Nº 263

Pure Spekulation
Narrative World Constructions

At first glance speculative design seems to be a pleonasm. Every design is fundamentally speculative, investigates alternatives, variations, and strives for the preferable. And also at a second look speculative design is hard to pin down, since it wants to be more than just the anticipation of future scenarios that try an early bird domestication of emergent technologies. This task is just one part of speculative design that exists in proximity to applied product innovation.

Thus, a wider definition would read as follows: speculative design1 is a practice-based strategy that addresses hard to experience phenomena and hard to think topics through aesthetic settings and experimental investigations. In distinction to artistic practices these intentions are not lead by introspective themes, but instead see themselves as a design research in societal service. Therefore, speculative design dedicates itself to the design of epistemic stagings, whose function especially lies in the stimulation of imagination and participation within the context of sociocultural innovation processes. This article presents speculative design projects that focus on energy as their topic. By breaking down their works in three different approaches speculative design’s heterogeneity is highlighted and its interferences with a multitude of historical and interdisciplinary positions beyond classic design definitions are emphasised. The three segments are not intended to be complete or mutually exclusive so that more segments could be added or can overlap one another.


Energy as Starting Point for Narrative World Constructions


The design of narrative worlds borrows from science fiction projects, examples of speculative literature or the democratic spirit of the future research of Ossip Kurt Flechtheim and Robert Jungk from the 1960s and 70s. In distinction to the computable forecasting of the US American think tanks these scholars were more interested in the creation of a basis for discussion about possible futures. These were meant to allow for a broader societal participation in public.

In this spirit Dunne and Raby follow the idea of offering diverse possibilities in the design of their project United Micro Kingdoms, which consists of four energy and mobility scenarios for Great Britain based on different political attitudes. It is not so much the design detailing through vehicle mock-ups, 3D renderings, and staged photography that is especially remarkable about the project. The key factor lies in its large spectrum of political systems and inspiring energy sources that think technologies and social value systems together. All four scenarios show highly differing societies that for instance see the human body as a medium for technological progress and efficiency instead of the invention of further, material energy machines. Within this extreme scenario genetically engineered interventions in the human body are shown that enable collectively powered, manual-kinetic means of transportation.

Also Sascha Pohflepp speculates in his project The Golden Institute about alternative forms of energy production against the backdrop of a fictional, political situation. He designs an alternative development history of the energy politics in the US. Lead by the counterfactual question “What if …” the 1980 US presidential elections are called on as critical turning point for the speculation about the climate politics that Jimmy Carter would have promoted instead of the actual winner Ronald Reagan. In a staged design narrative consisting of historically looking table models, fictitious propaganda videos as well as photo montages Pohflepp steers the political efforts, which the US invested into the Cold War and the military-industrial complex, towards the development of fantastical but sustainable energy sources.

Both projects avoid offering a singular and from today’s view obviously desirable future. In the case of “United Micro Kingdoms” the four extremely different scenarios are meant to encourage the viewer to come up with his own reflections within the proposed field of possibilities. And while “The Golden Institute” presents itself as a single scenario its counterfactual positioning in an alternative past makes a direct, future realisation impossible. Also here, the aim is to set an impulse for thinking about the malleability of today’s status quo, and to make the beholder position himself as citizen and participant. But the strategy to offer futures with many variants as an inspiration instead of a prediction or even propaganda is not an exclusive mode of speculative design, but instead a criterion for any legitimate future research since its inception in the 1950s. This holds true for both the elitist circles of the US American think tanks and the democratically opened future workshops of the 1970s. Single future images that are presented as being worth striving for are not a central part of futures studies and thus should rather be considered as part of the public relations work of corporations and political lobbies. As a novelty speculative design introduces the design aspects of visualisation and materialisation to futures research and connects these facets with a stronger positioned design authorship.


Energy as Domestic and Intimate Borderline Experience


Another important area of speculative design lies in the creation of domestic and intimate borderline experiences. The design of lived-in worlds, which means the formation of the immediate, material, and aesthetic human environment while taking into account functional and psychological, but also stylistic and ethical criteria, is part of any design. As an addition to this basic task speculative design questions the limits of these designed lived-in worlds. Especially phenomena, which are not expected in the domestic environment, are being examined for possible roles in the immediate intimacy of man.

Also in this field a multitude of design projects that deal with an energy topic can be found. For instance Nelly Ben Hayoun places miniaturised volcanoes in the living rooms of voluntary subjects as part of her project The Other Volcano. In a reference to the raw energy of nature these pyrotechnically enabled objects are supposed to invoke a love-hate relationship with them as unpredictable cohabitants. Instead of suppressing the fragility of the supposedly safe, middle class way of life in the design of the domestic, nature’s energy is exposed as a spectacle and integrated into the living environment.

The works of Julijonas Urbonas on gravitational aesthetics share a similar interest in natural forces. But Urbonas is especially interested in theme parks as public spaces for intimate experiences. While design artefacts often use gravity in an elegant but eventually also secondary way, for instance as self-deploying ceiling lamps or through furniture ergonomics, gravitational and centrifugal forces play the centre part in Urbonas design work. The Euthanasia Coaster as an example for a service for assisted suicide uses the potential energy of its occupants so well, that they first loose their consciousness in a precise series of increasingly tight rollercoaster loops and eventually end their lives without pain. In a strong contrast to euthanasia the erotic thrill ride Cumspin combines the centrifugal forces of its passengers with their sexual desire in order to achieve a kinetic enhancement of their pleasurable sensation and to obfuscate their senses.

The listed design projects share a fascination for extravagantly staged fear, loathing, lust, and death as an element of products and services. So, are they just to be seen as mere design provocations? Such an explanation would be too short sighted and needs further clarification. Since the beginning of the 20th century, design addresses suppressed, psychological impulses through advertisement and shortly after also in the conception of new products. Firstly, in order to activate new ranges of customers and secondly to successfully update products without recognisable, functional improvements. Speculative design picks up on this idea of an aesthetical psychological synergy and prescribes itself to an almost dogmatic diversification and radicalisation of needs and tastes. Even though the advocates of speculative design point out that this is due to the democratisation of power relationships between producer and citizen as well as a more individual participation in the design of our society, there is also doubt. Cameron Tonkinwise for instance doesn’t see more in this agenda than a rise of deceptive and seductive products and is sceptical whether or not speculative design could reach its ambitious ends. A critique that has to be looked at in more detail in future research, but that also must not completely neglect the difference between commercial products and discursive artefacts.


Energy as Aesthetic and Physical Phenomenon


A third, less common and often much less politically charged area of speculative design is to render inaccessible and hardly recognisable physical phenomena visible and experienceable. In contrast to other imaging methods, for example in visual communication or science itself, these approaches aim at the presentation of circumstances that could not be directly and faithfully translated into anything perceivable. Therefore, an essential aspect of these projects lies in the speculation about how these phenomena would behave if they were accessible.

A striking example for this comes from the British artist duo Semiconductor, who actually do not attribute themselves to speculative design. Their Magnetic Movie (2007) visualises and sonifies the complex fluctuation patterns of magnetic fields by rendering them in sophisticated time-based montages on top of images taken at science laboratories. These animations are complemented with excerpts from audio interviews with magnetism researchers who talk about the limits of knowledge in magnetic field studies.

Also Sam Conran’s Kabbalistic Synthesizer is dedicated to the sensualisation of scientific phenomena. Conran designed and realised a tone generator in the form of a working apparatus that sonifies readings of three sensors, which pick up the earth’s magnetic field, the currently arriving cosmic particles as well as electromagnetic storms on planet Jupiter. Since these readings cannot be directly translated into sound Conran projected them onto several computational sound models and thus raises speculation about the actual, but non-existing sound of these physical phenomena. Since it eventually remains unclear how precise and error-free the constructed apparatus works, this realisation cannot be seen as completely faithful. Instead, the combination of interactive apparatus and sensor sonification should rather be understood as an epistemic staging, which due to its vagueness between fact and fiction triggers individual speculations about the sound of the examined physical phenomena. A recognisably more fictional approach can be found in Conran’s project Synthetic Aesthetics that imagines the unknown sound of the Escherichia coli bacterium based on recent biological findings on its electromagnetic activity. This project exclusively uses speculative sound design without mixing in technical direct translations via sensors and synthesis methods.

Another special area of speculation is addressed in the project Elsewheres by Sascha Pohflepp and Chris Woebken. The ability to model isolated, physical processes and to predict them algorithmically has been an essential motivation for the development of the modern digital computer. But due to the practically unavoidable biases in the digital reconstructions of the physical world, the precalculated simulations can only represent a secured future with a certain probability. Therefore these calculations rather resemble a kind of quantified speculation instead of a factual statement. The differences between the modelled and the actual are illustrated by Pohflepp and Woebken in the staging of objects in physical space and a related representation of this situation in the virtual space. Through kinetically simulated actions on the calculated space the constellation of things is altered: tin cans drop, sheets of paper fly across the room and firecrackers explode. Afterwards the calculated order is manually transferred to the physical space, which is not queried for its own kinetic behaviour that would come up by exciting the objects in a similar way. Thus the project positions itself as a critique of the increasing trust that is given to the prescriptions of quantified predictions as it is the case for instance in big data visions. The projects in this third area of examples share a fascination for scientific lab research, whose material and aesthetic richness is staged as a seemingly alchemistic experimental practice. This approach can often be found in the context of science communication, where it serves as an attractive entry point to complex research.

Cultural Mission and Democratic Dialogue


But should speculative design be seen as just “mere speculation” with an artistic touch or rather as the design emancipation of previously elitist speculation and creativity cultures? The critics argue that the approaches were too blurry and aimless for solving the urgent problems of the 21st century. A claim that Dunne and Raby as originators of the term actually never raised, but that was attributed from outside of speculative design. According to them, the offer should be seen in an intellectual and cultural stimulation for individual speculation and thus in the revival of integrative dialogues about futures and sciences2. Cultural scientist Wolfgang Ullrich asked in an essay3, if design products couldn’t be attributed with a similar high cultural, intellectual function, and societal importance such as literature, film, and philosophy. It seems like speculative design is positioned in immediate proximity to this question. Therefore it has to be doubted altogether if there could be a right or wrong in the sense of a methodological guideline. The critique on a differentiation between high and consumer culture as it was already known in the discussion of the Frankfurt School of critical theory receives a renewed prevalence in this regard.



1 Speculative design is a further development of critical design, which both have been introduced by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby. The two designers work on these topics since the 1990s as part of their work at the Royal College of Art in London and at their design studio Dunne and Raby. For about ten years their approach is being extended and theorised by other design researchers.

2 Anthony Dunne, Fiona Raby, Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2013, p. 1–9.

3 Wolfgang Ullrich, Philosophen haben die Welt immer nur verschieden interpretiert – verändern Produktdesigner sie auch?, in: Heinz Drügh, Christian Metz, Björn Weyand (eds.), Warenästhetik: Neue Perspektiven auf Konsum, Kultur und Kunst, Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 2011, p. 111–128.




Ludwig Zeller is a design researcher at the institute of experimental design and media cultures and docent at the visual communication institute of the Academy of Art and Design in Basle. Together with Bernd Hopfengärtner Ludwig Zeller produced the speculative short “Life Is Good For Now” in 2015. Film stills can be found in form 261, a preview of the film and an interview with the authors can be found at form.de/dossiers


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