On Speculation

Jon Sueda

The premise of All Possible Futures originated in 2003 over a dinner conversation in den Haag, the Netherlands, with the Slovakian designer Peter Bil’ak. Peter had just come from client meetings and told me about several projects he’d presented that he was quite excited about, but unfortunately they had all been rejected. One proposal had been to the agricultural ministry Het Natuurloket. For their official stationery system, he’d presented a database-driven graphic identity instead of a standard logo. The template for each new piece of institutional correspondence would begin with entering the zip code of the addressee into a database, which would generate a printed-out list of all the flora and fauna in that area, aligned flush-left, in his typeface Fedra Sans. Thus, each recipient of printed material from Het Natuurloket would receive a unique description of their local agricultural makeup in addition to the other content of the missive.

Even in the most progressive-minded graphic design country in the world, this proposal was a radical questioning of many accepted rules regarding graphic identity. There was no standard, recognisable ‘mark’ that all designed materials would bear. The identity was very understated, with minimal graphic components and all the text printed in black at the same point size. And last, and maybe most undermining, was the fact that the technology for this kind of automated database-driven identity didn’t yet exist.

At the time, this conversation was both fascinating and troubling to me. It was fascinating because Peter was not allowing technological limitations to interrupt his concepts. Instead of offering the client a pragmatic solution – in other words, starting with a compromise based on what was possible – his proposal created yet another problem, a speculation on what an identity could be, based on some future condition. It was troubling in that his project, which might have broken new conceptual and technical ground in the design of identities, would never be seen, and thus never enter the larger discourse of graphic design.

I began to catalogue similar conversations with other friends and colleagues. I started to wonder: What if all these lost explorations built on speculation and uncertain ground could be made visible to the public and critically discussed? What would graphic design look like if our discipline supported such speculative practices as a legitimate area of enquiry?

But first, to map out the term ‘speculative’ in a broader context:

In finance, speculation means an investment involving higher-than-normal risk in order to obtain a higher-than-normal reward. Risk is viewed as an opportunity. Through researching and understanding the market, a speculator can foresee a potential increase in the value of a product. They can then buy stocks in that commodity while the price is low. If the projection holds true, they will enjoy a great profit. If it’s wrong, they can lose big.

This high-risk, high-reward model doesn’t translate well to graphic design. Traditionally, our discipline’s commission structure is based on providing multiple proposals to a client for a single project at a predetermined fee. If a ‘risky’ proposal is offered, most sensible designers always pair it with at least one that is firmly based in ‘reality’. Thus, our clients and the market have effectively trained us to always offer a built-in safety net. For our part, it is rare when a project ends in complete cessation of negotiations, so the problem is not that exploring risky ideas ever really puts a project, or a client relationship, at stake. It is just that we have come to take for granted that we will rarely be rewarded for taking chances.

In writing, the term ‘speculative fiction’ is an all-encompassing classification for texts describing a reality different from the world we live in today. It includes fantasy, horror, supernatural, superhero, utopian, dystopian, apocalyptic, postapocalyptic, and science fiction writing. In addition to alternate versions of our own reality, speculative fiction can explore worlds we’ve never heard of, populated by beings that have never existed. The premise these writers base their stories on is the simple question, ‘What if?’

This approach parallels many ‘visionary’ or ‘paper’ architecture practices where the designs are never really intended to be built. Rather, they represent idealistic, impractical, or utopian imaginings of the future. They are described by the architecture critic Jonathon Keats as an ‘alternate reality that we can visit to escape the built-in assumptions of our everyday environment.’1 As anticipations of future social or political conditions, they may be aspirational or cautionary, and, importantly to the context of this discussion, they are fully embraced by the architecture community and our larger society as valuable – even necessary – theoretical pursuits. Designers such as Lebbeus Woods, Archigram, Archizoom, Superstudio, Future Systems, Buckminster Fuller, Zaha Hadid, and many others have built highly visible careers designing not for today but for tomorrow.

In graphic design and advertising, by contrast, ‘spec work’ (short for ‘speculative work’) has come to have distinctly derogatory connotations. Technically the term describes any project created for a client, real or imagined, without a predetermined fee. Most designers will tell you that spec work devalues the profession: it drives wages down below industry standards; its competitive nature (with many firms competing for the same commission) forestalls fruitful client-designer interaction and often yields unsuccessful results; and the (usually) compressed schedules don’t allow for adequate research, resulting in solutions that are aesthetically or theoretically empty.

But I would argue that all of this is largely based on an antiquated model of practice wherein it’s assumed that a graphic designer needs an external stimulus – a client – to present a problem to be solved before the creative process can begin and anything can be made. It also echoes the language of the ‘business model’ mindset, which aims to deliver value to customers, entice customers to pay for value, and convert those payments into profits. In contrast, many graphic design practices today operate more along the lines of an artistic, or even academic, model. It has become quite common for them to work autonomously, initiating their own projects and expanding their responsibilities beyond design to writing, editing, conceptualising, directing, curating, engineering, programming, researching and performing. A single firm or practitioner today can execute work for traditional commercial clients at the same time that they are working far more theoretically or hypothetically on other projects. This can only enrich the field, as it expands the scope of what constitutes real work beyond the realm of the practical, the realistic, the useful.

The works in All Possible Futures embody a wide range of approaches to the idea of speculation. They encompass everything from self-generated provocations to experimental work created ‘in parallel’ with client-based projects to unique situations where commissions have been tackled with a high level of autonomy and critical investigation. They highlight different levels of visibility and public-ness within the graphic design process. Some projects were made for clients and exist in a real-world context, while others might otherwise have gone unnoticed: failed proposals, formal experiments, sketches, incomplete thoughts. In the spirit of the show’s title, the exhibition itself shifts and evolves over the course of the visitor’s experience. Some works are traces of pieces. Others must be manipulated or engaged with in order to become fully apparent.

Ed Fella, a humorously self-proclaimed ‘exit-level’ designer who is currently in his 70s, proves that speculative graphic design is not a new phenomenon. He has created experimental, noncommissioned art, illustration, and graphic design work since he first became a practising commercial artist. He is best known for his ornate reworkings of historic and vernacular lettering styles; he first began this body of work in the late 1950s while working for a Detroit agency. He and his colleagues were encouraged to use their downtime to create what they called samples, which were in essence experimental efforts that pushed various design and illustration styles beyond accepted levels. Fella says that the goal of these efforts was explicitly to comment on and expand established formal aesthetic standards.

For much of his professional career, Fella led a kind of dual life, working by day on automotive and health-care ads while in his own time creating an alternate body of work that dealt with completely different, and highly experimental, concerns. Until he decided to earn his MFA at Cranbrook Academy of Art when he was in his mid-50s, these latter endeavours were hardly known, although he had been a regular visitor to the programme for more than a decade, inspiring students with the ‘other’ work he was producing. He says, though, that ‘The early Bauhaus ideology always claimed that the two were really the same: one “functional” and the other “pure.”’ In All Possible Futures, Fella shows Potential Design for Bygone Eras, a series of collages and sketches created over the past 20 years that confronts his past and future. He describes it as a design methodology situated in the present but using (or reworking) bygone eras as a pretend ‘future’. The project itself is a total contradiction, but to Fella, that’s what gives it potential to lead to so many interesting ‘formal speculations and mixed-up possibilities’.

The studio doing the most to translate the concept of ‘visionary architecture’ into the field of graphic design is undoubtedly Metahaven. Founders Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden take a critical, research-based approach to graphic design, creating self-directed artifacts that are meant to provoke discussion and critical enquiry regarding current political and social issues. These speculative design projects are made for, but often never used by, (usually imagined) clients such as Wikileaks and Sealand. Van der Velden describes them as ‘proto-functional’, meaning that they are in their earliest stages of materialisation and still without a context to bring them into the world. Kruk says, ‘We are interested in what happens if you ignore the usual optimisation process when creating designed objects – when you don’t interrupt concepts to comply with reality but keep going, not simplifying but complicating.’2 To All Possible Futures, Metahaven contributes a film from its 2013 exhibition Black Transparency: The Right to Know in the Age of Mass Surveillance, a project that questions ‘how information is organised globally and what role the concept of transparency occupies within it.’3

Dexter Sinster’s typeface Meta-the-difference-between-the-2-Font-4-D, made in 2010 and featured in All Possible Futures, remained speculative until it was adopted by Kadist Art Foundation for its graphic identity in 2013. David Reinfurt and Stuart Bailey, the designer/artist duo, maintain a practice that encompasses designing, editing, publishing, distributing, and other activities. As with many of their projects, this one draws inspiration from the past. The logotype is derived from Meta Font, a computer typography system programmed by Donald Knuth in 1979. For Kadist’s identity, the font has been modified to have a time-based component, and Dexter Sinister has actually signed a contract with the foundation to house and use this evolving/mutating font as its identity for 10 years. The software slowly changes the form of the typeface using five structural variables, and will produce a time-specific mark or usable font any time Kadist requests one. While corporations in the United States might rebrand every five or 50 years depending on their marketing departments’ recommendations, the final paragraph of Kadist’s contract reflects a quite different attitude toward the lifespan of graphic identities:

Further, on signing and initiating this 10-year license, KADIST ART FOUNDATION asserts an up-front commitment to allowing this eventual process to run its course, without excessive concern as to the form of the logo at any particular moment, and with willful disregard to the winds of fashion or the mandates of technology, but instead, to pledge and bond itself to the principle that slowness and attention are their own rewards.

In 2014, more than a decade after my dinner with Peter Bil’ak, the landscape of graphic design has dramatically evolved. Many of his concepts that ‘might have been’ have actually been realised by himself or others. When I first visited the topic of speculative graphic design in 2008 in Task Newsletter 2, I interviewed a handful of designers who seemed to be working in this mode and asked them if they considered their work speculative. Many of them, such as the notable ‘critical design’ duo Dunne and Raby, answered with an emphatic and positive ‘yes’.

In the exhibition catalogue for All Possible Futures, my editorial intent was to pick up the conversation where the Task Newsletter discussion had left off, but I was surprised to get quite different reactions from my interviewees. Many of them were critical of the term ‘speculative’ and explained the various reasons why they regard this kind of work as problematic. Willem Henri Lucas noted being ‘surprised and slightly annoyed by all these “new” terms for things or situations that have always been there.’ Experimental Jetset took issue with the very idea that anything can be speculative, since ‘speculation will always result in something real: a real thought, a real sketch, a real model. It will always stay within the borders of reality, of language, of the world.’ In their new commission for All Possible Futures, Experimental Jetset designed a button that takes the title of Guy Debord’s book The Society of the Spectacle and replaces ‘spectacle’ with ‘speculative’, expressing their feeling that, ‘In our view, the speculative exists on the same level as the spectacular: this whole floating sphere of illusions, false images, inflated signs, projections. Which is exactly the sphere we’ve tried to oppose all throughout our practice.’

In attempting to assemble an exhibition on this subject, my research sometimes felt like an archaeological excavation. After all, much of this work doesn’t live on anyone’s website, since graphic designers regard their public portfolio as a space for documenting completed projects. In some cases, All Possible Futures facilitated the culmination of incomplete projects that had consumed years of work but were currently buried in flat files or deep in hard-drive storage. A special section in the exhibition is dedicated to projects such as Bil’ak’s Het Natuurloket, a fascinating work that remains unrealised but deserving of celebration and discussion in the larger discourses of our field.

Coincidentally, but, I think, significantly, several other exhibitions with similar concerns are going on at the same time as All Possible Futures. Futures Project is taking place at the Center for the Living Arts in Mobile, Alabama, and Dissident Futures is happening here in San Francisco at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Recently, Past Futures, Present Futures was at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, and Radical Speculation: Design as Film was at the Black Cinema House in Chicago. What are the reasons for this resurgent interest in speculative practices? In graphic design specifically, are we sensing some kind of imminent implosion of our ever-expanding world of rampant branding, customisable everything, crowd-sourced design, mobile apps, style-mongering blog feeds, cloud technology, data farming, on-demand publishing, social media, and so on (and so on and so on)?

As I look over all the material in the show and my many conversations with the designers making this work, I realise that this hot-and-cold attitude toward speculation – alternately embracing its creative potential and rejecting its validity as a productive concept – is itself deeply embedded in graphic design practice. Just as the meaning of ‘speculation’ has varied across disciplines and eras, so has graphic design itself. We designers are engaged in activity that is
at once ubiquitous and incredibly easy for the layperson to overlook. We have a huge impact on society – indeed, the very essence of what we do involves shaping the meaning of words and images to communicate messages – but this is a highly unstable process that cannot easily be measured and does not always yield the outcome that was intended.

The definition of our discipline is constantly shifting and expanding, but I think Bil’ak may have captured its essence as eloquently as any of us can:

I suppose most creative work is by its very definition speculative. It is formed on a basis of incomplete information, involves intuition, and explores new areas, which means it also runs the risk of not always delivering what it promises. So, yes, I do think we engage in the creative process with slightly unpredictable results.4

My intention is that All Possible Futures asks more questions than it definitively answers. I hope it will function as a porthole into a universe of highly sophisticated work that has been striving to find a way out into the world.


1. Jonathon Keats, ‘Funnel Cities and Towns on Feet? How to Live with the Visionary Architecture of Walter Jonas and Archigram’, Forbes.com (November 2012). Accessible at http://www.forbes.com/sites/jonathonkeats/2012/11/27/funnel-cities-and-towns-on-feet-how-to-live-with-the-visionary-architecture-of-walter-jonas-and-archigram/.
1. Jonathon Keats, ‘Funnel Cities and Towns on Feet? How to Live with the Visionary Architecture of Walter Jonas and Archigram’, Forbes.com (November 2012). Accessible at http://www.forbes.com/sites/jonathonkeats/2012/11/27/funnel-cities-and-towns-on-feet-how-to-live-with-the-visionary-architecture-of-walter-jonas-and-archigram/.
2. Emmet Byrne, ‘Products of Our Imagination’, Task Newsletter 2 (2008).
3. Metahaven, ‘Black Transparency: The Right to Know in the Age of Mass Surveillance’, Bureau Europa (2013). Accessible at http://www.bureau-europa.nl/en/manifestations/black_transparency_the_right_to_know_in_the_age_of_mass_surveillance/.
4. Peter Bil’ak, quoted in Jon Sueda, ‘All Possible Futures’, Task Newsletter 2 (2008).