Phil Balagtas on Speculative Design


Phil Balagtas is Design Director at GE Aviation. He is also founder of the Primer Conference, a "gathering of designers, strategists, thought leaders, architects, and educators to share their work and processes to prime us for the challenges and the opportunities the future may hold."

The California College of Arts graduate started his design career in 2004 at the National Science Foundation where he designed the groups special reports. In January 2017, Alisan Atvur (AA) spoke with Phil (PB) about speculative design, its role in the workplace, and the 2017 Primer Conference.


AA: Let's start with the basics: what is "speculative design"?


PB: I get the same question in different ways, and there are so many definitions and terms used interchangeably, so we [the Speculative Futures meetup group] tried to cling on to one a year and a half ago. We call it critical design as it is critique of various future scenarios that we, as a species, may face in the future. When I use it either (speculative design or critical design), I am referring to any design that imagines a potential future and results in objects or artifacts which are created for or created by the evolution of cultures, economics or values.

Critical Design uses speculative design proposals to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role products play in everyday life. It is more of an attitude than anything else, a position rather than a method. There are many people doing this who have never heard of the term critical design and who have their own way of describing what they do. Naming it Critical Design is simply a useful way of making this activity more visible and subject to discussion and debate.

AA: What ignited this interest in critical design?


PB: I learned about critical design in grad school at the California College of the Arts, where I learned about the critical designers Dunne & Raby. I think the work they are creating is profound because their artifacts illustrate how design impacts us socially and culturally.

Dunne & Raby use design as a medium to stimulate discussion and debate amongst designers, industry and the public about the social, cultural and ethical implications of existing and emerging technologies.

PB: What we are doing is not meant to be a movement. I just want to talk about it, and I want others to think about it. When I began to organize the Primer Conference, I realized there are people who are seeking this discussion.

The 1st Primer Conference will take place in San Francisco February 24-26, 2017.

The 1st Primer Conference will take place in San Francisco February 24-26, 2017.


AA: What is the output of the critical Design process?

PB: It helps to use examples of critical design, such as design fiction pieces which tell stories of the future. For example, Corning makes a series of videos called "A Day Made of Glass" which presents visions of how the future may look with technologies that aren't available now but will be available. Apple released a film in 1987 where they envisioned a future with a product called the Knowledge Navigator, which envisioned how the way we learn and research ideas would be dramatically different because of technologies which would develop but were not available at that time. Intel produces similar videos which visualizes how life, transportation and communication will be different as a result of designs which will come from currently non-existent technologies. Fisher Price released a video on the future of parenting. These are examples of organizations forecasting experiences that could materialize in the future.


AA: But isn't all design inherently speculative?


PB: You make a good point. Cameron Tompkinwise proposes a similar point in an article entitled Just Design. We use the term for the purpose of having the conversation about the implications of design, not to limit the field of design. This topic gets so much debate, which is why I like it. No matter how you categorize it [critical design], the work is good for our society , and we should be doing it.

Every time you qualify design with, or add design to, some other quality or practice, you are claiming that design does not already do that.
— Cameron Tompkinwise

PB: Furthermore, there are different degrees to which the "speculative" part of the design can be a priority. For example, one especially speculative design project was conducted by the government of Dubai. They created an organization to look at future technologies, which included explorations of human exoskeletons, brain augmentation technologies, construction robots and future medical treatments which could be used in the next 5 years. For this work, this design project is an effort to learn from the public whether of not they accept it and why.


AA: How do you integrate speculative design into your work?


PB:  When I use it at GE, I don’t call it speculative design. It has a name already, and it's called "vision, strategy, and foresight." This goes back to my point about not being married to a specific definition or a term. My team members use the terminology that the business can acclimate to, and we execute the work in a way that allows it connect to an organization's business goals.

For example, for future of airport projects, we had to create a vision, and then we had to back-cast it to work back to the present. It's a common framework which includes asking questions such as "what are the phases to achieving this?" and "what is the infrastructure that can make this happen?" As you can imagine, it become more than a new app. In speculative design, we aren't being predictive, we are being preemptive.


AA: What can attendees of the Primer Conference expect to learn?


PB:  It's two full days of content (Saturday and Sunday) with an open event on Friday. Saturday is a full day of speakers and Sunday consists of 3 workshops teaching frameworks. Our speakers and workshop leaders include a senior designer from IDEO, a professor from the Rhode Island School of Design, an interaction designer form Cooper, as well as speculative designers from across the globe, including 2 people from Mexico who will speak on design futures in Latin America.