Past / Present / Future Futuring

Within academic design, “futuring” blends art, technology, and philosophy to create an imagined world.  Donna Goodman’s History of the Future unpacks the history of this practice to provide a detailed anthology of architectural futuring systems. Many of these systems serve as contributions to the public and offer commentaries about policy, philosophy, economics, and design. Goodman illustrates with her history that futuring has been and will continue to be a practice that drives influential visualizations of the future. Through this broad anthology, it is also suggested that futuring does not have to be strictly limited to designers and artists.

She history additionally implies that futuring is more about the present than the future. The first chapter of Goodman’s History catalogues every major futuristic vision from the Renaissance to mid-century Modernism. In doing so, she constructs a framework for understanding the genesis of futurist agendas. This framework illustrates future thinking as a product of human development in the “now,” rather than a deliberate activity that anticipates a possible problem.

Goodman begins Chapter One with a description of Metropolis, a cinematic projection of social insecurities and environmental concerns for the future (Goodman 8). This visually striking work captivated viewers through similar tactics seen in “speculative designs” today. Metropolis depicted severe consequences of the booming population, heavy pollution, and a growing distrust for machines. This film radically amplified contemporary dilemmas — similar to the ones we face today — in order to highlight the problems of their century.

The large scale political shift necessary for us to avoid the future proposed by Metropolis was too great of a task for any one party to tackle. Recently, we have seen these problems addressed on a smaller scale, but with equally exciting visualizations. Pollution, for example, is a global issue and is addressed on personal, local, and national scales. To resolve this rapidly spreading problem, all of these scales need to be considered. Twenty-first century creatives like Alexander Groves & Azusa Murakami have addressed the reach of man-made contamination to distant places to visualize how pervasive pollution has become. Groves and Murakami’s furniture and sculptures use sea plastic collected from different oceans to create beautiful, luxury goods. Their work is specific, visually interesting, and highlights the complexity of our environmental situation. Their goal is not to change manufacturing, but rather to change minds of people who encounter it.


Studio Swine, 2015

Future thinking is a projection of the present which brings up questions society is facing through proposals and sometimes radical alternatives. Effective social change is often a result of political evolution, which allows technological discoveries through increased funding or a necessity. Goodman claims that each period of industrial, cultural, and social revolution poses new problems for architects and designers to solve for their people. Therefore, society as a whole is caught in a vicious cycle of patching flawed and political discoveries with equally defective solutions driven by the same parties (a concept well examined by Jan Michl in On the Rumor of Functional Perfection). These advances stimulate the climate of each revolutionary era. When combined under the right circumstances, these advances can create visionary ideas which may be distributed to create hope or inflict fear.

The implications are interwoven, so the actual change implemented by one invention is only powerful as the political and social climates allow. The political opportunity within this system can be vague (the discovery of a new land mass) or clear (an oligarchy is overthrown). The social change can be widespread (the development of humanism) or personal (Thomas Jefferson’s adoption of neoclassicism). Inventions can expand the mind (printing press) or blind people with profit (mechanization).

The invention of Humanism gave social priority to logic and interdisciplinary thought, to move the focus of art and philosophy away from the fear of God, and towards the achievements of humanity. The political advent of the New World created opportunities for development, and posed the ever-important question of, “what happens next?” The printing press moved all this information from the frontiers of European discovery to the masses. All three worked together to encourage ideas and excite the public about what the future could be.

The eclectic nature of futuring is humanistic in itself, so it’s logical that the first futurists were also humanists. For example, Sir Thomas More was philosopher, but he practiced law. Giovanni Battista Piranesi integrated Egyptian and Roman political concepts into his paintings. His visualizations of the feudal culture scared the public, but later inspired poets and artists. Etienne-Louis Boullée wanted to be a painter, was forced to be an architect, and was trained by a theorist, who taught him math and geometry. His multifaceted understanding of architecture may have given him confidence or curiosity to envision what architecture should be, rather than what it already was.


Etienne-Louis Boulée, 1781-1793

Adolf Loos believed the arts and crafts style was obsolete, and the simple aesthetic of a manufactured good should drive design so that it would be easier to manufacture cheap, desirable goods for the masses. John Ruskin saw the arts and crafts style from the point of view of the craftsmen, who benefitted their culture through creative engagement with their work. This was nothing closet there’s decided to lose sight of any thinking less efficient than manufacturing, but offered a humanizing activity.

William Morris agreed, his firm created craft furniture and home goods at a reasonable price, and he wrote about the poor quality of manufactured goods and the lack of art in society. These views are more political than artistic, and reflect capitalist and communist views of that time. These designers are creating visions of the future based on their political education. Likewise, Tony Garnier’s city is designed as a 1:1 solution for Paris’ problems. Garnier’s dilemma involved  the same social issues of the day Loos and Ruskin’s work (should manufacturing be handcrafted or industrial?). Utopian ideals at this time were antithetical to the close relationship between the personal lives and health of workers and factory labor.

Similar visualizations arose when politicians sponsored architects to create futuristic buildings that displayed a country’s comparative advantage. The Crystal Palace and following World’s Fairs gave designers a stage upon which they could communicate their ideas, and provided funding to prototype them. When the crowds gathered, the ideas spread and grew on their own. For example, the varied architectural styles at the World’s Columbian Exhibition inspired Frank Lloyd Wright and the Greene Brothers, who brought the new aesthetics back to their offices. The neoclassical buildings and plans of the Exhibition itself inspired new urban planning systems called the City Beautiful in Washington DC, San Francisco, and Chicago (Goodman, 35).

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 12.36.10 PM

When the projects exist in a vacuum, or are self funded by entrepreneurs, speculative design leads to forced paradigms. When the ideas are made in conjunction with existing systems, they flourish and grow on their own. The neoclassical style of buildings and broad open streets of the Columbian Exhibition were not planned for San Francisco, they were already good ideas that were given the right platform.

After a rich introduction to futuring constraints, Goodman transitions from visualization to application. The second half of Chapter 1 begins with a slew of nineteenth century utopian socialist communities, each with varying heuristics for social constructs, each with varying levels of success.

Today, these metrics for success are our standards for ordinary Western habitats. A nineteenth century utopia reflected the major problems in large cities (sewage, smell, clean water, decent housing).  However, many of the factory towns failed, and despite their political action, their imagined future did not become reality. When a town is conceived as a system for production, individualism falls to the wayside and workers are discontent.  Without a compelled workforce, the town fails.

Factory towns looked to closed communities for efficiency. In application, the rigid structures imposed by planned communities restricted freedom and lead to widespread unhappiness. The private lives of workers weren’t always accounted for, but in the few cases that they were, the village flourished.

Conceptual exploration in response to the growth of late nineteenth century cities was antithetical to the previous generation’s version utopia (factory towns). Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward envisioned a future city to illustrate the successful application of a communist urban environment. Unlike previous depictions of the future, Bellamy’s story maintained the paradigm of a city, and changed the social relationships within it. Likewise, his effect on readers created political action, without overthrowing the existing structure.

Looking Backward opened up new conversations in the American political climate. His depiction of the year 2000 inspired people around the country and led to the development of Bellamy Clubs. The conversations that happened within these clubs led to a direct political event – the creation of the Populist party (Goodman, 41).

The factory towns and Looking Backward both brought new ideas to the relationship between industry, government, and society. However, Bellamy’s book created a sustainable political movement, whereas the idea of factory towns was only as successful as the weakest application. The aims of twenty-first century speculative design are similar to those of Looking Backward. Modern speculative designers amplify the problems they see in the present in their visualizations of the future to inspire people, create dialogues, and envision the way things could be. Speculative design must be informed by a multi-disciplinary dialogue, and hopefully contribute to new conversations. It does not have to execute across disparate disciplines, but should simply inspire the agencies involved. 

For example, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby designed a set of objects inspired by idiosyncratic behavior and psychological conditions. Their purpose was to remind designers that user profiles are limited and lead to objects that are based of off stereotypes. They envisioned the design process as it should be, adaptive and considerate of complex personalities. Dunne and Raby created objects that amplified the problem and brought new ideas to the design process, and connected those ideas to the agencies involved (designers) through design museums and galleries.


Dunne and Raby, 2005

Recently, the White House has welcomed discursive design as a conversation starter. On “Back to the Future Day,” the White House created an exhibition of futuristic design and engineering projects that President Obama could use as a jumping off point for speaking about the future of American industry (Tharp).

In the Crystal Palace, governments displayed their current technology, created by engineers, and happened to inspire designers. Now, governments display futuristic technology, envisioned by designers, in order to inspire the masses.

The next step in futuring might be a hybrid of the the early twentieth century techno-political competitions and the speculative amplification in the early twenty-first century. Socially conscious future visions of living in conjunction with government sponsorship on a nation-wide platform may offer a sustainable method of futuring.

In practice, how has futuring effected the way we live now? Goodman claims architects like Garnier “developed the philosophical concept of the city” (Goodman 44). Does that mean that there are cities which have adopted his philosophical framework that allows for a civil society to not have a police force or a courthouse, or does that mean we can now accept that such a society could possibly exist? The Garden City made its way into reality (Goodman 43, 47) but the Garden City was not novel, singular proposition for purchase. It aspired to solve the problems of its time – problems we still face in every major city. The Garden City proposed a new way to develop land and grow populations, and it has not been adopted for such widespread use as Garnier intended.

All creative work is future-oriented in some regard. Designers design objects that don’t exist yet, politicians create policy to ensure future growth, historians catalogue the past to inform the people of the future, architects plan human interactions before they happen. All of these futures can only become reality if the agencies involved in their creation are aligned politically, philosophically, and technologically at the same time. The successes and failures catalogued by Goodman are a testament to the concept that the future is not up to individual agencies to visualize, but for groups to plan, piece by piece.

Works Cited

Goodman, Donna. A History of the Future. New York: Monacelli, 2008. Print.

Murakami, Azusa, and Alexander Groves. “Gyrecraft.” SWINE. Studio Swine, n.d. Web. 05 Mar. 2016.

Tharp, Stephanie, and Bruce Tharp. “Governments Warming up to Discursive Design?” Core77. Core77, n.d. Web. 03 Mar. 2016.


4 thoughts on “Past / Present / Future Futuring

  1. Great post Skye, very thorough and overall a really articulate, in-depth and clear response to Goodman’s writings. Your example images are great choices that help engage the viewer. I like that you use pollution as the base for why many utopian ideals are formed, and then give examples of both physical and discursive projects that respond to this problems. Your conclusion is also a strong way to summarize Goodman’s thinking. “All creative work is future oriented. Designers design objects that don’t exist yet..” is a fantastic way to sum up her thinking.

    In your opening paragraph, I think it would be helpful to more specifically relate the topics you will be discussing. You do a good job of explaining what “futuring” is and the overall ideas, but you cover so much information in your article that I sometimes get lost in the amount of content I’m reading and digesting. It could be helpful to lay out a general progression of what you will be discussing so the readers go into your post with some more structure.

    In the middle of your post, you talk about the transition from the visualization to the application of nineteenth century utopian, socialist communities. I would be a nice bonus if you could include some of those examples and quickly explain why some of those communities worked more effectively than others. It also would be interesting to hear your perspective/opinion on the arts and crafts movement, that is seen by many as a rebellion against the rise of manufacturing, and whether or not it has value to utopias and future societies. You touch upon this in your post, but it could make for good discussion to hear your two cents (I know it’s an academic post so it may not be the right forum to do so).

    Very clear and informative post!


  2. Very well thought out and well written post, Skye. I agree with you that the practice of “futuring” is more revealing of the present than the future. In the last part of your essay you said: “In the Crystal Palace, governments displayed their current technology, created by engineers, and happened to inspire designers. Now, governments display futuristic technology, envisioned by designers, in order to inspire the masses.” It might be helpful to elaborate on the true actualization of this phenomenon, and how exactly the masses are inspired (to do what? to create? To change their lifestyles?). That the designers in our time are now trying to inspire the masses rather than control them is intriguing, and suggests that the barriers between designers and non-designers are blurring.
    As you said, designers and artists are futurists in that they project a vision of the world that they want to see brought to life, try to generate dialogues about issues, engaging the populus rather than working separately from them. This I think is a logical way to stimulate change, and shifts the power to do so from a select group of people (designers, whose designs are contingent on their political education, as you rightfully noted) to the community at large. However, I also wonder how engaged the populus actually is in the development of designers ideas. The issue of indifference might also be worth mentioning here briefly. How active are everyday people in “futuring” in ways that are tangible? Futuring is also accomplished through lifestyle choices and ways of thinking, as well as in the development of new products.
    The visionary ideas artists and designers have is dependent on the circumstances they find themselves in. The observation made about Murakami and Groves was also great, because as you said, they are not trying to change the manufacturing system or eliminate pollution, but comment on how pervasive pollution has become through their work. Their work actually results from the practice of pollution, and society at large has developed a complex relationship with the environment as a simultaneous bevvy of resources and a repository for trash. Murakami and Groves don’t intend to mass produce their products, but are more focused on highlighting the realities of the mass production and its impact on the environment. What I find compelling about this particular example is that the objects they revitalize and bring back into the human sphere are materials that have been discarded, transforming the way we see them previously undesirable, they now become desired as “luxury goods”. Context also plays a large role in the accessibility and reception of futurist ideas.
    Again, very thought provoking post!


  3. To summarize my understanding of Skye’s writing into three ideas: First, design futuring is based on the belief that future is the result of what we do now. Second, effective change from design futuring cannot happen by the individual, it can only happen through groups. Third, design futuring seeks to aligned groups politically, philosophically, and technologically to achieve common goals. Skye express his views clearly with concepts derived from Donna Goodman’s writing and historical and contemporary examples of critical design such as Etienne-Louis Boulée’s imaginative architecture and Dunne and Raby’s idiosyncratic objects. His well-articulated notions evoke reflection of my own studio practice as an industrial design student. And his arguments also induce excitement about how the mindset of futuring can broaden the possibilities of product design.
    In sophomore industrial design, design principles teach form, function, mechanism, and user profile as separate topics rather than variables in a complex network. We learn how to design in terms of skills that are marketable and define what is design in terms of what is economically successful. However, this practice seems to be the opposite of design for the future. Skye writes, “When the projects exist in a vacuum … speculative design leads to forced paradigms”. Indeed, the scenarios in which we are asked to design are often contrived, which leads to projects of no significant purpose. Without ability to practice being “adaptive and considerate of complex personalities” of the users, designers become indifferent and apathetic with only the love of making driving them forward. William Morris, Adolf Loos, John Ruskin are celebrated designers because they created “visions of the future based on their political education”. Are we equipped to create visions of the future as designers?
    Let’s say through rigorous study of social, political, philosophical and technological context and immersive collaborative with reverent groups, a designer is ready to design for visions of the future, then what is the unique value that a product designer can bring to the table? Is it the material nature of design artifacts that makes future physically tangible? Seeing ideas materialize reaffirms the notion that future is not just “the time that came after the present” but “a challenge, waiting to be defined”.
    Further more, the mindset of design for the future opens up possibilities and assigns responsibility to design. Since the first industrial revolution, the invisible hand has had its firm grip on the potentials and purpose of design. But if we begin to think of supply and demand market not as incontrovertible law of nature but as one of many variables for shaping the future, design will have to be more inclusive and take on the task of catalyzing and communicating political and philosophical ideas.


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