Cover-Rodin The Thinker

The Reality of Design Fiction: How Storytelling Can Save the World

In my mind I see an architect, deep in thought, silently mouthing, What the hell? Weeks ago, he was working to prevent humankind from drowning in rising seas and withering in desertification. Now he’s sitting idle, wondering about the meaning of life. He’s also thinking about Dante.

After a half-century of kicking climate change down the road, the building profession was on the verge of reengineering the built environment for sustainability. And then the coronavirus hit. Confronting a second existential crisis, the architect feels overwhelmed, unsure.

What the hell?

I’m guessing it isn’t a question as much as an expression of exasperation about mutually exclusive hellish problems. What’s the point of bringing people together in sustainable cities, the architect asks, just to keep everyone 6 feet apart?

Pandemics unfold in phases: containment, mitigation, management. If there are waves of infection, some phases repeat. There are many possible outcomes. The virus might wipe out part or all of a population, or the community could eradicate the disease. Sometimes, a pathogen mutates and burns itself out. Other times, individuals adapt to living with the microorganism. 

In most cases, “normalcy” returns, but it’s not the same as before. In previous centuries, bubonic plague, typhus, cholera, and tuberculosis decimated continents and fomented wars. Causality, however, is fickle. Widespread disease also redistributed English wealth from lords to laborers and prompted a myriad of environmental improvements. Burying sewer systems underground, widening city streets, embedding parks in the middle of urban jungles, pouring light and air into gloomy interiors—all were designs to improve wellbeing. In their time, each was considered a radical idea.

Alas, storybook endings may no longer be the case. Even if most people survive and develop resistance to COVID-19 (Boris Johnson’s misconstrued herd immunity scheme), or had the Easter Bunny delivered The Donald’s promised holiday cure, humanity could still be screwed. Some scientists believe melting arctic permafrost will unleash a continual stream of ancient germs for which we have no natural defense. With climate change also increasing opportunities for animal-to-human virus transmission, this doesn’t augur well. A pandemic every century is catastrophic; monthly novel zombie or zoonotic diseases are worse, an extinction opportunity on par with a 5-degree warmer Earth. 

What should I do? What can I do?

You can stay the course of designing to reduce carbon emissions and watch a virus du jour cull the world’s population. The other extreme is periodically putting climate action on hold and praying for an antiviral or vaccine while social distancing flattens the latest death curve. Professionally, if not morally, neither option is ideal.

You’re making me depressed.

Don’t give up hope. The simple answer is finding a middle ground between Prozac and prayer. Work both doomsday dilemmas and look for coincidences and commonalities. The crises are not directly linked, but there are overlapping causes and effects. For instance, on the bright side, CNN reports, “People in India can see the Himalayas for the first time in ‘decades,’ as the lockdown eases air pollution.” 

Really? That’s wonderful.

The clearer air is temporary.

But you said not to give up hope.

The realistic approach to resolving both unfolding disasters is complex. Simultaneously combating climate change and pandemics is a push-me-pull-you effort, what philosophers might call a unity of opposites problem.

I’m sad again.

Did I hear a click? Please tell me you’re not locked and loaded… Was that a pop? Dear God, did you—

Opened a can of Pringles. It’s how I relieve quarantine stress. You were saying?

Ahem. I was saying today’s problem-solving needs require design approaches outside architects’ traditional mindsets and methods. New thinking is in order.

You’ve got me totally confused—not to mention consternated and conflicted.

I appreciate the alliteration. Keep it up. It will come in handy.

What the hell?

Since proven solutions will be hard to find, designs that combat both emergencies will be speculative and inspirational, if not fantastical. There was a time when making radical modifications to built environments—wholesale social experiments, really—would be driven by government fiat. Napoleon could say, “Make it so,” and Paris was renovated. After the widely perceived failure of public housing in the 1960s, there are fewer opportunities for that kind of approach. Today’s demands for change require public buy-in. Architects excel at nonverbal thought, but drawings and renderings of unconventional solutions may not persuade anxious politicians and nervous constituencies.

I’m still wondering what to do. Wave some magic wand?

Bingo. There is a long tradition of sorcery making the implausible plausible, the imaginary real and reassuring. Treating the far-out like it’s around the corner isn’t hard. 

You’re talking voodoo, aren’t you?

I’ll put it this way: A proverb asks, “What is truer than truth?” 

Um …

The answer is: “A story.”

That sounds like fiction.

It is, and you should be comfortable with that. Design, by definition, contemplates what does not exist. Although your architectural skills are profound, your creative writing abilities are underdeveloped. It is time to up your game, architect; time to give your visual fiction literary agency.

OK. I’m not sure where you’re going with this—but I’m listening.

Bruce Sterling coined the term “design fiction” in his 2005 book, Shaping Things. He later expanded the description, calling it “the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.” Wikipedia defines the phrase as “a practice aiming at exploring and criticizing possible futures by creating speculative, and often provocative, scenarios narrated through designed artifacts.” A more pedestrian explanation is: Using fiction to test the use and acceptance of unusual designs. 

Examples, please.

Turn on Netflix or fire up your Kindle. There are countless films, novels, and short stories that employ design fiction.

Ahh, you mean like those 1950s Ray Bradbury stories that had virtual reality rooms and people wearing smartwatches.

Bradbury was a master, but so was Mark Twain, who envisioned dial-up modems connecting to an international information network in an 1898 article: “From the Times of London 1904.” DARPA didn’t get around to building the internet until the 1960s. On television, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry showed us flip phones in 1964, three decades before Motorola sold its first StarTac. In 1968, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick introduced the world to tablet computing in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Douglas Adams’ 1979 book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy, included a disembodied AI companion not unlike Siri or Alexa.

Yes, yes, I get it!

More related to architecture are design fiction-based films, such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Lang’s 1927 vision of tomorrow is credited with spurring acceptance of the then-nascent Art Deco movement. In 1982, the movie Blade Runner not only set the standard for dystopian sci-fi cityscapes, but it also influenced modern-day architecture.

So, let’s say I come up with a breakthrough idea that no one will ever buy precisely because it’s extreme. If I have someone make a movie or write a fictional story about it, people will fall in love with it. Is that what you’re saying?

Almost. Watch Corning’s short film, “A Day Made of Glass,” and tell me what you see. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

It looks like the story takes place in the near future. A family is living with glass technology that makes everyone’s lives better.

Did you like it?

It was OK.

Compare “A Day Made of Glass” with the other examples I’ve mentioned and tell me what’s different.

The other stories were more interesting.

What else?

The other stories pushed design fiction to the background, while Corning’s story makes it the central focus.

You are perceptive. In my opinion, Corning’s film tells the audience what to think instead of triggering their imagination. In the long run, that could make the story less persuasive. The greatest stories communicate their meanings subtly. Get your audience invested by making them connect dots.

The weakest way to present a design idea, though, is by having no associated narrative. History shows visionary concepts issued as storyless architectural drawings, illustrations, or museum models do not resonate with the masses. They’re interesting, yes. World-changing, not so much.

Examples, please.

In 1914, Italian architect Antonio Sant’Elia produced a series of Futurist sketches entitled La Città Nuova. The man’s lifetime built work was minimal, but his imaginary buildings influenced generations of architects.

Figure 1: “Air and train station with funicular cableways on three road levels,” by Antonio Sant’Elia, 1914, via Wikimedia Commons. 

Yeah, I remember studying him in architecture school.

The public, unfortunately, never studied Antonio Sant’Elia, which shows the drawback of relying solely on imagery to shape world opinion. His work was narrowcasted to the design community. It’s the same with 1970s Radical Architects’ critiques. The polemics of Superstudio, Archizoom, et al. appealed to the same cognoscenti. As with Sant’Elia, they had little widespread impact.

I loved Superstudio.

Me, too, but for general audiences, speculative architecture is illegible without a compelling narrative to provide meaning and context. That is the role of fiction, the magic I spoke of.

OK, I’m in. Tell me everything I need to know.

Let’s first establish a working vocabulary. Sterling introduced the notion of design fiction and diegetic prototypes “to account for the ways in which cinematic depictions of future technologies demonstrate to large public audiences a technology’s need, viability and benevolence.” The word “diegetic” means “occurring within the context of a story”—any story, not only film. Drama, ballads, or prose serve as well. And technology includes architecture.

Critical design is often conflated with design fiction, and it’s no wonder. Authors can’t resist commenting on, questioning, and satirizing through storytelling. Feel free to critique the world around you, too, but beware of overplaying your hand. Especially ixnay on the archispeak. Speak to your audience—the public, not other architects—by communicating in a language they understand.

But people won’t think I’m credible. They won’t know that I’m an architect. Look, while you’ve been rambling on, I’ve found articles and books on Discursive Design, Interrogative Design, and Ludic Design. I like the sound of those.

Those are more or less the same as design fiction. Um, what are you eating? And why do I hear Thus Spoke Zarathustra in the background?

Popcorn. I’m watching 2001: A Space Odyssey. Those apes and the monolith are badass.

Please pay attention. I’m building to a dramatic finish here.

Which is?

How to tell a story.

Oh, I already know that.

I don’t think you do.

The hell I don’t. All of my buildings have a narrative. They speak to their users and communities.

What do they say?

My buildings talk about light, form, and space. They’re poetic.

Oh, please.

Hey, my entire philosophy of life is expressed in my architecture.

Pray, what philosophy might that be?

It’s about … I mean, you know… it’s deep, very deep. It’s … aw, crap, never mind. We’re all doomed, anyway.

No, we are not. You may have abandoned hope, but that’s because you do not understand how to tell a story.

That’s it. I am NOT in. I am out of here. Goodbye!

For those of you still with me, what follows is the world’s most abridged course on writing fiction, design or otherwise, and it loosely applies to novels, short stories, screenplays, and theatrical scripts.

A story, also called a narrative, is an account of things that have happened, are happening or will happen. All stories have a setting, a place and time where the story occurs. Every story has one or more characters, who should be a little quirky to be memorable, yet they don’t have to be human. 

Nonfiction and fictional stories share the same definition up to this point, but they are about to diverge. Nonfiction can rest on mere facts and figures. A data dump meets nonfiction’s primary goal of informing. But if your purpose is both to deliver knowledge and to persuade, more is necessary. 

Central to fiction is a conflict, and this is mandatory. Without it, there is no story worth telling. Resolution of the conflict is organized around a plot, a deliberately planned sequence of events called plot points with slow reveals that trigger audience emotions and aha moments. Psychologists call fiction’s ability to make false realities convincing Narrative Transportation. You might call it voodoo.

The first step in immersing people inside a design fiction is with an opening hook, a pithy intro that grabs the audience’s attention and motivates them to stick around to find out what happens next. Modern fiction often begins in the middle of action, or what is called in medias res. Unlike Victorian-era readers, today’s audiences have little patience for long-winded ramp-ups.

Next, introduce the protagonist, a character with a problem or two, and who must deal with the conflict. The protagonist will change (arc) as the story progresses. There will be other characters, including one who acts as an antagonist standing in the way of the protagonist. Note that the antagonist can also be the protagonist. Sometimes, people are their own worst enemy via lack of confidence, stubbornness, arrogance, etc. 

Are you hearing me, architect?


Compose the narrative in three parts: a beginning, middle, and an end. Think of them as acts 1, 2, and 3. Tension should rise as the story progresses, with occasional setbacks for the protagonist. Act 2 is often twice as long as acts 1 or 3. Near the end of act 2, the protagonist should reach a low point, a feeling that all is lost.

The climax occurs soon after that, at the beginning of act 3, when the protagonist completes their transformation and either defeats or makes peace with the antagonist (a happy ending), or doesn’t (a tragedy), or some combination (bittersweet). An ironic closing twist can add punch.

That’s Storytelling 101. Your textbook is Writing Fiction for Dummies.

Dummy? What the hell makes you think you’re smarter than me?

Not smarter; enlightened. I’ve been producing design fiction narratives with the help of talented writers and behavioral scientists for 20 years. I’ve personally seen the impact design fiction has on public acceptance of far-out ideas. It works.

Example, please.

Some years ago, I and a team of creative writers published under the pseudonym D.L. Wells the novel Cha. The book provides context for the video game Mommio Food Fight, a first-person, role-playing, smartphone adventure funded by the National Institutes of Health. The game’s purpose was to improve the food parenting behaviors of young mothers. At the time, in the world of science, that was considered radical. 

Mommio was based on the romance novel Totally Frobisher, which we wrote as a backstory for the game. After Mommio plus Totally Frobisher yielded positive trial results, we added prequel and sequel novels to the story. Cha is book one of the series. The murder-mystery set in Hong Kong is the video game’s origin story. Totally Frobisher is the second book and begins in Paris but moves to Houston, where the game hits its stride. The third, as-yet-unfinished story is entitled Ninjio. It’s a fantastical adventure that spans the cosmos. In each novel, the video game acts as a plot device, and the reverse is also true. Characters portrayed in the books reappear as non-player characters in Mommio.

Got it. I’m going to hire a writer. How much do they cost?

Creative writers are surprisingly affordable. But that’s not my point. 

OK. I’ll be signing off now, or hanging up, or ending whatever the hell this— Hey, I’ve got another question.


2001: A Space Odyssey’s apes, monolith, and iPad I understand. But the fetus in the bubble orbiting Earth at the end of the movie, what’s that about?

I’m glad you asked. That is the Star Child, and it represents you, an architect reincarnated as a master storyteller. Think of it as a sign that amazing stories can do amazing things.

Me? You want me to write design fiction by myself? No way. 

That is your destiny, my friend, so stand up and get dressed. Take a writing class, boot up your word processor, and save the world.

What the hell?

Featured Image: The Thinker in The Gates of Hell at the Musée Rodin, courtesy of Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, via Wikimedia Commons. Further reading: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Steven King; Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein; The Making of a Story, by Alice LaPlante; Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury.


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