The following takes inspiration from Liz Sanders and Pieter Jan Stappers’ recent metahistorical editorial article which periodizes design as:

1980s – expert discipline-specific design of products on the basis of market research
2010s – interdisciplinary designing of interactive experiences on the basis of participatory research through practice
2040s – generalized co-design of sustainable systems [21]

In this kind of visioning, a key shift is the movement of prototyping from a late stage testing device in the 1980s, through being a more front-end innovation tool currently, to designs, now understood as systems rather than things, being a kind of perpetual prototype. I would like to trouble this aspiration by taking into consideration some current design process trends. The intention is to ask about appropriate kinds of prototyping giving present and future risks.

Imagining and Realizing

Designing is the process of making futures (see the important Open University textbook Man-Made Futures, [8]). There are at least two distinct aspects to this process. Each aims at a different sense of “the possible” or what it means “to create.” One is disruptively innovative; it seeks to break with how things currently are, open up the new. The other is more instrumentally pragmatic; it seeks to work out how current things might be transformed, what it is practicable to make.

Ideally, designers are equal parts fantasists and realists. They can imagine the most far-fetched unreal things; but then they can also focus on questions of practicability, how to make those imagined things real. Designing should be a dialectic between to these two different kinds of possibility.

Designers have tools and skills to manage this dialectic, techniques that give the expertise of designing its distinctiveness. All of these are ways of making futural possibilities partially real in the present so that they can be evaluated and detailed—chief among these are: prototypes.

Visual Prototyping

The term “design” refers etymologically to the process of drawing. Sketching services both sides of the designing dialectic. Visual perception’s rush to associate marks on pages or screens with represented things means that drawing is a creative process, generating new possibilities even to the mark maker [14]. Hence “visual thinking,” where the emergent image seems to back-talk to designer abductively. On the other side, visual representations of possible designs become stages for a series of thought-experiments about the material feasibility of design. Designers, skilled at reading visualized designs (like plans, elevations, exploded views, mechanism or joinery details, etc), can make assessments about buildability, operability, etc, of an imagined design.

Design-through-visualization was certainly a major breakthrough in how humans made futures. The seminal publications of John Chris Jones and Christopher Alexander suggested that the whole scale and pace of modernization depended on the “creative leaps” and “virtual prototyping” that self-conscious designing-as-drawing afforded [15, 1]. Jones and Alexander were writing amidst the Design Methods Movement. This was the moment when design researchers felt that the situations in and for which designers were making futures were becoming much more complex. The argument is related to the metahistorical one Vilem Flusser was fond of: when things got too complex to speech, we started writing; when things got too complex for writing, we started designing-by-drawing [11]. Now that things are too complex for diagrams and sketches, we—what?

The Design Methods Movement perhaps failed—it was at least renounced by both Jones and Alexander—because, at its worst, it conflated two different kinds of feasibility: technical and social. The computation that was arriving at the time could process complex issues related to manufacturability and functionality; but it was wrong-headed to imagine that cultural/political complexities could be resolved in the same way. This is why design researchers in North America began to explore more dialogical ways of negotiating “wicked problems” such as hermeneutic dialogue mapping and the double-loop learning of reflective practice, at the same that more participatory approaches to human-computer interaction were being developed in Scandinavia [2, 6, 10, 23].

Enacting with Prototypes

What remained designerly about these social practices was their materiality. Attaining consensus on a problem-frame is one thing, but coming to an agreement about a promising solution-field is another. To do this, designers shifted from 2D to 3D, or in truth to 4D: prototypes, enacted in scenarios. A physical prototype accesses embodied aspects of interactions that can be missed when merely imagining from visual representations. Whilst a prototype appears to foreground the thing itself, its materialization in fact allows consideration of the design will feel, how it is to interact with. The object of prototyping is thing-being-used-by-someone.

In the recent history of professional design, especially in the realm of digital products, there has been a slide, on the practicability of side of the designing dialectic, from User-centered Design to Human-centered Design, that is to say, from issues of Usability to Experience. This is because what enacted prototyping reveals is not just things about the product (whether it can be made to enable this or that interaction), but also things about people (whether they can be enabled to make this or that interaction). Improvising with physical prototypes (of varying levels of fidelity, with respect to both the prototype and the scenario) accesses aspects of complex futural social feasibility that the Design Methods Movement failed to discern and that wicked problem negotiation could only talk about.

What, though, of the other side of designing possibilities? What remains consistent over the design history that I have so far schematized is that the designer is the innovator, the expert member 
of the creative class. What changes appears to be only how to determine what possibilities can be made socio-technically real. But surely designing, as being-in-service, should “get” its innovations from or at least with those people it is servicing? [19]

Liz Sanders’ work is exemplary in its attempt to find how to work with people in order to access the new rather than only the realizable [20]. Sanders’ is motivated by the epistemological problem of how to get non-designers to access new possibilities rather than present actualities. If you ask non-designers what they want, they can mostly only respond with what they already know; how to open people up to “what else could you want,” to what is latent. Sanders’ insight is that prototyping can be generative of possibilities not just evaluative. Just as sketching accesses perceptual abductions, so does interacting with physical forms. Designing kits of materials and components, and situations in which people are motivated to interact in a range of ways with those kits, allows designers to co-create with those they aim to service. In this, Sanders’ generative design research strategies are similar to cultural probes and 
a range of other “engaging” design processes [4].

I want to ask how generative though? Do these prototypical techniques generate possibilities that are disruptive of business-as-usual? What are the generative design research techniques that get people to imagine the (currently-)impossible-yet-necessary? Can generative design research access radical alternatives?

Generating Sustainable Possibilities

An interesting test for generative design research’s way of handling the dialectic of designing is sustainability. I am assuming here that our societies are severely unsustainable, both because of the direct ecological impacts resulting from the materials intensity of the global consumer class, and because of the inequality that is endemic to the corporate economies that service that consumerism.

Our current unsustainability, especially when understood in terms of materials intensity, is in large part a result of design— whether imposed by modernist design experts or tempered by user- or even human-centered design research. Generative design is not especially culpable—at its best it tries to access what might finally be truly needed by its participants rather than just-another creative-yet-still-feasible idea. However, generative design research’s materials-based techniques do tend to encourage creative innovation mostly with respect to more thing-based solutions to latent concerns (rather than leading to service systems for instance, or structural dissolving of those concerns, such as no-build options, value- or lifestyle shifts, etc).

A second thing to note is that our unsustainability is a massive problem, of a size that demands truly radical responses. It is as if there is a kind of problem beyond wicked: in addition to being complex (a large number of interdependent variables) and wicked (because some of those variables are people, who act in not always fully rational ways and change their minds), sustainability is also just a big problem—solutions will require nation-sized infrastructure rebuilding (fuel switching, city renovation and even relocation) and similarly nation-sized notion re-conceptualizations (new ideas about freedom and autonomy, cost and responsibility, etc). Can we get this level of “Big and New” from processes like generative design research?

Neomodernist Visions

This is perhaps why right now there is a resurgence of modernist utopianism. Technologists, emboldened by excessive wealth, are reasserting the “dream big” side of the design dialectic. Sometimes the argument is directly related to sustainability: large-scale technological moonshots are now needed to protect the natural resources upon which our ways of living depend—nuclear power, transgenic crops and geoengineering, to quote the subtitle of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline [5]. Designers today are extolling fantasies of transhumanist hyperloops in digitized echoes of their founding fathers—the streamline designers like Loewy and Bel Geddes. If a commitment to social-research-based design risked miring the dialectic of making possible futures in the currently pragmatic, these (inter)stellar technoliberationists seem to float at the other end of the dialectic in the unrealizable.

Neo-modernist visions draw attention to whole other axis to designing. To explain, consider the “proactionary” discourse that sometimes accompanies these radical technological ambitions. The Proactionary Principle was drafted in reaction to the Precautionary Principle, a central component of “sustainable development” [18, 22]. Ecological politics is defined by its focus on risks [3]. It inserts into political values a concern for catastrophes that might happen, such as whole ecosystems collapsing or climatic systems shifting irreversibly in the near future. The subjunctive quality of a risk defies conventional positivist epistemologies. As a result the Precautionary Principle institutes the need for technoscience to advance only with caution, not undertaking a project until its risks have been certifiably minimized. Advocates of the Proactionary Principle argue that, when it comes to problems as big as sustainability, risks of inaction outweigh risks associated with action, so precaution should be set aside for projects that might conversely afford significant gains in (technical) sustainability.

Forseeing Consequences

Talk of the Proactionary Principle remains relatively marginal—though I will come back to a more common manifestation with design practice—but for now it is important to note how this foregrounds a whole other aspect of design as future-making. Design’s task is not only to imagine what could possibly be made real, but also to determine what should be made real, what would be preferable. This is not just a matter of ascertaining what is useful, but of foreseeing the consequences of a design becoming widely used. Visualizing and prototyping that designers do when designing can allow them to anticipate what their designs will design, discerning the risks that follow from any design’s realization. To design a car means to envision not just an innovative form of mobility that is also manufacturable and usable, but also to discern the ecological risks associated with habitual driving—traffic, sprawl, climate change. To redesign an algorithm-derived component of Facebook requires not just testing its buildability, but also foreseeing how this may expose some people with their knowledge (see Mike Monteiro’s talk, [17]). These are the kinds of risks that proactionary advocates want to exempt designing from.

Can generative or human-centered design processes responsibly anticipate the wider consequences of designs? Throughout modernity, it was experts who were called upon to advise on the ecological and social impacts of technological developments. But recent arguments have suggested that risks need to be negotiated in more participatory ways. Functowicz and Ravetz call “postnormal science” the deliberations demanded by high risk, high uncertainty technological developments [12].

Figure 1. Dialectic of Design as Making Futures.
Figure 1. Dialectic of Design as Making Futures.
Figure 2. Dialectic of Design as Making Futures.
Figure 2. Dialectic of Design as Making Futures.

Visionless Iterating

What is dominant in commercial design at the moment are methods that do nevertheless have proactionary elements, by which I mean a deliberate ignoring of imagining future consequential risks. I am referring here to, for example, Agile and Lean product development. These are distinct forms of design management and each a broad church, but consistent across them is a commitment to accelerated iteration of products released to live markets. Design is driven by real-time feedback on how “Minimum Viable Products” (MVP) are being used. The rationale is that many high consequence risks, and opportunities, are unanticipatable. Rather than imagine or sense what these “blackswans” might be, designers should instead focus on being able to respond immediately to what emerges. These Lean Agile philosophies eschew the grand visioning aspects of proactionary advocates, 
but are sympathetic with the downplaying of risk anticipation. As Joi Ito, head of MediaLab at MIT is fond of saying (though I am not sure of his evidence for this claim), “the cost of assessing risk is 
now often greater than the cost of failing” [7].

If Lean Agile, etc, aim at accessing the realizably innovative, the other end of the design dialectic might be Maker culture. These neo-tinkerers also pursue multiple iterations in order to discover serendipitously new uses for existing combinations of technologies, software and/or materials. There is a similar antivisioning driving these hackathons, and in all the rapid building there is also no anticipation of consequential risk.

In either case, the approaches deploy what could be called a “generalized prototyping.” Lean Agile beta-releases and hacked systems are more than prototypes; they are live products being used by people who are not explicitly structured as research subjects. The MVPs are evaluated in terms of the current ways in which they are being used; they are not being evaluated as (prospective) designs. Certainly these platforms are not finished products; there is a clear sense that they remain in-process; ever-frequent updates and even complete pivots will be made. In this sense, prototyping is no longer a stage within design, but the only outcome of design. Without forethought, prior evaluation, whether against a strong vision, or of consequential risk, is this still design? Is designing as foreseeing disappearing beneath permanent iteration?

Prototyping for Stages of Transition

These questions are some of the context for the School of Design at CMU’s attempts to talk about Transition Design. The term acknowledges the need for multi-level, multi-stage change, but it tries to preserve visioning as part of the process, both of desirable-even-if-not-yet-feasible futures, and of consequential-risks [13]. To put it another way, Transition Design is an attempt to preserve the power of prototyping as an anticipatory tool. This requires committing to some kind of finished product (or platform) for significant amounts of time. Transition Design aims to promote staged change, not forever changing.

  1. A VISION FOR THE TRANSITION to a more sustainable society is needed. This calls for the reconception of entire lifestyles in which communities are in symbiotic relationship with the environment. Lifestyles are place-based yet global in their exchange of technology, information and culture.
  2. The vision of the transition to a sustainable society will require new knowledge about natural, social, and “designed” systems. This new knowledge will, in turn, evolve the vision.
  3. Ideas, theories and methodologies from many varied fields and disciplines inform a deep understanding of the DYNAMICS OF CHANGE in the natural and social worlds.
  4. New theories of change will reshape designers’ temperaments, mindsets and postures. And, these “new ways of being” in the world will motivate the search for new, more relevant knowledge.
  5. Living in and through traditional times requires a MINDSET AND POSTURE OF OPENNESS, mindfulness, a willing-ness to collaborate, and “optimistic grumpiness.”
  6. Changes in mindset, posture and temperament will give rise to new ways of designing. As new design approaches evolve, designers’ temperaments and postures will continue to change.
  7. The transition to a sustainable society will require new ways of designing that are informed by a vision, a deep understanding of the dynamics of change and a new mindset and posture.
  8. New ways of designing will help realize the vision but will also change/evolve it. As the vision evolves, new ways of designing will continue to be developed.
Transition Design Framework
Transition Design Framework


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