Design fiction and architecture


ABSTRACT: Design fiction is a design approach emerging out of the formal disciplines of Industrial Design and ubiquitous computing (Dourish and Bell 2008, Bleecker 2009a, Grand and Wiedmer 2010, DiSalvo 2012, and Sterling 2013b, 2016). Other design fields are starting to consider the value of this approach, including architecture and urban design (Knutz et al 2014). However, it might be claimed that both architecture and urban design have long involved the production of fiction and fictional environments in their pursuit of novel or aspirational project outcomes. The architectural design ideas competition can be traced back as far as the documented history of architecture at least two and a half thousand years(Kreiner 2010, Lipstadt 1989)  and has been focused on reimagining our built context through visionary futures. Architectural environments are a staple in media representations of future orientated imaginings.
All design can be defined as exploring possible futures through formal outcomes as the products of a design process do not yet exist but will possibly come into being. This begs the question of a more precise understanding of design fiction and its role as both a positioning approach as well as a methodology for its use in architectural design. As such, this paper examines the nature of design fiction and reveals its close relation to a group of design approaches related to future forecasting but also the growing consolidation of its definition through a design research structure, recurrent method frameworks, the
translation of literary tactics and focus of diegetic environments.

Design fiction is an emerging approach that has developed out of several independent sources (Sterling 2005; Dourish and Bell 2008; Bleecker 2009a) and, while reaching some level of agreement, remains somewhat ambiguous in its definition and application (Barbas 2017). While the approach has its origins in product design and ubiquitous computing (ubicomp) through science fiction representations of technological artefacts in literature and film, it has been connected with all of the formal design disciplines including architecture (Knutz et al 2014). The current, and oft quoted, definition of design fiction given by science fiction author Bruce Sterling is “the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change” (Bosch 2012) stressing plausible futures rather than proposed futures. There are various interpretations of what exactly this means in application. Other theorists have expanded or restated the Sterling definition, describing design fiction through “narrative elements to envision and explain possible futures for design” (Tanenbaum 2014b), the use of world-building and prototypes within those worlds to produce a discursive space (Lindley and Coulton 2015) and “a conceptual design placed within a broad cultural context focusing not just on product functionality but potential social consequences of use” (as quoted in Blythe & Encinas 2018, 16). While the various definitions introduce some nuances, there is a general agreement of key concepts needed to be present for an approach to be defined as design fiction.

These are diegetic artifacts present through narrative structures (Bleecker 2009a; Sterling 2013a), the suspension of disbelief in near future forecasting (Girardin 2015) and understanding artefacts as socio-technical representations rather than simply technical objects (Bleecker 2009a; Dourish and Bell 2014). Each of these concepts need unpacking a little to clarify their effect and importance as part of the overall approach.

Diegetic is a term imported into design theory from film studies and refers to something that exists within the world of a narrative rather than external to that world. A simple example is the difference between music playing on a radio in a film versus the overlaid score that builds an emotional tone. The former is diegetic as it is heard by the characters and embedded in the narrative  it exists in the narrative world.
The latter is not diegetic as it is heard only by the audience is not part of the narrative world. For designers, then, a diegetic prototype is a “kind of techno-scientific prototyping activity” embedded in “a story into which the prototype can play its part in a way different from a plain old demonstration.” (Bleeker 2009a, 39) The prototype, the designed artifact, is explored by its presence in the narrative through subtle interactions with narrative elements rather than presented as a discrete and independent to its surroundings. In this, a diegetic artifact is very different to traditional design visualization tools such as sketches, renderings, product placements, or presentation boards as the designed object is not the focus but there to move “the story forward while at the same time subtly working through the details of itself.”
(Bleeker 2009a, 39). The presence of the diegetic environment requires logical consistency even if we don’t know exactly how things might work, the artefact must present its operation as defined through the internal logic of the narrative (Tanenbaum 2014a).

The purpose of the diegetic prototype is the suspension of disbelief for a plausible future as an extension of reality rather than the production of fantasy. In this way, design fiction is a form of realism which “implies self-consistency in both the real world and the story world.” (Kirby 2010, 46). It could be said that all design activities engage future conditions as designers envision objects and environments that do not yet exist in the particular context, composition, adjacencies and relationships of the proposal. However, design fiction is focused on the plausible rather than the probable as one type of possible future (Hancokc and Bezold 1994). Fiction, in this case, is not a form of speculation and, therefore, design fiction includes the intention to produce valid knowledge in a structured way as part of design research (Grand & Wiedmer 2010; Markussen & Knutz 2013). This shifts the purpose of design fiction away from being a creative technique, a tactic of divergence which allows an author to imagine a world that does not yet exist, to be instead a legitimate research method.

While design fiction prioritizes the technological, the diegetic artifact is co created with the socio cultural context in which it exists which makes the artifact a socio-technical representation. There are two effects of this relationship. First, the artifact is co dependent on the social values, social identity political, ethics
and morality of its narrative context as well as the interactions, beliefs and construction of social expectations for the users or occupants. Design fiction makes visible a fundamental fact of design: namely there is no way to separate a designed object or environment from its context as all applied design is situated. As Bleecker (2009a: 76) states, “the implications of culture are not something that happens after design. They are always part of the design”. Second, the role of the artifact as an aspect of socially constructed knowledge and the construction of belief systems allows an entry point to influence those belief systems. The fictional world, and its elements, is a persuasive rhetorical device as it “has taken the time to take user experience and technology seriously” (Tanenbaum et al 2016, 4). This introduces a point of tension into the theory as defining design fiction as a research method is epistemologically in conflict with understanding design fiction as an agent in changing values and perspectives – shifting what we believe in or what we desire to bring into being or, as Bleecker names it, an “epistemological wrench” or “swerving systems of meaning” (2009b). The interaction or conflicting purposes between these two aspects of design fiction are not well resolved or even identified in the theoretical literature.
This paper expands on the points above to consider design fiction as a possible approach for architecture.

This includes its relationship to other discursive design approaches as well as the design tactics and general frameworks used to generate outcomes. The examination brings more clarity to design fiction while generally considering its application to architecture as a formal design discipline.


1.1. Discursive design and its variations
The term design fiction came into its current meaning through a seminal paper by Julian Bleecker of The Near Future Laboratory (Bleecker 2009a). It was this paper that positioned the approach as having a socio-technical focus, stressing the diegetic nature of the artefact and its role in influencing human belief systems. Previous to this, the term design fiction had been used by Bruce Sterling (2005) and, even earlier, Sterling introduced the term architectural fiction to refer to the production of built environments for use in narrative construction (Sterling 2003a). As discussed below, architectural fiction and design fiction differ in definition and theoretical approach although they both belong to a group of design practices labeled as discursive design (Tharp and Tharp 2009, 2015). These include, along with design fiction,
critical design (Dunne 2005), forecast design (Buhring & Koshkinen 2017), and speculative design (Auger 2013). Discursive design approaches are part of a social constructivist epistemology and can be defined as design research since the result is the generation of knowledge as an outcome rather than production of a product. Being social constructivist in worldview, discursive design practitioners and researchers are primarily focused on the interrelationship between technology, designed artifacts and socio cultural interactions where the ability to treat artifacts as isolated and inert objects is impossible.

The primary purpose of discursive design practices is “to communicate ideas [and] encourage discourse. These are tools for thinking; they raise awareness and perhaps understanding of substantive and often debatable issues of psychological, sociological, and ideological consequence” (Tharp and Tharp 2009). These operate through provocation, production of uncanny situations or uncomfortable reflection (critical design) but also through narratives using a story or fictional situation (Auger 2013, 4-5). The differences between these practices are quite subtle and often do not operate with strict boundaries. A discursive project might align with several approaches although each practice has its differences in intention, cognitive tactics (i.e. the major tool in their method construction) and approach to epistemology.

Critical design, for example, is used to challenge social expectations and generate a debate focusing on current concerns by using a designed artifact in the same way as “a critique, like a political essay or satirical sketch” (Blythe & Encinas 2018, 12). It uses design outcomes, specifically product and industrial design artefacts, as a way to probe and interrogate social practices and values with a focus on consumer culture (Tharp and Tharp 2009). The driving question for critical design is: we can do this, but should we? As such, critical design is focused on the present and uses satire and the uncanny as major design tactics.

Forecast design is intended to engage preferable futures rather than the plausible futures that is the focus of design fiction (Buhring and Koskinen 2017). While both forecast design and design fiction are concerned with the near future, the purpose of forecast design is to predict what might happen considering current trends. Design fiction, on the other hand, is not engaged to predict a future but to create a future that would not normally manifest, to influence through the design fiction outcomes. The alignment is closer to critical design than forecast design, but less as a critique of social ethics but “to spark conversations about the near future, check the sanity of visions and uncover hidden perspectives” (Girardin 2015, 7).

It is speculative design that is often confused with design fiction (Auger 2013). Kirby makes a clear separation between the two through a discussion of the role of diegetic prototypes in contrast to speculative scenarios. He considers a speculative scenario to

“represent highly implausible and impractical situations and technologies that filmmakers and science consultants imbue with a sheen of plausibility, so that they look possible within a film’s narrative. They make these technologies look plausible, knowing that they are impossible to achieve in real life. In contrast, technological advocates who construct diegetic prototypes have a vested interest in conveying to audiences that these fictional technologies can and should exist in the real world.” (2010, 46).

This definition would consider speculative design as producing daydreams, fantasies and imagining for pleasure. Speculative design does not require the internal or narrative logic to be aligned with perceived reality. In the end, the results of a speculative exploration have no requirements or possibility of coming into being. As such, these technological fantasies, while seeming possible, are not engaged to build desires  i.e. they lack the epistemological focus of design fiction (Bleecker 2009a). In addition, speculative design might suggest possible futures but as interesting explorations. Design fiction, in contrast, is positioned as a critical research tool. The outcomes of design fiction are understood as experiments to return usable information through a design approach (Grand and Wiedmer 2010; Markussen & Krutz 2013; Krutz et al 2014; Coulton et al 2017).

1.2. Design fiction and architectural fiction
One of the difficulties in clearly defining the role and application of design fiction is the presence of a similar, but significantly different, term presented through popular media outlets. Before design fiction entered the lexicon, the term architectural fiction had already been coined in a blog post by Bruce Sterling (2003a). Sterling, a science fiction author, expounded on the lost potential of Archigram as a form of a fictional future. In a series of magazine and blog posts, Sterling drove the idea of architectural fiction single-handedly, adding Greg Lynn FORM (Sterling 2003b) and Lars Spuybroek (Sterling 2008) as his inspirations. The role he envisioned for architecture was not meant for architecture though, nor did it have the intentions to be either an epistemological device or a research tool. Rather, as Sterling (2008) writes, “Want to write a novel? A screenplay? An essay about landscape and climate change? Want to direct a music video? Start a blog? Architecture offers fuel  and amazing visuals  for all of these things”. In this, Sterling is acting as a voyeur, using architectural visualizations of possible future built environments driven
by technological developments to “world build” as an aid for writing.

There is a version of Sterling’s architectural fiction that can be found historically within the architectural discipline. This is the ideas competition and speculative design project which can be traced back as far as the documented history of architecture (Kreiner 2010, Lipstadt 1989). However, it has been noted by critics such as Jeremy Till that the architectural competition focuses on the building “as static object … It privileges a whole set of architectural values that are counter to what might make really great architecture” (Hopkirk 2013). In this, the focus is the representation of building form rather than the social effects that trends towards utopian and deterministic outcomes. In recent decades, the idea competition is closely tied to imagining complete environments based on speculating technological changes – although we could argue that most of these changes manifest at the urban or architectural engineering levels through technological line items rather than through architectural knowledge. Regardless, we can clearly define this approach as discursive design, although it lacks the polemical and epistemological purpose of design
fiction. Rather, it is a form of speculative design connected to technological utopianism.

What is important about the clear excitement of Sterling when he discovered for himself the possibilities when considering the design of human environments is that one must “realize that architectural projects, by definition, entail the reimagination of how humans might inhabit the earth  how they organize themselves spatially and give shape to their everyday lives” (Sterling 2008). That is, architectural design inherently involves social and cultural content. However, architectural fiction as a form of speculative design does not have the structure or intentions to critically engage this architectural content as it lacks epistemological and research focus aligned with socio-technological environments. In contrast, Varnelis uses the term architectural fiction in alignment with the theoretical framework of design fiction rather than
the form-based speculative worldbuilding of Sterling. Varnelis wonders if there is a possibility for architectural fiction to be a critical design tool that, “Instead of being Utopian or imaginative, might it be possible for architecture to shape our experiences in such ways as to approximate the effects of films or fiction? […] could architecture fiction be something that reshapes our subjectivity?” (Varnelis 2009a) It is exactly this subjectivity that Bleecker addresses when he considers the core application of design fiction to be the shifting of human belief patterns and desires through swerving systems of meaning (2009b).


2.1. Process actions, tactics and tools
While there is some consolidation of theory that forms the boundaries of design fiction, there are very few discussions of the methods used to do design fiction. Methods, in general, are difficult to discuss as they are generated from the assemblage of tactics within a framework based on situated needs. This makes methods fluid and operating with great variation depending on context but also suggests that considering frameworks and tactics is ultimately more useful for designers.

2.1.1. Frameworks
A framework is the intellectual super structure to which the overall form of any situated method is aligned and provides the starting position, restricts the information to be considered and provides the major testing criteria. In the case of design fiction, the frameworks are identified through the relationship to futureforecasting
and notions of plausibility. The major frameworks present are extrapolation and speculation (Bleecker 2009a; Hales 2013; Bell and Dourish 2014). As Bell and Dourish note, “extrapolation and speculation as the twin bases for the production of science fiction, and which we would argue applies also to the ways in which design oriented research is typically carried out, with an explicit focus not only on the extrapolation of current technological opportunities, but the imaginative and speculative figuring of a world in which new technologies can be applied.” (Bell and Dourish 2014, 2). However, to meet the requirements for design fiction  near future siting, alignment with realism, plausibility rather than possibility, epistemological requirements of belief shifting, and the production of valid knowledge  speculation, in this case, cannot mean free form and fantasy-based imagining (Bleecker 2009a).

Extrapolation is based on the question: this is what we have, where does it go? It is the action of determining a future or end state based on assuming that the existing trends will continue without deviation. While the common use of extrapolation is predictive (i.e. logical future conclusions or outcomes), in design fiction extrapolation is used to explore possible alternatives (Girardin 2015). Bleecker calls this process developing “fiction from fact” (Bleecker 2009a). Lindley and Coulton reinforce the
presence of extrapolation when they present a three layer model that moves from a reality layer of the “world today as particular sets of users may know it” (2014, 2). The reality layer as source material is critical as it is used to contextualize all other information in the design fiction development. As a framework, extrapolation anchors any methods firmly into factual information present in the current environment as the starting point of any design work. The nature of design fiction would also stress that information be based on socio technological factors.

Speculation is the second framework present and it is easy to misunderstand its application in design fiction. The general definition of speculation is the act of forming a theory without facts, proof or firm evidence with “a strong leaning towards conjecture” (Auger 2013, 2). Usually, there is little concern if the generated ideas are real, defensible or “contained by the rules of real life” (Auger 2013, 2). However, design fiction requires the construction of plausibility with the focus to produce valid knowledge  a goal that conflicts with the general application of speculation if pursued as the production of identifiable false and fantastical scenarios. Bleecker provides clarity to the use of speculation as a framework that aligns with design fiction through an operation he refers to as “facts from fiction” (2009, 26). Rather than forming
a theory without facts, speculation in design fiction operates as forming a theory (design idea or possibility) before facts. Open speculation of near-future possibilities (‘fiction’) is possible but then requires the generated idea to be anchored back into current reality and factual knowledge with the intention to make the speculation seem believable or obtainable. This is accomplished by tracing the speculative idea from the future backwards to possible ways that idea might come into being. Design fiction speculation is more complex than “what-if” scenarios we find in speculative design as the latter requires little expectation that the scenario has any relationship to current reality (Markussen and Knutz 2013, 233). Speculation in this form produces the question: this is where we want to go, how do we get there?

2.1.2. Tactics
A tactic is an action performed as part of a method. There are limited tactics discussed in the design fiction literature and those referenced are often standard design tools such as sketching, building models and mood boards as well as research methods such as ethnographic and behavioral mapping (Grand and Wiedmer 2010). While this might suggest that design fiction has nothing to add to the “toolbox” for generating design outcomes, there is one fact that is important to recognize: design fiction engages sociotechnical information to understand the designed artifact as an active agent within the situated context in which it exists rather than an inert object. The approach does not allow an architectural designer to limit their values and decisions to only formal consideration for physical aesthetic decisions of shape to shape relationships. At the same time, the traditional tactics of architecture – environmental force identification, program resolution, cultural identity through elevation, massing variations – that visualize architectural decision making do not allow access to the type of information that design fiction engages. There are tactics found in other design disciplines and literature practices that can be imported into architecture.
One tactic found in design disciplines such as product design and UX/UI that directly addresses human interaction with designed objects is persona construction. A persona is a construct  we might think of it as a character against which design decisions are tested. Architecture does not normatively construct persona to determine formal choices although it could be argued to be aligned with the abstracted sense of client needs and desires formalized through a project brief. The architectural version, however, lacks a direct connection to a larger scenario or narrative construction required for design fiction. Personas have been criticized as being a representation of the designer rather than a tool of empathy as well as often “two dimensional and stereotypical” (Blythe and Encinas 2018, 17). Through design fiction, however, the persona is linked directly with “narrative voice” (Burdick 2019, 85) which requires a much deeper understanding of the motivations and actions of the user. While in other design approaches, the persona might be connected to a mood board, journey map or other visualization tool, in design fiction the persona
is directly involved in the construction of scenarios and then used to “predict the goals or actions of users” (Blythe 2004, 52). Scenario construction is a key element in design fiction, and it is the interaction between persona/characterization and scenario construction that makes design fiction a research tool.

A variation of persona and scenario construction is the tactic of pastiche scenarios developed to address limitations in both the former. Pastiche “is a form of writing that imitates and borrows from other works and styles” (Blythe 2004, 52). When applied in a design fiction context, the designer uses previously existing characters, locations and events to develop persona and scenarios for the project. As the persona was not created for this particular design context, it introduces more richness and complexity to motivation as well as disconnects the persona traits from the expected or desired functionality of the designed artifact (Markussen and Knutz 2013). Examples of pastiche scenarios is using favorite characters of a novel as the clients of an architectural project or using an author’s literary style to produce a design context. The pastiche tactic allows a designer to “very quickly evoke resonant contexts in which to place a new design or consider user needs” (Blythe 2004, 52).
Another literary tactic proposed to have relevance in design fiction is tropes. Tropes “are figurative language such as metaphor, irony, or hyperbole [that] convey an idea through terms and structures that are not literal, but rather symbolic” (DiSalvo 2012, 117). Although DiSalvo mistakes the operation of literary metaphor as equivalent to conceptual metaphor, the theoretical basis has some validity. These literary devices can be used to create a meaning “scaffold” through associating two domains of knowledge where the first provides a reference to the second. Examples could be presenting food production as a type of politics, grocery shopping as urban hunting or dinner parties as combat environments. While these are not metaphors as there is no incongruence in the association (i.e. food production does involve politics, grocery shopping is a type of food gathering), they do provide a reframing of the source material that allows us to reveal associations that are normally suppressed or obscured through societal norms. What the trope does is open up “expressions of values” (DiSalvo 2012, 117) and shifts the point of focus to consider the social implications rather than physical object. Bleecker suggests that tropes are involved in the anchoring of facts to fictional ideas as part of speculation (2009a, 15).

2.2. Design fiction and the frame
The framing and presentation of the designed artifact is a key factor in design fiction, an aspect that makes it distinct from other forms of discursive design, and a factor that makes its use in architecture difficult. While other discursive design approaches celebrate their outcomes, producing spectacles, fantastical worlds, uncanny apparatus and strange curiosities, the artifacts that design fiction introduces are “mundane” (Girardin 2015, 2); everyday objects and spaces that are unspectacular (or anti-spectacular).
Design fiction uses “real life delivery methods” (Auger 2013, 10) that deny the existence of a frame between the object and the viewer through creating an ambiguity if the designed artefact, space or event exists or not. It is that moment of unsurety, of second guessing, which makes design fiction effective. The role of the approach is not to criticize, challenge or comment on society (that is critical design). Instead, its application is to examine possibilities in near future narrative scenarios to test if that scenario is one that we wish to bring into being and, if so, to introduce desire towards those things proposed to be present. The diegetic nature of design fiction requires an artifact, and the built environment is an artifact, to exist within a larger narrative structure. However, the artifact is not the focus of the narrative, it simply exists to support larger socio technical interactions engaged as an act of everyday life. This process merges what is fictional with what is factually reality in a “knotting action” (Bleecker 2009a, 25) and suppresses the frame where constructed narrative is ambiguously located. The choice of media representation becomes a key aspect in the design fiction methodology and why practitioners of design fiction, such as Bleecker, Girardin and Near Future Laboratory (NFL), produce “catalogs, newspapers or user manuals from the future” but also “unboxing videos, user reviews” (Girardin 2015, 3). These media strategies are typologically normative and expected in our current reality so allows the framing of a fictional artifact in such a way to suppress the visibility of that frame. However, these media strategies are non-normative in
architecture and introduce a point of difficulty in applying the approach successfully.

Design fiction is one of several approaches found within discursive design. The key differences between this and other discursive approaches center on 1) the ambiguity of the designed artifact existence as fictional, 2) the presence of the designed artefact as part of a larger cohesive narrative and 3) the desire to use the designed artifact and its scenario to test and shift belief systems. While some speculative designers also believe that it is “preferable for the concept to pass as real,” (Auger 2013, 9), one could argue that speculative design that attempts this should be understood as a form of design fiction. At the same time, the purpose of design fiction is not fiction, which seems counter-intuitive. Rather, it is to return knowledge or affect beliefs.
Design fiction has several benefits but also introduces some difficulties for architecture. One benefit is the prioritization of the relationship between the user and the artifact. In the architectural design process, this means that attention moves from values that support the idea of a building or environment as a static sculptural object to those that are focused on the possible social and emotional positioning of its constituents. Environments are then understood as active participants in those social interactions. A second benefit produced by the shift in focus is the required abandonment of the notion of ‘problemsolution’ framing for design. As a research approach based in the interrelationship between humans and their constructed technological artifacts, design is understood as a situation to be acknowledged rather than a narrow problem solution conceptualization. The role of the persona and scenario tactics reinforces broad, and often contradictory, responses to the same design artefact as a reflective tool for designers.
Finally, the factors that design fiction provide as benefits can also introduce difficulties in architecture. It is easy to consider a building or built environment as a type of sculptural object. It is also relatively easy to consider engineering products as ‘cool’ features in buildings or even to imagine some non-existent technology that might be integrated into built space. However, based on our current toolset, it is much more difficult to consider the effect of both on socio-cultural systems of dwelling and identity. In addition, the media strategies used by design fiction in other disciplines, such as product design, do not exist in architecture. As design fiction is focused on technology, architecture needs to consider the role of technological elements in larger spatialized and compositional systems through social effects.


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Text Taken from:Philip D. Plowright
Lawrence Technological University, Michigan, USA

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