A Glossary of Futures & Design Terms

A living glossary meant to help you navigate the fields of design, foresight, and futures

Ever been stumped by all of the terminology floating around the worlds of design, innovation, and foresight? You’re not alone! We’ve spent some time trying to clarify and simplify some of these terms so you may better navigate these fields.

Let us know if you’ve got any suggestions to better describe these terms. We realize we may have over simplified some fields in an effort to keep the concepts manageable, but we’re always open to hear and integrate your thoughts!

Applied Futures

Taking future knowledge and applying it to present-day action (strategy, product, experience)

Applied Futures is, as its name implies, being able to strategically apply futures knowledge (insights) to present day action. It’s about proactively applying a potential future onto the present. This can manifest itself as a set of new decisions or perspectives informed by insights gained during a futures thinking exercise, by new product and service explorations inspired by future vision development, and/or by the creation of Design Fictions to elicit an audience reaction. Applied Futures is similar to Strategic Foresight and Strategic Design in that they apply future insights to present-day action. The main difference is that Applied Futures is the broader term that describes the use of futures to action things like strategy (Strategic Foresight) and design (Strategic Design).

Critical Design

Using the three-dimensional form to encourage critical thought and critical questioning

Using design techniques like prototyping and modelling to give form to critical lines of inquiry. Critical design is much like conceptual art where it seeks to destabilize the viewer and encourage critical thought. The outputs of the critical design process are not designs for mass consumption but often bespoke, creative projects meant to illicit a reaction from the viewer/participant/user. The outputs often take the form of Design Fictions and Design Speculations.

Design Fiction

A physically or digitally prototyped product of the future that has made its way back through time to be experienced by a present-day audience. A catalyst for future inquiry.

Design Fictions are Critical Designs meant to spark critical thought within the audience member. They are the creation of speculative artifacts that spark debate about future possibilities. A Design Fiction explores potential future objects and interactions through a tangible prototype of a future object that has traveled backwards through time to the present. By bringing back “objects of the future” to present-day audience members, we encourage them to suspend their disbelief and explore potential repercussions of such an artifact existing in a future world.

Design Futures

The merging/blending of Design Thinking and Futures Thinking brings an action-oriented and product based approach to strategic insights

Design Futures is an interdisciplinary field where Design Thinking meets Futures Thinking. It blends the methods and outputs of traditional maker-based design and the methods of Futures Thinking. It is a field that is focused on imagining the future and taking an action-based approach to designing new offerings that respond to those futures.

Design Thinking

A human-centered approach to innovation (encompassing everything from problem definition to solution design)

A term used to describe an approach for researching, structuring and designing concepts. It is most often used to describe a process for problem solving and an approach to innovative, empathy-based solution development.

Forecasting

“Predicting” the future

The use of quantitative information such as historical and extrapolated data sets to attempt to predict near-future events.

Futures Literacy

Ability to understand the role of the future in the present

Futures Literacy is a skill or capability. It’s the ability to understand and “read” (or notice) the role that future visions have in shaping the present.

Futures Thinking

A mindset and approach to thinking about and using the futures to inform critical thought

A term used to describe the suite of futurist methods and approaches that one uses to develop the capacity to think about and respond to the future.

Futurism

An Italian artistic movement of the early 20th century. Also used as a term to describe a futuristic mindset/approach.

The term Futurism is sometimes used to describe a point of view that values the future over those of the past or present, however, the term Futurism is predominantly used to describe an Italian artistic movement of the early 20th century. Although the artistic movement is no longer active, some would discourage the use of the term Futurism to describe futures related works due to the confusion that could arise from the overlap of the two movements. That being said, the term seems to be gaining in use.

Futures Studies, Futures Research, Futurology

Field of study focused on understanding repercussions of changes (trends) over long-term horizons

These terms are used to describe the study of change across key themes such as social structure, political and regulatory systems, economic models, and technological change. It is not focused on predicting the future but rather in understanding repercussions of present-day trends (and decisions) for future possibilities.

Science Fiction

Piece of fiction that explores imagined repercussions of advanced technology/science

Science Fiction is a type of fiction that primarily explores futuristic worlds. It is often based on the imagined impacts of a technological or scientific advancement.

Speculative Design

Imagined design proposals (products, ideas) to help us think about what we would consider as preferable

Speculative Design is very similar to Critical Design. Often the two terms are used interchangeably. Speculative design is the use of speculation (“what if?” statements) to explore future possibilities and future implications. Much like critical design, it seeks to elicit a critical response from its viewer/user yet, in my opinion it is more focused on encouraging imaginings of future possibilities. The way we view it, speculative design is about curiosity and imagination whereas critical design is about critique and potential risks.

Speculative Futures

Field of inquiry interested in the creative exploration of potential futures

Speculative Futures are extrapolations of present-day reality into a possible future state. They are future scenarios or world-states that have been built on present-day trends and assumptions.It is important to note that all futures are speculative in nature. As a field of inquiry, Speculative Futures is a broad term that can help differentiate creative futures work from data-driven financial futures work (ex: Futures Trading).

Strategic Design

Application of designed outputs towards advancing a strategic objective

Application of design towards achieving a strategic objective. Often Strategic Designs are focused on solving “big picture” challenges. These strategic goals can either be defined by a client (ex: more revenue, greater outreach, etc.) or be global in scope (reduce poverty, homelessness, increase access to education, etc.). Because Strategic Design is the use of design outputs as a catalyst towards a predetermined desired pathway, it includes some aspects of future exploration and vision setting in order to set the strategic objectives for which the designs need to respond to. Some would argue that the entire process of design is strategic in nature, and thus may deem the term redundant.

Strategic Foresight

Strategic application of futures knowledge towards strengthening (future proofing) existing offerings

Strategic Foresight, much like Applied Futures, is about using gained insights from futures methods to inform the present. That being said, Strategic Foresight is more planning-oriented than Strategic Design or Applied Futures. You could roughly summarize Strategic Foresight as the strategic application of future insights to reinforce and strengthen (future fit) initiatives, mindsets, and approaches.

Strategic Foresight is often linked to business, organizational, and governmental innovation cycles with its outputs being used to inform strategic management plans, policy and initiative development, as well as vision setting.

Systems Thinking

Ability to “think in systems” and map out interdependencies

Ability to think in terms of interrelated systems. Systems theory and the application of Systems Thinking helps one better understand and investigate complex systems. It can help to map out things like system interdependencies, leverage points, emergent behaviours, and system constraints. Since Futures work deals in interdependent and systems-level changes, the application of systems thinking to aid in implications mapping is highly recommended.

Transition Design

Using design to transition towards a better tomorrow

Transition Design is an emerging new area of design that focuses on using a holistic view and design as a catalyst for societal transitions towards more sustainable futures. It carries a focus on societal, ethical, and environmental improvements (as opposed to leaning heavily on business, technological, or regulatory focused objectives) and seeks to outline ways of bridging the gap between the current and preferred visions.

There you have it! By no means an exhaustive list of all the terms being thrown around, but certainly a good start to get you feeling a little more settled. As always, the field is constantly evolving so read these definitions with an open mind — think of these as compliments to the more robust definitions you’re bound to find as you continue your learning journey!

Avenear is a foresight-driven design studio and innovation consultancy that is focused on helping you build the future, today.