That New Design Smell is a critical design magazine based on dialogue, rather than monologue. Read all about it.

Know your stuff and say your thing. Submit critical thoughts on-line for off-line publishing.


Words by Femke Herregraven

What designers put out in the world says something about how they envision the future. Design sympathizes mainly with the positive. Optimism rules design thinking, with the design hero leading the way to a sustainable future. The designer is a do-gooder per se. Design makes our world better. But can we also imagine design making our world worse? Design that focuses on the dark side of society? That rejects an optimistic view of the future? How can designers embrace worlds gone wrong, and why?



Do Good Design, by David B. Berman, 2008


Design Revolution, by Emily Pilloton, 2008



Significant events in the 1990s—collapse of the Soviet Union, awareness of climate change, depletion of oil, globalization and epidemics—led to anxieties about the future. (1) Now, two decades later, these anxieties translate into a new wave of apocalyptic films, novels and products. Empowered by the hype around the 2012-phenomenon, The-End-Of-The-World brand emerges. TEOTW is de-centralized and doesn’t represent a person, company or country, but its core value is clear. Anticipating our survival instincts, TEOTW seduces us to consume and guarantees success.

The Web Bot Project, sponsored by TEOTW, predicts future events by tracking keywords online. It claims to have predicted several events such as 9/11, the Antrax Attacks, the AA Flight 587 crash, Hurricane Katrina and Dick Cheney’s hunting incident. Its algorithms remain secret and the predictions are sold online. Striking is how most predictions concern the US; a country where CNN fixates on apocalyptic predictions and 59% of Americans believe the end is near.

Paula Zahn Show, CNN broadcasting

Is it the end? CNN broadcasting

Another TEOTW appearance is 2012. This movie depicts a global crisis in 2012, when humanity is struck by major natural disasters. More interesting than the movie is the campaign that designed this apocalypse. Poster with the phrase ‘Find out the truth, search Google for 2012’ were spread worldwide. 2012 was googled intensively and its SEO value exploded within a few days. Furthermore, there was the opening of the Institute for Human Continuity. “Nobody knows precisely what our world will look like in 2012”, but the IHC Survival Lottery gives “each individual an equal opportunity for survival”. (2)

Promotional campaign of 2012 in metro Cantagalo, Brazil

The 2012 campaign was very successful. After being bombarded with questions, NASA had to create a FAQ-page on their website clarifying nothing bad will happen to the Earth in 2012. Hope and fear are both legitimate reactions to the future, but the future anxieties of today only seem to generate votes or profit. They make us watch, buy and vote for politicians that promise a quick fix for our fears. Used by markets and politicians the negative view of the future loses its power to be constructive. This potential could become meaningful again if engaged by art and design.

The question is how?



Two models offer opposed images of a world gone wrong: the apocalypse and the dystopia. “The apocalypse brings about the collapse of an order; dystopia on the other hand, envisions a sinister perfection of that order. Dystopia is a nightmare of totalitarian rule, the apocalypse is a nightmare of anarchy.” (3) The concept of The-Future-as-Disruption by political theorist Frederic Jameson, suggests the end of capitalism should be imagined through Utopia. For Jameson Utopia is the only political answer to the universal conviction that there’s no alternative for capitalism. Utopia insist a break is necessary and a radical difference is possible. (4) Jameson emphasizes it’s not the alternative that has to be imagined, but the radical break as such. In a way, he wants the apocalypse to be envisioned; the ‘thing’ that will destruct governments, markets, infrastructure, our capitalist present.

In contrast, science fiction writer Benjamin Kunkel believes the apocalypse is the end of politics. For him contemporary apocalyptic gestures signify the resilience of the human spirit rather than politics. “Its air of plausibility and urgency derives from real and serious political problems, yet these apocalyptic narratives are by no means stories of joining or founding political communities dedicated to surviving civilization’s collapse. On the contrary, they are stories of love, the strongest of all anti-political forces.” (5) The apocalyptic scenario, defined by nature and love, offers the choice between uncontrollable forces of good and evil. It fails to be a space for conflict or critique. What about the dystopian scenario?

In the novel Divided Kingdom, the UK has become a troubled place obsessed with acquisition and celebrity, a place defined by envy, misery and greed. (6) One night The Rearrangement takes place: a secret reorganization dividing the population into four groups according to medieval humours; Choleric-Yellow (aggressive personalities), Sanguine-Red (optimistic personalities), Phlegmatic-Blue (emphatic personalities) and Melancholics-Green (pessimistic personalities). To prevent psychological contamination the land is divided into four quarters by concrete walls, razor wire and checkpoints.

Map of The Rearrangement in Divided Kingdom, by Rupert Thomson, 2005

If design was a citizen of the Divided Kingdom, s/he would definitely be placed in the Red quarter. But as the rest of the population alike, dwelling in only one quarter turns out to be very unhealthy for design. Architect Liam Young states that “urban design is a psychopath seceded by drugs reeducated to tell the right anecdotes at diner parties, all the while bubbling underneath the surface is the blood, guts, the sweat, the tears.” (7)

As optimistic Sanguine doing the right thing, design neglects the dark and chaotic nature of society and of its own. Instead design should become one of the ‘White People’, the people who had been either unwilling or unable to find a place in the future at the time of The Rearrangement. They didn’t fit into any quarter or any humour. “They had ended up marooned between the old kingdom and the new one. Lost in a pocket of history.” The White People were required to wear white because it has no status as color. Perceived as having no character and incapable of causing psychological damage, they’re allowed to dwell through the whole kingdom. The four governments consider the White People’s presence to be a flaw of The Rearrangement. But instead of being flaws or nonentities to be pitied, the White People are in fact the only free people. Wandering from quarter to quarter gives them the only meaning-full position in the kingdom. The White People turn the Rearrangement into a ruin. As the unwanted and non-classifiable, they symbolize the clashes of interest, values and needs.

Gothic novels — Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus,
by Mary Shelley, 1818 (left),The Sandman, by E.T.A. Hoffmann, 1816 (center), and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, by Edgar Allan Poe, 1838 (right)

With Divided Kingdom as example, the dystopia scenario creates a future ruin by revealing the flaws and cracks of a system. Just like the historical ruin, the future ruin symbolizes a society’s wealth, power and decay only reversed in time. Instead of a trace of history, the future ruin has to be created first. Extrapolating society’s social patterns, established rules and forces help to imagine what such a world gone wrong would be like. Design can help to imagine how such a world would look like. Instead of concealing unpleasant realities, design then needs to exploit its suspicious role. “Where we once had nature and God, we now have design and conspiracy theory,” (8) states Boris Groys. The conspiracy theory, as the only surviving metaphysical discourse about the hidden and the invisible, (9) is strongly connected to speculation and paranoia. Dystopia, with its roots in the gothic novel (from Shelley, Hoffman or Poe), is very familiar with paranoia, and design could use some of it too. Let design welcome darkness, decay, madness, monsters and haunted houses. Let it embrace its fears of a world gone wrong. Let it speculate for the worst instead of the best.

The question is how?



Where the Grass is Greener by Tomorrows Thought Today (TTT) shows a London community that is obsessed by sustainability and has separated itself from society. The sustainability hysteria is taken to the extreme. Future postcards show a green-hippie-hell with bio-factories, recycling dating recruitment and propaganda centers. A bizarre mix of architecture, biology, technology and cinema produces a sinister future ruin with a humorous tone.

Biogas Powerplant, Where the Grass is Greener, TTT, 2009

The Primordial Garden Sanctuary, Where the Grass is Greener, TTT, 2009

Two more earnest approaches are shown at For Reason of State. This exhibition addressed citizens’ ability to function as a democracy in the face of governmental secrecy. (10) While public access to information increasingly being regulated, the exhibition shows strategies of counter-information.

BIT Plane, a compact spy plane by the artist collective Bureau of Inverse Technology, captured several hours of aerial renderings from Silicon Valley. Although publicly funded, corporate research parcs are no-camera zones and closed for public. BIT Plane infiltrated deep “into the glittering heartlands of the Information Age” (11) battling for public access to information.

BIT Plane, Bureau of Inverse Technology, 1997-8

BIT Plane, Bureau of Inverse Technology, 1997-8

With Black Sites, Trevor Paglen tried to reveal a network of secret prisons set up during the War on Terror. By using commercial satellite imagery, prisoners’ testimonies and drawn map by a former prisoner, he aimed to find a prison with code name Salt Pit. Paglen’s research on secret activities of the military industrial complex blurs the lines between social science, art and journalism. He found Salt Pit eventually in the North of Kabul and documented it with photographs.

The Salt Pit, Black Sites, by Trevor Paglen, 2008

Instead of creating future ruins like TTT, the counter-surveillance of BIT and Paglen reveal contemporary ruins. But they are too, or rather become, speculative scenarios. Because how do we know if the images of BIT Plane and the Salt Pit aren’t corrupted? We don’t know, and that makes them powerful. As speculative works they will remain in the public sphere and never end up as classified information.

Where the Grass is Greener, BIT Plane and Black Sites are the results of a cross-disciplinary research practice and start from dystopian what-ifs. What if a community lives in a sustainable fortress? What if there’s a network of secret prisons? Where would it be? What would it look like? With design producing dystopian scenarios the territory of artistic interrogation could be expanded. Speculation isn’t only philosophical reflection, but can be seen a field of subjective and risky strategies that produces differences. (12)

Coming back to the start, can design embrace worlds gone wrong? Yes. How? By accepting dark emotions. Taking the luxury of thinking about bad times. Exploiting the flaws of society. Turning society’s hidden nature into visual stories. Producing future ruins and monsters that can be researched.

The question remaining is, how far do we push the perversion?


Femke Herregraven is a designer based
in Amsterdam.


To read Femke’s full-length essay,
get our printed launch issue at:

‘The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades’
Sandberg Institute design events
8–10 July 2011, Opening 8 July 2011, 20.00
Vondelbunker, Amsterdam



1—Dystopia and the End of Politics, Benjamin Kunkel, Dissent Magazine, Fall 2008
3—Dystopia and the End of Politics, Benjamin Kunkel, Dissent Magazine, Fall 2008
4—Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fiction, Frederic Jameson, Verso, 2005
5—Dystopia and the End of Politics, Benjamin Kunkel, Dissent Magazine, Fall 2008
6—Divided Kingdom, Rupert Thomson, Bloomsbury, 2005
7—South by Southwest, festival for music, film and interactive art, lecture, 2010
8 & 9—Self-Design and Aesthetic Responsibility, Boris Groys, e-flux, June 2006
10—For Reasons of State, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2008
12—How Architecture Learned to Speculate, Mona Mahall and Asli Serbest, Gerd de Bruyn, 2009


  • Thought by Ahmad Chakkour — 2011/06/20 @ 12:28

    When I started design school, I wanted to be a magazine designer. I came from a poor background, which was unfortunately also very abusive, and I saw the life in magazines as a way out for me. I saw wealth as safe. I saw style as fun. Until I started an internship at a news magazine. Everyone was just so happy. So fun. So positive. You could never, ever raise a question. You could never be serious, not even for a moment. Otherwise you were ostracized socially. No more invitations for coffee breaks. No more invitations to drinks after work. For the first time, positivity became very scary to me because I thought I was fun, I smiled a lot, I had silly hobbies, but I also had a brain. I liked to do the best and sometimes you have to ask questions. You have to tango with doubt.

    I don’t know if design can look at “worlds gone wrong.” I think if you self-initiate work or get government grants, sure. But even a feminist bookstore I did a brochure for was not into the ‘dark’ look of the work I presented them. They wanted bright, colorful and exciting. Happy. Fun. For the ladies. I was really surprised. They were just as delusional as this annual report I did for an insurance company.

That New Design Smell
Issue n° 0
Michèle Champagne
Web Concept & Design
Lennart Bruger
Co-conspirators include
Daniel van der Velden / Metahaven
and Gert Dumbar
Glorious contributions by
Cedric Flazinski,
Anja Groten, Femke Herregraven
and Jason Mortlock