What is Speculative Design?

Speculative Design explores future possibilities and societal impacts of emerging technology and shifting cultural and social trends, diverging from traditional design to provoke new thought, debate, directions, preferences, and strategy.

J. Paul Neeley

J. Paul is a London based designer and researcher with expertise in Speculative Design, Service Design, Design Research, and Strategy.

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February 16, 2024

"What is Speculative Design?" – this question opens a doorway to an intriguing and often misunderstood realm of design. Speculative Design is a design practice that has gained momentum in recent years, especially among cutting edge designers and organizations and (previously forward-thinking educational institutions like the Royal College of Art of the past). Speculative Design invites us to explore design in the context of possibilities, futures, and what-ifs.

Understanding Speculative Design

Defining Speculative Design:
At its core, Speculative Design is a practice that deviates from traditional approaches to design in that instead of focusing on creating products or services for immediate commercial use, it creates future products and services to speculate about possible futures. It's about asking 'what if' and exploring the implications of different scenarios, especially those stemming from emerging technologies, social trends, and environmental issues.

Historical Context:
Speculative Design, although seeming contemporary, has historical roots. It evolved from critical design, a concept introduced in the 1990s by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby at the Royal College of Art, London. Critical Design challenged the status quo of design not as a commercial tool but as a medium for critiquing and questioning the world around us.

The Purpose and Goals of Speculative Design

1. Questioning the Present:
Speculative Design acts as a tool for questioning and reflecting on the current state of the world. It encourages us to think critically about the present-day design practices, consumer culture, and the societal, ethical, and environmental impact of technology.

2. Exploring Future Possibilities:
This design discipline stretches our imagination to consider possible, probable, and preferable futures. It creates narratives and artifacts that depict future scenarios, making abstract concepts tangible and open for discussion.

3. Sparking Debate:
By presenting hypothetical scenarios, Speculative Design provokes discussion and debate about the direction in which society is heading. It's not about predicting the future but about exploring a range of futures to better understand the present and inform decision-making.

4. Ethical Considerations and Responsibility:
It raises awareness about the ethical implications of design and technology. This aspect of speculative design is crucial in an era where technology is advancing rapidly, often outpacing our ability to fully understand its long-term impact.

Methods and Approaches

1. Scenario Building:
One of the key methods in Speculative Design is the creation of detailed scenarios that depict possible futures. These are often based on extrapolations of current trends and emerging technologies. But this alone is not Speculative Design, we need to then make these scenarios specific and real.

2. Artifacts from the Future:
Designers create physical objects, or 'artifacts', that might exist in these speculative futures. These artifacts serve as tangible representations of abstract ideas and are often designed to be provocative.

3. Storytelling and Narratives:
Storytelling is integral to Speculative Design. Through narratives, designers communicate complex ideas and speculative futures in a way that is accessible and engaging to the viewer. But it is not this element alone, we need to make these tangible through artifacts, experiences, allowing people to touch the futures we are exploring.

4. Interdisciplinary Approach:
Speculative Design often involves a cross-disciplinary approach, merging design with fields like sociology, politics, philosophy, and science.

Case Studies in Speculative Design

1. The Critical Design Movement:
Pioneered by Dunne & Raby, this movement produced works like the 'Technological Dreams Series: No.1, Robots' which questioned the role of robots in our future lives.

2. The Design Interactions Department at the RCA:
Known for its speculative projects, one notable project is the ‘Carnivorous Domestic Entertainment Robots’ by Auger-Loizeau, which explored the relationship between technology and nature. James Auger was a tutor at Design Interactions.

3. Government and Policy Influence:
Speculative Design has even influenced policy and strategic planning. For example, the UK government has used speculative design scenarios for future planning in various sectors.


Want to go deeper into a collection of Speculative Design case studies? Join our Speculative Design Basics course today.


Critiques and Challenges

1. Accessibility and Practicality:
One critique of Speculative Design is its perceived lack of practical application. Since it often doesn’t result in immediately usable products, its value can be misunderstood. We focus a lot at the School of Critical Design on how we can create meaningful impact through Speculative Design projects.

2. Risk of Misinterpretation:
The speculative nature of the work can lead to misinterpretations, with audiences sometimes taking speculative scenarios as predictions or recommendations.

3. Ethical Considerations:
The creation of speculative futures that depict dystopian or challenging scenarios raises ethical questions about the impact of such narratives on public discourse and mindset. And questions of ethical for who?

The Future of Speculative Design

1. Greater Integration with Mainstream Design:
There’s a growing trend of integrating speculative methodologies into more traditional design practices, especially in areas like user experience and service design where designers are beginning to apply speculative techniques to explore the long-term implications of their designs on users and society.

2. Collaboration with Science and Technology:
As science and technology continue to advance rapidly, Speculative Design will play a crucial role in exploring and understanding the potential impacts of these advancements. Collaborations between designers, scientists, technologists, and ethicists are likely to become more common.

3. Education and Pedagogy:
Educational institutions are increasingly incorporating Speculative Design into their curricula. This not only equips future designers with a broader range of skills but also instills a mindset of critical thinking and ethical consideration. There is a watch out here however, as many young designers are sold a practice that is not yet wide spread.

4. Public Engagement and Policy:
Speculative Design has the potential to become a more influential tool in public engagement and policy-making. By visualizing complex future scenarios, it can help policymakers and the public understand and navigate the challenges of the future.


Speculative Design is not just about creating intriguing artifacts or provocative scenarios; it’s about opening up a dialogue. It’s a way of thinking that challenges the status quo, questions our assumptions, and explores the unknown. It encourages designers, and indeed all of us, to think critically about the future we are creating with every decision, every policy, every invention, and every design.

In essence, Speculative Design serves as a bridge between imagination and reality, theory and practice, possibility and realization. It's a discipline that recognizes design as a powerful tool for change, reflection, and exploration. As we navigate an increasingly complex world, the principles and practices of Speculative Design offer a unique and critically important lens through which to envision and shape a better future.


Want to go deeper into Speculative Design? Want to skill-up? What to create your own futures explorations? Join our Speculative Design Basics course today.


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