Design Fiction

In September 2013 I delivered a lecture at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town titled ‘Design Fiction’, in which I explored design (especially designed objects) as a story-telling medium. From the festival programme: “Contemporary design projects are often a form of story-telling, used to communicate narratives to users and audiences. Ralph Borland explores examples of where design, for better or worse, acts as a form of fiction that is sometimes at odds with its intended purpose”.

I opened my presentation with a photograph of ‘Blikkiesdorp on Ocean View Drive’ – the architect Carin Smut’s home in the upmarket area of Seapoint in Cape Town, which was graffitied with a disparaging message (since lovingly preserved by the architect) because of her use of corrugated iron in its design. ‘Blikkiesdorp’, literally ‘tin can town’, is a reference to a bleak shanty town on the outskirts of Cape Town. I used this anecdote as a talking point around how even simple materials can have strong communicative and symbolic properties, and particular connotations for viewers – here residents were unhappy about a ‘shanty town’ material used in an upmarket area.

Blikkiesdorp on Ocean View Drive

Blikkiesdorp on Ocean View Drive

I moved from there through a range of examples of objects which can be ‘read’ in particular ways – like our propensity for seeing faces in objects – through the role of objects in narratives (knives in Cormac McCarthy or Borge’s work for example) and objects deliberately designed to be characters in a wider story (such as critical designers Dunne & Raby). This set up a discussion of the role of ‘objects in development’, the subject of my PhD thesis, centred around the PlayPump.

The ADE651

I was struck reading this article in the Guardian yesterday by developments around a fraudulent bomb detector used by the Iraqi government, called the ADE 651 (along with the ADE 101 and ADE 650). I first read about the ADE 651 in 2009, in an article in the The New York Times which described how Iraqi officials swore by a device that “United States military and technical experts say is useless”. It’s inventor, British businessman James McCormick, built the devices around novelty golf-ball finders, selling them for up to $40,000 each, the Guardian reports. He has now been charged with three counts of fraud.

Ben Goldacre, Guardian writer and author of the book ‘Bad Science’, also blogged about it at the time. He pointed to an amusing anecdote in The New York Times piece:

General Jabiri, meanwhile, challenged an NYT reporter to test the ADE 651, placing a grenade and a machine pistol in plain view in his office. Every time a policeman used it, the wand pointed at the explosives. Every time the reporter used the device, it failed to detect anything. “You need more training,” said the general.

I captured the screenshot below of the website promoting the ADE 651 ( in 2009, which has since been taken down.

ADE 651 screenshot

ADE 651 screenshot


A couple of Koln International School of Design (KISD) students were inspired by the short course in ‘Provocative Technology’ I taught there in November 2012 in designing the ‘Gentr-o-Mat’ as an output of their research into gentrification in Berlin. The project is a working vending machine that dispenses a range of products to help people ‘resist gentrification’. The products, such as annoying audio devices, marker pens concealed inside latte cups, and ‘Yves Klein blue’ paint-bombs’, draw on real practices of anti-gentrification activists in Berlin. You can download a rough pdf explaining the project.

There are a some pleasing circularities in the project’s symbolism: while equipping people to resist gentrification, it also hints at the commodification of resistance, echoing the processes by which street art and creative guerilla tactics quickly get mainstreamed and aestheticised – and are often used in the first waves of gentrification.

Shouting Vase

Another quirky product from Japan, the Shouting Vase. Thanks for the link Elaine!

Shouting Vase

Shouting Vase

Turn your loudest, most urgent frustrations into mere whispers with the Shouting Vase. The plastic jug is designed to fit over the contours of your mouth and absorb your screams and shouts, “storing” them in the vase and emitting a softer version of your angry cries through the tiny hole at the base.

Olafur Eliasson’s solar-powered lamp

The artist Olafur Eliasson, known for his large scale installations, has produced a solar-powered lamp for use in the developing world. Titled Little Sun, Eliasson produced the lamp in collaboration with engineer Frederik Ottesen. It is an example of work by artists, such as Marjetica Potrc, related to design for the developing world – though Eliasson might be fairly unique here in designing an actual mass-produced product for real use.

Little Sun

Little Sun

The project has a high-level art world presence – it will, the Guardian tells us, be used in the surrealism rooms of the Tate Modern in 2012, ‘which will be plunged into darkness after normal opening hours, and visitors invited to visit them by the light of Little Sun lamps’. They will also be for sale in the Tate store.

Explaining why he had developed a social project, the Berlin-based Danish artist said: “Art is always interested in society in all kinds of abstract ways, though this has a very explicit social component. The art world sometimes lives in a closed-off world of art institutions, but I still think there’s a lot of work to show that art can deal with social issues very directly.”

The fact that the lamp – with its cheery petalled face – had been designed by an artist was important, he said. “People want beautiful things in their lives; they want something that they can use with pride … everyone wants something that’s not just about functionality but also spirituality.”

Interested too in the mention of Eliasson’s cancelled Olympic project in the same article:

Little Sun, as the lamp is called, has risen out of the ashes of Eliasson’s Cultural Olympiad project, Take a Deep Breath, which the Olympic Lottery Distributor (OLD) declined to fund after details of the proposal were leaked to a newspaper. The project would have asked participants to inhale and exhale on behalf of a cause or idea, and then capture the thought on a “breath bubble” on a website. The “negative publicity” showed that the work was “contentious”, found the OLD’s board, according to its March 2012 minutes, and they “struggled to justify the £1m sought”.