I’m a science fiction writer, and as I became more familiar with design, it struck me that the futuristic objects and services within science fiction are quite badly designed. Why? That’s not a question often asked. The reason is pretty simple: Science fiction is a form of popular entertainment. The emotional payoff of the science fiction genre is the sense of wonder it conveys. Science fiction “design” therefore demands some whiz-bang, whereas industrial design requires safety, utility, serviceability, cost constraints, appearance, and shelf appeal. To these old-school ID virtues nowadays we might add sustainability and a decent interface. The classic totems of sci-fi: the rayguns, space cruisers, androids, robots, time machines, artificial intelligences, nanotechnological black-boxes. They have a deep commonality: They’re imaginary. Imaginary products can never maim the consumer, they get no user feedback, and lawsuits and regulatory boards are not a problem. That’s why their design is glamorously fantastic and, therefore, basically, crap. On occasion, sci-fi prognostications do become actual objects and services. Science fiction then promptly looks elsewhere. It shouldn’t, but it does. I like to think that my science fiction became somewhat less flaccid once I learned to write “design fiction” as I now commonly do. I believe that I’ve finessed that issue, at least in my own practice. However, when science fiction thinking opens itself to design thinking, larger problems appear. These have to do with speculative culture generally, the way that our society imagines itself through its forward-looking disciplines. Many problems I once considered strictly literary are better understood as interaction-design issues. Literature has platforms. By this I mean the physical structures on which literature is conceived, designed, written, manufactured and distributed, remembered and forgotten. Literary infrastructure has user-experience constraints.

April 6, 2010