Culture Crush

Design Fiction Film

Forget character. Forget plot. These future-focused movies are all about design.

In many ways, A Digital Tomorrow is a boring movie. It follows a young woman as she goes about her day watching TV, driving her car, and getting coffee with a friend. The short film is made interesting solely through the technological interactions of its protagonist, for she inhabits a future in which cars are unlocked through gesture pass codes, phones are powered by circular motion, and mirrors ping when makeup meets satisfaction.

The genre of design fiction films hasn’t produced any Academy Award winners or summer blockbusters. These movies reside in a niche defined by their plotlessness, brevity, and focus on an average person’s day-in-the-life. Their chief purpose is not to entertain or edify, but to expand our imaginations into the decades and possibilities ahead. These films are mind-teasers providing brief glimpses into what life might be like and what technologies and innovations might transform our everyday experience.

The roots of the modern design fiction were planted at the 1939 World’s Fair, an international exhibition with the theme, “The World of Tomorrow.” Companies crafted elaborate pavilions, positioning their consumer products with a future-oriented slant. They used current technology to tell the story of future technology: the future of cities and cars, fantastical electric gadgets, and novel means of communication.

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In 1957, nearly 20 years later, the tactics of that World’s Fair inspired the creation of what has become an iconic work of design fiction: The House of the Future. The film’s concept is simple: a family visits the House of the Future (which MIT and Monsanto actually built in Disneyland) and the wife imagines what it would be like to live there. We watch as they cook, dress, and relax inside Monsanto’s Tomorrowland home. This plastic-enabled familial bliss is narrated by a kindly voice explaining the home’s features. It shows fictional events but there isn’t a plot. It features Monsanto plastics but it isn’t a commercial. The main character isn’t even the wife or her family; it’s the house itself. These key qualities continue to define the genre and are present in nearly every design fiction film since The House of the Future was released.

Consider Corning’s 2011 design fiction A Day Made of Glass in which we follow a family through their life in a home outfitted with sleek glass gadgets and surfaces. Even after more than 50 years, the similarities between the two videos are remarkable: from the parents and daughter to the requisite kitchen scene and video call. Unlike Monsanto, Corning didn’t need to actually make the house. The ability to digitally augment footage in post-production has made it even easier for this genre to thrive.

One prime example is the digital fiction that introduced us to Google Glass, it’s clearly another day-in-the-life-style story where the real protagonist is the technology. And again, the film achieves its affect through graphics added in post-production. The role of this film is not to sell us on Glass as a product but rather to introduce the world to the idea of an everyday heads-up display and its transformative potential.

Over the decades, design has received a healthy infusion from the world of science fiction. Tablet computers were inspired by gadgets in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the gestural interface shown in Minority Report is infinitely compared to the Kinect and LeapMotion. In recent years, many design fictions have borrowed the critical and aesthetic pull of science fiction into their design films.

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Revital Cohen’s Electrocyte Appendix shows a man reading, eating, surfing the web, and heating food in a microwave. The film would be utterly banal if not for the artificial organ (fictionally) implanted within the man’s abdomen, powering his electrical devices. Cohen will be the first to admit that such technology is a long way off and that many people will instinctively recoil at the thought of implanting an electricity-producing mechanism inside their bodies. But that’s just the point. Familiarizing us with the potential benefits of such a technology (no wall plugs, electricity everywhere you are) makes it just a bit easier to imagine a world where it’s the norm or challenge us to invent alternatives.

Dunne and Raby’s Designs for an Overpopulated Planet: No. 1, Foragers is another instance where the fantastically strange becomes slightly less so through the design fiction film. The video illustrates a future in which our typical food sources are so depleted that we must rely on external devices to pre-digest plant matter for human consumption. The film itself is simple, slow, and fascinating. The people in it are faceless and genderless operators of their new alimentary technologies. But by the end, the viewer imagines what it would feel like to have and hold and use these devices. This may be a cynical view of the future but consideration proves it isn’t an impossible one.

So many of the human characters in these films are boring and blank. But the reason is that they’re meant to be proxies for the viewer. Design fiction films are blank slates onto which we are meant to project ourselves. They’re doorways to fantasy. Whether a film is meant to support a company’s future products or provoke critical thought, the basic aim is all the same: to create mental room for whatever’s next. Design fiction films dare us to imagine ourselves living new lives transformed by design.

Got you hooked? Here’s more:

Ponder

Sight
A science fiction short that imagines a world of in-eye displays, dating apps, and mind control

Explore

The Corner Store of Tomorrow
Julian Bleeker talks about the trivial and mundane in design fictions with The Atlantic

Laugh

Tex Avery’s The House Of Tomorrow
This 1949 cartoon satirizes American technological worship and post-war consumerism

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