Dear Future … We made this for you

Dear Future … We made this for you

Looking back at 40 years of looking ahead.
Michael Hendrix
Alicia Duvall
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We designers are optimistic to a fault. We believe we can build something better and will take great leaps of faith to prove it. But we'd be fools to claim that we can always see what's coming around the bend. Never trust anyone who says they can predict the future.

Nevertheless, we have launched ourselves into the unknown for decades. Joining a long history of science fiction, this is an exercise in speculative design, where we build on early signals we're picking up and ask, “What if?” At times, our speculation about the future has come across as a little too naive and niche, like when we proposed stamping fruit with the full FDA nutrition label or suggested a fixie-inspired walker for senior hipsters. But when we’ve set our sights on what tomorrow’s humans might want from our clients, our portfolio of the future has been startlingly prescient.

In 2005, two years before Steve Jobs announced the iPhone, a short film we made with Intel showcased the hyperconnected, hypermobile, on-demand lifestyle we all know now.

That same year, we created a series of shorts for HBO foretelling a world of personalized streaming content—well over a decade before binging our favorite shows became standard fare.

In 2010, our exploration of the future of the book anticipated the need to verify the legitimacy of sources on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

These predictions may seem easy to come up with in hindsight, and in one sense that is true. When you pair the exponential power of technology (Moore’s Law) with evergreen human needs, it leads to logical conclusions. The harder part is making such foresight tangible.

That’s where design becomes a valuable tool.

IKEA, which has its own future-facing research and design lab, Space10, understands the power of tangibility. We partnered with the company in 2015 to imagine the future kitchen. The final exhibit, staged at EXPO Milano, anticipated an augmented reality in which screens and data are no longer confined to devices. More than an exhibition, the prototype served as a strategic roadmap for integrating multi-sensory digital content into a built environment and helped IKEA build an organizational belief in, and understanding of, this technological shift.

We’ve delved into the future of automobility, manufacturing, connected intimacy, the workplace, blockchain, and artificial intelligence. We’ve also used design fiction to explore complex human experiences like aging, citizenship, and time. These “What-Ifs” aren't an art school indulgence. Rather, they are queries about what world we want to inhabit and what choices we need to make today in order to get there.

While we don’t believe our era is any more exceptional than the next, the choices we are making today feel more consequential. We are facing global economic contraction, the explosion of artificial intelligence, and a developing climate crisis that scientists say could cross an irreversible threshold by the end of this decade.

The urgency to ready our clients, ourselves, and everyone for the Climate Era has been a longtime obsession. In 2017 we designed an exhibition called “Never Finished” to illustrate the principles of a circular economy. We reimagined makeup, food packaging, sneakers, and electronic devices as part of regenerative systems. A few years later, this fiction became a beacon for global fashion leader H&M, whose pursuit of a circular future has involved eliminating plastics from its consumer packaging.

But even the most on-the-nose prediction about what the future will bring can go sideways. In 1997, Kodak asked us to create a consumer experience for digital photography. Using that era’s available technology, we built a fully working digital camera with an integrated screen menu. The working prototype was nearly twice the size of what cameras would become, but it established the fundamental experience of digital photography that we use today.

While the team at Kodak hoped to design a pioneering new product, they ultimately didn’t have the internal alignment to move forward. Instead, they continued investing in film, a choice that ultimately proved to be a losing bet.

The takeaway: Even the most beautiful speculative design won’t sway hearts if the leaders of an organization don’t have the ambition or desire to invest in a better future—and we don’t mean just a profitable one. “What if?” is the beginning of a design-driven process to understand what choices we need to make today in order to create the future we want.

While the contracting economy, climate change, and systemic bias can feel insurmountable, we remain optimistic. Over the coming year, we will be sharing a series of design fictions that portray a world in which we got things right.

The questions we are asking—“What if everything is electrified and we have abundant energy?” and “What is the future of ordinary data?” and “How do we unleash the creative capacity of the next generation?”—are shorthand for deeper investigations into how we redesign consumer goods, healthcare, AI, and education.

Turning these questions into experiences so that others can visualize, feel, and participate in a better world is an essential practice of design and, for businesses that want to be here in 2033, the only way to stay relevant.

We will begin each of these design fictions, which will roll out over the coming year, with a letter:

“Dear Future, we designed this for you…”

We may never meet those born 10 or 20 or 30 years from now who will live out these visions (or something that looks quite different), but that doesn’t mean we’re off the hook. We are accountable to one another and stewards of a fragile planet. In 10 years, every business will have become a design business because every business will have had to change. And every person will have a hand in designing our future.

*One sentence in this article was written by ChatGPT after giving it the prompt “Slogan for a campaign about designing the future.” Can you guess which line?

Hero image: Magic Mirror, an augmented reality dressing room designed for Prada in 2003 in partnership with OMA.

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Michael Hendrix
As a Global Design Director I work with teams across the globe to help them keep the bar of creativity high.
Alicia Duvall
Design Lead
Alicia is a jack of all trades and has actually managed to master quite a lot of them. She combines concept, design, illustration, lettering, motion and strategy to tell beautiful stories.

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