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The Role of Fiction in Experiments Within Design, Art & Architecture

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The Role of Fiction in Experiments within Design, Art & Architecture











This paper offers a typology for understanding design

fiction as a new approach in design research. The

typology allows design researchers to explain design

fictions according to 5 criteria: (1) “What if scenarios”

as the basic construal principle of design fiction; (2) the

manifestation of critique; (3) design aims; (4)

materializations and forms; and (5) the aesthetic of

design fictions. The typology is premised on the idea

that fiction may integrate with reality in many different

ways in design experiments. The explanatory power of

the typology is exemplified through the analyses of 6

case projects.


Within the last couple of years there has been an increased interest in Design Fiction as a new practice or approach within design research (Bleecker, 2009; DiSalvo, 2012; Grand and Wiedmer, 2010). Ever since the advent of modern design, designers have used fiction as a technique for experimenting with alternative models for society or for criticising existing ones. The imaginary urban projects of the Futurists proposed a city where machines enabled radically new forms of architecture and infrastructure, and in the 1920s Norman Bel Geddes envisioned what at that time must have looked like an utopian idea: gargantuan


airliners transporting people across the Atlantic. The ability to use design fictions for speculating about alternative presences or possible futures is at the core of design practice. What is new is that it is now claimed also to be a viable road for producing valid knowledge in design research (Grand & Wiedmer, 2010).

In this paper, we argue that in order to establish design fiction as a promising new approach to design research, there is a need to develop a more detailed understanding of the role of fiction in design experiments. Some attempts have already been made. DiSalvo (2012) thus accounts for two forms of design fiction in terms of what he calls ‘spectacle’ and ‘trope’. While DiSalvo makes a valuable contribution, his treatment is too limited for understanding other forms of design fiction. Grand & Wiedmer (2010) propose a method toolbox for practicing design fiction in design research, but in fact they say very little about the particularities of this approach. Only that it may take the form of ‘criticising existing technologies’ as in critical design, ‘asking unanswerable questions’ or ‘reinterpreting the past’ by transforming what is into what could be.

We offer a typology, which allows us to explain design fictions according to 5 criteria. The typology is premised on the idea that fiction may integrate with reality in many different ways in design experiments. Since design fictions can take many forms and variations, it is simply impossible to cover them all in the stroke of one paper. Our typology is built up from 6 case projects, all of which use fiction in design experiments offering alternative models for designing


the urban environment. This typology should be thought of as an initial first step towards building a more exhaustive framework.

We start out by defining design fiction and discussing the role of fiction in relation to experiments in design research. Next, we account for how design fiction is manifested in the 6 case projects. On the basis of our case analyses we present a table offering an overview. Finally, we critically discuss our typology in relation to related work.


It is the sci-fi author Bruce Sterling who originally coined the term Design Fiction. In Shaping Things Sterling (2005) makes the observation that designers share many interests with science fiction writers, most importantly a deep engagement with imaginary objects and speculations about the future to come. But there is a core distinction as well between design and science fiction: “Science fiction wants to invoke the grandeur and credibility of science for its own hand-waving hocus-pocus”, while design fictions are typically more practical, more hands-on. More precisely, Sterling defines design fiction as “the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change…It means you’re thinking very seriously about potential objects and services and trying to get people to concentrate on those - rather than entire worlds or political trends or geopolitical strategies. It’s not a kind of fiction. It’s a kind of design. It tells worlds rather than stories (Sterling, 2009).

Examples of such diegetic objects would be Auger & Loizeau’s proposal for a battery laden with energy made up from acid left in the stomach of deceased family members from their last supper, which relatives are given instead of a urn. Or Eduardo Kac’s gene manipulated rabbit Alba that glows up in a green fluorescent colour, because it has been cloned with the GFP gene from deep-sea jellyfish. In the first instance, design fiction speculates on energy being a hollow force and suggests changes to our culturally entrenched rituals. In the second, design fiction is used to question the limits and consequences of gene modification and biotechnology.

Common for all design fictions is that they can usually be described according to a basic rule of fiction, an imaginary, sometimes even impossible "what if"-scenario. These scenarios are fictitious worlds that give utopian or dystopian images of a possible future that we as humans could end up in – or be challenged by. Try to think of sci-fi films and the ”What if”-scenarios”, they play out: What if we were able to predict crime before they are committed? (Minority Report, 2002) What if we can travel into an alternate presence by downloading human consciousness into a computer? (Avatar, 2009) What if everything in our world is information? (Matrix, 1999) What if women loose the ability to give birth? (Children of Men, 2006) What if next generation robots took command on planet Earth (The Terminator, 1984) What if robots



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