TBDCatalogTBD Catalog
The Design Fiction product catalog from a normal, ordinary, everyday possible product future.
TBD Catalog, 10th Anniversary Edition The Design Fiction Catalog of the Near Future's Normal, Ordinary, Everyday
TBD Catalog, 10th Anniversary Edition The Design Fiction Catalog of the Near Future's Normal, Ordinary, Everyday

Project Summary

What is 'the future', when 'the future' arrives as a printed junk mail catalog of yesterday's vision of the future?

Client: Near Future Laboratory, University of Michigan

Client URL: https://shop.nearfuturelaboratory.com

Team: Near Future Laboratory, Friends

Project Year: 2013, 2023

Project Duration: 16 Weeks

Published On: Jan 3, 2024, 15:33

Updated On: Jan 22, 2024, 08:57

Written By: Julian Bleecker


The Project

What are the ways we can augment research data, analytics, trend data by representing the implications of that data in a vivid, compelling, tangible way?

What we did was take the trends of the day and extrapolate them, translating the 'trend itself' and representing it as a tangible artifact that implies the future of the trend in a tangible way.

For example: What is the somewhat obvious future of AI? How can we augment vague analytics and dry trend data with their normal, ordinary, everyday possibilities as if these trends found themselves in a corner convenience store? What is the future of Artificial Intelligence when it is on the 2 for 1 rack at your corner bodega?

The Outcomes

TBD Catalog and the workshop and production process associated with it represented the first complete Design Fiction project.

From ideation to gathering participants, to conducting a 3-day workshop, to translating the insights, conversations, research, and speculations into over one hundred possible implications of those insights and research, TBD Catalog is the canonical example of Design Fiction.

It is the first Design Fiction project in that it ran a complete process of conducting a futures workshop with engaged participants from across a wide variety of practices and disciplines to infer the implications of trends at a point in time, project them into a possible/plausible future, and then actually produce and manufacture the results of the workshop in a tangible form that wasn't just another printed report.

This success represents the viability of Design Fiction as an approach, methdology, and professional-scale practice that can not only augment research but enhance the implications of research, translate value directly to product teams, and become an integral component of the research, development, and product design workflows across domains, including commercial, creative, and pedagogical idioms.

TBD Catalog is now in its 10th Anniversary Edition and has sold over 7000 copies.
A spread from TBD Catalog, 10th Anniversary Edition, The Design Fiction Catalog of the Near Future's Normal, Ordinary, Everyday
A spread from TBD Catalog showing an AI by-the-hour lawyer card and 'Ear Freshener' a wearable that helps with 'confused ear syndrome', an environmentally-caused syndrome leading to some adolescents having difficulty comprehending speech after long screen-based activity exposure.'
A spread from TBD Catalog, 10th Anniversary Edition, The Design Fiction Catalog of the Near Future's Normal, Ordinary, Everyday
Smart toilets by Kohler, trad travel luggage, a dream-recording pillow, and retro Bitcoin mining equipment, servers, and GPUs.

The Brief

Take the trends of the day, the hottest items on the Gartner Hype Curve and then use Design Fiction to represent the implications thereof in the form of a weird slightly junk mail catalog in which all of our hopes, dreams, fascinations and fetishizations of technology and its promises have resulted in bottom-dollar commodity stuff. The goal was to create a printed publication that felt like an actual product catalog and put the catalog itself on the Near Future Laboratory Shop for sale as the canonical exemplar of Design Fiction.

The 10th Anniversary Edition

Remarkable that the demand for this artifact from the future continues. Remarkable and humbling, as well as reassuring. Design Fiction has felt-value amongst the vanguard of creative practices. They ‘get it’ — and now 10 years on are finding the value of the Design Fiction practice as it pertains to helping guide executive decision making, shape visions of possible futures, and help align teams through a vivid, tangible representation of the organization’s future.

We’ve taken this approach of creating a Product Catalog from the Near Future for several commercial clients, including Apple, Google, IKEA, and Sony Electronics Corporation.

The Design Fiction Approach

Our approach was one that has proven out as a viable methodology for workshopping futures. We use immersion, sketching, and rich, meaningful discussion. If you can gather the right kind of expansive, creative thinker who is an interested, engaged, curious individual, more inclined to generate and be generous and to speculate and discuss possibilities, beautiful unexpected ideas and activities will obtain.

Workshopping the concept products developed during the workshop.

The Process

In the spring of 2012, I sent out a simple email to a dozen individuals who I thought would be intrigued by the challenge of imagining the future of the day’s current trends. That email went out to a group that included product designers, engineers, museum curators, design directors, film makers, industrial designers, science-fiction authors, university professors. I proposed a workshop for the fall in Detroit with a plan to spend one day in the archives of the Henry Ford Museum, and two days in downtown Detroit at a campus of the University of Michigan, who offered facilities, equipment, and some amazing technical support staff.

Our process consisted of two phases: Immersion/Workshop followed by Design Production. The Immersion Workshop was three days, resulting in broad strokes of categories and exemplars for those categories. This was followed by an extended intermission of several months, the Design Production phase, an intensive six week production effort of print catalog design, including image sourcing, product description writing, test printing and review.

Below is the original email I sent. Everyone came to participate.

Hello! I want to tell you about ‘To Be Designed.‘

The Near Future Laboratory is putting on a three day design workshop event to imagine an unprecedented number of design fiction artifacts for a speculative, near future world. These artifacts will become items in a rather routine product catalog. What we want to create — to spur conversations about the things that will matter in the near future — is, for example, a Skymall, or Sears Wish Book or McMaster-Carr catalog. Into this catalog will be things that express our sense of how the near future will be lived. It will express the pragmatic concerns, ambitions, fears, everyday needs and wishes of the future’s inhabitants as represented through the catalog’s contents — it’s diegetic prototypes.

To do this we will have to consider the evolution of the ways and means of production of the near future, as well as shifts in the dynamics of creativity, law, aesthetic norms & values and incumbent measures of cultural achievement. The catalog will contain these Design Fiction products and things and services and present them as they would be when they become normal and everyday — even boring and mundane.

Think of the catalog as a near future science fiction sourcebook of products, or the catalog itself as a prop for a science fiction film set in a slightly tweaked future.

This catalog of design fiction things and diegetic prototypes is meant to represent the materialization of conversations amongst a small group of designers, makers and writers in the form of a collection of stuff as if that collection of stuff existed as routinely as Sasquatch garden statuettes, inflatable neck pillows, combination USB thumb drive nail clipper laser pointers, battery-powered screw drivers, and flat tire repair kits.

The work of the event will be to translate the designerly conversations, theoretical implications, values and principles into actual exemplars of the conversations that will happen during the event — and do so quickly. The outcome of the event will be the catalog itself, ready for final print production and to be shared with the world so as to prompt conversations and discussions.

You may be asking yourself — what is Design Fiction?

Design Fiction strides alongside of Science Fiction, obligating itself to fashion representation of what could be — whether that’s a different present, a re-assessment of the recent past, or a future likely to be obtained. It may be a reaction to a sense that Science Fiction has given up on the future, or given over its once exclusive remit to imagine the future. Now Science Fiction seems to prefer envisioning the differently present or the recently past.

Design Fiction’s commitment is to create a legible, tangible representation of alternatives. It works within the exciting matrix of other sorts of

The emphasis of Design Fiction is on alternative worlds as represented through the things — objects, props, products, services and other items that are invested with the full-weight of the worlds in which they could exist. These props are “diegetic prototypes” — objects that test an idea, but do so through implied existence. They implicate themselves as things that people live with, rather than solely technological possibility. They are designed, evocative, desirable, ineffable and imbued with a sense of imminent possibility, even necessity. They almost make sense.

Design Fiction creates these things because they can help tell the stories about the worlds they could occupy, without the stories being told in a typical narrative — and because telling good stories is hard. Making suggestive, evocative, compelling, curious objects is the designers way of telling stories about worlds that could or should become.

Hope you can make it!


A quickly printed prototype of TBD Catalog
A quickly printed prototype of TBD Catalog produced during the workshop.

Near Future Laboratory’s Role

We defined the project and faciliated its organization in collaboration with a team of co-organizers based in Detroit, Professor John Marshall and Cezanne Charles. We ultimately completed the ideation to fully populate a 112 page Design Fiction product catalog, did the visual design, layout, and oversaw the manufacturing of the printed publication, managed shipping and sales of the final TBD Catalog which is available at https://shop.nearfuturelaboratory.com now in its 10th Anniversary Edition. TBD Catalog has gone through 3 printings and has sold over 7000 copies.

The main trends were the buzz of 2012, including Wearables, AI, Algorithmic Everything, Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency, Surveillance, Augmented Reality, Big Data, Crowd Funding, Social Networks.

We also created a resource kit consisting of the first Design Fiction Product Design Work Kit for ideation and inspiration, along with a book of fictional product names and product companies.

Workshopping Design Fiction concepts from a possible product future
Working through product categories to develop broad concepts for possible Design Fiction product futures. Near Future Laboratory TBD Catalog workshop in Detroit, October 2012.
A group photo of the participants from the TBD Catalog workshop in Detroit Michigan, October 2012
The group gathered to participate in the workshop and prototyping of a Design Fiction practice. Detroit, October

Phase 1 - Immersion Workshop / Detroit

This phase was a gathering in Detroit starting with an immersion day in the archives of the Henry Ford Museum to explore the rich history of the industrial age. The Henry Ford Museum’s ‘back room’ archives represent 90% of their collection, with the minority of artifacts on display.

Thanks to our relationship with the Henry Ford Museum’s Chief Curator, we were granted access to explore the minutae of design and innovation as represented by the mundane artifacts of everyday life — from presidential candidate buttons to McDonald’s Happy Meal toys. This gave us a firm basis to imagine into the kinds of meaningful artifacts that populate our humble and everyday corners of our lives.

This was followed by a two days workshopping in downtown Detroit, including explorations into Dollar Stores, bodegas, convenience marts in order to collect everyday kinds of artifacts from today for discussion. The point of gathering boring items was to remind ourselves that there is a sense of ‘necessity’ to these kind of items and this should be considered a kind of inspiration. We also reminded ourselves that these are the things that can be easily taken for granted. We take aspirin, hand-held global communicators and portable power (batteries) for granted today. These are things that you can pick up at a corner store without thinking about it. But 150 years ago these were futuristic, science-fictional ideas.

How can we take the futuristic things of today and represent them as the ‘taken for granted’? How can we make a ‘product catalog from a possible future’ feel as though it came from today’s future? Can we make it feel like something we might find in someone’s recycling bin, grabbed it, and then brought it back to today in order to help us make some sense of today’s tomorrow?

Groups ideating on concepts for products that might exist in some near future.
We broke out into working groups, each taking a product categor and developing several concepts. These were then ‘made tangible’ as they would have to be for a product catalog: product image, name, brand, sales-oriented description, price, warnings/cautions, value exchange mechanic, funding mechanism, etc.

Phase 2 - Design Production

Phase 1 in which about a dozen participants helped create the rough framework for the kinds of products that might represent the future of the trends of 2012.

It is typical of workshops like this that, once parties depart, the ‘hard work’ of capturing and transforming the energy and creating some tangible outcome is, well — hard. People go back to their daily lives and work and the focus of an immersive workshop dissipates.

In this case, the plan was to take the 20 or so product starters that were developed in the workshop and increasing that by a factor of five or more. This proved challenging and it was impossible to get the attention of attendees sufficient to continue the work. After a lengthy pause, I decided to commission a graphic artist to collaborate with me to speed things along, and began working on developing nearly 100 future product for the catalog, including art (images and associated graphics), product names, catalog-type descriptions, pricing, sales conditions, small text, warnings, symbology and small graphics. The graphic designer took the responsibility of laying out the contents in InDesign.

This workflow was sufficient to populate a rich and vibrant future product catalog, including classified ads, editorial text, cover design and more. This took about 8 weeks of part-time activity.

Throughout, Near Future Laboratory was responsible for creating all of the principle imagery, designing the catalog flatplan, author product catalog items, and editorially manage the necessary consistency of ‘the world’.

A spread from TBD Catalog, a Design Fiction product catalog of today's tomorrow.

After Action Report

TBD Catalog is the first and canonical Design Fiction artifact. It serves as a reference and primary exemplar of what a Design Fiction artifact is, and the importance of connecting research, foresight, and vision to the creation of an actual material artifact that gets off the screen and into a tangible form.

The workshop approach has served as a repeatable model for doing Design Fiction. It is one we have brought to many clients in order to help unlock creative potential in an deeply engaging and imaginative way.

The ‘Product Catalog’ is a useful archetype for representing consumer futures, strategic foresight/futures, and for translating consumer research into a tangible form that can augment futures reports.

Visiting the private archives of the Henry Ford Museum with Chief Curator Marc Greuther
We spent the day visiting the private archives of the Henry Ford Museum for inspiration as well as an opportunity to discuss and engage in the topic at hand.

The TBD Catalog Design Fiction Story

TBD started out as a modest effort by our original core editorial team. There were 19 of us. We met in the city of Detroit in the United States to discuss what was jokingly referred to as the “State of Things” and to assess the future of products, their design and associated services as society evolved with its exuberance for cultures, businesses and daily rituals in which technologies and sciences played a central, defining role.

We were a disparate group of designers, curators, science fact and science fiction writers, students of science and technology studies, prototypers, cultural theorists, engineers, artists and makers. What brought us together was this commission from a quiet yet very successful venture group to consider the trajectories into the near future of the “big promises” of the day. Take the things that seemed liminal, the things in the laboratories, in the public media, in science-fiction films, in economic projections and then extrapolate these ideas and prototypes and make them into ‘things’ in the near future. But, specific kinds of near future things. Not hyperbolic perfections, but those things as they would exist as part of normal, ordinary, everyday life. If you stopped today and transported to the near future, what would the world look like? We assumed their objective was to assess a possible landscape of dozens of new ventures into which they could plow their billions (with a ‘b’). And, presumably they had a special foresight to anticipate the things that would become commodities rather than luxuries, as all great ideas eventually become, if they become anything at all.

A graph going towards the future showing something like the Gartner Hype Cycle
A graph going towards the future
A graph showing that the future is not evenly distribted
The future is not evenly distributed?

To address this, we started by posing provocative questions to ourselves. How might the promise of what at the time was called an “internet of things” play out in the near future? What would the future look like in a world blanketed by advances in protection and surveillance technologies? If Autonomous Vehicle innovations continued its passionate race forward, what would it be to pick up the groceries, take a commercial airline flight, commute to work, have mail and parcels delivered, drop off the dry cleaning, meet friends at a bar across town, go on cross-country family vacations, or take the kids to sports practice or school? Would food sciences offer us new forms of ingestible energy such as coconut-based and other high-caloric energy sources, or caloric burners that would help us avoid exercise-based diets? In what ways would live, streaming, recorded and crowd-authored music and filmed entertainment evolve? How might advances in portable spring power hold up against traditional chemical battery power? How would emerging forms of family and kinship be reflected in social networks? How will Chinese migration to Africa shape that continent’s entry into the world of manufacturing, and how would that inevitability shape distribution and production economies? What is to become of open-source education and the over-supply of capable yet unemployed engineers? Would personal privacy and data hiding protocols be developed to help protect our families and businesses from profile pirates and data heists? What happens to our sense of social relations as today’s algorithmic analytic interpersonal relationship matchers get too good and algorithms effectively pre-pubscently “couple us off” before we have a chance to experience the peculiarities of dating life? Will crytocurrency disrupt today’s national currencies? What will become of coffee and plant-based protein products?

The Detroit Editorial and Conceptual Team: Aaron Straup Cope, Bruce Sterling, Cezanne Charles, Chris Woebken, Christian Svanes Kolding, Emmet Byrne, James Bridle, John Marshall, Julian Bleecker, Karl Daubmann, Marc Greuther, Marcus Bleecker, Meghan Mulholland, Moka Pantages, Nicolas Nova, Nick Foster, Raphael Grignani, Tom Bray, Zack Jacobsen-Weaver.

TBD Catalog is a Near Future Laboratory project supported by the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design. Creative Director: Julian Bleecker; Executive Producer: Fabien Girardin; TBD Catalog Design: Emmet Byrne, Julian Bleecker, Lena Tesone, Nick Foster; Video Creative Director: Christian Svanes Kolding; Video Producer: Nicolas Nova

Our commission was to ask these questions and then represent the answers as design fictional services, evolutions of product categories and new kinds of social, domestic and retail experiences.

Effectively, we were charged with the task of taking a snapshot of the current state of our own 19-member collective consciousness. Within that snapshot would be certain initial, liminal ideas at some threshold of possibility or concern. We were then to extrapolate those ideas along a design fictional trajectory that would deliver it as a ‘normal ordinary everyday’ artifact - a product, service or interleaved formal or ad-hoc eco-systemic collection of thing - within some near future. Even the most hypothetical notion, the most speculative concern, was given room to air itself through discussion, sketching, testing, prototyping, debating and making. Some things we built in the normal sense of the word. Others, we hypothesized and constructed as immaterial props, inserting them into scenarios, stories and little moments in someone’s normal ordinary everyday life. Some services found their way into diegetic “treatments” - narratives that would up as moments in little films or microfictional stories.

A graph going towards the future exponentially better
Exponentially better year-on-year?
A graph showing that the future up and to the right
The future is up and to the right?

Ultimately though, our task was to decant even the most preposterous idea through a series of design procedures that would make it as normal, ordinary, and everyday blasé as, for one retrospective example, the billions of 140-character messages sent into the ether each day - a form of personal individual communication that must have, at its inception, seemed to most of the world to be the most ridiculous idea ever. The point being that the most extraordinary preposterous social rituals have often made their ways into our lives to become normal and even taken for granted.

A Near Future Laboratory Design Fiction Evening. We met in San Francisco to talk about design. And fiction. And the ways of approaching the challenge of all challenges, whatever it may be.

A report (or catalog, such as TBD) offers a way to normalize those extraordinary ideas and represent them as entirely ordinary. We imagined it to be a catalog of some sort, as might appear in a street vending box in any neighborhood, or in a pile next to the neighborhood real estate guides or advertising-based classified newspapers near the entrance to your local convenience store.

Sketches of product catalog entires for some Design Fiction products
By the second day we had created some more refined representations of product concepts. Every item needs a visual representation, a product name, a manufacturer, catalog description, price, currency or transaction mechanic (crowd funded, crypto, etc.), ‘small copy’ indicating conditions of sale, warnings, etc. Near Future Laboratory TBD Catalog workshop in Detroit, October 2012.

Why would we do this?

Why would we be commissioned to produce such a “report”- and then pretend-present it as a catalog of things? Quite simply we did it as an alternative to traditional ways of imagining, constructing and discussing possible near futures. Rather than the staid, old-fashioned, bland, unadventurous “strategy consultant’s” report or “futurist’s” white paper (or, even worse - bullet-pointed PowerPoint conclusion to a project), we wanted to present the results of our workshop in a form that had the potential to feel as immersive as an engaging, well-told story. We wanted our insights to exists as if they were an object or an experience that might be found in the world we were describing for our client. We wanted our client to receive our insights with the shift in perspective that comes when one is able to suspend their disbelief as to what is possible.

How did we come to this state of affairs? During our workshop, we used a little known design-engineering concept generation and development protocol called Design Fiction. Through a series of rigorous design procedures, selection protocols, and proprietary generative work kits, Design Fiction creates diegetic and engineered prototypes that suspend disbelief in their possibility. Design Fiction is a way of moving an idea into existence through the use of design tools and fictional contexts that results in a suspension of one’s disbelief, which then allows one to overcome one’s skeptical nature and see possibility where there was once only skepticism or doubt.

There were a variety of tools and instruments we could put in service to construct these normal ordinary everyday things. For example, several canonical graphs used to represent trajectories of ideas towards their materialization would come in handy. These are simple and familiar graphs. Their representations embody specific epistemological systems of belief about how ideas, technologies, markets, societies evolve. These are typically positivist up-and-to-the-right tendencies. With graphs such as these, one can place an idea in the present and trace it towards its evolved near future form to see where its promise might end up.

We also had the Design Fiction Product Design Work Kit, a work kit useful for parceling ideas into their atomic elements, re-arranging them into something that, for the present, would be quite extra-ordinary. But, in the near future everyday, would be quite ordinary.

The cycle of relations between science fact, science fiction, film and entertainment
The cycle of relations between science fact, science fiction, film and entertainment
A venn diagrom showing that a product is the overlap of possible, profitable, and desireable
The product is the overlap of possible, profitable, and desireable.

Design Fiction Is Not About Prediction

It Is About ‘Imagining Into’ Possibility, Anticipating, Creating A Felt Sense Of The Not True *Yet

It is important to point out that we were not attempting to predict the future. Prediction felt far too hubristic and old fashioned. We wanted a more modern frame to put around our conversations - not to say what would be, but to set a stage that produced our insights with a modesty and humility. What we were striving to achieve was a kind of rich production design and a thorough visual-narrative context through which one might find some space to imagine, question, and extend the core characteristics of our insights into thought-provocations. We did not want to assume what would become the future and what ‘exciting’ technologies of the day would find their way into our lives, mindlessly disregarding the probably costs and consequences. We wanted to offer up a cast of props that could provoke conversations about what kind of futures we may want, and what kind of futures we may not want.

You might say that the catalog is wrong about this-or-that, or that it misrepresents a “trend” or misses an obvious near future product, or has got it all wrong. But then, this is what the catalog is meant to do - to encourage a discussion, debate, argument, wonderment as one might do in a book club or over a pint after a fantastic/good/middling/bad future-fiction movie.

No. Not prediction. Rather we were providing thought provocations. We were creating a catalog of things to think with and think about. We were creating a catalog full of creative inspiration for one possible near future - a near future that would be an extrapolation from todays state of things. Our objective was to create a context in which possible-probables as well as unexpected-unlikelies were all made comprehensible. Were one to do a subsequent catalog as a reflection on another year, it would almost certainly be concerned with very different topics and, as such, materialize in a rather different set of products.

The ideas to be extrapolated were quite varied, of course, given the diversity of our interests, professions, and where each individual’s attention had been focused over the year prior to the gathering. At the same time, the ideas were not typical flat-footed technological concepts that presupposed a trajectory to an object that might be expected in the typical utopic or dystopic sci-fi future - either the gleaming and bright future or the more familiar apocalyptic world end-state. There were no touch-interaction fetish things like e-paper magazines, no iPhones with bigger screens, no Space Marine Exo-Skeletons, no time-traveling devices, not as mxany computational screen devices in bathroom medicine cabinets as one may have hoped or feared. There was no over-emphasis on reality goggles, no naive wrist-based ‘wearables’, a bare minimum of 3D printer accessories. Where those naive futures appeared we debased them - we represented them with as much reverence as one might a cheap mass-produced lager, an off-brand laundry soap, or an electric toothbrush replacement head. We focused on the practicalities of the ordinary and everyday and, where we felt necessary, commoditized, bargainized, three-for-a-dollarized and normalized.

A spread from TBD Catalog, a Design Fiction product catalog of today's tomorrow.
A spread from TBD Catalog showing some products from some possible future based on the hot trends of 2012. Near Future Laboratory TBD Catalog workshop in Detroit, October 2012.

What was most interesting is that the deliverable - a catalog of the near future’s normal ordinary everyday - led us in a curious way to a state that felt rather like the ontological present. I mean, the products and services and “ways of being” were extrapolated, but people still worried about finding a playmate for their kid and getting out of debt. As prevalent as ever were the shady promises of a better, fitter, sexier body and new tinctures to prevent the resilient common cold. People in our near future were looking for ways to avoid boredom, to be told a story, find the sport scores or place a bet, get from here to there, avoid unpleasantries, protect their loved ones and buy a pair of trousers. Tomorrow ended up very much the same as today, only the 19 of us were less “there” than the generations destined to inherit the world designed by the TBD Catalog. Those inheritors, the cast of characters we imagined browsing and purchasing from this catalog in the near future, seemed to take things in stride when it came to biomonitoring toilets, surveillance mitigation services, luxurious ice cubes, the need for data mangling, living a parametric-algorithmic lifestyle, goofy laser pointer toys, data sanctuaries, and the inevitable boredom of commuting to work (even with “self-drivers” or other forms of AV’s.)

We supposed this was the point of the “normal ordinary everyday” aspect of our Design Fiction brief: the consideration that the near future, even as a designed fiction, is a construct as normal as any other. The near future comes pre-built with the expectation that, being the future, it must be quite different from the vantage point of the present. This is an assumption we were trying to alter for a moment - the assumption that the future is either better or worse than the present. Quite less often is the future represented as the same as now only with a slightly different cast of characters. Were we to take this approach, which we did, it would be required that the cast of characters from the future would be no more nor less awestruck by their present than we are today awestruck by the fact that we have on-demand satellite maps in our palms, that the vapor trail above us is a craft with hundreds of souls whipping through the stratosphere at breakneck speeds, and that when we sit down at a restaurant fresh water (with ice) is offered in several varieties from countries far away, with or without bubbles.

This imagined central cast of TBD Catalog readers would need to accept the “present day” of the catalog in an almost blasé way. Equal to that central cast of characters might be the outliers - their grandparents, for example - who have the stereotypical, rueful opposition they are destined to have - never quite understand “that music kids are listening to nowadays”, or “why the kids are wearing such saggy-baggy trousers that barely hang on their waist”, etc. (A stereotype to be sure, but not entirely without merit and utility in the context of setting a mood and playing an archetype for the benefit of sustaining the design and the maneuvering the fiction in and around the artefacts themselves. This is the diegesis — the narrative that is supposed, implicated and fashioned through the reading of the catalog itself.)

It was important that the concepts be carefully represented as normal, rather than spectacular. Were things to have a tinge of unexpected social or technical complexity as suggested, for example, by regulatory warnings, a hint of their possible mishaps, an indication that it may induce a coronary or require a signed waiver — all the better as these are indications of something in the normal ordinary everyday. This is not to suggest that the future may be bleak in the dismal pessimistic sense. It is just that the near future may probably be quite like the present, only with a new cast of social actors and algorithms who will, like today, suffer under the banal, colorful, oftentimes infuriating characteristic of any socialized instrument and its services. I am referring to the bureaucracies that are introduced, the jargon, the new kinds of job titles, the mishaps, the hopes, the error messages, the dashed dreams, the family arguments, the accidental data leak embarrassments, the evolved social norms, the humiliated politicians, the revised expectations of manner and decorum, the inevitable reactionary designed things that reverse current norms, the battalions of accessories. Etcetera.

Also, concepts often started as abstract speculations requiring deciphering and explication. These would need to be designed properly as products or services that felt as though they were well-lived in the world. Predictive design and speculative design lives well in these zones of abstraction. To move a concept from speculative to design fictional requires work. To materialize an idea requires that one push it forward through the gauntlet any design concept must endure to become the product of the mass-manufacturers process of thing-making. To make an idea become a cataloged, consumable product in the world requires that it be manufacturable, desirable and profitable. Each of these dimensions in turn require that, for example, the thing be imagined to have endured regulatory approvals, be protected as much as possible from intellectual property theft, be manufactured somewhere, suffer the inevitable tension between business drivers, marketing objectives, sales goals and design dreams while also withstanding transcontinental shipping, piracy of all kinds, the CEO’s wives color-choice whims (perhaps multiple CEOs over the course of a single product’s development) and have a price that is as cheap as necessary in many cases but perhaps reassuringly expensive in others. Things need to be imagined for their potential defects, their inevitable flaws and world-damaging properties. A product feels real if it has problems it mitigates as well as new, unexpected problems it introduces. Things need names that are considered for certain categories of product, and naive or imbecilic for others. Things need to be imagined in the hand, in use in “real world” contexts - in the home, office, data center, one’s AV, amongst children or co-workers. They should be forced to live in their springtime with fanfare, and their arthritic decline on the tangled, cracked and chipped 3/99¢ bin. To do this requires that they live, not just as flat perfect things for board room PowerPoint and advertisements, but as mangled things co-existing with all of the dynamic tensions and forces in the world.

This is a small bit of what it is to employ Design Fiction — the things that exist in the world rather than the things that exist as a concept in an abstraction of the world such as in a Cornell Box-like environment.

Design Fiction workshop with sketches of possible futures products.
TBD Catalog Design Fiction Workshop sketchng possible futures products. Near Future Laboratory TBD Catalog workshop in Detroit, October 2012.

Design Fiction Was Never Just About Speculation

But, Design Fiction was never just about speculation, nor only about creating film and video representations using green screen special effects and planar tracking plug-ins. More importantly, whatever form or genre of representation one uses, Design Fiction is about creating provocations, about prodding ideas to make them thorough, considered, alive and in-the-world. It is about activating the imagination, providing seeds of inspiration and insight. Design Fiction is about shifting one’s sense of what is possible by making the extraordinary feel ordinary.

Although Design Fiction relies on fictional tropes imbued in richly physical (visual, material, tactile) “props” - what we call the “diegetic prototype” via David Kirby (‘Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema’ is David Kirby’s canonical reference to this notion), its real effectiveness comes from its ability to de-prioritize the thing and re-prioritize the lives that experience the thing, in all its challenged glory, in all of the contingencies of existence, in its inevitably flawed (however slight) character.

Ultimately, things are an embodiment of our own lived existence — our desires and aspirations; our vanities and conceits; our servility and humility. A Design Fiction catalog of things becomes an epistemic reflection of the times. One might read such a catalog as one might read a statement titled “The Year In Review” - a meditation on the highlights of a year recently concluded. This would not be prediction. It would be a narrative device, a form of storytelling that transcends naive fiction to become an object extracted from a near future world and brought back to us to consider, argue over and discuss. And, possibly, do again as an alternative to the old journalistic “The Year In Review” trope. Is there a better name or form for the thing that looks forward with modesty from today and captures what is seen there? What do we call the thing that stretches into the near future the nascent, barely embryonic hopes, speculations, hypotheses, forces, political tendencies - even the predictions from those still into such things? Is it Design Fiction? An evolved genre that splices together naive fiction, science-fiction, image-and-graphic mood boards and the now ridiculously useless ‘futurist’ predictions and reports? Something in between crowd-funding as a way to prototype a DIY idea and multiform, transmedia shenanigans?

Without a clear strategy, we ended up with what is here now. Although in the end, what we designed became a veiled report on the normal everyday ordinary near future based on the course of trajectories our tools pointed us towards. The thing is - through a quirk of material, visual and graphic design - the report was all too easily confused for a proper product catalog. We take this as a quirk to be sure, but a fortuitous one based on our enthusiasm to design as much as write. This along with our reluctance to deliver our insights in sad old PowerPoint would lead to what TBD Catalog has become.

What happened is this: the first “report” - because it was more a commissioned report on the near future than a catalog - had limited circulation, but copies were distributed by some recipients to others without annotation or context. TBD Catalog Issue 1 went viral in a humble sort of way. It was circulated much wider than initially anticipated. Many people who received it second or third hand could be easily forgiven for mistaking it as an actual product catalog.

What happened next was truly bizarre. We started receiving inquiries from individuals around the world who wanted to order items and provide crowd-funding style financial backing for product concepts. Some entities demanded licensing fees because a product the “catalog” purported to “sell” was something they had already developed and were selling themselves or, in some cases, they had even patented and so were notifying us that they would pursue legal remedies to address our malfeasance.

We found that products and entire service ecosystems we implied through advertisements actually existed in an obscure corner of the business world. Of course, there were items in the catalog that we knew existed already. In those cases, our task was not to re-predict them, but to continue them along their trajectory using one or a combination of our graphs of the future (see following pages). In these cases, it can be expected that an unwitting reader of TBD Catalog would naturally make contact with us to find out why they had not be made aware of the new version of the product, how could they get a discounted upgrade, or how they could download the firmware update for which they simply had not already been aware.

Overwhelmed by this response, we realized that our “report” was actually a guide to a world that existed in a curious “atemporal”* state, a curious attribute of Design Fiction.

Time was out of itself. Much of the world was (and arguably sustains itself by remaining) in an atemporal state. Things we fictionalized as already designed, already existing, already everyday ordinary normal boring products may or may not exist. Either way, at a minimum the designed products felt consistent with the current state. The TBD Catalog became a kind of atemporal document of things imagined to exist, existing, probably on the verge of existence, in the state of becoming real in some laboratory, being tinkered with in a maker’s basement, the topic of whispered discussion between some engineers and venture capitalist-entrepreneurs, etcetera.

This is what TBD Catalog has become. A catalog of the normal everyday ordinary from today’s atemporal present for tomorrows atemporal future.
atemporal |āˈtemp(ə)rəl| adjective existing or considered without relation to time.
Reference: Bruce Sterling on Atemporality

More important than this peculiar turn of events is what this productive and through-provoking confusion implies: the Design Fiction process has real value as a decision-making tool. How does this process become a decision-making tool? It becomes a tool through its ability to present things that could be and allowing them to create their own context, to “speak” about the world in which they exist, to describe their own world however indirectly, however implicitly. One could write quite didactically about innovation of such-and-so, or make a prediction of some sort or commission a trend analysts report or a clever name-brand futurists’ speculation. Or, one could start with the names of some things and fill out their descriptions at their “consumer face” and let the things themselves come to life, define the sensibilities of those humans (or algorithms?) that might use them. How would those things be sold - what materials? what cost? what consumer segment? Three-for-one? Party colors? Or one could do a very modern form of combined prototyping-funding such as the ‘Kickstarter model’ of presenting an idea before it is much more than a collection of pretty visual aids and then see what people might pay for an imaginary thing. Design Fiction is the modern form of imagining, innovating and making when we live in a world where the future may already have been here before.

Let’s just remind ourselves of the peculiar modern world we were in when the exercise began some years ago. We faced a world in which “the future” was upon us in an extraordinary way. This was not the world with a calm, clear, well-understood mid-century modern trajectory to a future of jets, space travel and kitchen conveniences. Things were not always just getting more chrome nor always smaller and more compact. People were Tweeting cultural revolutions, for goodness sake. Things were changing, new things were coming into existence, old companies were being positively swallowed by the spunky, sparky ideas of a few kids in an old apartment who presented their “idea” based on a photo realistic computer aided design rendering along with some earnest, carefully edited video of their aspiration cut to mandolin-heavy tear-jerker music - and a plea for the world to pre-order expensive t-shirts that might, just possibly also result in getting the thing they dreamed to make. And they would get millions of dollars ahead of anything real being created. These were dreamers to be sure, and dreamers who happened to live within a world that would pre-pay for their ambitious goals as represented as - let’s face it - aspirational visual and narrative fictions.

Many of the TBD Catalog items exist in this thick nebulae of things that could be, things coming into being and things that have been for quite some time. It can be read as a desk reference to a near future’s technologies. Or think of it as a field guide to the democratized, everyday-ordinary aspirations, concerns, problems, ambitions of some multivalent near future cultures. Perhaps it is a production designer’s prop-list for a story set to take place in another time. Or a story teller’s inspirational source book to help “fill out” their narratives with accoutrements, plot devices and MacGuffin’s. Or a film maker’s “bible” canonizing the general themes, rites, rituals and norms of a world they intend to narrate. TBD Catalog may be a probe into a world which sends back symptoms of itself - its rituals, its discomforts, its ways of being - in the form of the things it makes for itself.

But the probe is only half of the exercise. We want to discover for ourselves what to do next before we do what’s next. Design Fiction approaches the challenge of innovation, of doing something new and exciting and unexpected by stretching out towards the unspecified time when that thing becomes pervasive and blasé. It’s a kind of prototyping that TBD Catalog performs, although more diegetic prototyping than engineering prototyping. Other kinds of Design Fictions compel us to prototype and test a near future by writing its product descriptions, filing bug reports, creating product manuals and quick reference guides to probable improbable things. This is a different way of innovating, of thinking-through new things than the old-fashioned innovation techniques.

The original Design Fiction Design Brief Creation Playing Cards by Near Future Laboratory
The Original Design Fiction Design Brief Creation Playing Cards and Accessories sent to invitees to the TBD Catalog Design Fiction Workshop in Detroit, October 2012.
The Midjourney edition of the Design Fiction Work Kit
The 2024 Edition Enhanced and Illuminated Edition of the Design Fiction Work Kit, the direct descendant of the Original Design Fiction Design Brief Creation Playing Cards. Available at shop.nearfuturelaboratory.com

We apologize in advance for not fulfilling the desire for perfect harmonized futures or decrepit rusted toxic futures. Instead we created the debased product future in which the exuberance surrounding 3D printers, Apple’s immaculate design, the internet of things, targeted advertising, BitCoin and the algorithmic way of life is tamped down quite some bit. We didn’t do this out of a reluctance to accept that these things aren’t real. We did it because we recognized that change happens and, although these things may well be a little pebble in the bedrock of that change, they will not sustain their exuberant, hyperbolic role. They will rust and wear and flail. They will cause bubbles that will burst all over themselves. Therein lies the curious, weird gaps, and holes and opportunities that are often overlooked because exuberance introduces a rather narrow-naive vision of what those things look like in the near future. Design Fiction as we did here forced us to stretch that exuberance until it broke down and 3D printers were as mundane as fresh news printed on paper and delivered daily to your doorstep; as middleclass-deomocratic as drinkable water coming out of a tap to boil for a morning coffee; as un-noteworthy as being able to have a video chat with someone from your palm. When you do that, the world shifts just a bit, rights itself again, and you begin to find more of a compelling “truth” to that near future: will landfills overflow with bad and broken 3D plastic prints from your neighbors attempt (again) to make a dining room table? When the first kid chokes on a small part, will legislation incite a public debate about 3D printer-operator licensing, permits and material usage quotas? We don’t do this because we are “against” 3D printers, or autonomous flying robots, or a world of connected dresser drawers. (It makes as much sense to be against such things as to be against breakfast. Some breakfasts are have normative value.) We do this Design Fiction approach because it seems more persuasive and more thought-provoking and enlightened to consider that change eventually normalizes out to, well - become normal ordinary everyday. Change makes room for change again. And therein lies the more engaging, provocative, mindful and fun discussions about what those optimistic futures become in the everyday. It is a more telling story about the future than a purely optimistic white paper prediction. Is is anathema, in a good way, to the typical hubris of the ‘serial entrepreneurs’ to create disruptions just ‘cause’, implications be-damned.

The products we created - well, these are not the only things that might exist of course - this is a form of near future fiction from a group of 19 people. But they are the things that our brief exhaled, as all design briefs do. They create things that start one thinking about what could be. They are thought-provokers, conceptual starters, seeds of but one near future world. They were situated at various near future points on the Garner Hype Curve, or the exponential-optimistic graph of Moore’s Law, or the sweet spot of the Product Design Venn Diagram. And from there these things spoke to us about their world, giving us an insight into the fuller contours of it, forcing us to consider how precisely they might all co-exist in a cacophonous product-service world ecology. These products told us about the world and they themselves produced even more future concepts, technical possibilities and social, political and cultural stories.

We found some of the themes these product-provocations implied - the algorithmic way of life, parametricization, dataflage, food genehacking, cultural migrations, shifts in sites of manufacturing. There were surprises: autonomous vehicles are routine to the point of boring; it’s an expensive privilege to erase or camouflage one’s life-long data trail; paper printed things exist as a counterweight to the overwhelming density of digital media. And more. You find all these things, the description of this world here in this edition of TBD Catalog. Read it as a kind of anthropological excavation, an inventory of things and then read between the lines to see the kind of worlds you might anticipate and their implications.

Near Future Laboratory work wear jumpsuit in the workshop.
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