated provocations, commissioned critical investigations, failed proposals, formal experiments, so-called sketches (the notion itself is sketchy) and “incomplete thoughts”. The discussion that follows stumbles slightly over speculation in the financial sense, a red herring here, and the curse of ‘spec work’, which is something else entirely. Threaded into this are brief but useful allusions to ‘paper’ or visionary architecture – speculation is a respectable, even career-building activity for some architects – and to the field of speculative fiction, which Sueda paints with too broad a brush. The most productive uses of the term are surely connected to science fiction and the opportunity it affords to speculate with absolute freedom about “all possible futures”, rather than to the escapist genres of fantasy, horror and supernatural fiction, to which he gives equal weight.

Outside of graphic design, speculative design is receiving plenty of attention. Anthony Dunne, head of Design Interactions at the RCA, and Fiona Raby, reader in Design Interactions, recently published a book devoted to the subject titled Speculative Everything. In the 1990s, Dunne & Raby introduced the term ‘critical design’, later taken up by some graphic designers, and their work, their students’ work, and the other three-dimensional projects they show, provide vital reference points, with the potential to set some much-needed benchmarks. Sueda name-checks the duo, but he doesn’t probe the potential overlaps and divergencies between speculation with objects and speculation with visual communication. Graphic design constantly presses for engagement with other areas, yet its public discussions rarely move far beyond the discipline’s safe walls. That needs to change if speculative graphic design is to become an established category of practice.

Of all the designers featured in the book, only Metahaven consistently produce speculative design projects with the required level of research, self-awareness, collaboration, and intellectual ambition. Their film Black Transparency: The Right to Know in the Age of Mass Surveillance about the politics of information featured in the exhibition and a book is due from Sternberg in the summer. While I support All Possible Futures’ aspirations, it seems self-defeating to include contributions that sidestep or even pour cold water on the premise. In what could have been the book’s most useful section, Sueda puts a series of questions about speculative practice to Experimental Jetset, Ed Fella, Jürg Lehni, Willem Henri Lucas, Sulki and Min, and Zak Group. Experimental Jetset open proceedings and instantly dampen spirits with a two-page repudiation of the very idea of speculative design. “In our view,” they conclude helpfully, “something is either real or it isn’t.” To underline the point, they exhibited a little badge with the ironic slogan, “the society of the speculative”. I suppose we have to call this questioning the brief.

The inclusion of designers who came to fame two decades ago – Fella, Mr Keedy, Karel Martens – beside more recent arrivals seems to suggest that speculative practice is another of those ‘new’ ideas that keep coming back. Designers will continue to engage in personal experiments and there will always be rejected proposals full of unrealised potential. But speculative design now connotes a more specific kind of self-directed speculation about the future possibilities and also pitfalls of design. If we value this development and want it to grow in graphic communication, tighter definitions of its purpose and concerns are an essential next step.

Rick Poynor blogs at Design Observer, observatory.designobserver.com/rickpoynor. All Possible Futures is edited by Jon Sueda and published by Bedford Press; £15. The book features essays by Rachel Berger, Max Bruinsma, Emmet Byrne and Metahaven, Catherine de Smet, and Emily McVarish. See bedfordpress.org. Copies can be purchased from the Architectural Association Bookshop at aabookshop.net

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