Four insights about futures thinking and design

Design the Future

Four insights about futures thinking and design

The future is uncertain… So, how can we design for it?

This article presents four insights on designing for the future and it’s the result of a research concerning methodologies to ‘look into the future’ both from the Design and Futures studies fields (you can find a list of the researched methodologies at the end).

#1 The Future(s) is Plural

“When planning for the future, it’s better to be vaguely right than exactly wrong.”  —  IEDP

Predictions, predictions and more predictions. It might sound obvious but it is important to keep this in mind: there is not a single predictable future. The future is complex and can develop itself into multiple outcomes. Several futurists refer to the Futures Cone (Voros, 2003) when talking about the different types of futures. I’m not going into much detail about this, nonetheless Joseph Voros outlines 7 types of futures: Projected; Preferable; Probable; Plausible; Possible; Preposterous; Potential.

Taking into account all these alternatives (or at least acknowledge their existence) is really useful to creatively explore the future with stakeholders and “momentarily forgetting how things are now, and wonder how they could be”. After that, one might decide to pursue a specific type of future but that depends on the brief and goal of the project. In sum, instead of designing for the future, we should be designing for futures.

#2 Beneath the Surface

“Envisioning the future experience means understanding how the world might change, and then inserting people’s values into this new context.”  —  Sophie Spiers

Using trends and developments in the design process is a common approach to innovation projects. However, these trends are just current observations of what is happening externally and the information they contain is mostly superficial.

In order to bring more value to the design process, what we can do is understand what they mean for the user now and in the future. Trends and other external factors are always changing, but intrinsic human values rarely change (Max-Neef,2007). Therefore, designers should take into account the impact that these trends have on fundamental human values, to become better prepared to design for the ‘future user’.

#3 Make it Tangible

“The challenge is not in envisioning but in translating these abstract images of the future to reality “ —  Stuart Candy

A common output of a futures thinking project is a future vision that is then turned into a roadmap, but more important than a roadmap is to first bring the vision back to the present and make it ‘real’. The first initial impressions of how the future might look like are abstract and difficult to communicate. Scenarios are good ways to make the future more tangible and bring it a step down in the abstraction ladder (Stuart Candy & Jake Dunagan, 2017). However, designers can take it a step further and turn the future into an immersive experience that can not only make stakeholders more motivated and committed to the project but also start testing some perspectives about the future with potential users.

#4 Living Outcome

“some kind of an ongoing ‘futures’ unit (…) to “look ahead” for emerging challenges and opportunities in the immediate and more distant futures, in order to inform the community/group”  —  Jim Dator

What happens after the futures thinking project is over? As I said before, external factors are always changing and that has an impact on how the future might look like. To keep up with these changes, a futures project should not end in a simple overview of opportunities or potential product concepts, followed by a roadmap on how to implement them. It should end in setting up a ‘living outcome’ that changes and updates itself accordingly to what is happening in the world. This could look like a short session that is done monthly to update the roadmap or having a responsible person to take note of the changes that might occur. Maybe, in the future, this could be a job of a AI design assistant that automatically scans the world for trends and updates the outcome. Who knows!


Experiential Futures — Stuart Candy;
Alternative Futures — Jim Dator;
Generative Design Research — Liz Sanders & Pieter Jan Stappers;
Strategic Foresight — Andy Hines & Peter Bishop;
Future Mapping — Remko van der Lugt & Max Munnecke;
Scenarios — Pierre Wack and an article by Wired;
Wildcards — Marcus Barber;
Futures Cone — Joseph Voros;
Generic Foresight Framework — Joseph Voros;
Causal Layered Analysis — Sohail Inayatullah;
Gartner Hype Cycle — Gartner;
Three Horizons — Andrew Curry & Anthony Hodgson
Trend-Driven Innovation — Trendwatching;
IMPACT : A Foresight Game — Idea Couture;
Speculative Design (not really a methodology)