The role of designers in shaping how we think about possible futures is the subject of Designs for Different Futures, a major exhibition organized by the Walker Art Center, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago. The presentation brings together some 80 dynamic works that address the challenges and opportunities that humans may encounter in the years, decades, and centuries ahead.
Thinking about our futures has always been part of the human condition. It has also been a perennial field of inquiry for designers and architects whose speculations on this subject—ranging from the concrete to the whimsical—can profoundly affect how we imagine what is to come. Among the questions today’s designers seek to answer are: What role can technology play in augmenting or replacing a broad range of human activities? Can intimacy be maintained at a distance? How can we negotiate privacy in a world in which the sharing and use of personal information has blurred traditional boundaries? How might we use design to help heal or transform ourselves, bodily and psychologically? How will we feed an ever-growing population?
While no one can precisely predict these futures, the works in the exhibition provide design solutions for a number of speculative scenarios. In some instances, these proposals are borne from a sense of anxiety, and in others of a sense of excitement over the possibilities that innovative materials, new technologies, and fresh ideas can afford.
The exhibition is divided into 11 thematic sections—Labors, Cities, Intimacies, Bodies, Powers, Earths, Foods, Materials, Generations, Informations, and Resources—and features an international array of designers from all fields. Among the many forward-looking projects on view, visitors will encounter lab-grown food, textiles made of seaweed, a typeface that thwarts algorithmic surveillance, a series of books that will only be available 100 years from now, an affordable gene-editing toolbox, a shoe grown from sweat, a couture dress made with a 3D printer, and a system that learns from our sewers.
Each of these projects—from small product innovations to large-scale system proposals—asks us to imagine futures different than what we expect, and in doing so, helps us craft a fascinating portrait of our diverse and turbulent present.
The exhibition is accompanied by a major publication overseen by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, designed by the Walker Art Center, and distributed by Yale University Press. Through new contributions by the show’s curatorial team and a broad range of scholars and designers, the catalogue delves into themes such as human-digital interaction, climate change, political and social inequality, resource scarcity, transportation, and infrastructure.