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Design Fictions and Design Histories

A PhD course at Umeå Institute of Design exploring the past futures and future pasts of technological gadgets

Design fiction places new and imagined designs within narratives about their future lives and future users. Design history explores past design choices, embedding designs in a historical context.

This PhD course combines design fiction and design history to understand the past, present, and future of technological design. Our empirical focus will be on the ubiquitous and mobile gadgets that open our everyday lives to a world of entertainment, information, and utility. We will study the role of narratives in the design, production, use, and disposal of such gadgets. How do gadgets get their shine of novelty and desirability? What happens to our gadgets when we no longer want them? Why do we no longer want them in the first place? What are the connections between technological design and social change? And what is the role of the designer in all this?

The 6-credit course will be taught in English in May and June 2013 at Umeå Arts Campus. During the course, participants will meet for a total of 5 days in discussion seminars. Outside of the seminar meetings, students will work individually and in small groups on a project exploring the past futures and future afterlife of one particular technological design.

The course targets both design students, engineering students and humanities and social sciences students with an interest in design. The course is primarily intended for PhD students, though advanced MA students, recent postdocs and researchers may also apply.

Ubiquitous and mobile, technological gadgets open our everyday lives to a world of entertainment, information, and utility. This course explores the design, production, use, and disposal of such gadgets, particularly focusing on the creation of narratives about new technologies. How do gadgets get their shine of novelty and desirability, the fabled “reality distortion field” of Steve Jobs’ Apple Inc.? How and why are gadgets so rapidly overtaken by obsolescence? What happens to our gadgets when we no longer want them? And why do we no longer want them in the first place?

In exploring these questions, the course combines approaches from design fiction and design history to understand the material and cultural, historical, contemporary, and prospected future of technological design. Science fiction writer and futurologist Bruce Sterling called design fiction “the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.” Design fiction places novel designs within narratives about their use and utility. The imagination encouraged by design fiction as a practice is often directed towards the future, as a way of imagining the future lives and users of the design in question. Design history, on the other hand, explores past design choices, embedding designs in a historical context.

This course seeks to complement design fiction with design history to help us open up the idea of an unchangeable design past. As historian of technology David Edgerton has stated, “the technological boosterism of the past has too often been turned into the history of our material world.” The past tends to write its own future. It makes the evolution of certain technologies seem necessary and self-evident, where things could not have been otherwise. Alternatives and predecessors end up on history’s scrap heap, literally and metaphorically. In this process, obsolescence often becomes synonymous with progress. Can design history help us create alternative design fictions about technological gadgets?

Learning Outcomes
At the end of the course, students should be able to:

  • recognize the ethical, political, and societal stakes of artifact design
  • demonstrate and evaluate the methods of design fiction and design history
  • offer historical and cross-cultural perspectives to the production, use, and disposal of gadgets
  • discuss the principal approaches to and challenges of extended life-cycle analyses of technological designs

Required reading

  • Rayner Banham, “The Great Gizmo” http://mashupstudio.pbworks.com/f/Banham_The%2BGreat%2BGizmo.pdf
  • David Edgerton. The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1990 (London: Profile Books, 2006), 1-212.
  • Giles Slade, Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 1-282.
  • Elizabeth Grossman, High-Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2007), 1-272.
  • Bruce Sterling, ”Design Fiction,” http://interactions.acm.org/archive/view/may-june-2009/cover-storydesign-fiction1
  • Bruce Sterling, Shaping Things (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005), 1-147.
  • Julian Bleecker, ”Design Fiction: A short essay on design, science, fact and fiction,” http://drbfw5wfjlxon.cloudfront.net/writing/DesignFiction_WebEdition.pdf (see also http://nearfuturelaboratory.com/2009/03/17/design-fiction-a-short-essay-on-design-science-fact-and-fiction/)
  • Kjetil Fallan, Design History: Understanding Theory and Method (London: Berg, 2010), 1-182.

Examination
The student assignments will focus on object biographies, integrating both design history and design fiction approaches. The students will work in groups of 2-3 people to produce a poster exploring the past futures and future afterlife of one particular gadget.