Looking ahead is one of the most important things designers do. Taking the long view, looking over the horizon, getting away from the market or technological barriers of today to imagine what might be tomorrow. Design offers a crystal ball, one that you can live in and feel for yourself, and then try again if it doesn’t feel right.
Often sprinkled with a healthy dose of creative fantasy, design visions of the future are not science fiction. We no longer look to Hollywood for a serious glimpse of future possibilities; we are more likely to look to Sony, Philips, Microsoft or the Royal College of Art.
Such organisations own the stuff that the future will be made from: an understanding of technology; the means to apply it; and crucially, the desire to connect to what we desire and aspire to. Designers have the tools required to paint a vision, model the scenario and prototype the experience. We can talk about what technology might do, but only by modelling the experience can we understand both the benefits and the softer issues of use and emotion.
Even then, it is difficult to foresee the social impact of our future visions. Did we anticipate the social and cultural impact of the Internet? Could we have foreseen how some communities rapidly took up mobile communication and others were reluctant? These are more difficult to understand in advance. But one of the effects of showing our visions of the future now is to understand the human response and to familiarise and prepare us for it. The future is not to be waited for, or discovered, it is to be built.
Car companies have done this for decades when they show futuristic concept cars from their design teams. Companies closer to our homes, like Philips, broadcasts its conceptual design work, such as the Visions of the Future programme, to formulate the future as much as to prototype or advertise it.
Philips Design started linking its products together in the Home of the Near Future, and other conceptual visions, to explore how people lived and make products fit them rather than people fit the product. Some of its previous visions of tomorrow have become today’s reality. The collaboration with Levi Strauss & Co to create the ICD range of clothing that has MP3 music players and mobile phones built in sprang from a concept of wearable technology developed in the mid-1990s at a time before the materials and technology existed.
With that much technology you wouldn’t want to leave your jacket on the back of the chair, but Philips has gone on to develop its ideas even further with the New Nomads project. Taking a collection of contemporary urban warriors, it has created an absorbing fantasy of techno-clothing to enhance, record and enable work and play, weaving in elements of privacy, relaxation, stimulation, security and communication. Do we want to wear technology? Well, now we can try it on for size and find out.
Prototyping in this way can provide an interesting journey, but it also suggests a single-brand world, which is where the vision loses credibility. It is much more likely that the future will be a multi-branded, individually configured world, where all our life tools are personalised. The world is already multi-branded, the cellphone, the PC, the software and the chip proliferation will grow, not diminish. The ultimate future vision is the transformation from mass production to the manufacture of one, or even further, where we build it ourselves.
Designers’ visions are invariably built around the magical liberating power of technology and a continued belief in the combination of science and a humanistic approach to design to solve our life problems. Those outside design tend to look at larger cultural signposts for how things might be. We know people are living longer and need products that are inclusively designed, rather than just for 18- to 25-year-olds. We know that people find out and care about how we manufacture. Ethical and environmental concerns are driving purchasing decisions. Are designers considering these issues?
Do we look to scientists and inventors for solutions to global warming, or to politicians? Might the answer to a throwaway culture be one of economic model, not design? For example, an area of current economic debate is the concept of ownership. If US economists like Jeremy Rifkind are right, we won’t buy stuff, we’ll lease it from the brand makers, and receive our updates of fashion, software, engine, body style, whatever, every two years, six months, week, or day. Is that frightening? It could be very good news for a sustainable world vision if manufacturers have to take the stuff back and use it to re-manufacture. Fashion would no longer concern us, have a new one when you like. It could be chaos, or it could be glorious.
One thing I do not believe is that the material world and, by default, the activity of design, is diminishing. We have many visions that show the stuff around us disappearing; the TV replaced by the projection on the wall, the only connection to a brand through the software and a logo on the remote, or the welcome greeting on the voice-recognition system. Such visions fall into science fiction. Voice recognition, like virtual reality, is a great-sounding idea with limited applications: if you start talking to your washing machine, how does your dishwasher know you’re not talking to it?
Ford’s 24/7 takes concept cars to a new level. It might not have the presence of Marc Newson’s vision – the Detroit stylists dismissed its chunky diagrammatic appearance but they missed the point. The 24/7 replaces the dashboard with a projection screen, which offers you as much or as little information as you wish. Knowing who you are – a valid use of speech recognition – allows the car to play your music, turn the colour to what you want, put up the picture of your family. Take it on holiday and e-mail the view to your Mum and Dad. Ford’s 24/7 begins to take a very personalised view of technology and explore the real benefits and uses. It’s technology again, but it’s about convergence, mixing them all up to create a more enabling and engaging experience.
We will always need stuff, to broadcast who we are, to allow us our vanity. Even in an e-future, products, as well as the connecting media, the access port, the door to information and services, will have a place. Whether we grow them on us, talk to them, rent them and have a different one tomorrow, there will be physical interfaces to be considered and challenged. It is easy to feel smug about a world that is so smart and technological, yet half of the world has still to use a phone for the first time, and for those who have, the world is still a clunky, clumsy place with only occasional transparency. It is still a world of on buttons and unconnected things, wasteful and unsustainable in the long term.
If designers create a vision and prototype the experience, we’ll be able to look at it and see if we like it. We should ensure that the next generation of designers and decision makers grasp the opportunity and responsibility of defining what the world is from as wide a viewpoint as possible and start to join it up and make it last.
Clive Grinyer is director of design and innovation at the Design Council