The Future

Telling the Future with Provocation

Designers can see the future. A good design strategy shows a clear path towards that future.

Design strategists visualize a future that does not yet exist, describe the human value of that future, and help organizations see a path towards achieving that future. This is what is implied by the overused phrase “the art of the possible” – that the future is infinite in possibility, and that there’s an art, or craft, in visualizing those possibilities.

When describing these futures, we create strategic provocations. A provocation takes a variety of forms. It might be a sketch, or a video, or an interactive experience. But it always tells a story. That’s because a story is the most accessible way for people to think differently. This story, as a design, is materially different than a production-ready or production-intended design because provocations are primarily intended to encourage people to challenge their preconceived perspectives. These stories paint a picture of a world that does not yet exist, and asks the viewer: do you want this future? Is this a future that’s believable? Is it one that you not only want to experience, but want to help build? And, as a decision maker, is this a future that you feel is valuable to fund and invest in?

A strategic design provocation is selectively naive. When we bring the provocation to life, we need to understand and acknowledge real business, technological, political, social, or financial boundaries – and then ignore some of them. This is a challenge to the business and to the viewer. It asks (and provokes): are you sure this axiomatic business truth that you’ve always viewed as a hard and fixed constraint is really as static as you believe? And, it asks (and provokes): how badly do you want this future vision to become real? If this vision is The Next Big Thing, but it rejects some fairly established norms, then there needs to be a plan to change those norms.

A strategic design provocation is grounded in some degree of behavioral realism. The story of the future needs to be plausible because an audience needs to relate to it. Twenty and thirty-year visions of the future are often so foreign looking and strange that they seem impossible or comical. The Jetsons is not a plausible future. It’s a comedic one, and we reject it out of hand as juvenile. To be embraced, a new future needs to be built on a solid present. This typically means grounding ideas in current human and cultural behaviors. There are things that people will and won’t do, and while these things change and evolve, they do so at a much slower rate than technological advancement. In the future, we may very well wear heads-up displays like Google Glass promised us, but when it was initially introduced, it over-challenged our understanding of privacy norms and personal space. This would not be a good provocation; the technology is plausible, but the human behavior change is not.

A design provocation needs to be vivid enough to spark the imagination. This can happen at a variety of levels of fidelity. It can come across through a written narrative, a storyboard or sketch, an animated movie, a fully-produced video, or any other medium. But it needs to bring the idea to life. This means that the details of the experience someone will have has to be considered as if it were really going to be built. Interfaces need to seem realistic, with common navigation and interaction paradigms. Objects need to look and feel real, appear to respond to physics, and act as we would expect or anticipate. When we see the designed artifacts that make up the future, we can’t second guess them – they need to blend into the story, acting only as props for telling a larger story of value and experience.

Science fiction is largely a design provocation.

Good science fiction – both dystopic and optimistic – helps us see a plausible vision of the future and react to it. We can watch Bladerunner and decide if we like how that future feels. This is because the future seems realistic (we can see a path from here to there), is vivid (there’s no ambiguity around what that future feels like), is built on real behavioral patterns like fear, love, and longing, and challenges some particular social norms while leaving others fully intact.

Design strategy firms have long leveraged design provocations to communicate both their ideology and their skills. frog design published the future of healthcare. Argo design, founded by ex-frogs, also leverages provocations as a way of challenging design audiences. They’ve offered visions of the future for autonomous vehicles, public transportation – even for Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods under the guise of the future of logistics. IDEO published the future of the book in 2010, describing how reading will change as technology changes.

At Modernist, we’ve taken a darker approach and used provocations to show an overly-consumer-focused future dependent on technology. But we also use provocations to help our clients see the world differently, and to help them navigate the future.

Designers have strong opinions on design provocations.

Some designers view this as “shelfware” – that it’s design masturbation that largely sits on the shelf gathering dust.

It is argued that our work needs to support actual business needs. It needs to take into account and often conform to technical limitations. Design needs to adhere to legal requirements. Most importantly, design needs to conform to the most real-world constrain of all, resources. As the development or engineering teams follow a roadmap, it inevitably becomes clear that there aren’t enough people and there isn’t enough time to see through all of the details that have been so painstakingly envisioned.

From this perspective, design is always grounded in realism, tied to short-term horizons – it’s about shipping products. In these contexts and conversations, designers find themselves in operational roles, with a “heads-down” mentality towards bringing their creations to life. The argument is made that shipping products is pragmatic, and designers should be pragmatists.

This argument is mostly right, of course: provocations of the future aren’t production specifications, and so they don’t result in obvious value. It’s hard to chart a causal path from a series of provocative sketches to business success five years later. In a culture where “always shipping!” is a mantra, vision work is seen as superficial or a garish luxury. But there are ways to ensure that the provocation does as is intended, to provoke strategic thinking.

Buckminster Fuller

It’s critical to describe the purpose of the exploration. Without intellectual framing, the work that is purposefully naive appears ignorantly naive, and is easily thrown away. The consultants who build the provocation, it is said, don’t know our core business. They don’t know the technical and business constraints. They aren’t in the trenches. To alleviate some of this frustration, we go out of our way to tell the story-of-the-story: to add enough context to the vision of the future that the audience understands the role it is playing as a provocation.

Additionally, it’s not enough to simply paint a picture of the future. We need to offer a path towards it. This path doesn’t need to be complete or entirely realistic, as this isn’t a product roadmap. But just as the story needed to have a level of plausibility, so too does our story of success. How will we get from here to there? What are the big technical underpinnings that need to be in place? What market dynamics are critical to achieving this vision? What organizational restructuring will be required? What acquisitions? This here-to-there storytelling is required to indicate “due diligence” for the vision itself.

Finally, there’s a responsibility that comes with envisioning the future. If you look around, we’re transforming our world into The Matrix, Bladerunner, and other science fiction movies. These movies are compelling. They inspire generations of technologists, who then strive to replicate that future in reality. Some of these futures are empowering. Many are dehumanizing. I’ve found that designers are generous with technology in their futuristic provocations, and it’s this emphasis on technology, rather than culture and behavior, that make futures seem unbelievable or irresponsible. A considered vision of the future is about people, first and foremost.

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