Julian Bleecker explains the development of Design Fiction, a method he pioneered for imagining future scenarios through the creation of tangible artifacts. Julian discusses some of the ways the practice can help guide decision-making and its uses in strategy and communication. Julian invites listeners to explore this interdisciplinary approach through publications and the Near Future Laboratory, a community applying Design Fiction principles to a broad range of projects.
Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS:
Julian Bleecker: What is design plus science fiction? Can you conflate those two ways of seeing and sensing and representing possibility?
Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS: fresh perspectives on marketing and advertising, produced weekly by Bigeye, a strategy-led, full-service creative agency growing brands for clients globally. Hello, I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, Chief Strategy Officer. Thank you for joining us. It’s the end of the year, a time when research and insights agencies publish reports predicting which emerging consumer behaviors will become the trends that shape 2024. Over the past several weeks on IN CLEAR FOCUS, we’ve spoken to practitioners who look beyond trends to think longer-term, imagining a range of possible futures for organizations and brands. In episode four of the season, Helen Edwards talked to us about identifying marginal behaviors that have the potential to go mainstream. And in episode three, Scott Smith and Susan Cox-Smith of Changeist discussed futuring and developing applied foresight cultures within design and marketing teams. Today’s guest has collaborated on projects with Scott and Susan and is widely acknowledged as the originator of the practice called Design Fiction, which many leading foresight, insight, and innovation agencies employ. Julian Bleecker is a futures designer, product innovator, engineer, serial entrepreneur, podcast, host and creative team leader. A true polymath, Julian obtained his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Cornell University and his master’s in engineering from the University of Washington, Seattle, where he was at the center of R&D for virtual reality 1.0. Julian received his PhD from the History of Consciousness program at UC Santa Cruz. But it was a manifesto that Julian wrote in 2008 entitled “A Short Essay on Design, Science, Fact, and Fiction,” which was the genesis for what has blossomed into an international practice, which Julian describes in more depth than his book, “The Manual of Design Fiction.” To discuss how Design Fiction can help brands move from the present to the future, Julian is joining us today from his studio in Venice, Los Angeles, California. Julian, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS!
Julian Bleecker: Thank you. It’s lovely to be here.
Adrian Tennant: Julian, let’s start with a definition – what is Design Fiction?
Julian Bleecker: Yeah, so definitions are beautiful and also sometimes tricky. But when I’m asked, as you just did, I describe it as a method to vividly render tangible future scenarios before taking action or using those representations of possible futures to help guide, inform, and shape decision-making. So, I think to kind of flesh that out and add a little bit more sense to that, it’s the translation of ideas that an organization might have about what it wants to do in the future. And rather than representing those ideas in the typical way that you might in a commercial context or even in any context, know, like as a statement, as a North Star statement, “This is where we’re trying to get to,” and to augment those kinds of prosaic statements, I find that it is incredibly powerful and effective to have some kind of tangible representation of what that means in a form as if that future were obtained. So literally artifacts, things that in some future, an archeologist might dig up and try to wonder about if they are not able to find the fragments that are written, you just find, fragments that are components or symptoms, implications of the worlds that would be, experienced. So, it’s something that’s meant to not replace the ways in which an organization might imagine into its future, which is typically done with future vision videos or just statements that might go out, you know, sort of taglines for an organization that can travel and they can be quite vivid. If you add something that is, “This is what we mean,” that you can point to and people can hold in some fashion, where people can kind of ponder and look at from a variety of angles and sides, You’re adding to, you’re augmenting those more prosaic forms of imagining into possible futures.
Adrian Tennant: Well, Julian, when you were a kid, seeing the Star Trek Communicator device was kind of a lightbulb moment for you. So, could you tell us a bit more about the impact Star Trek has had on your journey toward developing Design Fiction?
Julian Bleecker: Yeah. So there’s something about Star Trek, and it had as much to do with the development of my consciousness, my understanding of what the world was and what was possible and all those kinds of things. So, you know, it’s an age where your mind is so wide open to possibility, and you feel more than you make sense of things. You make sense through the kinds of feelings that you have when you see something, you experience something, or you’re exposed to something. And, it was a time when, you know, there was television. There was a lot of television. And, Star Trek would come on the television, and I didn’t know what it was other than what I felt about it. I mean, I knew enough to know that, okay, obviously, this is a scripted drama and these kinds of things. And you’re eight or nine, you get those sorts of things. But there was something about the world that was being crafted in these moments that you could capture, you know, once a week ‘cause there’s no streaming, and you would capture this thing. And there’s something about the devices in that, like the objects, the affordances that the crew of the Enterprise would have at their disposal. And it just drew me in, in this kind of way where it’s just – the only thing I could really come up with was like, “Oh, that’s really cool. Look at that. That’s cool. Isn’t that cool?” And it’s this feeling because of what the affordance was able to do, whether it’s like a tricorder or a communicator. And so seeing that kind of shaped me in a way, but then it was when I saw those things represented, as if they actually existed in the world outside of the television set. So when I saw at my local hobby shop these drawings of these devices in engineering form as if they were things that were built by some factory someplace, and there was a moment of like just beautiful confusion – where it felt like this thing had a different story behind it. It wasn’t just something on a television. It was something that existed in the world and was sort of represented in this thing that I later found out was the Star Trek Starfleet Technical Manual. So it’s a manual about the things and the ships and the organization that represented Starfleet. And It just totally changed the way in which I, I saw and understood, the world in a beautiful way and a set of trajectories. So, as a kid, it’s like, “Okay, I want to be like an engineer or an astronaut, or maybe like a fighter pilot,” like very typical, adolescent sorts of desires and dreams. And I ended up becoming an engineer. And I think it was definitely something about that connection between futures as represented by Star Trek, so it’s in a different century from the one that we’re living in. So, that sort of meant like, “Okay, so this is what a future could look like.” And then the connection to engineering was, “Yeah, so there are these instruments or these devices, these things that require power, and they’ve got transistors in them. Who does those kinds of things? Right. Engineers do that. So let me become an engineer, and then I can have some role in shaping, you know, little tiny futures, little corners of the world.” And in the end, what I really understood is like, I was chasing after that feeling that I had when I was first exposed to it, that, that, “Oh, cool” feeling. And I wanted to find that wherever I could. And I wanted to be a part of like, you know, facilitating, having that feeling, you know, for myself and for others around me, like, “look at this, isn’t this cool. I made this thing.” And that sort of, in a way, was that early impact that Star Trek had on my journey towards eventually becoming an engineer and then finding the way in which that “Whoa! Cool” feeling was created, which I kind of wanted to operationalize in some sense and ended up calling it Design Fiction. The relationship between design as a material-making practice and using that material-making practice to represent possible futures, possible worlds that we could occupy, and just kind of using that word fiction as a way to represent that ambition.
Adrian Tennant: So, I’m curious: Julian, how did the science fiction writer Bruce Sterling come to play a role in the evolution of Design Fiction?
Julian Bleecker: Yeah, so this was just a number of happy kind of coincidences. I was in Los Angeles, and at the time, I was sort of working in and around these ideas that I had and trying to find the way that I could almost, you know, in some sense, sort of formalize this kind of dream practice of making things and doing engineering to tell stories about possible worlds and having those worlds be things that kind of set a trajectory or direction for a commercial organization. What do you call that? And at the time, Bruce Sterling was in Los Angeles. He was a futurist in residence at Art Center College of Design. And I didn’t know him before he was here. And while he was here, he used to, you know, doing the things that a Bruce Sterling kind of character would do. So he was like floating around and sort of meeting different communities of practice within Los Angeles and just basically enjoying the possibility that, he, you know, find out what other people are doing. And so he would come to USC, where I was teaching. So, as a professor at USC in the film school and that’s where we connected, and I got assigned to be essentially the reader of a new book he was working on and use that as a way to kind of facilitate a kind of Salon-like discussion amongst a bunch of other faculty from the universities around Southern California. So I’ve been nervous to do this, but through that, we became kind of friends, you know, became connected and sort of stimulating each other creatively and professionally. And I was just sort of interested in like, “What is a science fiction writer doing at an art school?” Like, “What are you doing over there?” And he said just very matter-of-factly, “It’s like, well, I want to learn about design.” And I thought that was, I was just kind of floored. I was like, “Wow, okay, you can, one can do that. That was sort of eye-opening to me in a very naive way. And, I would have these series of conversations with him over the many months and years around that time where I said, you know, “What is design plus science fiction?” and essentially that’s where the phrase kind of came, and he sort of wrote a little bit about that in his book, “Shaping Things.” How can a science fiction writer do design and what would it be to do fiction through design? Like, can you conflate those two ways of seeing and sensing and representing possibility? What if the two things come together? And that just kind of set me on a trajectory imagining what it would be to do design, but it’s fiction.
Adrian Tennant: Julian, what is an engineer doing at USC teaching film studies?
Julian Bleecker: Yeah. So, film school was doing what I thought was an incredibly futuristic thing. It is an incredibly futuristic thing to imagine what is the future of film in a world that is kind of networked and kind of databased and these kinds of things. And so, they were exploring one possible or additional future of visual storytelling filmmaking being more like something that integrated interactivity to it. So it was literally, you know, the program was called Interactive Media. I think it’s got a longer title now, but it was essentially a division of the school. So they’ve got production, they’ve got critical studies, they’ve got sound, and so forth. And they had this new division called Interactive Media. So if you’re gonna create visual stories [there] is going to be this component where it’s not just a linear story, perhaps. And that kind of took the trajectory, early on, of just very broad explorations in what interactive media was and how it operated and these kinds of things. And what are the technical instruments that would shape that or that would make for interactivity? And so I was brought on because I’ve been doing a lot of that sort of work. I was previously in New York, so I was doing a lot of stuff within, you know, the dotcom, doing a lot of web-related sort of things, but also things that included hardware and just real, kind of expansive explorations of even what, you know, new devices that were out there. So this is when there were no phones with built-in cameras, they were just starting to come on the scene, and people were experimenting with them, hacking them, using them, it’s like, “Oh, I got a camera in my hand now, it’s 512 pixels square,” you know. Just really, really early-day stuff, but it felt like vanguard-level things, like, “I don’t know what this is for, what it can do.” And no one has defined that. It hasn’t been kind of canonized as like, “No, this is what you do with it. So let’s just explore and experiment.” I remember writing code for things like the Palm Pilot and the Compaq iPaq and just trying to figure out how can we do these things. And then you start connecting them to GPS devices, and there’s no GPS in it. So you’ve got this big honking GPS device connected through some mechanism into these other devices. And you’re starting to build this very cobbled together, beautiful, in a macro sense, assemblage of potential and possibility that you’re sensing into. By that, I mean, you’re like, “I think there’s something here. Wow. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could connect this network device somehow to this GPS device that’s sending a signal, sending some data, integrate that with an image? What would that be?” And you don’t know what it is, but you’re doing the experiment, and you’re, but that’s what I mean, that you’re at the vanguard because you go around and you tell other people about this and they’re just kind of like, “Why would you ever want to do that? I don’t get it. Look at that thing. it’s terrible. it’s got this eighth-inch cable with a screw-on serial connector to it, and it just looks horrible.” But you’re like, “Yeah, but isn’t it cool? Like, can’t you see where this is? Can’t you see that this is just at the edge of the future? That’s where we are.” And you have that kind of gap of, you know, confusion and meaning. And so doing those kinds of experiments, doing those explorations was what I guess, you know, in a humble way, kind of got me on the radar of places that wanted to look more. They wanted to experiment with possibility. They didn’t want just what was already kind of cooked and baked and ready to go. They wanted that exploration. They wanted to bring that to their students. And so, you know, I got a call, basically. And it was fortuitous that I was just finishing up my PhD. So, so I had a PhD. So, it all felt like it fit together really nicely.
Adrian Tennant: Mmm, that’s fantastic. And I remember Organic was an agency that we all looked to in the late ‘90s to what was happening, what was going to be next. So, [I] definitely remember the excitement around that period.
Julian Bleecker: Yeah, and Organic’s a good example because that was one of the places that I was working. It was that beautiful moment that felt like a renaissance. Because there was this largesse, right? People are like, “We’re willing to experiment because we don’t know what this is going to be yet. And we see opportunities and possibilities for our advertisers who are saying like, ‘Hey, we need to figure this stuff out and we’re paying you guys good money to figure out how, what are the ways in which we can connect to our audience? What are the new experiences that the generation, you know, in three or four times they’re just going to expect? We want to be on the leading edge of that. We don’t want to wait.'” And so, with this largesse, they could fund, you know, essentially these internal R&D studios which were just people, sort of exactly like me, who are kind of like, “I just want to do something that feels cool, and I don’t know what it is. I can’t promise you what it’s going to be, but I know it’s going to be beautiful because it’s going to come from the future.” And there’s something really powerful about those, that moment.
Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after this message.
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Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Julian Bleecker, artist, technologist, educator, originator of Design Fiction, and the founder of Near Future Laboratory. Earlier this year, you published the 10th-anniversary edition of the “TBD Catalog.” How did that project come together and in what kinds of ways does it exemplify Design Fiction?
Julian Bleecker: Yeah, so that project came together, maybe a year or so after I wrote this sort of essay manifesto called “A Short Essay on Design, Science, Fact, and Fiction,” which was trying to get out of my head this idea that I had about what Design Fiction was. And around that, I wanted to try to do a Design Fiction project because I hadn’t done one. I’d only sort of like theorized what it could be and understood maybe what I had been doing as an engineer, practitioner, designer, kind of artist. and I wanted to just kind of bring it all together in some way. And so I had this idea. To me, it sounded incredibly simple and just a lot of fun. Could I get a bunch of people together in a room and say, “Let’s imagine into a future, and let’s represent what we imagine, not as a report, not in a prosaic form, not as a kind of analysis, but translated into the form of a product catalog that has come from that future. So if we imagine ourselves being able to time travel or maybe being archaeologists who dig up this catalog from some future and bring it back to show people, it’s like all the stuff that you’re talking about, you know, all the stuff that you’re reading in the various reports, McKinsey and, Gartner and, Accenture and BCG, all these big consultancies are talking about the future. The Economist, you know, has their top 10 things coming down the pike. Suppose instead of like writing about these or even bothering to say that these are predictions, let’s just create that world. Let’s create a little corner of that world, one artifact from that world, in the form of a product catalog.” And that was basically the brief and I just sent out an email to about two dozen people who I knew I would enjoy being in a room with them for a few days to imagine this and to begin to create it. And pretty much everyone said like, “Yeah, let’s do this.” And it was a destination kind of jam. It was like, “Let’s meet in Detroit.” And you know, Detroit just seemed like this place. ‘Cause it was like, it’s just, I don’t know, it still has this sense of an era. Like a kind of renaissance in a way. You know, a very complicated city in so many ways. And not necessarily the place that you think of when you think about doing a futures project. Like this wasn’t going to the Bay Area, this wasn’t going anywhere else you can imagine where the future is kind of situated in our consciousness. It’s almost like it feels like a ruined past. Of course, Detroit isn’t that way at all, and it’s become a destination for me for doing workshops. I’ve just been there twice in the last two months to do workshops. And so that was essentially the brief: just to get people together in a room and imagine into the future as a Design Fiction artifact, as an artifact that has come from a possible future.
Adrian Tennant: Now, you’d probably be way too modest to note this, but I am astounded at how resonant those examples in the “TBD Catalog” are of not our future but our present today. You have things on the order form, which I think you call digicoin. Interesting. We today have Bitcoin. You have coconut-based panda meat long before public awareness of either lab-grown proteins or the phrase we’re using today for vegan as plant-based. Lots of things in there. In the decades since “TBD Catalog” was first published, how have you seen Design Fiction being used within client organizations?
Julian Bleecker: It’s mostly used to augment the kinds of futures work that they might be doing, whether that’s future strategy, sometimes it’s marketing and communications, sometimes it’s work meant to help shape and inform and guide decision-making. Sometimes it’s work done in the context of learning and development. So trying to find different approaches, and techniques, and contexts in which you can help an organization grow and expand the basis by which it does its work. So, you know, sort of workshopping new approaches to doing oftentimes challenging kinds of creative work. “What are we going to do next?” I mean, it’s like, well, you know, everyone’s got their opinion, but are there other ways in which we can kind of represent the outcomes of these opinions? What might the world look like besides whatever ideal kind of vision is locked away in people’s imagination? So I really like to think of it as not a replacement for the ways in which organizations do strategy work or communications work, but it’s something that helps enhance the representation and even the communication of it the ways in which you can kind of distribute through an organization. So it’s – you know, I lean on this perspective heavily because I’ve experienced it myself being in a large enterprise – but it’s like, “Don’t send me the PowerPoint. Like it’s a heavy lift That’s a lot, and I’m not sure what to do with this. And you know, requires a lot of words.” So even if you get the PowerPoint, it’s going to be like, “Okay, well, let’s clear some time in the calendar so you can walk me through this.” There’s nothing wrong with that on the face of it, but I think these things can become so much more effective and touch us in a way that we carry the meaning of this work with us more closely, more somatically. It’s like it becomes a reference point. It becomes the thing where you can say like, “Oh, it’s kind of like…” So you get a long statement. And then if you have this artifact that represents that statement. I guess the inverse is, you know, thinking of artifacts. If you go through, like, some of the world’s greatest museums of natural history or archaeology or whatever, it’s like, you see the object, you see the artifact. You might read the wall text, and you read a little blurb about it in the catalog, but what sticks with you is the experience of being near a material, tangible artifact that you like, “Wow, you know, this came from a place. Remarkable, amazing!” If you read about it, there’s nothing wrong with that on the face of it, but it doesn’t stick with you in a way. It becomes the analytic part of it. And we know enough about how the human brain works and how we make decisions and how we sense into things that oftentimes that happens it’s not the rational part of our consciousness, it’s the feeling part, it’s the imagination, it’s the things that make us dreams. And that’s the part that I think needs to be touched more when we do this kind of work, whether it’s marketing, communications, advertising, or it’s on the other side of the house, like C-level strategy, and communication of a vision of an organization.
Adrian Tennant: Well, I’m sure you have lots of them, but what has been a favorite Design Fiction project, would you say, and why?
Julian Bleecker: Yeah, there are a lot of them, aren’t there? Okay, there’s one standout: a very large autonomous vehicle company asked us to help them with their Gen Five, strategy. And it wasn’t the kind of thing where it’s like, “We’re going to tell them what to do,” because there’s a level of like knowledge, as you might imagine, within that kind of question, that’s just not going to touch it. I’m not going to tell you about that. Or I, you know, I wouldn’t even know where to start. What we were able to do was through a series of what I found exceptionally fun workshops. This was during the pandemic, so it was all online, with a number of their teams from engineering with their manufacturing partner to their research staff, the research staff being kind of markets research, so the people who do ethnographic in-house sort of interviews with potential customers and just trying to understand the world that they’re entering into. We took all of that and, collectively with them, which was a beautiful part of it, it wasn’t like we grabbed this material and like went away; it’s like we kind of kept them involved in the process because very many of them were like, “This sounds like fun – like we’re going to imagine into this Gen 5 autonomous vehicle world, but we’re not going to do it from the way that we’re usually expected to do it. Which is like the analytic approach. Tell us what systems we need, and how much resolution in the various kinds of LIDAR systems.” It wasn’t that. It was the world that actual normal humans experience. What is a world in which you summon a vehicle, and it comes to you? And where does this idea of autonomous vehicles go? And so, we very early on, through a series of these kinds of discussions, said like, you know, “I think we need to do this.” So much material here. And it’s such a rich world that touches so many aspects of the lived human experience. The best way we think to represent this is in the form of a magazine. A magazine as the archetype. The thing that you or I might, you know, might be sitting at an airport waiting for a plane. It’s like, “Let me go to the newsstand and see what’s going on.” And you find this magazine, and it might not be anything like exceptional or out of this world. It might be just like Car and Driver, only it’s Car and Driverless. Like, “Hmm, I wonder what’s going on in this world?” And you pick up this magazine and, you know, through 72 pages of glossy magazine, it’s sort of expressing all the corners of the world when mobility is, for the most part, autonomous. It’s not totally perfect, right? And so you can do that in all these forms ’cause the magazine offers you all these different frameworks through which ideas and kind of opinion are expressed. And it has got advertisements, you know, one of one of the advertisements is for a children’s play set that’s got an autonomous vehicle. So, you know, when I grew up, it was all Hot Wheels, right? And so you have Hot Wheels, and they’ve got the play sets, and you can get the different models and stuff like that. Like this car, you can say, “Go pick up doughnuts.” And you’re watching your little model autonomous vehicle drive up to the Dunkin Donuts stand and make its way through the, you know, it’s just like a little plastic model. And that, that was a fun way of, you know, just kind of giving that full breadth of this world. Then you can have the editorial, articles, things that are sort of wondering about, the future of the driver’s license, which is now called the operator’s license. So essentially, no one’s driving, so it’s not a driver’s license. So it’s like, “Oh, okay. Now I’m starting to get the contours, the production design of the world. Like this is a little bit different. People still look the same. No one’s wearing silver lame and astronaut helmets. It’s not that kind of future.” And there’s also tensions. You know, because it becomes sort of present, through the article, it’s not didactically stated, but it’s like, “Oh, you’re not allowed to drive your own vehicle.” And so now, like, where do the people go who are real, proper, you know, internal combustion engine? Like peel-out and donuts kind of people. How are they upset? How are they affected by this?” And you find out it’s like, “Oh, there’s some places you can actually go. And it’s a special treat, like going to Disney or something.” Like once a year, you go, and it’s like, “Yeah, let’s, let’s try driving a car.” “Daddy, what’s that? What does that mean? What is this big round thing in the front? It’s in my way.” “That’s called a steering wheel.” And so you can start to, you know, help people imagine into this possible future, both in fun ways, but then also poignant ways. One of the research components that had come up was a concern the organization noticed in the research about transportation deserts, places where it’s very difficult to get, you know, have access to mobility. So, how do you service those in a world where there are autonomous vehicles? Whether it’s, you know, in a city where the mobility offerings are biased to one particular area of the city over another. And so you can kind of represent these things. You don’t solve the problem, but you do have a letter to the editor that might express this. And so it’s just a flag. It’s just like a signal. Like, “This is something that we found.” And our job was to translate these things into a way that was more acute, I think, than just getting the big three-ring binder with all the research that you don’t really quite get through. It’s something that kind of lives with you, and it’s something that the CEO of the company is like, “This is fantastic.” It’s like, “I give these things out. You know, I keep a stack at my desk,” and it’s a way of sort of representing that they have a particular stake in really trying to make a more habitable future. They’re not just in it for the buck.
Adrian Tennant: There’s a lot more to discuss about the practice of Design Fiction, so we’ll be continuing our conversation in next week’s episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS. But for now, Julian, if listeners would like to learn more about you, Design Fiction, and your work with Near Future Laboratory, what’s the best way to do so?
Julian Bleecker: The first best way is to read the books. And so that’s why I created The Big Box of Design Fiction, which includes three of the main books that I think give one a really good sense of what we’re trying to do and how we’re trying to do it. So it’s “The Manual Design Fiction,” “It’s Time to Imagine Harder,” which I refer to as “The Reader’s Guide to ‘The Manual of Design Fiction’ – so, why Design Fiction?” And then “TBD Catalog,” which I think is probably the best example of what Design Fiction looks, feels, and kind of senses like. And then I refer to “The Manual of Design Fiction,” it’s like the world’s first book to come with community. So, everyone who gets the book gets an invitation to join the Near Future Laboratory Discord, which is that place where there are now a couple thousand people who are engaged in the topic and trying to figure out how to engage more. That’s also where, you know, a lot of the announcements kind of happen
Adrian Tennant: And we’ll also include links to the Near Future Laboratory website, the podcast, and the shop where folks can find Design Fiction books and related products. Julian, we’ll continue this conversation in next week’s episode, of course, but for now, thank you very much for being our guest on IN CLEAR FOCUS!
Julian Bleecker: It’s my pleasure. Super fun talking to you.
Adrian Tennant: Thanks again to my guest, Julian Bleecker, Design Fiction pioneer and the founder of Near Future Laboratory. As always, you’ll find a full transcript of our conversation along with links to the resources we discussed on the Bigeye website at bigeyeagency.com – just select ‘Podcast’ from the menu. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next year, goodbye!