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Design Fiction Workshop: Getting the Story Out

This afternoon I had the opportunity to take part in a Design Fictions workshop organised by Nottingham University’s Horizons workgroup. There was a strong Newcastle connection, not only through Newcastle Uni organiser Abigail Durrant but also through Northumbria University researcher Malcolm Jones and his storienteering tools.

For those that aren’t aware, “design fiction” is a term coined by Julian Bleeker and

…is making things that tell stories. It’s like science-fiction in that the stories bring into focus certain matters-of-concern, such as how life is lived, questioning how technology is used and its implications, speculating bout the course of events; all of the unique abilities of science-fiction to incite imagination-filling conversations about alternative futures. (2009)

(One participant suggested that design fiction doesn’t necessarily have to mean science fiction as even historical fiction and other genres may investigate technologies in just as interesting ways, albeit looking backward or sideways rather than ahead).

Horizon is “charting the digital lifespan”, and the workshop focused on creating design fictions around the idea of bereavement. In order to create said design fiction, we used a number of Malcolm’s tools to orient the group towards the story and then make it. His set of resources to do so included a scenario to kick it off, a resource table, and a mapping exercise. (However, he has a lot more of them available on his site).

What is interesting about events such as this is just how much work it takes to get a story out, but also how the people in the room can make a big difference. The skillset of the people taking part ranged from usability to fashion communication and literary theory, and yet somehow the personalities worked together in a very improv-like way to easily build on or circle back on others’ ideas. While it can feel as if you’re going around in circles at first with very obvious ideas or just not getting around to the actual story, somehow it seems to come right in the last few minutes (let’s just say it all got a bit of a weird twist at the last minute … not quite Sixth Sense but somewhere in that region).

That said, one thing that wasn’t got to in the timeframe of the workshop was how the story would be presented (which was a shame). Similarly, there’s nothing like mapping out a story with a strong tech/service base to make you realise all the opportunities for technological things to go wrong  (what would happen if you got the wrong company?). Still, design fictions appear to be by their nature exploratory, so in that respect the exercise was still (I assume) a resounding success).