Book Review – Scenarios: the Future of the Future

Scenarios: the Future of the Future
a special edition of Wired
(San Francisco, CA: Wired Ventures Ltd., 1995)
170 pages, $5.95

The future is an obvious concern for us all. This is espe­cially true with designers, as we constantly deal with the future in our daily work. We envision improved realities (whether they are products, communications, environ­ments, or systems) and make them tangible through our creation of mock-ups, prototypes, models, etc. One might say that we are “brokers” dealing in the future, as we have an obvious vested interest in how it unfolds.

But do designers have a special insight into the future that escapes others-are we possessed of powers that will aid in the creation of a better tomorrow, or do we just add to its problems? The answer is, of course, that we do both. Often as much harm as good results from our work. We may live in a world where we are relatively well served by the designs we’ve created, but our planet has paid the price for these advances. Clearly the future is no small thing to consider, as the ramifica­tions of what we do today may not be known until it’s much too late to correct them.

In a curious way this special issue of Wired acts as a kind of metaphor for the current state of our field. On one hand it offers substantial insight into consideration of possible futures, but also suffers from many of the problems that plague much of today’s design. Scenarios supplies us with some fascinating issues, yet such thoughtful content is asked to go head-to-head with frenetic advertisements and illustrations that can create a contradictory and confusing reading environment. The effect of this clash of intentions results in a final product that can vex the most motivated reader, but eventually rewards us for our tenacity.

Scenarios examines the future from many vantage points, and this approach ultimately results in an en­ lightening and entertaining experience. Stewart Brand’s opening essay entitled “Two Questions” quotes a recent Laurie Anderson recording where she asks “… are things getting better, or are they getting worse?” He concludes with the thoughts of avant-garde composer John Cage, who when interviewed by Anderson finally admits that he thinks things are getting better-albeit slowly. Along the way Brand also explores the problems of both short­ term and long-term thinking in the contexts of technol­ogy and the environment, and reveals the weaknesses of each. The essay is tempered by both optimism and pessimism, which seems fitting for an issue as complex as the future.

Lawrence Wilkinson, Brand’s colleague in the Global Business Network (a think tank and strategic consultancy), outlines a fairly comprehensive approach to scenario planning, which includes discussions of “long fuse, big bang problems” (decisions with ramifica­tions that won’t be known for years) and the use of a diagrammatic matrix to define plausible futures. His method takes into account social, economic, political, and technological issues, and leads to four intriguing concepts of future world societies. Unfortunately, the complex “Blade Runner” photomontages that accom­pany each scenario do little to amplify or clarify the text. Perhaps the most successful effort is an article that concerns a fictitious (or so we hope) future world-wide plague known as the Mao Virus. The top of each page is devoted to a timeline that details the progress of the epidemic from 1996 to 2020, complete with manipulated stock images that include a hermetically sealed United Nations building, a wedding party clad in gas masks, and a line of people waiting for McCure Meals at McDonalds. The realistic quality of these images make them all the more effective, since they achieve their points through subtle yet believable means.

An “interview” with a viro-biologist that served on the team from the Virtual Bioresearch Institute of Montecito, California that developed the cure for Mao is equally effective, as it too seems completely plausible. Her discussion of how the cure was developed also provides a pat on the back to designers (an audience that’s obviously important to Wired). It seems the computer simulation created by the graphic designer on the team led to the ultimate “armoring” of “Mao-Killer T-cells” to repel the attack of the virus. His visually­ oriented, pattern-seeking skills allowed him to devise a solution to the problem that was beyond the thinking of the team’s scientists. Fairly heavy stuff.

But not all of Scenarios is so serious. The interview with the viro-biologist also includes some discussion of digital sex devices, and the transfer of her husband’s DNA over the net, as they wished to have children and were located in different “Hygienic Alliances.” A short article by Douglas Coupland called “Sex Objects” is also quite entertaining, as it asks us to consider a number of sexual and reproductive devices for the next century that include swizzle sticks from Starbucks Coffee that detect past germ exposures and sexual dispositions, an IUD that detects traces of abortive drugs and then renders the mother comatose for nine months, and baby gender selection tablets made by Volkswagen AG (the package rendering quite appropriately uses Erik Spiekermann’s Meta typeface).

A personal favorite article is “Workers of the World, Relax! The Leisure Party Manifesto,” which provides a much-needed response to the “doing more with less” institutional mentality that affects most of us. Another favorite is “A Day in the Life,” (from the year 2020) which utilizes industrial design and Alias work by Lunar Design to show a series of USA Today-like, user­ personalized news presentations on flat-screen displays, made up of mostly humorous content. Many other arti­cles employ equally creative approaches to the use of visuals as an integral part of the presentation.

Wired should be congratulated, I feel, for their use of visual material as an equal with the written word, continuing a direction pioneered by Spy in the mid­-eighties. When the combination is successful, the results are clearly effective. When the visuals fail to capture the essence of the text, or overwhelm it, the results are predictably less than optimal. The pronounced use of typographic devices (size, weight, placement) and visual effects (color, contrast, overlapping) in text-only articles also generally helps to articulate and clarify the message, and provides an interesting direction that is not often pursued in editorial graphic design.

The main criticism of Scenarios’ visually robust approach is that it is often juxtaposed with equally robust advertisements. Often the editorial content is placed on the left-hand page, with advertisements appearing on the more prominent right-hand page. The result is often jarring, as viewers are consistently forced to quickly interrupt their reading to continue on the next spread. Scenarios also falls victim to a pet peeve of mine, continuing articles in the back of the publication, and then deleting page numbers to make room for advertise­ments — thus finding the rest of the article becomes a frustrating task. Of course, they are not alone in this matter, as this procedure is almost standard practice in the editorial world (ironically, this type of “ navigation” problem would be unacceptable in the interactive world). I would prefer placement of all advertisements in the back of the publication, though I understand that this approach is often not practical.

Scenarios also uses an excellent typeface family, Lucas de Groot’s Thesis, a fairly recent humanist sans serif face. It is often used in larger sizes, and is quite readable in such settings. I also appreciate Wired includ­ing an extensive colophon that provides information concerning software, hardware, prepress, paper, and the staff’s music and caffeine-delivery systems of choice (there is a reason they operated under the name Wired after all). Inclusion of these facts are entertaining and helpful to the reader, but also assist in maintaining Wired’s image as a group on the cutting-edge of technol­ogy and design.

It’s clear that the visual approach used in Scenarios is not completely successful, and that at times it even hampers our understanding of the text. While the writ­ ten content is often useful in corning to terms with a variety of issues concerning the future, the entire prod­uct suffers in the end. One hopes that an equal amount of consideration will go into future efforts of combining visual information with the text, so that a truly effective publication of this kind will eventually result. The need for communications that engage our minds through an integrated use of word and image obviously exists. While Scenarios doesn’t quite live up to that standard, it is a good initial effort, and establishes a worthwhile direction. For that reason alone, it should prove interest­ ing to designers and other future-oriented readers.

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Originally appeared in Design Issues, Volume 12, Number 2, Summer 1996, pp. 73–74.

Design educator + Professor @ The Ohio State University

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