How to design for a speculative future

Katja Forbes

  • Managing director of Designit, Australia and New Zealand
Katja is an Australian pioneer in the field of experience design and all its components.Back in 2014, Katja founded syfte, a specialist business in research and experience design acquired by Wipro in 2018. She was then appointed Australian MD of Designit. Katja was also a co-founding member of the Interaction Design Association Board (IxDA) in Sydney, helping build a community of over 1600 designers. Today, Katja is international director on IxDA’s global board. Katja is a sought-after speaker for organisations including Women In Design, Leaders in Heels, Women In Commerce, Code like a Girl, Telstra and Macquarie Bank. Katja was recognised as a Top 10 Australian Women Entrepreneurs 2018 by My Entrepreneur Magazine and one of the 100 Women of Influence by Westpac and the Australian Financial Review in 2016.

For a while now, I have been following a fabulous design strategy and research colleague, Tatiana Toutikian, a speculative designer. This is someone specialising in calling out near future phenomena, what the various aspects of our future will be, and how the design we create will support it.

Then the COVID-19 coronavirus came along and disrupted our plans all over the world.

I have to wonder whether there had been design capabilities to support those of us trapped in a pandemic like this, and how speculative futures by Tatiana and colleagues will be amended.

It’s important to note Tatiana and others like her tend to explore ideas for designers, not directly for business. The designers inbetween form the bridge connecting the (often) whimsical or downright Black Mirror fantastical to the practical needs of businesses.

This is similar to the fashion catwalks and brands who design clothes for the consumer. Very few of us would seriously consider going to work in exact replicas of outlandish fashion seen on the catwalk. With that in mind, fashion brands translate those concepts to the needs of the everyday human.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit hard, examples of what designers were speculating about included ‘beauty detectors’, linked to social media, where humans would be judged based upon their beauty compared to a standardised ideal rather than personality. In fact, your beauty could earn you discounts on items you purchase online, ensuring you always have a better experience than ‘not so beautiful’ counterparts.

As the ability to collect more data from individuals increases, humans could also soon be given access to more data about everyone else. We could know everything about a person in a handy bite-sized chunk, for instance, and be able to judge them before we have even had contact. And if we really don’t want to know about someone’s political inclination, we don’t have to be forced to, we simply turn the ‘dial’ for politics off and it’s not available.

Then the pandemic hit, almost before designers could respond. Select industries were able to offer something, but mostly society was left with what we already had.

But not for long – speculative futures across many dimensions will have to change.

Suddenly, for example, there has been an enormous shift of public likeability and trust towards health workers on social media. This seismic shift, perceived as valuable to us as a society, may have a remarkable impact on speculative futures in that direction.

In addition, data collected and shared for almost every purpose may focus on health and COVID-19 status, rather than things like political preference. The ability to work or take part in sport or a hobby of interest may depend on a consumer’s COVID-19 status and whether or not they have had the flu vaccination (as we have already seen with AFL players). 

Some Australians are also still concerned the COVID-19 Safe app is recording their movement for purposes other than what it says on the box. We’re entering into a new level of trust relationships with health authorities and governments previously never speculated on.

To summarise, designers often have responded to what is needed by the picture society paints. But it also goes the other way round. What kind of society are we creating through the products we are designing? What trends are emerging as a result?

Just look at the deadly pandemic: We now find a worldwide reverence towards people who work in the health and medical field, rather than beautiful influencers. And given this change in attitudes towards what’s considered ‘valuable’, how do businesses and marketers adjust?

This year will be the birthplace of life-changing designs and concepts striving to answer these new social norms.

As Dan Hill writes in his essays on coronavirus: “The impact of the virus is pitched somewhere between the common cold and the end of capitalism, and no one knows exactly where.” 


Tags: design thinking, consumer trend

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