What Speculative Design Is Really About: 3 Common Misconceptions

5 min read
Evelina Molis
Marketing Manager
Speculative Design
Inside Spotless

On Wednesday, the Spotless team spent the entire day together up-skilling in Speculative Design. We charged up the DeLorean, spent some time in the future and came back inspired, energised and with a toolbox filled with new methods.

The training, led by J Paul from the School of Critical Design, included access to an online platform that guided us through processes and methods.

At the end of the day, the team was buzzing. We immediately started discussing ways to integrate this approach into our existing work. Speculative Design can bring even more value to businesses by exploring longer-term timeframes, considering future needs and reflecting on the direct and indirect consequences of an idea. These insights can be used to inform strategies, improve experiences, and introduce new products and services.

So what is Speculative Design all about?

To answer this, it’s actually easier to explain what Speculative Design is not. So jump in! The DeLorean is solar-powered and ready to go.

#1 It’s not about predicting the future

Thinking about (or worrying, panicking or looking forward to) the future is something we all do. Businesses everywhere are trying to understand how they can spot trends, respond to future needs and contribute positively to global changes.

But where do you start if you want to understand the future better? The first step is to stop trying to predict it.

Speculative design is not about trying to figure it all out. It’s about spending some time reflecting on the things that are happening today that point towards different possible futures.

A great way to start this process is to look for signals out in the real world. Signals are specific pieces of evidence; something that has happened and shows us a glimpse of the future world. News headlines are an excellent place to look for signals.

Once you’ve identified an interesting (or exciting or terrifying) signal, it’s time to reflect on this signal and what it means for your specific industry. This can be done in a very simple mind map where you note down the direct and indirect consequences of your signal for your particular industry.

Examples of some signals the team explored during the workshop.

#2 It’s not about launching your new idea

After you’ve taken your DeLorean to the skies, zoomed out and looked at your signal and industry in a broader context, it’s about brainstorming ideas and coming up with some wild solutions that might exist in this possible future.

It could be that in the future, the earth is in such a terrible state that everyone lives in underground bunkers and can only experience nature through VR headsets. Or maybe you could take your children to a healthcare theme park in which roller-coasters carry out health checks without them even noticing. Or maybe you and your partner can order a simple prick test to see what genes you’re passing onto your children – and adjust what you pass on to the next generation.

Some of the speculative concepts the team came up with.

You might think: “That theme park is a pretty damn cool idea” – but launching your new idea is not the point of this exercise. The aim is to reflect on the world of tomorrow, but more importantly – reflect on what we should be doing today. What elements of your speculative concepts are desirable? Which ones aren’t? What can we do today to ensure that the desirable parts are more likely to become reality, and what should we do to prevent the undesirable aspects from happening?

For example, how might we make health care services that are more welcoming and maybe even fun? Which brings me to my last point.

#3 It’s not really about the future

Okay, of course, it’s a little bit about the future. We’re all hoping we can help contribute to a brighter and better tomorrow. But it’s more about today than anything else. The reason we spend time in the future in the first place is so we can load up on reflections, considerations and insights that enhance our decision-making today.

The powerful thing about Speculative Design is that you can actually impact the future by what you do today. A bit like those ‘Choose your own adventure’ books!

Just as Marty McFly and Doc Brown always return to the present day, remember to bring your learnings into the work you’re doing right now. Reflect on your future vision – is it leading your teams in the right direction? What about your current experience? Could it be working harder to address the needs of tomorrow?

And then start small. Creating real change is about taking the first step. What is something you can do today? Revisit your vision statement? Do more research with your customers? Or prototype and test that feature you’re thinking about launching? If you’re not quite sure where to start or you need support with your next research or service design project, the Spotless team are ready to help.

Where to start?

Two things I love about this process is that:

  1. it allows us to reflect on our impact in a much wider context than our usual day-to-day often does, and
  2. it can easily be used as a tool for your personal and professional life as well.

To get you in the right mindset, try picturing your future self. You don’t even need a DeLorean for this – you can do it without the risk of running into yourself and impacting the space-time-continuum!

You can start with the lovely ice-breaker that J Paul introduced us all to: Your future memory. Think about a future memory – something you’ve not yet experienced but hope to in the future. What does this future memory mean to you and what can you do today to make sure you’re heading down your favourite path?

Spending some time thinking about your aspirations and dreams can give you new insights about what you might want to change about your life today.

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