Interview with Julian Bleecker, co-author of The Manual of Design Fiction
Imagine that you have a sh**ty time machine that doesn’t work very well and can only take you a few years or decades into the future, and only for brief stays. Dropping into someone’s living room, the lobby of a home store, or maybe convenience store, what would you grab in those few moments? What might these archeological artifacts from the future look lie, feel like?
If you spend any time with Julian Bleecker, founding member of the Near Future Laboratory and co-author of The Manual of Design Fiction, you will recognize this thought experiment as one of the critical tenets for thinking about Design Fiction and for using Design Fiction to help us explore possible futures in a tactile, concrete way.
Bleecker has had several careers as an engineer, technologist and entrepreneur. But a chance encounter with the Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual by Franz Joseph as a child at a Star Trek convention led eventually and inexorably to the founding of the Near Future Laboratory and his development of the concept of Design Fiction.
In this interview, Bleecker shares his thoughts about the power of tangible artifacts to speak to possible futures, the current state of the Foresight field, and the importance of spending time in a future that isn’t about what product to make next year.
Compass: What title do you use to describe yourself, and does it change depending on who you are speaking to?
Bleecker: I guess I say designer, but I’m also a designer-engineer…community-builder…vibe-generator…
Compass: It’s interesting that ‘Futurist’ doesn’t fall into that list...
Bleecker: No…it’s just so technical nowadays, and for me, “Futurist” is so overloaded and front-loaded. I do think that it’s useful and has a value for some positions, as far as expressing ambitions about things like teaching students in how to think about the future, so it does play an important role in some contexts. But it’s definitely not the first thing that comes to mind at a dinner party when someone asks me what I do, because then that becomes a focus over the ‘tangible’ design work, especially since most Futurists are not in the tangible, because they’re so used to doing reports, keynotes to trade groups, that kind of thing, and that’s not my main focus.
My focus is talking about the future and going there and spending time in the future as a mode of thought, and helping clients figure out next steps. It seems like a lot of the ‘walking across the big stage, talking at Ted’ futurists are more about holding forth and moving on to the next engagement than working to identify those next steps.
Compass: What do you wish didn’t exist in this work that you do?
Bleecker: One of the things that challenges me is finding a way to represent the importance of spending time in the future in a way that isn’t first about “help us figure what product to do next year.” It feels more like a responsibility to the future and the work needs to have purpose (in a broader sense) rather than feeling like an extractive commercial endeavor.
Compass: So, are you saying that you’re looking to be a ‘good ancestor’ making a better future rather than just doing work that’s going to contribute to shareholder value in the next several quarters?
Bleecker: I think it’s just a tweak on what ‘shareholder value’ is, so that the value is more with sustaining the possibility of there being shareholders to have value in the future.
How do we create new dreams of the world, a way of living and believing that’s for the world, so that we can work, create, and dream together and what are the rules to avoid spending the next 50 years fighting for human survival on earth without continuing to do the same things as before.
So, I guess that the challenge to me, which drives me and motivates me, is to find new ways of being in the world, to reinvigorate our imagination and remember what it is to dream our own dreams rather than the dreams of whoever it is we idolize as a hero. We need to ask ourselves why we are proselytizing that autonomous vehicle future? Is it because of whose idea it is? Because it’s the best way to get to work? If that’s the case, let’s take a step back and talk about work: is that the best way to spend your life and translate your skills and interest.
Compass: You mention that there’s a gap between the way things are, and the way we might imagine that we want them to be. Why do you think that is?
Bleecker: Good question. I think, at some point, we forget how to imagine. We’re told to stop screwing around with crayons and get on some kind of rails, some system of rules where you stop imagining outside of a system of constraints and you stop horsing around in that beautiful way that you do when you’re allowed to not make sense, or to find your own system to make sense of things on your own.
That moment when you get scolded for drawing on the kitchen floor, expecting the same approval that you got for drawing on a piece of paper is setting you on a trajectory that creates a fissure that you dare not cross, and if you do cross it, you’re either crazy or you’re an artist. You can be either critically acclaimed or struggling, because if you’re someone who makes sense of the world differently from others, unless you manage that well and condition your psyche to operate that way, life can be really hard. Something well documented in the history of art, where artists who are considered geniuses now were not recognized as such, at the time.
Compass: There are a lot of people coming into the field of foresight lately. Why do you think that is?
Bleecker: The cynical side of me makes me think that some of it is opportunistic because people realize that there’s business in “the future” now, because our consciousness is focused on technology as ‘the future’ and its ability to change behavior and create opportunities, such as the English major who sold their app to the New York Times for $5 million. So, now you can do anything around the business of technology, from accountants and designers who specialize in future-oriented businesses to futurists who will find a proprietary method to help you plan for contingencies.
Of course, it’s also more “in the air,” with dozens of futures-themed podcasts and tools like ChatGPT being used by people like therapists, which makes it feel like we’re at the start of something.
People also talk about “the pace of change,” where things are happening so fast that you can’t help but think about the future, unlike the 1950s, where dad came home on Friday and his “future” was a can of beer, maybe watching a ball game and going fishing on Sunday. Now there’s a pressing need associated with general future anxiety, which should probably be in the DSM-5 as a proper syndrome that especially younger generations are suffering from, where they feel that the future might be a rough ride, especially with the glut of science fiction films, which are portals into possible futures, and we got a lot of them now, compared to getting a few good films per decade and a TV show here or there, so maybe that feeds into it as well.
Compass: Getting into Design Fiction now and circling back to ideas of childhood, this seems like a very different future than what we imagined when we were kids. A tenet of Design Fiction is the “Future Mundane,” and it feels like we are living our mundane, which is not at all what we thought the future would be?
Bleecker: Well, that’s the exercise, and that’s what hurts, because that’s the imagination struggling as an underused muscle that aches, and that’s where the work is. And that’s because of the relationship that Design Fiction wants to emphasize, where you don’t think of the superlative, think of the everyday household stuff on your bedside table, what’s for breakfast, how do you get to work. Do you realize that now you just yell at your TV to get it to do something? In the old days you had to negotiate with your siblings to see who would get up to change the channel. So, what’s that future thing that you will look back and say “Back in my day, things were not like this.”
Compass: What do you think that Design Fiction brings to the foresight world that wasn’t there before publishing the manual?
Bleecker: I think it may bring some humility to the practice, making you focus on the things around you by making you experience the future as a lived-in experience in an everyday way, which I don’t think that the futures practice does, at least in my experience.
My exposure to it has been as discussions of futures in a macroeconomic scale. They may talk about what personal transportation may look like, but it’s always in the service of something on a massive scale.
I think that Design Fiction can also start with implications and not start with declarations, allowing you to approach a future with a certain amount of modesty and an expectation of not knowing the future in its completeness. We should be looking at these artifacts like an archeologist studying a shard of something with a sense of preciousness, wanting to make sense of the artifact and trying to figure out the story of the world that it came from and its context in that world and what it might say about that world, with the humility of an archeologist trying to translate this world for those in the present. And I see Design Fiction as a way of doing that but form the future. That’s why I do the time machine thing.
Compass: Yes! The sh**ty time machine metaphor is such a powerful tool for explaining Design Fiction to those unfamiliar with it.
Bleecker: Right, it’s got to be janky, because you can’t tell people “this is what’s going to happen in 2036,” so just like that archeologist, you can’t know the exact date, and the janky time machine allows for that ambiguity.
Design Fiction is kind of like Jurassic Park, which in the first few minutes of the film makes you feel that the science could be real, yet a lot of paleontologists were upset because a lot of the bird-related science in the movie was a minority opinion, but the guy who told a good story and made it feel real got his story into a $100 million film. So that, to me, is one of the magic aspects of Design Fiction, because it makes you feel into this future, in a way that some other futures deliverables may not, because even those futurists who describe the future as prose and do it really well are still telling the story in page after page of writing or in a presentation or in a film.
Meanwhile a piece of Design Fiction is something that just shows up on your desk or in the mail and you have to question it and wonder “What is this?”
No one is there to tell you what it is or what it’s about; it's meant to be experienced, bringing you into the future represented by that artifact in a way that other Futures deliverables may not.
Learn more: Julian Bleecker is a designer, author, product innovator, engineer, entrepreneur, podcast host and creative team leader. Julian developed the practice of Design Fiction, which he outlined in the 2008 manifesto "A Short Essay on Design Fiction,” and later described in depth in the 2022 book The Manual of Design Fiction. Design Fiction is now employed throughout many foresight, insight, and innovation agencies and teams. To learn more about Julian Bleecker, visit julianBleecker.com
Fernando Gutierrez is a Uruguayan-born futurist based in the United States with a passion for space and science fiction, and a drive to identify opportunities for emerging and developing nations to participate in space-based commerce and exploration. A founding member of the group Futures & Foresight, he is co-host and creative director of The Multiverse Convo. He is also editor of the upcoming book Ecofascism, from the onedayin2050 collaborative. To learn more, you can find Fernando anywhere on social media as @LatinoFuturist.