Future Tense

Sci-Fi Writer Bruce Sterling Explains the Intriguing New Concept of Design Fiction

Before the iPad, there was a tablet computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Photo by CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images

I’m in Tempe, Ariz., today for Emerge: Artists and Scientists Redesign the Future, a conference at Arizona State University. One intriguing new way to think about the future is through the concept of “design fiction.” When you first hear the phrase, it sounds slightly nebulous. One usefuldefinition calls design fiction “an approach to design that speculates about new ideas through prototyping and storytelling.”

Bruce Sterling, a Hugo Award-winning science-fiction writer, has been one of the most vocal advocates of design fictions.* In the edited conversation below, he explains why design fictions are so important—and what the hell the term means.


Slate: So what is a design fiction?
Sterling: It’s the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change. That’s the best definition we’ve come up with.  The important word there is diegetic. It means you’re thinking very seriously about potential objects and services and trying to get people to concentrate on those rather than entire worlds or political trends or geopolitical strategies. It’s not a kind of fiction. It’s a kind of design. It tells worlds rather than stories.


Slate: Can you give an example?
Sterling: I think the most effective design fictions to date have been videos. They’re not science-fiction films; they don’t have any Avatar-style heroics. They’re mostly vignettes of people interacting with objects and services. There’s some element of intellectual sex appeal that makes people forward them to other people. 


Here are two design-fiction videos Sterling particularly enjoys:

Slate: What is it that makes design fictions work so well?
Sterling: Talking about a future gadget isn’t like talking about a future government or women’s rights in the future or other hot-button problems. Plus people are interested in things like that. 

Slate: Can you have a design fiction within a sci-fi film?
Sterling: Absolutely. All these props have to be designed in one way or another. They’re dramatic, but they don’t really have much evidence of serious design thinking behind them. They’re not cheap to manufacture, they’re not easy to maintain. … That really slows sci-fi [creators] down. [Design fiction] is not a thing which is going to replace Hollywood. I don’t think that’s its purpose.


Slate: What’s one design fiction that people might be familiar with?
Sterling: In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the guy’s holding what’s clearly an iPad. It just really looks like one, right? This actually showed up in the recent lawsuits between Samsung and Apple. That’s kind of a successful design fiction in the sense that it’s a diegetic prototype. You see an iPad in this movie and your response is not just, “Oh, what’s that’s that?” But “That would be cool if it existed.”


Watch the iPad-like tablet in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Slate: And what is bad design fiction?
Sterling: Bad design fiction would be just bad design—like, gee, wouldn’t it be great if I could flap my arms and fly to the moon? No one’s going to aspire to emulate you because your idea’s stupid. They would just sort of fall dead. It’s a goofy imagination that doesn’t have any ability to compel.


Another bad concept would be hoaxes, like this metal bracelet would cure cancer. I’m lying to you, I’m taking your money. Design fiction is not something that tries to convince you [that something that does not exist really does]. That’s fraud, that’s a criminal act.

Slate: Why is design fiction important?
Sterling: It’s really a new set of tools that, I think they’re giving futurism a second wind in some ways. Instead of talking about grand, overarching things like futurism in the 1960s—we need a new consciousness—it suits the tenor of our own period. What kind of business model would that work in? That’s the question people of our time can engage in. I’m not saying design fiction’s going to resolve our economic problems. On the other hand, if you’re an unemployed designer, it’s one of the coolest things you can do now.

Correction, March 3, 2012: This blog post originally misspelled the Hugo Award as the Huge Award (of course, it is indeed a huge deal).