Musings on designing experiences & (re)engineering complexity

Dec 2018

Experimental World Design

There are those who invent the future before its imagined… that happens here too

In one of the reads highlighted last week, there was the mention of the space and practice of experimental world design. This could also be called prototype engineering or futures concepting. It amounts to drawing on various disciplines in order to guide decision making processes for what could be more clearly seen with something “touchable” in the midst. This is beyond simply doing a demo, this is a space of world building where the impacts are assumed during the design (creative) process, but the door is wide open to be surprised by the results. When done well, experimental world design enables better (ethical?) decision making. When pushed into spaces with too positive or too negative a bent, the resulting tropes might guide decisions and their outcomes for much longer than the concept might have predicted.

When we designed the SmartTrip Apple Watch Concept, there was some of that experimental world building happening. No, not to the level of Monika Bielskyte’s Ghost in the Shell research work, but also not that far away either. In order to design an application which could relate to several contexts by which public and shared transportation would be utilized, there needed sufficient research to place the activities and the resulting issues which would land with making that concept feasible. As with many researchers, there was a lot of “throwaway” work, however, there was also a good bit of work which wasn’t thrown away, but made its way into apparently simple functioning features within the application.

We find this kind of activity not limited to technical concepts; it is actually part of the formation of a person throughout childhood. Children who are able to take boxes, wrapping paper, and other “raw” materials of the home and then create worlds are exercising this same muscle. Some of these children are able to go future and isolate specific components of those worlds, growing that focus into a hobby which might carry them for a few years of childhood, or for the rest of their lives. One could argue, experimental world design by adults is a continuation of such practices (with monetary and political compensation attached).

As spoken within that article, one cannot do experimental world design and think others will be as invested within that world as its authors. Yes, empathy will be gained by audiences when they revel in the worlds which are created. However, every audience will go into that world with a story framed around their own biases and expectations. Done successfully, a world designed in these moments will fade into the background, and a larger narrative will rise to the surface. This doesn’t mean the world doesn’t matter — only that there’s something greater that the world is promoting. Much like the child who builds their world in order to gain the attention and presence of a parent/influential older person. If we concentarate on those worlds which are created, we might learn a bit more not just about ourselves, but also about what others want to find invested within their own stories.