The future is a seductive concept. It always triggers my imagination. I enjoy imagining the future of design, the future of products, and the future of my own career. Graphic design can be regarded as the practice of turning ideas into reality. For my thesis, I wanted to actualize some of the products of my imagination into reality, specifically futuristic products that relate to the act of reading. At MICA, designers expand their roles beyond graphic design to include writing, editing, directing, conceptualizing, curating, programming, researching, and crafting. For my graduate thesis, I took on the role of designer as provocateur, although I did not start out with this particular role in mind.
Two years after moving from China to the United States, I realized I just was not reading anymore. I was living in a foreign country not using my mother language, so that was a good excuse for me. However, most of my family and friends admitted that they did not read for pleasure, and the most common excuse was the lack of time. It seemed reading, one of the best hobbies of humankind, had become a luxurious activity and an almost nostalgic entertainment. In my project, I attempted to devise future-oriented solutions that might reverse this problem and make reading a more popular activity.
I am drawn to future-oriented designs. I believe it creates a highly engaging experience. Future-oriented designs seduce the audience, stimulate emotions, convey valuable ideas, and provoke thoughtful discussion. It also allows me to liberate design from the constraints of today and try to solve a problem. With the hope of exploring multiple design methodologies in the process, I kept it an open-ended autonomous project without constraining the outcomes.
Division of Futures
Figure 1. Stuart Candy, Future Cone, Dunne and Raby, Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming (2013)
Futurologist Stuart Candy divided futures into four categories: probable, preferable, plausible and possible(Figure 1). A probable future has the least variation but is the most likely. It is an extension of existing trends. For example, it is probable that on Saturday night, I will watch a movie instead of studying, because that is what I usually do on Saturdays. A preferable future is the one we should want, even though it is unlikely to happen. For example, it’s preferable that on Saturday night, I eat a healthy meal, study, and go to sleep early, but I never do that. A plausible future is one we can easily imagine. It is plausible that on Saturday night, I will try to study and eat a salad, but then I will stay up late and watch a movie. A possible future is one that is the broadest in its variety of outcomes. There are an infinite number of possible futures, and therefore, any particular possible future is unlikely. Anything can happen. On Saturday night, for example, I might take a tour to the moon. It is possible but not likely (or even plausible).
First Approach: Prototypes of a Probable Future
Design can help us imagine the likely future.
‘Design fiction’ is the first concept I’m drawn to. Bruce Sterling defined ‘design fiction’ as “the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.” I understood this to mean that I would not have to persuade people of possible future objects if I could just show them a prototype of that object. My first approach was to design prototypes of a range of speculative technology meant to improve the experience of reading.
Technology, according to Marshall McLuhan, is an extension of our own natural faculties. I investigated the inconvenience in reading and came up with 4 concepts that are entailed by them.
‘Design fiction’ is the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.
Lumo is a hypnopedia machine that we have fantasized about for decades in influential science fiction. When it is finally introduced to the market, how does it attract the targeted audience? What message should the brand identity convey? Stella is a finger-tip stylus for readers. Stella enables reader to take notes and pull quotes on different formats of books without interrupting the reading flow. It also organizes and stores data on a cloud server. Nchor is a digital bookmark. We need the right type of book for the right job. Curl up with a book and enjoy the smell of it, listen to an audio book when you are tired of reading on the subway, and carry hundreds of books in a portable e-book on a business trip, which are all convenience technology has brought us. However, locating the current page across all formats can be problematic. What if there is a bookmark that scans your reading progress and updates to other devices in real time? FLINK is gaze-control technology applied to digital reading. It frees our hands from swiping the screen or flipping pages. Imagine yourself reading an absorbing book while eating the nastiest snack, or knitting a sweater.
I tried to bring these four concepts alive through prototyping and brand design. I believed the use of physical objects is the most intuitionistic way to envision the future. However, filling fragmental gaps between reality and ideal with hypothetic solution mechanically leads the ideas into consumable gadgets. This may probably appear commonplace in our lives. Products designed based on the present knowledge and trend of technology falls into the probable future category. I want to take this project further than concept designs in the real world.
Second Approach: Images of a Preferable Future
Design can shape the future we want.
In my second approach, I believed a fictional scenario is necessary for creating a different experience than what we have today. Artist, philosopher and scientist Koert van Mensvoort presented how technology becomes naturalized in 7 steps in his TED talk: technology is born as envisioned and ends fully naturalized (Figure 2). In my fictional scenario, I positioned augmented technology to the summit of the pyramid. Wiping out all technical barriers allow me to focus on the promotion of reading. I also assume people of the future love to read and are highly engaged in social reading.
Figure 2. Koert Van Mensvoort, How Technology Becomes Nature (2014), TEDx
How can the experience of a digital book feel and how efficient can it be in this idealistic context? Your digital book knows what you are reading and where to start.You have all of your books in one place—on the cloud, and they will be your property forever. The book search engine knows every single detail of each book, and you can search by using fragmental information such as something you over hear from a conversation in a café. As you use the search engine several times, it gets to know your interests, so it can curate your personal library and recommend books depending on your preferences. It reminds you to keep up with your reading group. You can export your reading experience, including translations, annotations and discussions of a book into a single package. You can choose to share it with someone. You can also import other’s experience package to see their thoughts while reading the book. Book lending and gifting are just a click away. You can also check your favorite character’s profile by searching. You are provided the option to switch to audio when the device knows your hands are occupied. And it always finds you the most suitable typeface according to the book content, even if you do not really care.
Figure 3. Corning Incorporated, A Day Made of Glass – Corning’s Vision for the Future (2011), http://www.corning.com/
Before I start designing the interface of the ideal world, I saw the widely spread A Day of Glass video made by Corning (Figure 3), which has a similar scenario with my vision. I believe it is a masterpiece of a future vision, but it is so self-contained. It belongs to the preferable future category, however, it loses both humanity and the connection with the real world. Confronting the “unrealistic design promise”, I doubted how do we make decisions toward the desirable future?
Third Approach: Dystopias of Possible Futures
Design can provoke thoughts about the future.
I returned to the question of why we do not read. The reason we do not read is not that we lack the time. We do not read because we prioritize other things over reading. Instead of finding the solution technology could provide, we need critical thoughts about reading and our relationship with technology. We should make informed decisions for ourselves.
Based on critical theory, I took my third approach to demonstrate the satire aimed at modern readers who slack in reading. It is a critical design approach. Critical Design is a term popularized by Dunne & Raby, a London-based design studio. It is a design approach that uses design fiction and speculative design proposals to challenge assumptions, and the conceptions about the role technology plays in everyday life.
In this version of the future, augmented technology has been naturalized, but we still claim that we have no time to read. We are so hopeless that we have to utilize negative motivation as our reading stimuli. Reading not enough comes with consequence. Readers put themselves under pressure intentionally, choosing different punishment mechanisms provided by new technology to motivate their own reading. As people visualize the worst outcome of the punishment, they read more.
I made a short video with 3 ideas as the final deliverable. Read-by Dates: Books that disappear upon an expiration date, and beyond that date, the reader can never access the book again. Broadcast Guilt: Humiliates slacking readers on social media by automatically posting their guilty pleasure reading. Self-wetting Bed: The sleep-aware bed wets itself when the reader falls asleep in the middle of reading.
I shot the video against a grey background, and added integration of digital effects in order to make a not-so-different aesthetical scene of the future. The mechanical narrator implied the ironic and dystopian aspect of the video. The video is in the critical dimension of speculative design, which is questioning and challenging the status quo, thinking through design, using the language and structure of design to pose social and ethical questions.
I believe future-oriented design is an implemental design technique. The best futures often originate from the craziest ideas and we do better work in the real world when we continually imagine possible futures. Future-oriented design is a powerful way to present and examine innovative ideas in a human context, and it shows design can go further than solving problems.
Torie Bosch, Sci-Fi Writer Bruce Sterling Explains the Intriguing New Concept of Design Fiction (2012), http://www.slate.com/
Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964)
Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby, Critical Design FAQ (2007), http://www.dunneandraby.co.uk/