Despite reality itself becoming ever more unreal, to the extent that political commentators are resorting to terms from quantum mechanics to describe, or attempt to make sense of, our seemingly paradoxical political realities, it feels as though the design imagination is being colonized by a particularly aggressive form of realism intolerant of anything that does not conform to or reaffirm prevailing realities — realities that are becoming obsolete.
For those of us committed to exploring alternative ways of seeing the world expressed through the design of everyday objects, refusing realism might serve as a form of resistance, a protest of sorts — to actively push back against the call to make stuff real, to make things work, to be realistic — in order to preserve and sustain pockets of an increasingly endangered natural resource: imaginative thought.
This is not a rejection of the real but of realism, which accepts how things are now, working within existing conditions. Nor is it about blurring boundaries between the real and the unreal in ways that take us into the realms of fake news, post-truth politics and other assaults on common sense and rationality. Rather, it is a broadening out of the real to include ideas and realities that typically would be excluded as unreal, rather than false or fake. These other reals do not try to pass themselves off as something they are not — to convince, persuade, or to replace the real real, they are just different kinds of real. By ignoring or marginalizing them, we severely close down possibilities for new ideas and thinking. After all, once an alternative comes into existence, even if as an idea or narrative, it effectively becomes part of reality, impacting it and making reality a little larger than it was before.
Realists could, of course, dismiss this kind of design as a form of escapism, but the value of design like this is not in how it changes the world or converts people to a specific point of view, but in how it expands imaginative horizons just a little, providing cultural nourishment for a new ‘climate of possibility.’ For us, this is valuable in itself, a civic act that aims to expand the public’s capacity for imagination by sustaining and enriching the worlds we carry around inside us, from which new realities emerge.