Designing A SkyMall Catalogue For The Near Future

Designing A SkyMall Catalogue For The Near Future

The future will be — get ready for it — normal. That’s the striking and entirely non-boring vision presented in TBD Catalogue, which you might describe as a fictional SkyMall catalogue from 2024. There are no dramatic utopian or dystopian predictions in this slim, blue volume, but it does contain a bizarre and fascinating reflection of the technology of today.

TBD Catalogue’s pages pack an array of 166 products and services, including an OkCupid for playdates, a polite car horn, “screen tan”, coconut beer and an old-fashioned manual video camera for nostalgia’s sake. You’ll see the themes from today’s tech blogs staring back at you through a funhouse mirror. There’s wearables, unmanned aerial vehicles, surveillance, algorithmic culture — all played out to their logical conclusion.

For Julian Bleecker, the mastermind who brought together 19 designers, curators, writers and other futuristic thinkers to create TBD Catalogue, this means taking, say, an app that lets you pay with your phone at a hip, San Francisco restaurant and transposing it to a fast-food joint. Or, a smartwatch that monitors your heart becomes a smart toilet that monitors your poo.

TBD Catalogue is quite obviously a product of design fiction; it doesn’t try to pass off its designs as real. But occasionally the items dreamed up as design fiction have edged into reality. A biotech startup in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, really is selling a microbial body spray — it doesn’t claim to protect you from pathogens (yet), but it is meant to improve your skin with good bacteria.

It’s easy to have spectacular visions of the future. What makes the speculative designs in TBD Catalogue so fascinating, ironically, is their mundaneness. You — or your children — might actually use the products sold here.

“I wanted to make this point that the future is like artifice in a way. We’re in someone’s future right now, and it feels kind of normal,” says Bleecker.

At the end of the catalogue, a long essay sums up the thinking behind TBD Catalogue, which is less about dreaming up new technologies than considering the social context in which they will or could exist. Take this passage:

It is just that the near future may probably be quite like the present, only with a new cast of social actors and algorithms who will, like today, suffer under the banal, colourful, oftentimes infuriating characteristics of any socialized instrument and its services. I am referring to the bureaucracies that are introduced, the jargon, the new kinds of job titles, the mishaps, the hopes, the error messages, the dashed dreams, embarrassments, the evolved social norms, the humiliated politicians, the revised expectations of manner and decorum, the inevitable reactionary designed thing that reverse current norms, the battalions of accessories. Etcetera.

The catalogue itself reflects this: There are occasion wonky photo errors, mentions of production delays, regulatory warnings from bureaucracies like the CDC, warranty options and so on. You can pay with credit or carbon credits or “digicoin”. Some of the products are designed specifically to fix the annoyances that will arise with future technology, like a “Polite Car Horn” for signalling other motorists when your self-driving car malfunctions. The future in TBD Catalogue is shiny — seriously, the photos in it are very shiny in the way stock photos always are — but it isn’t slick.

When Bleecker first put the idea for TBD Catalogue in action, he invited 19 future-thinking friends to basically hang out in Detroit for three days. To inspire spur ideas and discussion, he created a work kit, a deck of cards that could be reshuffled to spit out a combination of futuristic ideas.

(You can actually order Design Fiction Product Design Work Kit 0-TBD-D012 along with the catalogue itself.)

You might draw, for example, “virus proof”, “vacuum cleaner” and “connected to the internet”, which you then have to turn into a coherent product. Not all combinations work, of course, but when the future can seem like a blank canvas, realising that the future is actually constrained by the ideas and systems of the present gives you some place to start. This exercise is as much about pondering the present as it is pondering the future.

Picture: TBD Catalogue

TBD Catalogue isn’t a one-off project. Bleecker is already working on a supplement devoted entirely to the internet of things. And, in the future, he would like to put out a catalogue once a year — like an annual year in review for design, but one that looks forwards instead of just backwards.

The near future feels closer today than ever been before. No, we haven’t found the secret to warping spacetime, but we are constantly bombarded with renders, Kickstarter videos and Indiegogo campaigns — all of varying legitimacy — promising products that are not yet real. Things that do not exist can be digitally sculpted and presented as almost real.

TBD Catalogue subverts that cheery, can-do language of Kickstarter campaigns, creating a vision of the future is neither dystopian nor fantastical, but intriguingly plausible.