Notes on a Speculative Design Reading Group

John Jung The University of Chicago Library

In 2019 Renee Albrecht-Mallinger and I started a reading group at Chicago’s community lab LATITUDE called “Design After the End of the World”. We talked about speculative design, climate change, and current events with artists, designers and others. We have run two iterations of the group—each met for eight weekly sessions in the early fall and each had a different group of participants.

These notes are about my experience of the group and how I used it to explore certain aspects of speculative design. This kind of design helps me better articulate problems that are important today and will be in the future. I think it’s important to do this in the context of “the future” because people can be incredibly invested in particular futures, and the benefits and harms of those futures will always be distributed unevenly.

I like Victor Papanek’s quote that “there are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few,” and when I discovered speculative design (and its relative, critical design) I thought it might be a way to do design work in a more self-critical way. I don’t think it necessarily does this, but I do think it’s a good way to approach it.

As a topic, climate change is humbling. It’s common for designers to describe their work as “problem solving”, but in the context of really difficult problems like climate I think they shouldn’t oversell what they do. At the same time, I feel that it would be wrong for people not to look at how their respective fields might respond to climate. To me having an interest in design and being concerned about climate means going back and forth between two states—between being optimistic and pessimistic, and between thinking of design methods as a way to solve problems and wondering if they can actually do that. I hope this approach helps me do design in a more appropriate way, whatever I’m working on.

I would characterize this iteration of the reading group as contemplative, with participants listening carefully and leaving space for each other to talk and to think about each other’s comments. When it came to facilitating the actual discussions in the group, I leaned heavily on my co-facilitator. Renee is skilled at listening carefully, improvising in conversation, and gently nudging people when it makes sense. In this case it was very interesting to see the dynamics of the group develop. I hope we created an environment where people could express their individual responses, or even figure out what those responses might be.

Especially this year there were challenges to deal with that came from outside of the group. For our first group we considered allowing remote access; this year because of the pandemic, the group absolutely had to be virtual. I was happy that people kept showing up for what could have felt like yet another Zoom meeting. The group was a place where we could share feelings about what was happening in the world; even if it was me expressing the uneasy thankfulness I felt at so easily transitioning to working remote.

Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, Dominique Fells, Riah Milton and Jacob Blake were just a few of the Black people who were lost to, or suffered from, violence in the months leading up to our group. Protests about violence against Black people inspired a lot of white people, me included, to look more closely at ways we’re benefitting from systemic racism. In the context of the group, I was trying to figure out how to incorporate material from people who are Black or Indigenous; when it would be better to let someone else bring that work up because I wouldn’t do it justice; and if I did bring it up, how to do it in a way that wasn’t a kind of intellectual tourism but that was genuinely respectful. In the context of climate change I think it’s important to consider issues like these because the negative effects of climate disproportionately affect people who are Black or Indigenous. It’s still work to figure out how to do this, and although I don’t think speculative design offers any solutions by itself, I do think it can be another chance to work on issues like these if you want it to be.

This year’s group also took place in the weeks leading up to the 2020 election. Processing current events like Justice Ginsburg’s death became an important part of what we did every week. With a president who was exceptionally skilled at controlling the news cycle, the news just kept coming no matter what, and deciding to bring things up or how to talk about them became another problem for the group to work on. In this case I think speculative design gave us a way to process current events, and I found that focusing on possible futures gave me a perspective on what was happening each week that I appreciated. Figuring out how to balance that sharper appreciation of the present against considering possible futures that we might not expect is going to be an important next step. On its own climate change is invisible, but we often experience it through media like weather reports or news about storms, activisms, our energy supply or the jobs relating to it. Paying attention to how people talk about climate and think about it seems important, especially considering the politically motivated sources, like thinktanks or lobbies, who create a lot of the messaging around it.

Climate can be an overwhelming topic. Renee and I thought about when to sit with the uncomfortable-ness of it and when to give people a break. This year we ran one of our sessions as a do-it-yourself film festival, featuring videos from the design firm Superflux. Everyone dug into examples of their work (see the Superflux website and their page on Vimeo for examples.) They selected videos, signed up for time slots, and then we “screened” the videos together in Zoom and talked about them. Meanwhile in a breakout room I gave tarot readings to anyone who wanted one using Instant Archetypes, the Superflux tarot deck. It was fun—which felt strange, and in the bigger picture of what we were exploring this strangeness seems worth looking at too.

Although the problems that come up in the group may not be possible to “solve”, they are worth confronting. If we’re going to have something like a Green New Deal some of those plans for projects are going to use design methods that people use now, and I want to be able to look at those methods critically. The group has helped me do that.

The future is contested territory, and for many people, an intellectual curiosity about future possibilities is a luxury they don’t have when they’re advocating for futures where they can simply exist. I’m glad the group pushed each other to look at the future from other people’s perspectives. Our conversations gave me better ways to look at current and future problems than I would have had without it.

Thanks so much to my co-facilitator Renee, and to LATITUDE, and to the group for these discussions.