By its most commonplace descriptions, design should solve problems, match form with function, produce artifacts, and make people secure and comfortable.

Conceptual design does not share the same immediate goals. Like good classic design, it cuts to the core of the issue at hand, wipes away excess hype, zeroes in on claims of innovation, provides a healthy dose of reality check, and uses vision to marry new ideas and old behaviours. However, it is not always warm and fuzzy or ergonomically reassuring, it is pointed and critical, sometimes even dark, awkward and pessimistic. It does not always come under the form of a traditional object, but because conceptual designers need to communicate concepts — and being designers, they want to make sure that these concepts are approachable and understandable — their work often makes for outstanding, visually arresting art.

Many are uncomfortable with the mere idea of conceptual design. Some artists are wary of a territorial invasion. Nothing to do with mediums, such as designers’ skilful use of video and performance. Rather, artists see designers taking over the role of social commentators and thorns-in-the-side that they, together with some writers and architects, used to fill.

The most compelling debate is nonetheless happening within the design community, pitching old-school practitioners, who still revel in describing design as problem solving and form follows function, against the new explorers, the hunter-gatherers who look for cracks in the system that provide opportunities to launch interdisciplinary quests.

The RCA is the ideal intellectual battleground where the armies of industrial, graphic, product and interaction designers tend to positively contaminate each other and grow stronger rather than repelling and diminishing each other. Design Interactions is the initial virus and its reach goes far beyond Kensington Gore. It is hard to express the influence that faculty and students have on the whole world. maybe there is one way: because of them, design will never be the same.

Paola Antonelli
Senior Curator, MoMA

Probable / Preferable / Plausible / Possible

“What human beings are and will become is decided in the shape of our tools no less than in the action of statesmen and political movements. The design of technology is thus an ontological decision fraught with political consequences.”

Andrew Feenberg - Transforming Technology: A Critical Theory Revisited.

What happens when you decouple design from the marketplace, when rather than making technology sexy, easy to use and more consumable, designers use the language of design to pose questions, inspire, and provoke — to transport our imaginations into parallel but possible worlds?

The projects on this website focus on designing interactions between people and technology on many different levels. They’re concerned not only with the expressive, functional and communicative possibilities of new technologies but also with the social, cultural and ethical consequences of living within an increasingly technologically mediated society. They explore new ways design can make technology more meaningful and relevant to our lives, both now, and in the future, by thinking not only about new applications but implications as well.

Last year, the futurologist Stuart Candy visited the department and showed us a wonderful diagram he used to clarify how we think about futures. Rather than one amorphous space of futureness it was divided into Probable, Preferable, Plausible and Possible futures. One of the most interesting zones was Preferable. Of course the very definition of preferable is problematic — who decides? But, although designers shouldn’t decide for everyone else, we can play a significant role in discovering what is and what isn’t desirable.

To do this, we need to move beyond designing for the way things are now and begin to design for how things could be, imagining alternative possibilities and different ways of being, and giving tangible form to new values and priorities. Designers cannot do this alone though, and many of the projects here benefit from collaborations, dialogues and consultations with people working in diverse fields such as ethics, philosophy, medicine, political science, fiction, psychiatry, economics, life sciences and biology.

This space of probable, preferable, plausible and possible futures allows designers to challenge design orthodoxy and prevailing technological visions so that fresh perspectives can begin to emerge. It is absolutely not about prediction, but asking what if…, speculating, imagining, and even dreaming in order to encourage debate about the kind of technologically mediated world we wish to live in. Hopefully, one that reflects the complex, troubled people we are, rather than the easily satisfied consumers and users we are supposed to be.

Professor Anthony Dunne
Head of Department

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