At the most basic level of definition, speculative design refers to the rejection of current reality in favor of exploring alternative fictions that arise from questions, concerns, and ideals put forth by designers who are looking to conceptualize a world that “could be”. Speculative design lives mostly in the world of the imagination. When these ideas do take a physical form it is typically by way of abstract objects or constructions meant to represent the notion, rather than provide a functional solution to the problem or idea at hand.
It is important to understand that speculative design is inherently different from commercial or humanitarian design in the fact that it does not seek to make the world “better”. Most facets of design are mainly concerned with creating things that are good, that provide some kind of user benefit and facilitate positive worldly changes, but the reality is that global problems can no longer be solved by product innovation. Designers are currently too focused on designing towards a brighter future, but therein lies the problem that speculative design aims to address: how can we truly say we are designing for the future if we’re only preparing ourselves for one version of that future. Speculative design is about freedom of question and exploration, and allowing designers the creative space to think critically about all possible future scenarios we may one day find ourselves in the midst in, even if that scenario verges (or fully plunges) into unreality.
One of the main reasons that speculative design is a relatively small and isolated avenue of work is the overhanging hindrance of capitalism. The world of design is driven by capitalist ideology; designers in all areas do what they do in order to fuel the never-ending cycle of capital production. If an idea/object/product is not being made for market, it is seen as fundamentally less valuable, and therefore does not deserve the same funding, research, or public exposure as commercial design.
“The State of Fashion 2017” report published by Business of Fashion McKinsey&Company provides, in detail, examples of the wide range of ways in which the fashion industry is owned and run by a capitalist agenda. Only mere hours after finishing “Speculative Everything” and “Are You Ready to Consider that Capitalism is the Real Problem?” I was faced with this document that is the apparent antithesis of everything that speculative design presents. “The State of Fashion 2017” is a sterile look at capitalism in action, and presents answers to every misgiving and failing within the fashion industry as neatly packaged business proposals to reinvigorate lackluster market performance. Though its content is not surprising, as designers are generally well aware of how their respective field operate within the capitalist agenda, it provides a clear example of how the core of speculative design will be at odds with the expectations of a capitalist society until an alternative economic structure can be proposed.