Design duo Dunne and Raby, professors at The New School / Parsons, spoke to Strelka Mag about the evolution of speculative design.
Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby have been using design as a tool to spark discussion and provoke creative thought since the early 90s. Anthony has a background in industrial design and Fiona in architecture. Inspired by the radical Italian designers from the 60s and 70s and by Japanese experimental architecture, they set up the Dunne and Raby Studio in London in 1994. They work at the intersection of design, science, and art, developing projects that vary from creating fictional scenarios to designing hypothetical products.
Their project “Technological Dreams Series: No.1, Robots” (2007) is a reflection on the future of robotics in our everyday lives. “Between Reality and the Impossible” (2010) explores possibilities of synthetic biology to extract nutritional value from non-human foods. For “United Micro Kingdoms” in 2014, Dunne & Raby developed a scenario where England is divided into four super-shires inhabited by Digitarians, Bioliberals, Anarcho-evolutionists, and Communo-nuclearists. All of their projects are communicated through a wide range of mediums: they can be an object, a series of photographs, illustrations, or an animation.
Over the years, Dunne & Raby have accumulated a massive and diverse amount of work and had it exhibited and featured in permanent collections, at MoMA, the Centre Pompidou, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and many others.
But first and foremost in their intellectual pursuit is offering an alternative form of design. Speculative or critical design, as we understand it today, in many ways emerged within the Design Interactions program, which Dunne & Raby composed as a research lab at the Royal College of Art. With dozens of their students and collaborators, they have developed a groundbreaking design practice, a new language, and a new intellectual movement.
Their book “Speculative Everything,” published by MIT Press in 2013, is regarded as one of the most important texts on the subject.
Dunne & Raby are now based in New York at The New School / Parsons, running what is called the Designed Realities Lab. They are also part of The New Normal core faculty at Strelka Institute. Anthony and Fiona spoke to Strelka Mag about the transformation of their design and education practices.
At the Designed Realities Lab, Dunne & Raby continue their research and experiments with a focus on an interdisciplinary approach to social and political thought, world-making, and emerging technology. They advance the ideas expressed in their book “Speculative Everything.”
“By the time we published it, we had moved on already. For me, chapter 7, “The Aesthetics of Unreality,” is the one chapter that we are pushing on and moving forward with. I think we wrote the entire book because of that one chapter!” says Fiona.
Dunne & Raby accept that critical design as a set of practices and ideas has recently begun to evolve rapidly over a very short period of time.
“Design is adjusting and mutating in order to continue to be able to engage with the world. What we are seeing now is a lot of smaller groups that experiment with new types of context, and new sorts of partnerships working with government policy, with different communities and disciplines,” Anthony observes.
Speculative design, by not being bound to commercial logic, opens new opportunities for designers to investigate and experiment.
“There is a framework that still makes sense, but designers can ask questions, formulate hypotheses, experiment, and this allows them to participate in more complex issues, in more interesting ways that complement the fine arts, architecture and other fields. We are only really getting into how that is working here at The New Normal,” says Anthony.
Dunne and Raby want to challenge the monolithic vision of the future that comes from the industry. “If we start with the things around us, that we already know, and project them into the future, we are going to end up with an extension of the present which is not so helpful when we are trying to think of more radical alternatives. Trying to think of ‘alternative nows’ is just as important. Our world, in some ways, has become quite restricted ideologically. There is a mainstream of thought in relation to technology, that is taking us in one direction,” notes Fiona.
Future visioning may serve different purposes. For the industry, it sets the direction, helps to open a new market, or test ideas. With speculative design, Dunne & Raby aim to avoid that sort of agenda. “What we have been trying to do is move away from futures, and think more about the world views that underlie technological development. How we could work with philosophers, political scientists, anthropologists, sociologists, to construct alternative world views and then start to use design to materialize those.”
Dunne and Raby admit that seeing futures as a framing device is extremely limiting. “The minute you see something as a future vision, people want to know how we get from here to there. There are certain limits for what is regarded plausible and realistic. By trying to move away from futures to world views, we are hoping that we can broaden the range of possible ideas you can entertain, possibly more dramatic and radical. We are starting to think of them more as realities, that is why we are calling our lab in New York the ‘Designed Realities Lab’,” explains Anthony.
Dunne & Raby have been dealing with technology for the past 20 years and now they feel that space to be very narrow. Moving to the New School and starting to work alongside philosophers, political scientists, and anthropologists has helped them broaden their perspective. “We are not sure how these things manifest themselves. In the end we are very interested in design, we do not want to make systems, the object to us is still very important. When we are looking at science and technology there is a materiality to that, you can extrapolate from. However, if you start moving into the humanities, there is less materiality. How you make that materiality is something we are still exploring. It is a work in progress at the moment, but we are highly stimulated by the conversations we are having here. It is very much opening up our thinking.”
So what is the most important skill for the designer of the ХХI century? Dunne & Raby believe imagination is the key factor. It is the foundation from which “a whole set of other skills, methods, approaches, and narratives can spring from,” says Anthony. Combined with aesthetics and poetics, imagination can lead to really genuinely radical alternatives. “For us, there is a shift into the more fuzzy, soft, and poetic. I would not call them ‘skills,’ but maybe sensitivities and sensibilities that need to be coupled with very complex, fast-moving political and technological ideas. Somehow trying to construct educational spaces, where people can experiment and learn about that, is the challenge for us as educators.”