Design for Fictional Life

grad-taught Wintersession studio

The future—that paradoxically urgent and faraway notion of what’s next—is something that we build in the present. For some, this is an unconscious fact of life, for others a constant driver of individual and collective action. As an agenda for acting in the now, says Industrial Design grad student Aaron Simmons MID 18, futuring is a bold, utopian approach to design—“a method for creating the world you wish to see.” However, it can also be a critical activity, he points out—“a process of examining and critiquing current trends to think through possible outcomes.”

Over Wintersession students from various disciplines joined Simmons in exploring these concepts in Design for Fictional Life, a studio he conceived of and co-taught with Dave Pittman MID 18. For the course, designers engaged in the practice of futuring by responding to works of science fiction and magical realism by such writers as Jorge Luis Borges, Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin. Fiction in general—and science fiction in particular—provides students with an excellent model for building hypothetical worlds in which to test new designs, the instructors say.

“When we design we are inherently creating future worlds. Our products alter, affect and hopefully create inspiring futures.”
Design for Fictional Life instructor Aaron Simmons MID 18

Just as they would in more “grounded” ID studios, students made models of products for practical use… but in the imagined futures of speculative fiction, rather than in the here-and-now. “They rose to the challenge and produced some amazing work,” says Simmons, who admits that to actually create realistic, fiction-inspired products is much more difficult than to merely recognize the ground fiction and design share.

From initial exploration to final projects, students made work that was at turns functional or highly interpretive—from personalized “handicapping devices” for the authoritarian dystopia of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story Harrison Bergeron to a skill-sharing app designed by Paridhi Mundra 18 IL for the interplanetary civilizations of Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness. In response to Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Sel Lee 19 IL made an aesthetically pleasing windup device with a handle covered with tacks—sharp side facing out—to capture the opposed sensations of pain and pleasure provoked by the novel’s titular object of desire.

Even though the literary framework of Design for Fictional Life offered a predominantly bleak view of the future, many students managed to infuse their designs with a playfulness befitting the clever premise of the studio. For instance, Graphic Design senior Ruth Lin 17 GD conceived of the coveted “moon milk” in Italo Calvino’s short story The Distance of the Moon as a skincare product that also contains “gelatinous matter, worms [and] combustion residues.” And she now plans to infuse her graphic design work with a similarly free-spirited sensibility.

Inspired by the Italo Calvino story Moon Milk, Ruth Lin 17 GD created a fictional skin-care prototype made from “gelatinous matter, worms and combustion residues.”

“It’s so fun to play with something based in fiction,” says Lin, who loved designing explicitly for an imagined future. “But [designers] are doing that already, just in a less extreme way.” Guest critic David Gorin, a PhD candidate at Yale University, also recognized the youthful energy in many of the designs. “One of the best things about your work in a design school is that you get to make the things that you imagined as children,” he noted. “Now you have the tools to influence the imaginations of other children.”

“It’s so fun to play with something based in fiction. But designers do that already, just in a less extreme way.”
Ruth Lin 17 GD.

Regardless of the emotions, intentions or materials that designers use to realize their ideas, say the instructors, the end goal is always to shape the world that lies ahead. “When we design,” Simmons says, “we are inherently creating future worlds. Our products—both physical and digital—…alter, affect and hopefully create inspiring futures.”

—Robert Albanese