Imagination and the Future

In 1878, Oxford University Professor Erasmus Wilson boldly tried to predict the future. “When the Paris Exhibition closes,” he said, ”electric light will close with it and no more be heard of.” His brave prophecy ultimately made him famous for all the wrong reasons.

While it’s easy to poke fun at those who were erroneous in their soothsaying, actually predicting the future doesn’t happen as easily. In the opening chapters of Profiles of the Future, Arthur C Clarke laid out the formula for effectively predicting the future: equal parts logic and knowledge acted upon by equal parts nerve and imagination will make for an accurate prediction. However, Clarke warns that the key is in the equal parts and that an imbalance is detrimental since “too great a burden of knowledge can clog the wheels of imagination.”

This same logic can be applied to invention as well. History shows that most groundbreaking inventions succeed on the back of both knowledge and imagination. Those that have failed lacked in either logic or imagination. As designers, we find ourselves in a unique position in relation to the future. Since we are designing for the future, we must predict what it will be like in order to design for it. Our designs simultaneously shape the future. As any designer knows, this requires a heavy dose of logic and knowledge, but also just as much nerve and imagination. Enter the psyche of a designer and you won’t find a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, but rather a rational muse on one side and an imaginative muse on the other.

Designers know how important imagination is to the creative process. If we aren’t careful though, logic can end up dominating our internal design process while our creativity disappears. To help maintain a healthy balance, here are a few ways to kickstart your imagination:

  • Set your goals ridiculously high…and then meet them. One way of doing this is to create 50 or even 100 iterations of an idea rather than only 3 or 4. The logical ideas will run out around the 20th iteration and there will be no choice but to use your imagination to meet the goal.
  • Trade in the tools you are familiar with for some that are unfamiliar. Sometimes songwriters who are more comfortable on a guitar will sit at the piano or pick up a tuba and find a completely new melody. Likewise, designers can find this same success by avoiding those design tools that we are most adept at using.
  • Go the other direction. Start with what you think isn’t working, or what convention says shouldn’t work, and explore that path. You might find that those ideas have more to them than you originally thought. Think of this as the Columbus method.
  • Say “Yes” to everything. Saying “No” or being skeptical is a rational thing to do. As an idea pops into your mind, write it down, explore it, and build upon it. Soon the ideas will be flooding in. This is the key to making improvisational comedy work, among other things.

The future is coming at us faster than ever and our imagination must be primed in order to keep up. The recent proliferation of mobile interactive devices has brought with it a new grammar of interactivity that is no longer defined by traditional peripheral input. Instead, these devices are now being controlled by touch, sound and movement. And there are still bigger steps to come. Our lives are only going to get more interconnected and more interactive, leading interaction designers into new and uncharted waters that lie beyond the borders of logic.

“The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” (Profiles of the Future)