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Design Fictions: What Do Brands' Visions of the Future Look Like?

07/08/2013 05:25 EDT | Updated 09/07/2013 05:12 EDT

At the 1939 New York World's Fair, General Motors Corporation commissioned Futurama, an exhibit-ride, by designer Norman Bel Geddes, that envisioned a transportation future promising personal car ownership, suburbs, complex highway systems, and automated roads to control traffic flow.

Futurama was wildly successful, drawing over 30,000 people daily and meeting its absolute capacity. The exhibit was applauded as much for its genius as its pragmatism. Grounded in rigorous research and design perspicacity, Futurama was received as a realistic glimpse of how the world might unfold. Geddes's solutions had been carefully thought out to suggest a transportation future that while decidedly idealistic, was more probable than it was fantastic.

"One of the best ways to make a solution understandable to everybody is to make it visual, to dramatize it," wrote Geddes, explaining that Futurama was a "visual dramatization of a solution to the complex tangle of American roadways."

Such dramatizations have since come to be known as "design fictions." As the term suggests, design fictions mix prototyping and storytelling to speculate on how ideas might play out in the future. They can manifest as exhibitions -- as in Futurama -- as written scenarios, as theatrical interventions, or as "artifacts from the future." Today, we see them most frequently in the form of viral online videos produced by consumer electronics companies to promote a particular vision of the future, where, in a world characterized by bad ambient-pop music, the ubiquity of their products makes life better for everyone (for example, this this "A Day Made of Glass" advert by Corning Inc).

Such "brand visions of the future" distinguish themselves from other future-fictions in three critical ways:

1) Unlike Hollywood science fictions, brand visions of the future are optimistic. Design is about improvement -- creating better solutions. So by definition, design fictions intend to positively influence future outcomes.

2) They focus on products and services to represent the greater state of the world metonymically. In Geddes's vision, his highway systems stood in for a prosperous American utopia characterized by fluidity, efficiency, and connectivity. This one by Microsoft uses many augmentative screens to accomplish more or less the same thing.

3) Brand visions imagine the role that a company aspires to play in that future world.

In the case of Futurama, the project had obvious practical relevance to its sponsor's line of business. For General Motors, Futurama was less about selling cars than it was about selling the concept of a sophisticated interstate highway system; a way to get around that would be safe, comfortable, fast and economical. It demonstrated the company's investment in a better future and it helped cement GM's reputation as a patron of innovative thinking and design.

Conspicuous Creativity

The most intellectually daring brands continue to flex their ingenuity by creating dramatic visualizations of the future. The artistic depictions suggest plausible lifestyle-enhancing solutions based on emerging ideas, technologies, needs, and behaviors.

In many cases it's unclear how public the design fictions are meant to be. While Microsoft's Future Visions are deliberately unveiled to much viral fanfare, others like this from RIM have leaked unintentionally.

Meanwhile Nokia's future vision lives in hiding, a broken link on the webpage of the organization's underexposed innovation lab.

Developing design fictions is a valuable exercise even at the strictly strategic level. Just the process of creating one forces an organization to challenge assumptions, rethink opportunities, and explore alternatives while crystallizing its vision for an industry future. This kind of thinking helps organizations to refine their long-term strategies and prepare for potential disruptions in uncertain business climates. As an exploratory tool, design fictions can be used to imagine and display product features, paint a picture of an idealized customer experience, illustrate sustainability objectives, communicate an improved business model or do all of the above and more. Beyond that, these videos can excite employees about the organization and inspire a culture of radical innovation internally.

Yet many brands resist producing and releasing such visions for the future, and with reason; When made public they risk exposing intellectual property and long term strategy. And if done poorly, they risk embarrassing the company with an envisioned future that seems either silly, impossible, or worse yet, obvious.

But when done right and unleashed openly, they signal a striking sense of creative ambition to consumers, shareholders, potential partners, and prospective employees.

One can only imagine the internal battles that have ensued.

Future Visioning Across Consumer Goods Categories

While the practice of visualizing speculative fictions has traditionally been limited to companies in the consumer electronics and automotive industries -- change looms across all verticals. In times marked by complexity, ambiguity and volatility, it pays to be among those visionaries who blueprint the future. It's good business and good branding.

Big food companies, as an example, tend to be more grounded in the present, weighing current trends and consumer insights against their current R&D capabilities. They don't typically think of themselves as being in the future business, at least not at the brand-level, the way companies like Microsoft or Samsung do. Given certain predictable and unpredictable factors, like population increase, food insecurity, policy changes, volatile food prices, and consumers' changing value systems around food production, one would think such companies would invest more heavily in further out foresight. And it only makes sense that there would be real brand value in previewing the results of a keen long-term competitive strategy against developing capabilities and evolving business contexts.

For that matter, we should hope to see brand visions of the future being produced across all consumer goods categories, from CPG to health and wellness to banking to publishing to manufacturing (yes, manufacturing is a consumer industry now in the present-continuous future).

When grounded in solid strategic foresight -- the systematic process of understanding, imagining, communicating, and activating coherent and functional views of the future -- design fictions can catalyze organizational change.

A brand vision of the future can serve as an ideation tool, a message of inspiration, and a strategic vision. It can make forward-thinking innovation intrinsic to how a brand is perceived in the hearts and minds of consumers and shareholders alike.

Just the process of producing one empowers team members to challenge assumptions, rethink opportunities, and explore alternatives while crystallizing a vision for an industry future.

As the firm publicly displays its capacity for foresight and design, powerful innovation equity becomes bound to the brand.

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