Designing for an Imperfect Future
By Felix Oppen
Designer, Publisher of Ligature Journal
In 2004, our family spent the better part of that year living on the remnants of a farm in France. I say remnants because, although we lived in the farm manager’s lodgings, this farm no longer had any fields, just some of the farm buildings.
The farm, called La Briche, had been founded by a French industrialist and manufacturer of sugar factory equipment and locomotives, Jean-François Cail, in the mid-nineteenth century. Among the innovations he introduced were principles of vertical integration, large field farming—at its peak the farm comprised more that 16,000 ha in a single block—and sustainable soil management while increasing yields. He built a narrow-gauge railway to provide transport of goods around the farm and a number of additional satellite farms. There was even a component for social good, in which he would employ and educate disadvantaged boys from Paris. The technical success of the farm was recognised at the 1878 Paris Exposition Universelle with a number of awards. The farm was profitable for between 30–40 years.
Now there is nothing left.
When we stayed there, all the fields had been sold off. The main family home, Le Château de la Briche, belonged to an American family. The manager’s residence and a small complex of buildings that included a school room, chapel, dormitory, hunting lodge and other buildings belonged to another Australian family. All the barns and storage buildings were in ruins. It was not a farm anymore. Though some of Cail’s ideas may live on, his contribution to modern farming is largely forgotten.
In founding this farm, Cail’s intention was to redesign farming in France and, possibly by extension, the world in general. He was looking to the future and attempting to envisage what the future of farming could be. The farm of La Briche was his design for the future of farming.
Now stop and think for a moment. All design is being designed for the future. The work being designed may enter its appropriate domain—public or not—in a few minutes, days, months or years. All are in the future.
And this is where, in my opinion, perhaps the greatest imperfection in design enters the process. Why? Because the future—the only timeframe we can design for—is actually unknowable. We cannot visit the future and see what it will be like and then design for that future. We can only ever live in the present.
While the present we live in may feel like seconds, minutes, hours or a day, it is in reality much shorter. Our present is really only the fraction of a second it takes our brains to process each piece of information fed to it by our senses. This process of input and interpretation is a constant ever changing/updating flow and it is the very constancy that gives us the sense of the present feeling longer than it really is.
Earlier this year, I had surgery for which I needed a general anaesthetic. Anaesthetic shuts down your brain in a way that is totally different from sleep. When I came to again, there was a very palpable feeling of disruption to my ‘present’. There was a break in the stream of sensory input and interpretation. It was a strange feeling of being aware that, for that period of time, the ‘present’ had ceased to exist for me.
Now, let’s complicate things further. Much of what we think of as being the present is, in fact, the past. We are remembering what has just happened: that present from which we have just moved on.
I look down at my worktable
I have looked down, I see a pencil
I have seen a pencil, I reach to pick it up
I have reached out to pick up the pencil, I grasp it in my fingers
and so on.
Our present is an awareness of what we have just done and what we are doing now. There is also an awareness of our intention which, in the above case, was to pick up the pencil.
This intention is an awareness for what the next present action will/might be. In other words, the future. So, if the future is unknowable, how can we have an awareness of it? We use the past. That’s how.
In What Time Is This Place, urban planner, Kevin Lynch states that both the past and the future are concepts of the present. So, if we agree that we can only live in the present, then the past and the future can only be concepts of the present: we have nothing else.
Our past, as we have already said, is made up of our memories of the present. We use these memories of previously experienced presents to created a predictive model of the future: our concept of the future. Our understanding, or expectation, of the future is not based on what is happening in this millisecond that is our current present, but rather on all the past presents we have lived through already.
In looking down to pick up a pencil, previously experienced presents will let me predict that, if I move my eye in a certain direction, I will see an object that I recognise as a pencil on another object I recognise as a work table. And if I move my arm and hand in a certain way I will be able to grasp the object that I recognise as a pencil. We trust that our memories of previous presents of reaching out to pick something up will be reliable. It is still, however, only a prediction, nothing more.
So then, from our lifelong existence in the present—experienced as a constant stream of milliseconds of input and interpretation—we build up a reservoir of previously experienced presents which we use to guess what might happen in an unknowable future. We design for the future—a future present, in fact—but our design will never exist in the future. It will only ever exist in the present—very briefly—and in the past. We cannot avoid designing for a future, we can only guess at. And we cannot avoid the design flashing ever so briefly through the present and into the past.
This then sits at the heart of what I earlier called the big imperfection of design. We are designing for a future based on guesses which are, in turn, derived from memories of previously experienced presents. However, our guesses are not random. We as designers are not—or at least should not be—grabbing ideas/solutions out of the air. While there is a place for gut feelings and experience, we can use our analytical skills to both examine the treasure trove of past presents available to us, and to conduct new research—again targeted at a future audience but accessed from the past, when the results are in—to more reliably predict what our future present will be.
We must also remain realistic. Usually we can predict what will happen in a few days fairly accurately. In a few weeks, less so. In a year, less again. In a decade, very little and, in a century, definitely nothing. Think of all those predictions from the 1950s about how the new millennium would look—flying cars, colonies on the Moon and Mars. Think also of weather prediction; while not design per se, it is usually pretty good for 24—48 hours ahead of the present but accuracy drops off rapidly thereafter, and the seven-day prediction is really not much better than a best guess based largely on long-term data.
So, our ability to predict what will happen in the future is imperfect and very rapidly becomes more imperfect, the further ahead we look. As designers we are, to some extent, also at the mercy of our clients in all of this. However, now more than ever, we are required to be mindful of this imperfection and be prepared to argue against decisions that we feel are not valid predictions for future presents.
There are consequences to not successfully minimising the imperfection of designing for the future. Most obviously, there is a cost—both financial and otherwise—to the client if the intended outcome is not achieved; the waste of time, labour and resources; and potential reputational damage to the designer and the client.
While it is not possible to totally avoid the imperfection of the future, especially when events occur that have limited or even no precedents from which to draw experience, we must still do the best we can.
So, we are designing for an unknowable future in which our design will already have moved out of the present and into the past. However, we are constantly experiencing the results of design work every day. They feel very much in the present. What is happening here? Clearly, this does not feel as though all design has slipped into the past.
At this point, I want to introduce a concept that I will call ‘present stickiness’. Present stickiness is a characteristic of a design—that is now long completed and in the past—that maintains sufficient relevance that it ‘sticks’ to the present. Engagement with that or those aspects of the design continue into the present and the future.
The present stickiness may not be permanent, neither is it uniform. Design of promotional material for a concert performance, for example, should last for at least as long as until the performance has happened. The design’s present stickiness may therefore only be a few weeks. Consumer products may have a stickiness that lasts for many years, though granted, these need constant refreshing. At the other end of the scale, the present stickiness of some designed structures may be measured in many decades and even longer, consider the ngunnhu or fish traps in the Barwon River near Brewarrina which were designed and built many thousands of years ago and remained in use until relatively recently.
The reasons a design may continue to be present sticky would, ideally, be intentional but this will not always be the case. And unintentional stickiness may be for a good reason—or bad. Think of the classic typefaces such as Garamond or Bodoni, designed to do a job hundreds of years ago but adaptable to modern technologies and communication requirements well beyond the imaginings of the original designer. On the other hand, think of design debacle like the launch of 'New Coke' in 1985—yes, a soft drink formulation is design—which lasted just 79 days before the re-introduction of ‘Classic Coke’, or the early model Ford Pinto in the 1970s with its poorly positioned fuel tank and its blade-like glove compartment door.
The reason design is present sticky can change too. Think of the fast fashion brands like Zara and Cotton On. Initially seen as an innovation when, due to incredibly designed low cost supply chains, they began offering new products every two weeks. These same supply chains and pro-ducts are now increasingly seen as wasteful and destructive. This is a change from positive present stickiness to negative present stickiness.
To some extent the duration of present stickiness can be chosen too. The promotional material for a stage performance is fit-for-purpose until the event and then it slips into the past; the design was intended to last so long and no further, slipping into the past and forgotten. However, it may persist for some other reason: perhaps retrospectively becoming considered a piece of iconic design and, therefore, influence future/present designers who take concepts from it and apply it in new designs; or the designed material retains its stickiness as a memento of an iconic event. The longevity of a design might also be consciously open-ended, like a book or a building—or a successful soft drink formula.
I would argue that designing for present stickiness in its consciously positive intention is about attempting to minimise some of the unknowable aspects of the future, or to incorporate the flexibility that allows for some of the risks. To do this we, as designers, have to understand the designs of the past, near and distant, to be able to identify trends and make informed predictions of the future. We also need to be aware of a broader history—economic, political, cultural and environmental—ideally, all of human experience and activity. This is, of course, impossible and is one way imperfection creeps into designing for a future present.
Present stickiness is also a tool that we use to assess the value of the mass of past presents that we draw upon. Obviously, if some design is not sticky at all, it will not feature in our data set as it were. If the stickiness has negative connotations relative to our design problem, it will be treated differently to stickiness that has positive connotations. The strength of the stickiness is relevant too: the stronger the stickiness, the more weight it carries, potentially, for our challenge to reduce the imperfection.
I mentioned earlier that imperfection in design increases the further away we are from our target future present. When we operate at or beyond the limits of what our past presents can tell us, and are at the limits of our knowledge, imperfection is always a possibility. Consider how our understanding for what constitutes wasteful design has changed in the light of an awareness of climate change and how that is causing the reassessment of some of the aspects of what I am calling ‘present stickiness’. Humanity only truly began to understand the limits of our planet with the iconic 1968 image, Earth Rise, by Apollo 8 astronaut, William Anders. And we have only very recently had the computing power to be able to model the effects of climate with any real degree of accuracy.
A further source of imperfection are the limitations of the culture in which we live. As we know, an interrelated set of cultural frameworks form the way we think. The frameworks are religious, political, gender, racial, economic and so on. While they provide methods for us to understand the world we live in, they also place constraints on what we can conceive about how others around us perceive their world and what the future might be. The struggle many seem to have about accepting, let alone designing for, a sustainable future is perhaps an example of these constraints.
For me then, one of the core aspects of imperfection in design is that we are always designing for the future, a future that we cannot ever know. We use our knowledge and under-standing of the many multitudes of presents we have lived through to make an educated guess as to how a present that is ahead of us might look, but our knowledge of the past is always incomplete and subject to our cultural biases. What sticks, and what doesn’t, is not something we can easily predict, even as we try to incorporate these same concepts into out designs. How can design be anything but imperfect?
Page A., Memmott P., Nealve M. (Ed), Design: Building on Country, First Knowledges Series, 2021, Thames & Hudson Australia & National Museum of Australia
Lynch K., What Time is This Place, 1972, MIT Press, USA
wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Fran%C3%A7ois_Cail, (accessed 9/6/21)
wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferme_de_la_Briche, (accessed 9/6/21)
wikipedia.org/wiki/Exposition_Universelle_(1878), (accessed 9/6/21)
wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Coke, (accessed 9/6/21)
www.tortmuseum.org/ford-pinto, (accessed 9/6/21)
Maiti, R., Fast Fashion: Its Detrimental Effect on the Environment. earth.org, 29 January 2020 (accessed 9/6/21)
Apollo 8: Earthrise, (accessed 17/12/21)