Speculative Design + Research Paper // Michele Washington, Exhibition and Experience Design

Speculative Design + Research Paper // Michele Washington, Exhibition and Experience Design
By: Michele Washington


This paper proposes a transformative framework for how Speculative Design—and more specifically, research methods—can be used as a model for student engagement and to enhance learning outcomes. The goal is for my students to become better critical thinkers and be more experimental with strategically tackling innovative, socially relevant design solutions. By prompting design students to shift more towards imaginative thinking to begin exploring new frameworks and new methods for design research processes. Such exploratory methods offer them alternative ways of thinking through ideation through concept development—helping them become more experimental and immersive with their final designs.The trajectory of meshing Speculative Design with exploratory research methods offers evidenced-based learning for aiding students with producing brand graphics for public spaces and the built environments.

• Speculative Design and design research methods enhance the ability for students to scale-up a project and to expand the trajectory of their learning outcome.

• Adopting various research methods for speculative design projects will provide design students with more relevant ways of addressing socially relevant design issues.


In my quest to be more inclusive of timely topics for my graduate students, I have shifted to explore the intersection between Speculative Design and Design Research methods embodying socially and culturally-based issues. What resulted is a foray with two different projects that my first-semester graduate design students’ produced during the Fall semester of 2017 and 2018. Due to the short timeframe, this became a team-based project, where students worked agile and conducted “Design Sprints” that expedited their final deliverables. Based on my previous experiences with teaching, this Intro Graphic Design for Exhibition and Experience Design class, I realized many of the students were not well-versed in conducting primary research or with the diverse range of exploratory research methods for producing such an intensive assignment. As such, a diverse range of research methods that inform Speculative Design was introduced into the learning process, and this approach links together research and discovery with learning how to scale-up a project while delivering people-centered experiences. Furthermore, it is also critical for design students to fully grasp that research and design are inextricably intertwined with achieving the final brand’s look and feel, since they must translate from 2D graphics to 3D graphics, each component functioning across multiple platforms including print, digital, and interactive within the sphere of the built environment and/or public spaces.


How do we merge the two constructs of Speculative Design and Design Research?

Working agile and applying Design Sprints as a workflow for the students was an intensive process. Simultaneously, they tackled research and discovery, ideation through concept development, then the execution of final design solutions over five weeks. For the first-semester graduate students, this was a rigorous and demanding process. Working beyond their expectations, they tackled complex system thinking methods applicable for our fast-paced, changing landscape of design, technology, and research necessary for achieving their final actionable steps. Speculative Design projects provide a pathway for communicating ideas through a futurist lens. The students’ perspectives changed—pushing them beyond the edges, further enhancing their critical and innovative ways of thinking. All of these skills are necessary for ushering them through successive semesters, thesis capstones, internships, and the essential skills for pursuing their professional careers.

The Projects Assignments included:

1) Gowntown Interactive Wayfinding Kiosk for Manhattanville campus of Columbia University, Fall 2017

2) Sing Sing Prison Preview Center Museum, Fall 2018. Each project was team-based, with teams being assigned a name, much like professional design firms.

Even though each project was different, it all began with a project assignment brief. We worked across two design class cohorts: my class, and that of another professor, Robin Drake, who taught the afternoon session, this class focuses mainly on 3-D spatial, materials, and rendering. By merging our class assignments, we developed a cohesive system for working seamlessly. All fostered building the students; capacity for working collaboratively, new learning outcomes, and achieving final deliverables on a tight schedule. Working through the Speculative Design lens, creating a synergy between our classes, students improved their storytelling skills as they simultaneously accumulated experiential and immersive learning experiences. Since the teams worked in sync, we sometimes merged our classes, to function more like an exploratory lab. We noticed that the students were more at ease, openly engaging while working collaboratively in teams. However, it is the sharing with teammates that fostered new ways for them to work on these projects plus to learn new research methods and innovating again and again.

Additional design parameters for consideration include the following:

• Universal Design

• Designing for multilingual communities (where English is not the first language)

• Aging populations (ageism)

• Marginalized communities of color.

Shifting Research Methods and Discovery

The term Speculative Design is defined in What is Speculative Design as follows, “We use Speculative Design to describe work that uses design (products, services, scenarios) and addresses the challenges and opportunities related to the future.” This article further clarifies that Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby coined the word in the ‘90s, “Let’s call it Critical Design that questions the cultural, social, and ethical implications of emerging technologies. A form of design that can help us to define the most desirable futures and avoid the least desirable.” (Phil Balagtas).

Dunne and Raby reframed the term “Speculative Design,” which addresses the challenges of designing—for the present or the future—what is or what could be while embodying the cultural, social, and ethical, evident within the themes for each project. (Balagtas). Addressing these scenarios is critical to linking the cultural, social, and ethical implications for the Gowntown and the Sing Sing Prison Preview Center projects. Furthermore, reframing the cultural as cultural awareness—letting go of conscious and unconscious biases; social shifts to socially relevant design projects; and ethical demands that designers be respectful to their audience.

Since design and research are working in sync, this meant shifting the research paradigm by introducing the students to a research toolbox, beyond just Human-Centered-Design. This is in addition to Design Thinking which is intended to evoke a creative mind-set. Mainly, since these projects address issues like displacement, cultural erasure, ethical practices, gentrification, racial biases, and mass incarceration, this gives the designer and educator the option of not relying solely on HCD methods. Thus, they were able to connect the complexity of displacement to the history of the Manhattanville community and the systemic racial biases of mass incarceration with Sing Sing Prison. New modes have been articulated in “Social Design and Neocolonialism” by Cinnamon L. Janzer and Lauren S. Weinstein. It proposes situated-design, encouraging designers to take a transformative approach by “consider other frameworks for executing and understanding design.” (Janzer and Weinstein). They go on to further state: “Through a holistic understanding of the social science methods applying a situated-design-centered method shifts the students beyond Human-Centered Design and Design Thinking, which are applicable methods for design products that will be used and consumed by humans” (Janzer and Weinstein). What each is calling for is the inclusion of social sciences such as ethnography and anthropology for addressing a more dignity/humanistic center design approach. One of my goals was to explore ways to create our own design research methods, or other processes of exploratory design research not familiar to me (like co-creation and participatory workshops.) The essay by Nathan Shedroff, Research Methods for Designing Effective Experiences, maps why new methods are needed. Shedroff states because Experience Design encompasses so much new territory for designers (such as social issues, business strategy, the senses, emotions and the creating of value), designers need to learn new ways of understanding their audiences to prepare for their needs. He further implies why designers need to look beyond the traditional user-centered approaches working in service with objects, but address cultural product whose task is to address issues of self-definition or expression, and our mindsets may be wrong” (Nathan Shedroff)

Seeking to become more exploratory with our research the document Reimagining Prison, published by the Vera Institute, in October 2018, provides a point of view fitting a situated-design focus. The report puts forth a dignity-centered and humanitarian approach, stating:

It proposes that human dignity be the central theme. The following guiding humanitarian principles are based upon upholding human dignity:

Principle 1: Respect the intrinsic worth of each human being;

Principle 2: Elevate and support personal relationships; and

Principle 3: Respect a person’s capacity to grow and change. (Reimagining Prison, page 46).

Insight initiatives:

The publication Reimagining Prison offers a glimpse into the inhumane treatment of prisoners. It prompts the notion that such individuals’ civil liberties have been taken away and challenges whether they have no civil rights if HCD has been proven to be the best directive per research. In other words, incarcerated individuals are not treated humanely; consequently, they are off-centered from the human-centered process, and since they are outside the circle, they tend to have little to no equity or feeling of empowerment.

Overview of the Case Study

As a recap, both classes for the Gowntown and Sing Sing Preview Center projects were provided a project brief that outlined the goals and objectives along with an extensive reading and resources list. However, the SSPC brief was more in-depth, including resources for videos, films, and data collection. Based upon exploratory research methods, some of the SSPC students pivoted toward a dignity-centered/humanistic approach, based on a more situated design-centered framework of the ethical, social, and cultural implications stemming from the intersection between racial biases and mass incarceration.

Case Study: Gowntown Interactive Wayfinding Kiosk, Fall 2017


This project proposed to develop an interactive wayfinding kiosk that integrated the surrounding West Harlem and Manhattanville community with the newly built Manhattanville campus of Columbia University, which is located at 125th Street and stretches along the Broadway corridor up to 135th Street. At the time, only two main buildings had been completed, namely, the Lenfest Center for the Arts and the Jerome L. Greene Science Center. The lobby in the Greene Science Center features an interactive wall developed by Laura Kurgan’s Spatial Information Lab at Columbia University. The walls theme is based on a combination of visualized data and infographics called the “Brain.” This interactive wall and the touch screen is an immersive experience composed of a series of panels moving up and down the wall in sync. Once the panels reach eye level, visitors can interact with their touch screens. Another building, The Forum, opened in the fall of 2018. The façade is made of glass and reveals a welcoming space where people can sit, work, access free wi-fi, and grab a coffee and light fare from the café.


The project was inspired by a speculative document, “Gowntown, A 197-X Plan for Upper Manhattan,” and produced by Terreform, the nonprofit publishing division of Michael Sorkin’s Studio, an urban design firm located in NYC (who gave us permission). The document investigates the impact Columbia University’s expansion had on the Upper Westside Manhattan neighborhood; it also provides an insight into the ramifications of the backlash against Columbia University’s using an eminent domain and taking over the property they owned along the corridor stretching from 125th Street, north along Broadway to nearly 135th Street, then to the edges of the Westside Highway, which includes landscaping parts of the waterfront park. In the introduction, Sorkin says, “He views the document as a series of meditations on Manhattanville—and Upper Manhattan–intended to provoke discussion and even action” (Gowntown, A 197-X Plan for Upper Manhattan). This document was in response to Columbia University’s massive expansion into the neighborhood, along with the inevitable changes that this would bring.

Due to time limitations, we used the following two chapters as a point of interrogation, the “Hispanics Steps” and “Science Walk.” By utilizing this document, the students had access to neighborhood maps, proposed renderings of the surrounding area, and residents; statistical data.

While the interactive kiosks’ final team designs varied, each served as a portal meshing the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), residents living on the east side of Broadway opposite the Manhattanville Campus. The teams were eager to create more people-centered design solutions; they wanted the local residents and visitors to have more access to the ongoing events and services offered on the campuses’ existing buildings. Since 70% of NYCHA residents are seniors, and many are multilingual residents speaking both English and Spanish, the students’ were required to address designing for accessibility and universal design as part of the kiosk’s interface activity. Currently, the site has no existing directional signage for navigating this campus, and the Lenfest Center for the Arts can be confusing for people not familiar with this area since it is hidden behind the Jerome Science Center. All the teams addressed this wayfinding problem by creating concepts which included maps, that utilized touch screens for navigation, plus other interactivity that integrated programming information for both Columbia University campuses, the local NYCHA community center, and other community cultural events in the area and along the waterfront and the local parks. These design solutions offered more inclusivity between the campuses and the residents living in the community. After all, this expansion project displaced residents and businesses in the neighborhoods; such issues often create a hostile environment between developers and residents. Therefore, the kiosks needed to function as connectors between all of the surrounding communities and not embody any aspects of hostile design. Consequently, research plays a critical role in building successful outcomes, each team was responsible for additional site visits beyond our initial visit. They also conducted observational research, researched the residents demographics, compiled data, and then produced a final summary that outlined their concepts.


Despite the timeframe, the design students quickly tackled this project from ideation through final concept development, and they produced tight renderings, models, and wireframes. We then prototyped, conducted usability tests, and did bodystorming activities. The teams delivered a broad range of final projects from virtual reality, public art displays, trestle models, bus kiosks, and a smaller-scale kiosks for children, that could be placed throughout the surrounding neighborhood. The success of this project was due to the students’ eagerness and working iteratively as they tackled concepts that produced relevant interactive kiosks. Additionally, some of the learning outcomes were based on additional readings such as Zoned Out: Race, Displacement, and City Planning in New York City, edited by Tom Angotti and Sylvia Morse, Under the Elevated: Reclaiming Spaces, Connecting Communities by, Design Trust for Public Space, and Visual Research An Introduction to Research Methods in Graphic Design by Ian Noble and Russell Bestley. Many new terms were introduced, including displacement, gentrification, neighborhood rezoning, cultural erasure, and hostile design—issues that are part of critical thinking related to the social, cultural, and ethical framework of interacting with such clients and residents of color. They also learned about how to bring a project to scale. Although this project was an introduction to socially relevant issues, it was challenging to push them outside of their comfort zones. For the final presentations, the teams presented their projects to a small panel of critics who provided thoughtful but rigorous feedback that pushed the students to further question and challenge themselves.

Case Study: Sing Sing Prison Museum Preview Center, Fall 2018


This project offered a transformative approach to addressing new research methods and insights into racial biases and mass incarceration. The Sing Sing Prison Museum Board mandate viewed the Sing Sing Prison Center as the primary portal for the museum that would introduce visitors to the museum. The SSPC was designated to feature the history of the prison’s holdings and the systemic issues surrounding mass incarceration and, also, for the Sing Sing Preview Center to be recognized as leaders in criminal and social justice reform in the United States. Sing Sing Correctional Facility is located in Ossining, New York; it is a working prison that was built in 1825 by inmates that would eventually inhabit the space. It is situated along the majestic Hudson River. A site map was provided for the spatial allocation of the Powerhouse, which was built in 1936; an additional Sing Sing Prison Museum site map features a tunnel that will eventually connect the PowerHouse and the CellBlock.


SSPC was a team-based, intensive, five-week project; it was much more intensive than last year. An extensive project brief was provided that outlined problems that the students may not have initially considered exploring, along with a section of questions prompting the students to be more exploratory with their research for meeting the needs of the audience, the cultural context of the prison’s history, plus the question of what mass incarceration is, and further questions of how they might create spaces for discussions and visualize social/political reform. Other issues emerged, such as democracy for former/current inmates in the areas of education, health care, housing, voting rights, jobs, and mental illness.

More questions blossomed on how the center could better educate visitors about the prison systems locally, nationally, and globally and ensure that current and former inmates’ rights are not being infringed upon. (Particularly since this prison is operational.) Additionally, they were provided a lexicon of socially relevant terms, numerous SSPM documents, and a slew of photos for inspiration, some of which included the old CellBlock and PowerHouse buildings.

Today’s designing has become more complex and requires system thinking, making this project more demanding, yet a welcome challenge. Students were asked to consider the challenges faced when designing the Sing Sing Prison Preview Center on the site of the PowerHouse Building, which will become the main entry point for visitors before the museum opens and acts as a portal before constituents entered the main sections of the museum and the 1825 CellBlock. The teams worked agile, exploring the various modes for visitor-centered experiences of how people might engage with the center before entering the central area of the museum.

Each team crafted a manifesto—What Freedom Means? Plus, they produced a creative brief outlining the scope of their projects such as goals, objectives, concepts, and potential solutions for the Preview Center. The impetus for the manifesto partially based on the Black Panthers Manifesto Principle #9—people are not treated as humans. (Similarly, to how prisoners tend not to be treated humanely.) By crafting their manifesto, they had the option of using this document as a point of inspiration. This project framework meshes with working through social, cultural, and ethical constraints required for designing and innovating to scaling and capturing insights.The designs also had to be ADA compliant.

A broad range of concepts emerged from the design teams, which was an outgrowth of the extensive reading and resource list provided. We had a site visit to Sing Sing’s PowerHouse and CellBlock conducted by Arthur Wolpinsky, correction officer/security liaison, facility historian, and photographer, who provided an extensive overview of the history of the Prison and other current details. Then we conducted an interview, with the project manager of Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison. He provided another point of view based on his own experiences of being incarcerated and other formerly incarcerated individuals that utilize Hudson Link programs. Working with team leaders, they compiled a series of open-ended questions then we composed an interview guide. (We had a notetaker, and, later, we synthesized the findings and utilized them for further concept development.) One statement by the project manager resonated with all of them: “Everyone in prison is serving time.”


Each team project was different. One focused on the center providing programming, the library, a meditative public space using temporal landscapes, and a traveling radio station for capturing families’ and former inmates’ stories. This team applied Nina Simon, CEO of Spacemaker, OF/BY/FOR ALL model for creating museums based on the communities they serve. Another team changed the SSPM’s name to “Ensemble” and addressed the racial bias in the justice system, dehumanization, and racial oppression, and their final solutions were based on a human dignity approach. They also employed gamification for an interactive infographic wall. This team wanted visitors to draw their own conclusions and not be swayed. Other final projects included concepts for flag banners, higher visitor awareness of the Preview Centers’ location, and a redesign of the exterior façade of the Powerhouse Building. The intersection of exploratory research from the field, such as Reimaging Prisons Report, provided another space for inserting research methods and opening up broader opportunities for conveying experiential experiences. Besides conducting bodystorming exercises, they produced personas, empathy maps, experience, maps, and storyboards.

Applicable to the practice and field:

Unpacking both projects, what is evident are the transformative framework of social, cultural, and ethical issues that designers embrace when interacting with marginalized communities of color that are plaguing our cities globally. Concurrently, the students become immersed with exploring new modes like Speculative Design and exploratory research methods for such project, offering them an excellent opportunity to reconsider how design and public policy work in sync. Additionally, affording them multifaceted experiences, like having more agency with self-defining the scope and design direction. As the students navigate ponder their careers, they must analyze ethical policies for reshaping the impact of such practices on the built environment. Another example—designers participation on boards of organizations where their voices can affect the most change. These projects also offer a wealth of experience involved determining how such social and ethical issues impact the everyday life of our citizens. Furthermore, students act as agents of change, becoming more immersed with the communities they are designing for, rather than only considering the client needs.

Moreover, they can now challenge themselves by reframing design thinking and research methods by integrating social sciences like anthropology and ethnography with design. Mainly, since such projects introduce a diverse range of terms that have broader meanings globally with other cultures outside of the United States, the potential exists to draw upon a global design perspective rather than a singular, locally based one. As the museum seeks to take on sensitive topics, designers and design students have an opportunity to explore creating safe spaces for the sensitive issues that surround displacement, racialized spaces, and mass incarceration, offering cross-cultural or multicultural experiences. Moreover, as a design educator, it is paramount to provide a clear window into properly making the curriculum timely.


What is Speculative Design? Guest Blogger Phil Balagtas


Gowntown: A 197-X Plan for Upper Manhattan, edited and published by Terreform, 2017, pp 6-7.

From the Technical to the Political: Democratizing Design Thinking, by Brooke Staton, Julia

Kramer, Pierce Gordon, and Lauren Valdez.

Swift, Colin, et al. “Cultivating A Family of Innovators Through Design Thinking.” Children’s

Technology and Engineering, vol. 22, no. 4, International Technology Education Association, May 2018, p. 7.

Design Currency, by Jenn and Ken Visocky O’Grady, New Riders, published in 2013.

Designs for the Pluriverse, by Arturo Escobar, Duke University Press published in 2017.

Design Research Methods, by Brenda Laurel, MIT Press, published in 2003; Research Methods

for Designing Effective Experiences, essay by Nathan Shedroff, pp‌. 155.

Access Ability: A Practical Handbook on Accessible Graphic Design, by RGD Ontario.

Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, by bell hooks, Routledge published in 1994.

Social Design and Neocolonialism, by Cinnamon L. Janzer and Lauren S.