But before that, I want to mention that Nick presented the closing keynote at the IKEA Digital Days conference last week from his studio in Oakland. He spoke about setting the right conditions for creating grounded and actionable design futures. Design Fiction, (as you know) can play a huge part in that, and Nick explains how it fits in a broader corporate approach. It’s got a modest 30 minutes runtime — which is just long enough to watch whist luxuriating in your chaise, consuming a proper hand-held sandwich.
And-also I want to mention that in this recent newsletter I mentioned the work of Professor David Kirby and his important book “Lab Coats in Hollywood”. Through exquisite timing, the latest episode of the Near Future Laboratory Podcast is a conversation with David, which I would encourage you to listen to as it ties things together and you can hear about the diegetic prototype straight from him!
Finally, Office Hours. Last week was epic. I sorta sat there, mouth agape at the discussion, mostly in around what corner store AI might mean. Sorta. But that came up and I’m obsessed. (N.B. These are not edited. I keep them as they are mostly because, I mean..it’s just me here and lots going on so taking time to fancy-edit won’t really happen.)
Ugh. 🤦🏽♂️. One last thing. This newsletter refers to a Design Fiction I created. The text below may only really make sense if you have it at hand. You can get a copy of it here. And try your best to get to the end of this newsletter. I know. I get long-winded for the Internet patience. I’m testing even my own patience these days.
So. It’s late 2019, a couple of months before the pandemic took a proper grip on the whole world wide and I find myself in a conference room on West 33rd Street in Manhattan. There’s friendly, coffee-fueled conversation about the projects I had been doing. Specifically, we were having a range-y discussion about what was going on at OMATA, the outdoor active product brand I founded like..320 weeks ago.
I explained that I was at a bit of a crossroads. I had a product that was selling really well — and nearly sold out. I also had a gigantic Excel spreadsheet — a “model” — that represented a future going forward based on an excitingly audacious plan to translate what I refer to as the ‘incubation period’ into a growth period and an ambition to become the “Patagonia of Tech.”
All the fixins’ but no bread.
Or rather — I was “good” but no clear vision of what better and best would look like. I literally had no vision — nothing that I could point to and say, “there — that’s what I’m building”. The company’s future was represented in this Excel spreadsheet that just looked like, well — numbers inside boxes inside sheets.
That Excel spreadsheet? It can be productively thought of as a kind of fiction about the future. It’s a Spreadsheet Fiction, we might say. This Spreadsheet Fiction happens to look like a zillion tiny boxes each filled with a number, and most of those boxes are algorithmically driven by, or a driver of, some other tiny box with a number in it.
Spreadsheet Fictions are megabytes of hope, ambition and sometimes a bit of moxie. It’s a model — ins and outs, computations, microscopic algorithms, boxes of data begetting boxes of data somewhere else, all with giant levers that can be pushed and pulled to reflect promise and possibility.
Working in Excel feels a bit like sitting down to a forced meal with a pouting, petulant, hormone-addled teenager who stares down at the plate while one attempts to make pleasant small talk to coax them out of their teenagerangryness. It’s not a satisfying user experience breaking bread with Excel.
Excel is pretty much what I imagine UX hell to be like.
Clicking Tabs that take you to Sheets feels like getting bully-punched in the shoulder for your trouble. Scrolling left and right or up and down is like a slowly spinning dental drill working on your back molars. Editing a Cell may as well be that feeling of one’s eyes filling up with water after getting sea water up your nostrils.
Pure. UX. Hell.
Excel is no place to go if you’re looking to feel inspired, creative, or to activate your imagination. Leastways for me. (And probably most humans.)
But, I will grant you this — Excel is maybe one of the more likely tools someone will go to if they’re building a business that has any hope of existing in the future. Excel is an instrument that can be used to model and represent a numerical version of a future vision.
What Excel does to an advantage is force one to construct an instrumental model that propogates forward, column after column, month after month, one’s hopes and dreams imbued in some kind of mathematical formula. But, aside from this, it’s just not a beautiful, inspired, well-designed window into that future — those zillions or tiny boxes with numbers, bull-punches and sea water up your nose and so forth.
But, I have one of these things, these Spreadsheet Fictions. It’s a proper, bowler-hat-doffing gentleman’s Financial Model. Professionally done. I commissioned its overall architecture several years ago from my clever sparky accountant.
It remains the most thorough future projection I have, based on reasoned estimates and plans to grow a team and product portfolio, and related things.
For the sake of my strong desire and ambition to see my little company of one grow, I could endure having its terrible UX repeatedly bully-punch me. It’s sort of the way you endure anything for the sake of something bigger, more ambitious. Like getting picked on in high school and punched in the arm for no particular reason by bullies, who then became one of the town cops. You endure that because there’s something bigger on the horizon.
At least that’s what I tell myself.
I endured Excel, and I scrutinized and estimated and projected, adjusting tiny numbers in tiny boxes so I could represent the future of OMATA — hiring, developing the portfolio, making assumptions about increases in costs for basic materials, working with partners to get their own future projections, figuring out what I would want to have in a prototyping lab, capital expenditures, sales, warehousing costs, currency rates, marketing.
Excel was the little hell tool for translating my imagination into an archetype — the archetype of the Excel Financial Model — that prospective investor-types genuinely appreciated and for which they had some magical level of literacy — even a zealot’s passion. It is their Golden Chalice. Their inscrutible Talmudic cipher of futurity.
Let’s step back a moment.
The Financial Model has a particular legibility — which is specific to people who work with multi-sheet spreadsheets as a matter of routine. They actually extract meaningful insights from a mere glance at a P&L or Balance Sheet that most humans who have no such literacy on these matters do not.
These things are technical and exhaustively specific, like manuals of procedures for repairing jet engines after birds get sucked into them. Purposeful. Instrumental. Utilitarian. Some probably say they find some inherent, atavistic beauty in these things.
The Financial Model is for the MBA set — which brings the Financial Model a level of legitimacy and an ability to help people suspend their disbelief about the future it purports to reveal. You know, the MBA folks must be onto something because, like..look at the clothes, those exquisite brogues, and that wristwatch? Right?
It is a calculus, based on a particular way of making meaning of the world — computed and thereby unmediated, unemotional. It’s full of business-y formulas and line graphs and then tucked into menacing-looking 3-ring binders and all the other trappings of unadorned representation. For this reason it carries value in a particularly substantive, purportedly reliable way. It’s not a story. It’s not made-up. Look — it’s numbers and such. It just looks..real.
But still. No matter how hard and long I stare at it, I don’t see the future.
Which gets me to the point: what are the other ways of telling stories about or representing the future that have their own kind of legibility, yet are still based upon and adjacent to the omnipresent, omnipotent Financial Model?
My pal Nick — the same feller who gave that Ikea chat I mentioned — goaded me one day to think about how I’d talk about OMATA as if OMATA were a client of the Near Future Laboratory. First thing to say is that I remain embarassed that he had to say this for me to realize that sticking to an Excel spreadsheet was not the thing to do. Rather, I should be doing what I would normally do — what Julian who went to Montessori School would do, which is to not do what everyone else would do and thereby risk getting bully-punched in the shoulder.
Shortly after this friendly talking-to, I landed unexpectedly on the Design Fiction archetype that would let me translate that financial into something with a bit more visual acuity: the old familiar Corporate Annual Report.
Maybe it’s not familiar, but you have heard of it, surely.
You know — it’s the report companies produce to tell their shareholders and interested parties what they’ve accomplished over the year, and what their goals are for the future.
As an archetype of a thing, it suits multiple audiences. Even if you’re not an avid reader of Annual Reports, it’s easy enough to get the idea of it once you open the cover.
Annual Reports have a recognizable structure and overall architecture to them. Glossy aspirational cover photo. A letter from the CEO up front smiling to camera or gazing off into the future, somewhere in the upper right corner of the frame. Some financial-technical disclaimers. Descriptions of activities all adorned with a visually seductive appeal that’s meant to make the future bright and alluring and fun and worthy of continued support.
Of course, the Design Fiction twist here is to do an Annual Report from the future. That’s right — an Annual Report ‘as if’ the Excel Financial Model plots the trajectory to the future. That’s to say, the Design Fiction is a construction of an Annual Report ‘as if’ the boxes of data in the Excel Spreadsheet Fiction represented “actuals” — that delightful accountanting expression meant to say, “yeah, those numbers represent what really happened.”
This felt like the most exciting thing I could possibly work on so long as there was a raging pandemic outside. Imagining the future of my company as if I was in the future. Plus, there was that microbe floating around getting blown out of peoples nostrils.
So my objective was to translate the Financial Model into something with a different kind of acuity — immersive, relatable, legible, visually as rich and eyeball-popping as a 5-star restaurant desert cart.
In other words, the Annual Report from the Future should feel like the twin of the Excel Financial Model that just oddly parts its hair the other way. They say the same thing, they represent the same future — only in their own particular way. Excel with boxes, numbers and charts in criminally bad default colors. The Annual Report with fun, alluring images of things going on and portfolios of stuff and annotated by descriptive text.
The real work was over months of on-and-off effort where I realized that I wasn’t quite sure what Mr. Excel was saying. Or, rather — I knew what the numbers said, but I wasn’t sure what those numbers or charts represented in the idiom of an Annual Report.
What does rows 32-50, columns AB-AL look like? What does it look like to hire a team in the Annual Report? How do you represent that besides just saying it? How do you represent that with a high degree of Design Fiction-y acuity?
Effectively — thats the work. Translating the terse Excel data points that are in all those boxes there, floating in the hypothetical fictional future, into something that somewhat literally shows that future.
I was trying to explain the purpose of this Annual Report to a good friend. I said something about the purpose serving the prospective future investor — to give them an answer to the typical question, “What do you see for OMATA in the future?” My friend responded — “Well, but more than that, it’s generative.”
Generative. That was it.
Unexpected things came out of the effort like by-products of some mysterious alchemy of the imagination. Or maybe it’s not mysterious — maybe it’s just the way the imagination is meant to work.
In the Design Fiction mindset, while producing material and translating what I thought that Excel might be saying to me, I was discovering things that hadn’t been there at the start. New products were discovered, partly because the Excel said there was something mean to be “there” — at that point in the fictional future. But that was all the Excel Spreadsheet Fiction had to say — it had no idea what that meant other than as a number or whatever. It was behaving like a planet the astrophysics say should be there because math. But it wasn’t actually showing me the planet.
I found unexpected new operations and procedures lurking about while producing schematics configurations. I constructed the packaging I wanted a manufacturing partner to use when sending parts. I tested ideas on actual hardware at a supplier’s nearby equipment lab. Nearly every page represents some byproduct of the Design Fiction process, generated out of the effort of creating this Annual Report from the Future.
The Generative aspect of this Design Fiction was more than to cobble together some visual assets in Photoshop for the sake of plopping them in another document. The Generative aspect of Design Fiction comes from the effort — it’s in the work itself, not something you figure out ahead of time and then just go through the rote procedures to represent. Generative is that I had to do the work of figuring out what made sense for the brand, for myself, and for the values that hold those two together in this quite nearly admittedly excessive, indulgent and thorough fashion.
It’s not just saying “future” — it’s making future. In the mode of the Annual Report I was motivated to tell the story backward, in a kind of retrospective from the future of the overall ambition.
It’s what we mean when we say ‘you have to make a thing’ when you do Design Fiction. The making is the work. The outcome of that making, the end-result, the 150 page ‘Annual Report’ that you have printed and dissiminated to start and provoke conversations? That’s just the way you preserve the work. It serves as a repository of what you learned and discovered. (In the case of the Annual Report archetype, it can become effectively a plan.)
Through the process of constructing the Annual Report I figured these things out. It wasn’t easy. It didn’t happen over a weekend, or a week — it took the better part of 2020 because, well, in the end, imagining big and broad is hella fun.
Truth be told, before I did this Annual Report from the Future project for OMATA, I really didn’t know what the future was. Kind of crazy, I know. I was so focused on the very near term — like..the end of the month — I never luxuriated in the possibility of a future. There was always only vague, somewhat flimsy expressions about ‘growing’ and ‘expanding’ and such. But, I never knew with much precision or acuity or specificity what that looked like, how it would happen, why it would happen, for whom, and everything else.
And so I come away from the experience with a strong belief in the generative function of Design Fiction. It works as such especially if you avoid over-determining the outcome, as unsettling as that may feel.
I almost feel like a zealot on this point. I feel like every department head or CEO or whatever should do an Annual Report from the Future. Actually put down on paper what you’d expect to say in your real Annual Report four years out. It’s as much a Vision as anything and when done properly can help create alignment and even serve as a map towards that visionary goal.
Anyway. Have a gander, if you’re curious. And by the way, I am fundraising. I do believe the world needs a Patagonia of Tech. I’ve also exhausted the furthest extent of my modest network and so I’m asking folks, perhaps like you, to help me spread the word about the plans. And do get in touch if you want to know more about my plans here.