A time for imagination

Last year’s New Adventures conference could have been a one-off reunion. It was a challenging project, but the event itself was probably our best yet, and the response overwhelming.

It’s your positivity that brings us together for the fifth time. We’re also here because the purpose of design will change considerably, and to ignore that is to sleepwalk into irrelevance. Will the same work exist in five years? Should we expect a reimagined industry with new responsibilities? What new skills must we consider? Are we the ones causing harm? Lots of big questions easily ignored, but we’ve designed this fifth edition of New Adventures to confront them head-on.

Our industry — the one we once called web design — may no longer be an open space for bold visual and interactive creativity. In response to this, I’ve developed an interest in futures and the ideas that inform strategic, critical and speculative design. This interest gives me the belief that if design is willing to evolve responsibly, it has much to offer the future.

Ethics in practice

Speculative design is imaginative research, an opportunity to devise hypothetical disruptions and what-ifs where we find new signals and fresh narratives. Uncertain futures ask that we speculate, leading to innovation that catches problems early, highlighting unintended consequences before they cause harm. It’s one way to put ethics into practice, and has the potential to change things for the better.

To me, this kind of design feels open-minded; the antithesis of web design’s current obsession with design systems and an ever-decreasing number of accepted UI patterns. I should clarify: I value design systems — I was one of those banging on about how we “design systems, not pages” in the noughties — and there’s a reason for those patterns. It’s worthwhile work, but designers should also demonstrate care for a much bigger and broader world.

Speculative design looks outwards in search of systems for living. The work is innovative but also inclusive, practitioners eager to listen to and learn from those that might benefit or suffer from new technologies. I recently attended the futures-focused Primer EU conference in Madrid, where speakers shared case studies involving ordinary people and real communities. Here was an ethical and inclusive path into uncertainty; purpose-led projects that might mitigate harm and improve lives.

Multi-disciplinary design

There’s a legitimate concern in speculative design as more of us wade in and gentrify the field, that it be misunderstood and commodified like Design Thinking. If we make an effort to understand it together at events like Primer EU and New Adventures, we can swerve that trap and hopefully add value.

Multi-disciplinary practice excites me. Here’s this open-ended space for digital and data practitioners to collaborate with artists, architects, writers, actors, etc. The fruit is often conversations and prototypes for new experiences where everyone is a stakeholder, not least those directly affected by a proposed technology. This appeals as I’ve reconnected with art and poetry as a means to imagine, ask questions and enable discourse. With my background as a conceptual artist and my old school designer preference for open thinking and experimentation, a professional shift to futures makes sense. I think there’s a role there for me, but I’m still on the outside, looking in.

Anyway, for some time I’ve wanted to take NA in this direction. We’ve always looked ahead, but now the future feels closer. Our opening speaker, Cennydd Bowles, was on board from day one and helped me identify the right minds; brilliant practitioners like Florence Okoye and Akil Benjamin, out there doing the work, and Natalie Kane, making sense of it all through objects and acquisitions. With their support, I’ve been able to curate a day that meets my ambitions.

Hope, not harm

Speculative designers work with people to better understand and support their lives now and into the unknown. Digging into these topics feels like a natural extension of NA’s ongoing conversation about what inclusivity really means.

NA has provided many pinch-myself moments, not least Ethan Marcotte’s The World-Wide Work. I’d asked Ethan to explore his interest in how we work and the damage we can do. I knew he’d prepared some bold points, but it was an exceptional keynote; the resulting video shared far and wide. Several people suggested it would pair well with Tatiana Mac’s 2018 talk, How Privilege Defines Performance. We agreed, and Tatiana was the first person we invited. Immediately, she began sharing ideas for a new talk and referencing books with tremendous enthusiasm.

We then approached Liz Jackson, whose Empathy reifies disability stigmas talk I found so captivatingly confrontational. I kept thinking “I want more people to hear this,” then remembered I run a conference. I’m in awe of Ethan, Tatiana and Liz and their steadfast commitment to ensuring design is an agent of hope, not harm.

It’s about time we invited Laura Kalbag, who many will know for her excellent book, Accessibility For Everyone, or perhaps for her work to highlight data misuse and surveillance. Oh, and we’re so chuffed to welcome web pioneer Jeff Veen! This year’s talks may offer as many questions as answers, so Jeff’s here to extend the debate with two live editions of his popular Presentable podcast.

An uncertain future

This has been an even tougher ride than 2019, and we’ve fallen below conservative ticket targets. Sponsorship proved tough too, partly because we refused to compromise our principles. Despite this, we have some wonderful sponsors, and their support has helped us invest in live captioning and invite thirty scholarship applicants. We’ve also introduced a climate impact policy, because every event should have one.

We don’t yet know if NA has a future. There’s a core in this community that we call our “hand-raisers”. They’re the ones who always attend or offer to help, and amplify our message online. They give us much encouragement, but their number has dwindled since we began. I think we have one last chance to increase the size of our community, hopefully by finding a way to sustain a permanent online presence with regular online content.

Short-termism is a problem. It’s a results-driven industry, and people are individually ambitious; too few look outwards, seek multiple perspectives, and travel without speed. It’s all about hoovering up hot new tricks for immediate deployment, with a diminishing appetite for deeper thinking, honesty, and critique. I don’t know what that means for design, but it worries me.

Yes, we are excited!

I am very proud of our events and accompanying publications. Recently, we’ve been building an archive, revisiting every contribution. Much of what our speakers said and authors wrote makes as much sense now — if not more sense — than it did at the time. I think that speaks to the value of NA.

And so, despite everything, we’re more excited than ever because this one feels so very right. It’s serious stuff and probably won’t be laugh-a-minute, but we think it’s the conference the design industry and design-minded practitioners need right now. We love you to bits for understanding that and for being here with us, and we hope you have a brilliant day.

This editorial was written for the New Adventures magazine, January 2020.