Dec 01, 2022 By Vasia Rigou
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Think like a futurist: David Staley discusses applicable tools designers can use today
By Vasia Rigou Dec 01, 2022
Published in Perspective

“Maybe it's old fashioned of me but I think design is about giving meaningful form,” says David J. Staley. An associate professor in Ohio State University’s Department of History, teaching courses in digital history and historical methods, Staley also holds courtesy appointments in the Department of Design, where he has taught design history and design futures, as well as the Department of Educational Studies. His work at the intersections of history, technology, and design ranges from “writing the history of the future,” as he describes it, to designing learning spaces, and giving keynotes about artificial intelligence. How does he do it? “Pure serendipity,” he says, adding: “I simply don't stay in my lane!” Here, he discusses futurism as more than wishful thinking, talks about the possibilities it opens up for the design profession at a practical level, and responds to the most pressing question of all: can we really predict the future?

Firstly, what does thinking like a futurist mean, and in what ways does it influence design specifically?

David Staley:
A futurist is someone who is interested in exploring what's next. That's probably the simplest way to think of it. There are different approaches to how we do that: One would be to study, examine, or identify the trends and the weak signals in order to be able to suggest what the future is going to look like. What the futurist does is anticipate. And then what the designer does is design for that world—it could be objects, spaces, or experiences. Another approach to futurism that's connected to design is called “idealized design”. That refers to imagining an ideal or Utopian future—then you work backward and reverse engineer what has to happen for that world to come about. The third approach sometimes goes by the name “design fiction” and it’s about designing future things as a way to comment on the present.


Can you talk about the possibilities that futuristic thinking opens up for the design profession at a practical level?

We sometimes define design as creative problem solving. Introducing foresight or futurism into design means solving problems that have yet to emerge, or problems that we can anticipate emerging. For instance, we know that baby boomers are reaching their mid-seventies and their early eighties. Now, we're going to start designing spaces and environments for this population. So what does that look like today? It's a problem that we are addressing today as opposed to waiting for tomorrow.

How can one predict or design the future?

As a practitioner I’d say that we can’t actually predict the future or tell with certainty what's coming next. That’s because the things that we want to know about the future are things that are by definition unpredictable because they are the product of complex systems. Think about economists, for instance, when talking about making predictions. We can only do this with varying degrees of probability. We can devise scenarios for the future by using some of the methods I described earlier.

My advice to young designers: Teach yourself to look forward—look ahead to where the world is going but also look peripherally, because the source of change typically comes from outside of our industry or our domain.
David J. Staley
David J. Staley

Can you share a piece of advice for the next generations of designers looking to build a diverse skill set to elevate their design career?

​​One of the things that I especially emphasize is what I call peripheral vision or peripheral strategic vision. Peripheral vision refers to the part of sight outside of a person's central field of vision and allows you to see what's on the edges. This is also the approach that I take to futurism. My advice to young designers: Teach yourself to look forward—look ahead to where the world is going but also look peripherally, because the source of change typically comes from outside of our industry or our domain. Do not simply look at what's happening in design—look at adjacent fields and even nonadjacent fields. And look at the edges as well. Developing that kind of peripheral vision requires curiosity but I think that the most interesting thinkers are the most curious ones.

There's one more thing related to that: I said earlier that I don't stay in my lane. Young designers should do the same. The skill I would tell them to develop is a polymathic orientation. It's really hard to do that—our schooling especially wants us to specialize and to be really hyper-focused on a specific issue. But I think that the most visionary designers are polymaths. I try to practice that myself.

What are you most excited about moving forward?

I've got an e-book dropping this week that’s called Visionary Histories (Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University). I write a monthly column for Columbus Underground called "NEXT," and the book is an edited collection of seven years of that work. Dominic D. J. Endicott and I also have another book that's coming out in March: Knowledge Towns (Johns Hopkins University Press) argues that the location of a college or university is a necessary piece of any region's effort to attract remote knowledge workers and accelerate economic development and creative placemaking.

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