A Rough Design Fiction Maturity Continuum?

If you’re reading this you probably already know about Design Fiction. You may also have seen Bruce Sterling‘s recent talk at NEXT Berlin on Fantasy Prototypes and Real Disruption. At around the 12:30 mark Bruce calls out the need for a system of categorisation for design fictions, ‘a taxonomy of dragons’ if you will. I don’t think this fits the bill exactly, but it may be a useful reference in thinking about the matter.
(click image for full size)


I came across this image on /r/criticaldesign a few days ago, it was created by one Jess McMullin back in 2005. It is meant to illustrate various levels of maturity of design thinking within organisations, but this may also be a useful way of thinking about the substance of design fictions and identifying some of the issues with the homogenous glossy corporate futures identified by Scott Smith as ‘Flatpack Futures‘. The continuum would then break down as follows:


Design Fictions redefining the challenges facing the organisation planet.
‘Disruptive innovation lives here’ as the graphic says. ‘Thick’ futures imagining deep systemic changes to our society.

Problem Solving

Design Fictions exploring new opportunities to solve existing problems.
“Wouldn’t it be great if everyone in this slum had access to solar-powered communal water purification & toilet/bathing facilities? Here’s what that might look like!” etc.

Function & Form

Design Fictions to show things working better.
Future product demonstration videos with little further substance.
Most ‘flatpack future’ videos live here.


Design Fictions as the gateway to being hip and cool.
The rest of the ‘flatpack future’ videos live here. Just gloss that says nothing about people’s real lives.

‘No conscious design’ doesn’t really fit the continuum as by definition with any design fiction there would have to be design involved, but you could possibly apply this category to videos that may be mistaken for design fictions. Your basic throwaway Sci-fi utopias & dystopias in which the future hasn’t even been designed but just copy/pasted from a Tupac video. Shit happens all the time.

In order for a design fiction to be doing any real work I think it needs to live in the top two boxes. That’s where Paul Graham Raven‘s Infrastructure Fiction goes as well I guess. As for the lower two boxes, well there’s nothing wrong with it also looking great (please make your work look great) but shine without substance won’t cut it if your design fiction is to ever actually mean anything.