Futures II Reflection

On the first day of class, our instructors prompted us to plot our vision of our design careers on 2 axes: form — social and short term — long term. This being a group activity, I observed a few of my peers place their sticky notes first before placing my sticky notes safely in the midst of the diagonal trend. It was clear that given this vague prompt, most designers in my class felt they would work on form-focused, short-term design projects in the near future, and more social-focused, long-term projects in the far future.

At the end of the semester, we did the same exercise again. This time, equipped with a greater awareness of my personal values that manifest in my personal vision of the future, methods of analyzing and making sense of the future, and experience bringing future scenarios to life, I place my sticky notes… in relatively the same position as last time. However, the difference between these two instances is largely internal. Instead of basing my decision on the decisions of my peers and the implicit expectations of what designer I should be in a design school, I feel that my current vision of the future is fueled by a greater understanding of myself, my future, and a greater comfort in the ambiguity of it all.

Today, I am confident that design focused on form is equally important as design with a stronger focus on its social impact. We are visual creatures, influenced by media voluntarily and involuntarily presented to us. I believe that as a communication designer, I have a lot of power to create and influence the very media that shapes human behavior and subsequently, larger social change. As I grow as a designer and work on larger projects that have higher stakes and larger audiences, the importance of form to my craft will not subside. However, the level of social impact will inevitably increase. This explains why I believe that in 2050, I will be designing for equal parts formal and social means.

Entering the second part of the course, I faced the very real understanding that coming up with future scenarios is very difficult without a strong understanding of what is happening in the world in the present. This realization was apparent in the clear shift in difficulty between translating the 1000 year closet futures scenario and the university futures scenario. Before using STEEP and the Voros Cone futures methods, we found it difficult to isolate aspects of the futures scenario to recreate, recontextualize, and interpret through the lens of our personal experiences as design students. While coming up with points for each category of STEEP, I personally felt like I was bringing up very generalized points about climate change, the growing prevalence of technology in our lives, and the great impacts of pandemics on everyday life. I was not versed enough in current events to ground many of these points in specific examples outside of the scope of my personal experience. Similarly, while coming up with points for each part of the Voros cone, “probable,” “plausible,” and “possible” were blending together without enough real-life knowledge. I felt like I was making a lot of assumptions and it was an unnatural feeling to base our next steps in the design process on something that felt so nebulous. Working in a team definitely helped move along our ideation and artifact synthesis process, however. Moving forward, I will have greater confidence using futures methods to break down abstract passages and trust myself more when moving between the ideation and designing phase.

In all, I believe that using these design methods were not only helpful for breaking down futures scenarios for our assigned projects, but also made me appreciate the depth of knowledge required to determine these futures scenarios in the first place.

STEEP + Voros Cone futures methods
Our final artifact for the future of Polymath University

Outside of STEEP and the Voros Cone methods, I would also like to highlight the alternative personal futures and CLA method as impactful means of reflection. As someone who decided to come to CMU for design by creating pro/con lists and journaling sprints, it was comforting to see my previous sources of anxiety plotted out on an organized system. Forcing myself to first choose between 2 alternative futures was an interesting way to isolate what I was truly interested in for my future career. Adding the additional axes of analysis was another interesting way to figure out the greatest point of difference these alternative futures may have. I’m curious to see how I can apply this “choosing between 2 alternatives” exercise to future life decisions or even to move along a difficult design project.

Attempting the CLA method made me have a similar takeaway of realized ignorance towards what I know about my “dreams.” It was both unnerving and refreshing to think from micro to macro — being so sure about the litany of living in NYC as a designer working at an agency, then racking my brain to come up with a potential myth or story in the same future I was imagining. My conclusion from this exercise was that we often don’t consider our future beyond litany and (maybe) social structure. And even though it was a humbling experience to not know the worldview and myths/stories about my desired future, it is okay because the future being ambiguous is not something worthy of anxiety.

Alternative personal futures

My final point of reflection stems from the gifts for the future project. I found the experience interviewing a peer of mine more intimate than I imagined. Even though we talked mainly about design and what we wanted out of our careers, it seemed like for both my partner and I, our career aspirations were very reflective of what we wanted out of our personal lives. Our personal lives were both separate and inseparable from the way we consider ourselves to be designers. I had a tough time coming up with a gift idea based on my interview with Joseph, mainly due to the high expectation for my gift to be reflective of his expectations for design and the world in the future — more thoughtful and meaningful. I’m glad my final gift had the main purpose of encouraging reflection. I think it adds a necessary layer of complexity of Joseph’s succinct expectation for design to be “satisfying.”

Flip through of Joseph’s gift

My greatest takeaway from creating a personal gift for someone else’s greatest values and aspirations is empathy. It was a really wonderful experience being able to step into someone else’s life for a moment and consider things that can bring them joy, make them better people, or think about life in a different way. It really puts our education into perspective as designers designing for people. With all of our realistic and ideal visions of the future being so varied, it is both a daunting and tremendous privilege to design.

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Carnegie Mellon Design + HCI ‘23

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Elysha Tsai

Elysha Tsai

Carnegie Mellon Design + HCI ‘23

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