Book Review: “Speculative Everything” by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby

Speculative Everything by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby

Designers Dunne and Raby have been doing various forms of not-simply-market-driven-problem-solving “design” for many years and under a number of descriptive terms. This book aims to define a new term for what they do, which they want to call “Speculative Design”. They seek to distinguish their activity from other similar concepts, including “design fiction” and various forms of “critical” design.

Speculative Design, they tell us, aims not to “fiddle” with the world out there but to fiddle with “the ideas and attitudes in our heads that shape the world out there.” (p. 2) This, of course, shades into the practices of fiction and the motives of utopian politics, among other things, which is why much of the book is about how Speculative Design should be different than these other imaginative work.

Specifically, Speculative Design is “[n]ot trying to predict the future, but in using design to open al sorts of possibilities that can be discussed, debated, and used collectively to define a preferable future” (p. 6)

They see this enterprise as important because, “[w]e believe that by speculating more, at all levels of society, and exploring alternative scenarios, reality will become more malleable” (p. 6)The key move is, of course, to “step away from industrial production and the marketplace” (p. 11)

Speculative Design grew out of ‘critical design” and related concepts, which is “critical thought translated into materiality, it is about thinking through design rather than through words” (p. 35)

The products of speculative design resemble theater and film props, presenting material artifacts of an imagined world. However, “[v’iewers have different expectations for design than they do for film.” (p. 131) Film props must be legible – they must refer to reality, often in cliché. Design speculation shouldn’t. They are more difficult to read, because the viewer has to actively imagine the world.

One way of considering the fictional objects of speculative design is as props for nonexistent films. On encountering the object, the viewer imagines his or her own version of the film world the object belongs to.” p 89

Props for movies that don’t exist. That’s a pretty good description.

Much of the book consists of examples that illustrate and exemplify products of Speculative Design, and help distinguish it from other art forms and design. Some of these designs are incomprehesible (an image of an object that is mainly conceptual…), but some are truly fascinating, catching the imagination even in the dilute and indirect form of a 2D image.

 

The discussions of related enterprises, such as design fiction, critical design, science museums, and story telling are an interesting, if brief, survey. They draw some connections and give some perspectives that might not occur in other contexts. I hadn’t thought about science museums as forms of fiction, for example.

The last chapter explains the meaning of the books title: Dunne and Raby are not interested in creating some objects that suggest and imagined world, they are interested in everyone imagining better worlds. Not just speculative design, but speculative everything.

As a life-long, continuous, imaginer, I certainly endorse this goal! But whether their speculative design objects are an effective way to do this is not so clear to me.

I was a bit concerned with the rather shallow ideological bent of this chapter. I’m sure I generally agree with many of the political, social, and economic points Dunne and Raby advocate, it was disturbing to see them taken as granted as the only possible goals for art or serious thought. This is not argument, it is simple minded propaganda.

The problem, of course, is that these tools work for everybody—and against everybody. The notion that somehow “speculative everything” will advance only or even primarily the progressive goals they espouse is surely false. For that matter, some of their examples of Speculative Design could easily cut all directions. Remember, the “nonexistent movie” that people construct in their head could easily be “Mad Max” or even “Birth of a Nation”.

As to their preposterous notion that to solve big problems (a) we need more speculation and (b) calling up imagination and dreams will advance progressive change. A shallow glance at the Internet and media will quickly reveal that there is a surfeit of imagination on all fronts, and precious little critical filtering. Worse, many of the most dangerous and regressive developments are driven by deeply irrational dreams. Dunne and Raby need look no farther than their own city for examples: highly imaginative world views that justify racial and religious hatred, wildly “speculative” dreams about “Europe”, and so on.

Is more speculation, however interesting, what we need? And how should we deal with “bad” Speculative Design, that people imagine to be props from a horror movie that hasn’t been made-yet.

Overall, this is an interesting book, with some challenging ideas.  I remain skeptical that their projects communicate as well as they hope, or that they are effective catalysts for positive change in either thought or action.  I certainly endorse the need to think freely and imaginatively.  But that must always be tied to the filter of rational thought; and always, always mitigated by the soft charity of simple human kindness.

(Thanks to interlibrary loan from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.)


 

  1. Dunne, Anthony and Fiona Raby, Speculative Everything, Cambridge, The MIT Press, 2013.

 

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