Learning Design Histories for Design Futures: Speculative Histories and Reflective Practice


The conceptual frameworks that influence historical accounts also influence speculation about the future. In this respect, history and futurology share a subtle affinity. They are both children of the moving present (Buchanan, 2001, p. 73).

The affinity between histories and futures has always been a central concern of my teaching, research and practice. I might use different terms according to the context—heritage and innovation in museums or design history and design futuring in education—but I share with Richard Buchanan a desire for a robust design culture in the present that makes a sustainable contribution to humanity’s future. This essay takes the form of a reflection on my own practice as a design teacher, and discusses the value of speculative history for design students, as well as a recent example in practice. The educational case study is based on a paper I presented at the first Teaching Design History workshop organised by the Design History Society in 2010, which coincided with the launch of the Design History Reader (2010) by Grace Lees-Maffei. Having taught design history, criticism and theory for seven years in the Design Studies Department at the University of Otago in New Zealand, it was gratifying to see a relatively comprehensive published reader that bore some resemblance to the various readers I had compiled for undergraduate courses. However, talking to the design history teachers, I became aware for the first time about a tension that existed in the UK between the teaching of design history and its relationship to studio practice. Since being made compulsory in tertiary education in the UK in the 1970s, design history had grown to be an established discipline (or, at least, sub-discipline of history), but there was a perception amongst students that it lacked relevance to studio practice, or at least had become divorced from it due to different methods of delivery and outcomes (studio vs lecture, design vs essay). While this did not necessarily coincide with my own experience, it did make me consider the relationship of history and practice in tertiary design education.

The relationship of history, theory and criticism to practice is frequently debated in design, as it is in many other disciplines with demanding professional practices. However, design’s prescriptive, projective and prospective orientation often sees history relegated to educational outsider status, confined to the lecture theatre and excluded from the studio. In other words, there is a perception that too much emphasis on descriptive, critical and retrospective analysis of design hinders innovation, and so an artificial divide is maintained: History is the object of formal disciplined and critical study, not the subject of practice. History is dead and inevitable; design is alive and unpredictable. There are, however, many notable examples where this is not the case: Design Studies was initially proposed by Paul Rand during a visit to Carnegie Mellon in the 1970s as a series of courses to help students reflect on and understand the principles of design; Philip Meggs’ monumental History of Graphic Design (1983) was researched and designed with his students, and in New Zealand, typographer Kris Sowersby of Klim Type Foundry is amongst those type designers who make extensive use of 18th and 19th century type specimens to refine and develop his remarkable 21st century type designs.

Reflective Practice
In my case, the primary motivations of design history still remain: to create an adequate critical history of design in New Zealand as both a contribution to national history and global histories of design. However, my primary role as a design historian is not to educate the next generation of design historians, but to educate critical, creative and reflective design practitioners, as well as to sustain research-informed design practice within an interdisciplinary Design Studies undergraduate programme. It is for these reasons that I introduce design history as a fundamental design research process. If students can master the basic methods of historical scholarship, they are prepared for more advanced design research methods.

I designed a second-year undergraduate course in 2006 called Design Futures as part of an Honours programme, which sought to develop and extend design students’ research skills. Despite the name, the first half of the course was devoted to design history, and the second half to scenario building and futures methods. Each module was assessed by an assignment entitled, respectively, Hindsight and Foresight. This aimed at ensuring that students understood historical precedent and could identify trends that shaped the present and could plausibly inform future scenarios. However, the two modules were discrete within the course and lacked an adequate transition from histories to futures. In addition, a number of the scenarios students initially generated in the futures module tended towards utopias and dystopias. This seemed to be a result of students basing their scenarios on current data without consideration of historical trend development. There was also a student perception that design historical research was research about design and had little relation to current practice, whereas scenario building was research for design in that it informed strategic design. In discussion with my colleague Nick Laird, we considered various ways to better integrate the two modules that would result in a stronger relationship between historical analysis and scenario development. The breakthrough for me was provided by reading New Zealand As It Might Have Been (2006), a collection of speculative histories by leading New Zealand historians. Various well established historians took key moments from New Zealand’s history, such as the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi with indigenous Māori and the location of the capital city, and considered plausible alternative scenarios that were consistent with historical evidence. The book helped me both reconsider key moments in my country’s history, and reflect on contemporary issues of biculturalism and a North/South divide in political power engendered by these rigorous re-imaginings of my nation’s history. The linking of historical analysis and scenario development seemed to be a good fit for addressing some of the issues identified in my first iteration of Design Futures, in that history could provide a ‘safe’ laboratory[sc:sidenote side=”right” margintop=”10″ ]1The French philosopher and historian Étienne Gilson is widely attributed with saying “History is the only laboratory we have in which to test the consequences of thought.” in which to test scenario building where the future is actually already known.

Speculative Histories
Called by a number of different names—allohistory, counterfactuals, alternative, speculative or virtual histories—this particular method of design history proposes ‘what-if’ scenarios about the past. Anyone who has reviewed the finalists in a design competition after the winner has been announced will probably have begun such a speculation about what might have been. While the method gained academic credibility in the 1990s with the publication of Geoffrey Hawthorn’s Plausible Worlds (1991) and Niall Ferguson’s Virtual History (1997), many historians argue that considering alternative course of action available to historical actors at a given historical moment has always been a tacit part of historical analysis. In order for historians to develop arguments why certain decisions were made, they had to consider what other options were open to the historical agents. In practice, this means the basic research question changes from ‘What happened and why?’ to ‘What might have happened and why it did not?’, or in cases of individual design ‘could someone have acted differently?’

This mode of inquiry is premised on the idea that history is dynamic and contingent, and very few human decisions are inevitable. It also has the effect of returning a sense of agency to historical actors and facilitates empathy and deeper understanding of the historical choices made, as well as ethical consideration of consequences. However, it is important that the imaginative premise is supported by empirical means, and that some form of hypothesis has to be developed and tested against contemporary evidence of what alternatives were actually considered at a given historical moment. This entails identifying key decisions and turning points in the past, taking account of prevailing conditions, and providing plausible explanations for alternative courses of action. It is therefore a disciplined creativity that supports critical analysis and consideration of narrative structure. Steven Weber has also described speculative histories as “mind-set changers” (Weber, 1996, p. 270) in that they encourage open-mindedness to alternative historical interpretations and the implications of historical events.

Speculative Histories in Teaching Practice
To some degree my motivation in introducing speculative histories to design education was to change students’ perception about the value and relevance of history and its methods. The method explicitly introduces a creative element into critical inquiry, encouraging students to consider and develop alternative interpretations. At a more fundamental level, reconstituting history in this way encourages students to reframe problems in general and be critical of assumptions, especially historical ones. As well as reimagining the past, it also affords design opportunities to visually represent the alternative history.

In 2009, I changed the Foresight (futures) assignment to Allosight (the prefix allo- is from the Greek for ‘different, other’). Students had already completed a piece of design history research (Hindsight), and had applied the basic principles and methods of design history (as set out in John Walker’s Design History and the History of Design). They were then asked to select a significant design, decision, incident or event from two general histories of design and one New Zealand design history, and write a short factual summary of 500 words supported by a single photograph, before creating a speculative history of 1500 words. What struck me was the enthusiasm for, and extra effort into the assignment and the diversity of topics chosen. These ranged from changes to the design of the Berlin Wall, a reversal of results in the 1954 World Cup football final, Al Gore’s election as President, America without Bauhaus designers, and our local cityscape without a controversial sports stadium. Each considered the effects of change, including the effectiveness of the design of the Berlin Wall in separating people, the effect of sport championships on brand value, sustainability, American design education, and public funding of sports stadia. Many assignments redesigned artefacts and media from the past to simulate accurate historical communication of their alternative history. Two particularly notable student examples can be highlighted: architect Richard Neutra’s modernist public housing project for Elysian Park Heights in Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles, and the early death of fashion designer Christian Dior. The first student’s interest in Neutra was sparked from his previous Hindsight assignment of Neutra’s Case Study Houses (1945–1966). By considering the plans for Elysian Park Heights and its implementation, he discussed a plausible gentrification and displacement of people it had been intended for. The second student considered what if Christian Dior had lived past 1957, and her Allosight project lead to a fourth-year dissertation on the importance of succession planning in fashion brand identities built around a single name.

In his book Design Futuring (2009), Tony Fry states that “Looking back teaches ways to think about how to project forward. It can be a way to formulate key questions and to create ‘critical fictions’, enabling the contemplation of what would otherwise not be considered” (Fry, 2009, p. 39). From my experience, speculative history is a challenging and sophisticated method which encourages design students to reflect upon about the nature of history, question received interpretations, identify and empathise with challenges faced by historical figures, simulate alternatives and develop coherent narratives. Below are summarised some of its core learning benefits for those interested in incorporating the method within their design teaching:

· Supports critical research and tests deductive reasoning skills;
· Challenges the assumption of the inevitability of history;
· Supports understanding of the significance of human agency;
· Provides an opportunity to apply graphic design to history;
· Requires careful consideration of narrative formation;
· Introduces scenario building into design history, the relationships of driving 
forces, and the importance of plausibility as a test of scenarios;
· The exploration of the past, discovery of alternative interpretations, and prototyping alternative histories relates well to the three stages (Exploration, Discovery and Prototyping) of participatory design as set out by Spinuzzi (2005)
· Identifies social issues and analyses the ethical consequences of decision-making;
·  Provides an opportunity for disciplined creativity.
In terms of my teaching, the main challenge lay in defining and selecting topics that are supported by a breadth of secondary research while, for students, identifying key turning points and evidence of historically plausible alternatives requires careful attention to the literature. In my experience, the benefits outweighed these challenges and the results aligned well with the first two levels of Futures Literacy as set out by Miller (2007), awareness and discovery. Awareness consists of developing temporal and situational awareness ‘that change happens over time, that people do harbour expectations and values, and that choices matter’ (Miller, 2007, p. 348), while discovery involves ‘consistently distinguishing between possible, probable and preferable’ futures to encourage a ‘rigorous imagining’ (Miller, 2007, p. 350) of possible scenarios to inform strategic decision-making. What I saw in students who used speculative histories was a greater awareness of their present-day assumptions and a genuine pleasure in the nuanced process of discovery the method entailed.

Speculative Design Practice
The method also has application outside the classroom, as evident in a project initiated by designers Sarah Maxey and Catherine Griffiths in 2015 in response to the results of New Zealand’s Flag Consideration Project. The two-year, NZ$25million government-initiated Flag Consideration Project sought public submissions for a new flag design. The government-appointed 12-person Flag Consideration Panel then reviewed all 10,292 flag designs and announced a long list of 40 flag designs in August 2015. This was reduced to a shortlist of four (later increased to five) designs, which were ranked in the first referendum in November/December 2015, with a final binding referendum between the current and preferred alternative fern flag scheduled for March 2016. There was considerable debate about the absence of professional designers on the Flag Consideration Panel, so Maxey and Griffiths asked twelve New Zealand designers, artists and vexillologists in October 2015 to select flag designs from the 10,000+ submissions to New Zealand’s Flag Consideration Project, providing a comparative chart of the results.[sc:sidenote side=”right” margintop=”10″ ]2See: nz Design – 98 flags. In: Threaded. The published chart bears the disclaimer that this alternative design view is ‘not a solution, but a visual statement.’ This speculative history–what if designers and vexillologists had been included in the selection panel–provided an alternative to the government’s process, and was a critical act to draw attention to the lack of professional design expertise on the 12-member Flag Consideration Panel[sc:sidenote side=”right” margintop=”10″ ]3See: The nz flag — your chance to decide. In: New Zealand Government. and the resulting narrowness of the long and short-list selections.

Back to the Future
In both theory and practice, speculative histories provide a healthy challenge to orthodox thinking. Speculative histories reveal an important aspect of creative thinking that informs historical research—the importance of inquiry-led discovery, the active possibility of human agency, and the potential for the reinterpretation of history—and, in my experience, its application by design students encourages a more active interest in design historical research and a clearer understanding of its relationship to, and potential for design practice. It also offers a safe historical laboratory in which to test out and critically evaluate hypothetical scenarios and their consequences which brings us back to the present needs of design education and, in the case of New Zealand, the future of that country’s flag.

Buchanan, R. (2001) Children of the Moving Present: The Ecology of Culture and the Search for Causes in Design. In: Design Issues 17.1, pp. 67–84.
Ferguson, N. (ed.) (1997). Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals. London: Picador.
Fry, T. (2008) Design Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice. Oxford: Berg.
Gilson, E. (1938) The Unity of Philosophical Experience. London: Sheed & Ward.
Hawthorn, G. (1991) Plausible Worlds: Possibility and Understanding in History and the Social Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kaye, Simon T. (2010) Challenging Certainty: The Utility and History of Counter-factualism. In: History and Theory 49, pp. 38–57.
Lebow, R. (2000) What’s So Different About A Counterfactual? In: World Politics 52, pp. 550–585.
Levine, S. (ed.), (2006) New Zealand As It Might Have Been. Wellington: Victoria University Press.
Levine, S. (ed.), (2010) New Zealand As It Might Have Been 2. Wellington: Victoria University Press.
Miller, R. (2007) Futures Literacy: A Hybrid Strategic Scenario Method. In: Futures 39.4, pp. 341–362.
Spinuzzi, C. (2005) The Methodology of Participatory Design. In: Technical Communication 52.2, pp. 163–74.
Walker, J. A. (1989) Varieties of Design History. In: Design History and the History of Design. London: Pluto. pp. 99–152.
Weber, S. (1996) Counterfactuals, Past and Future. In: Tetlock, P. & Belkin, A. (eds.), Counterfactual Thought Experiments in World Politics: Logical, Methodological, and Psychological Perspectives. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp. 268–288.

Essay originally published in Modes of Criticism 2  – Critique of Method (2016).

1 The French philosopher and historian Étienne Gilson is widely attributed with saying “History is the only laboratory we have in which to test the consequences of thought.”
2 See: nz Design – 98 flags. In: Threaded.
3 See: The nz flag — your chance to decide. In: New Zealand Government.

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