Icon Minds: Tony Dunne / Fiona Raby / Bruce Sterling on Design Fiction

Raw notes!

Tony Dunne / Fiona Raby / Bruce Sterling

‘design has more to offer fiction at the moment than literature has to offer design’

Bruce S.

‘how to think about objects and surfaces that don’t yet exist’
our end goal is to mess with peoples heads
90% of the product of human genius doesn’t appear
patents, vapourware, social gestures, concept cars
hobbyist objects, unknown to the public
impossible objects: perpetual motion machines, quackery
frauds, fakes, objects that lie
futuristic devices: rep-raps: self-replicating replicators, robots, rayguns, urban battlesuits (heh)
why is it that sci-fi writers spent such a large amount of time with the last class of objects (the smallest slice of imaginary objects)
to expand my genre, i’m looking for help. I look a lot to design
very fond of critical design
wonder if there isn’t a much larger field of design fiction than we thought
what i call ‘speculative culture’ – a large set of social possibilities
a few of the approaches that design and sci-fi have in common:
* scientific experiment
* futurist scenario work
* observations
* storyboards and storytelling
* flowcharts, analytical software
* brainstorms
* mashups
this is a mashup – we’re going to leave a stain on each other…
might look like a stain for now, but might gel… into a sensibility
students are comfortable with mashups – polymathic – disintegrating structures of discipline

McG: idea of students being polymaths is very encouraging and important. what are the students doing – D&R?


an interaction design course – how tech impacts and enters our lives – as the starting point… but in the last few years broadening to emerging tech: biotech, synthbio, nano etc

fast-fowarding to when they are distributed throughout society, then bring them back to now and see if the outcomes are desirable or not.

open-sailing took shape thorugh social media/software: built a group that embarked upon a future, a dream. an important point for me – because the tools were invisible to the student (cesar) just a way to do the project rather than the ‘star’ of the project. for a younger generation, digital tech is nothing special anymore (but this is something that can be engaged with critically) and the emerging tech is the thing that also needs to be interrogated.

scientific process: hypothesis, which is tested through design and making – things are learnt and iterated

Bruce: the gartner hype-cycle ‘peak of inflated expectation’ / ‘trough of disillusionment’ – to the plateau of use… integrated into daily life… boring / meaningless

my genre was traditionally in the ‘peak of inflated expectation’ – i’m not trying to make my own work more ‘useful’
crunchy, crispy pop metaphysics – that bends your mind… I want to be MORE WEIRD
something that has a hallucinatory quality that comes through the skylight and floats through the keyhole
but- my role as a sci-fi writer is going away… because of the speed of media translation… people are not surprised by the future anymore.

if i blog something about something going on in a lab, the guy will email me and invite me for drinks to talk to about physics. the people i bring to the table are not physics enthusiasts. they are a weird crowd. when i link to something they go and dog-pile on it. that was not possible before. this is not fiction. having people in a social network go pile on something i link to is not fiction, but it has science fictional aspects.

i don’t worry about it’s power i worry about it’s fragility – it may be something that’s very had to explain to our children, or perhaps just in 7 years…

Tony: usefulness is there all the time in design: architecture and industrial design – blessing and curse
we’re trying to see how speculation through design could take on a social usefulness
if our imagination runs too far ahead in design, it perhaps ceases to become design and becomes fantasy
a lot of our debate with the student about where that line is – how to stay on the side that it’s not just pure entertainment

Bruce: our ideas or ‘use’ are too limited – is there a way of finesse it?
the psychopathology of everyday life – east german industrial design had ‘utility’ but born of a mad regime. these objects are uncanny and weird to us, but they made rational sense within the framework of east germany. the designers bought into the framework of that society.

we’re not instrumental beings – we’re not rational objects of use. you can’t write a short story about ‘use value’. not trying to being mystic about it – don’t want to wrap myself up in the thick cotton wool of storytelling, but we don;t understand ourselves well enough to define what ‘usefulness’ is. our society is mad like east germany – not in the same ways and perhaps not as crushing but it’s a framework we can’t see the edges of that makes us feel like we are making rational choices.

I’d like to see transhistorical critical design… what would ruskin say about interaction design… ruskin facebook… steampunk does this, but it’s also 19th century critical design of contemporary objects… the reason that people find it attractive is the sense of freedom it gives – the new/old.

(had to leave at this point for a meeting!!!)

Icon Minds: The return of ornament

, originally uploaded by moleitau.

Thanks to Justin McGuirk for the invitation to http://www.iconeye.com/iconminds/.

Below, my (very) raw unedited, incomplete notes from the morning session on ‘Ornament’ – Charles Jencks was most enjoyable, must admit I tuned out as the morning went on…:

icon minds event

the return of ornament: intro by Justin McGuirk

100 yrs since ‘ornament and crime’ aldolf loos- amazing that that is still so potent. digital tech in architecture schools is driving this – in icon office they joke about ‘return of victoriana’ – but then it was incredibly theorised where as no it is not…

charles jencks
farshi mousavi (check) foriegn office architects
marjan colleti, bartlett school of architecture

Charles Jencks
(shows front page of the FT, picture of hank paulson)
book ‘sense of order’
3 depths of ornament
‘all arts aspire to the condition of music’
rhythms that control and affect / effect us without us having to know to much about them
from simple to complex / abstract to meaningful
distinction between decoration and ornament
in the last ten year, ornament has been ornament as eye candy
paulson’s frown is a piece of decoration rather than ornament
i’m defining decoration as something you wear as a sign as a way to communicate in code to a group.
‘the blush on the face of a virgin in every novel is completely conventional’
(now frowns on the faces of capitalists is ‘the blush of the virgin’)
shows koolhaas morphing into zidane
(angry passionate reluctant – architect and designer’s ‘blush of the virgin’)
morphing is… one of the strongest influences on ornament today… morphing is somehow ‘musical’ – from Koolhaas to crescendo… of Zidane..
the construction / structural elements, repeated in a kind of ‘symphonic’ way in each fact of the OMA’s seattle library… organisational diagram informs the ornament – intersection, interlocking, ornamental use of colour for ciruclation to take you through a grey abstract concrete space… ornament is being used to underscore organisation
shows prada building in tokyo (?) herzog de merreon
rem: “dubai is vernacular zaha” – everyone is doing the same tricks with form – in adevrtising and magazines and academia… cliched images, rather than reality
venturi’s ‘dumb box’ / ‘decorated shed’ – done by FOA in spain… hexagonal tiles… that wobble nicely – ‘i call it the hexiwobble’
eberswalde library by H&dM – ornament not guaranteed to last 8-10 years by concrete manufrs
‘age of mechanical reproduction’ -photograph, but double – the facade is mechinaical reproduction
birds next stadium by h&dm – getting closer to mimicking nature
FOA work – pleats and plates of folded.
the 19th criticised construction – they said ‘don;t construct you ornament, instead decorate your construction’ – then poiret (?) teacher of corb said don’t do that… decoration always hides fault, and so the truth.
argument: philospophical/’moral’ – don’t think it is moral… we all ornament, we all decorate
transformational ornament is the 3rd degree
my own work based on fractals (cosmic garden in N. England?)
ornament should tell a story, should be narrative
shouldn’t stop at the level of semantics
the two great theories underlying nature:
plato – behind nature the underlying forms are regular solids (modernism) unbroken plato -> classical -> cezanne -> corbusier
based on the metaphysics of getting to the underlying forms of nature, the organisation of matter – self organisating relationships between them
1977: benoit mandelbrot: the fractal geometry of nature
things are more or less platonic when viewed from our scale, but in reality – mostly crinkly, self-similar, scale-free, always changing.
a symphonic scaling, between scales… recent work of FOA
gaudi – still the master of doing this… mediating between scale with ornament and structure.
the 4th degree of ornament is where there is an overall story that is seen in every element that the architect/designer/client has worked out whih gives it greater resonance.

Farshid Moussavi / FOA

book: ‘the function of ornament’

how do we define and construct ornament today?

it is part of how they ‘perform’ (structurally, environmentally) – they have a function
architecture has a very outmoded and narrow concept of function
sensorially roles should be part of function
opposition of function to ornament is representative of our dualist thinking between matter and mind
natural / symbolic
structural / symbols
louis sullivan was the last architect of ornament before modernism?
‘form follows function’ dictum reduced function to utility
related forms to culutre – often added inbetween structure and function – not considered together
but now they are – and start transforming each other
it’s no longer possible to isolate forces in the environment: cultural, societal, structural
cities are spaces where multiplicity rules, novelity emerges
materials are now joined by what she calls ‘supermaterials’ – economics, virology, systems, information
spinoza: affect / affectation

(I have to admit I tuned out at this point…)

In the corner at Icon Minds

Long life / loose-fit / low ennui

Which is a pun headline that will only work for a very few people.

The critical writing that has gathered around my “city as battlesuit” post has gathered something like critical mass – and it’s way more interesting and better written than what I dashed out for io9.

Go read:

As for the ‘testosterone-fuelled technoptimism‘ aspects of my writing, well – it’s a fair cop. In my defense I was writing with limited time in a busy week for a science-fiction site, rather than for my critical theory phd advisor, so y’know.

Which is not to say that phds in critical theory are bad things either.


So I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m sorry if using the term ‘battlesuit’ seemed to trivialise war, the military, weaponry etc. all things I have no direct experience of – and hope never to experience.

This was not my intention. I was simply trying to use an attractive metaphor to grab people’s attention on a science fiction site trafficked by people as adolescent as me and get them interested in the critical discourse of clever people, like you.

The most important part of the sentence for me was ‘surviving the future’ – for which I still believe cities are the key.

This is why I stopped blogging, isn’t it.

And this is why Russell ends his posts with “anyway“.


Thanks for all the future cities of the past, David Jefferis


Recently, I wrote a guest post for the science-fiction blog io9.com, for their feature on “Future Metro”, entitled “The city is a battlesuit for surviving the future”.

It referred to a talk I’d given at Webstock covering similar territory – and both the talk and the post featured images from the Usbourne book “The World of the Future: Future Cities” by Kenneth Gatland and David Jefferis.

Tom Coates shared those images with me as we reminisced about the book – and the influence it had on us during our formative years.

Many other people of my generation have remarked on it and other books in the series looking at future engineering and technology as being early inspirations.

Imagine my surprise when one of the authors of this ur-object showed up in the comments of my io9 piece – and my dismay as he – very politely – complained about a lack of credit.

David – my apologies.

It was remiss of me not to credit the image, and also not to fully acknowledge the impact your book had on me when I was young. Thank you very much for your work, and thank you for taking the time to comment on my writing. I hope posting this helps make up for that.

David is still writing on science, engineering and technology – and running a couple of sites that are still right up my street: Starcruzer and Scale Model News – the latter with childhood hero and total mind-gangster Mat Irvine!

Irvine used to create special effects for Dr Who and Blakes’ 7, then come on Saturday morning kids tv shows to tell you how you could do exactly the same with your pocket money that afternoon.

He was an early DIY/Maker culture hero – but that’s for another blog post…


[overhead shot of a table in an expensive modern-european restaurant. It's not a capital, but it's one of those cities  on the thinktank/summit-circuit that treaties get named after. Two people are talking. A man in his fifties and a woman in her mid thirties. Both are understated in appearance, but obviously expensively dressed. Both of their smartphones are turned screen-down on the table. It's unclear to us who is the most important. And it's unclear which one is saying the following]

Governments and corporates know me as 'Switchboard', which is how I like to keep it.

I have an aptitude.

Well, a few aptitudes.

But, mainly – I'm very good at people.

Especially those who can't really be described as people anymore. I know what they're good for, what they want and – how to get hold of them.

I've never saved the world, but I've probably had lunch with someone who has.

I'm who you call if you have, y'know -  a *really* big problem.


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