A research method for a bright future.

Why, what and how?

Prototyping is an essential activity for designers. With a prototype you bring an idea to life: you communicate it to stakeholders and develop it into a meaningful solution that meets the requirements and wishes of those stakeholders. While prototypes are a means of communicating solutions to current, often small-scale problems, provocatypes (Bowles, 2018) depict possible solutions to larger (future) societal challenges.

Provocatypes encourage dialogue and reflection. They act as a basis for a conversation between different groups of people about what a bright future is for people and planet. Some argue that good design already achieves this critical reflection (Tonkinwise, 2015), the questions is whether this is also the case in practice (or is the majority of design not “good design”...?). For now, creating a provocatype requires a specific approach that differs from making a prototype: whether a provocatype should be a standard part of a design process or whether it should be a project in and of itself remains an interesting discussion.

Overview of relation between future and present worlds

Why Provocatypes

By making provocatypes, designers are challenged to think about the possible systemic consequences their discipline has. They discover their agency in shaping the future and reflect on their own role and responsibilities. Moreover, their vision of the role of (digital) design in a future society is inspiring and instructive for people who are not involved with e.g. emerging technologies on a daily basis. This initiates a social dialogue about what a “good” future entails for different people and puts the (im-)possibilities of digital technologies in context. Starting a conversation with a diverse group of people based on provocatypes, designers discover different lenses to look at the future and develop ethical sensitivity and an empathetic attitude.

A question that arises is how provocatypes differ from e.g. design fiction (Bleecker, 2009), speculative design (Dunne & Raby, 2013), adversarial design (Disalvo, 2015) etc. It probably does not differ much (or at all), however a literature review, comparison and up-to-date overview-map on the different forms of this type of design is definitely something for future research but not addressed in depth here. The reason for conducting this project is to give digital design students a research-through-design approach (as described by Blythe, 2014) on how to design artefacts that help them explore a bright(er) future. This process guides designers and design-students not only in how to make a provocatype, but also in designing the encounter between artefact(s) and diverse public, facilitating a dialogue with this public and reflecting on artefact, encounter and conversations. The ultimate goal is a better understanding of what a bright future actually means for people and planet and as a result more (digital interactive) products that contribute to this desired future world.

Prototypes vs Provocatypes

Making both prototypes and provocatypes are indispensable skills for designers. The similarity is that both bring an idea to life in a low-risk way and communicate this idea. The differences are in the aim of the project, the representation and quality of the artefact (see Figure 1): Whereas the aim of a prototype is to communicate and research a future solution that meets the requirements of the stakeholders often in a commercial setting, the aim of a provocatype is to have a certain effect on an audience. This effect should be established at the beginning of the project and Tharp & Tharp (2019) suggest six different possible effects: remind, inform, inspire, provoke or persuade the audience.

The next difference is about what the artefact represents. A prototype represents a (part of a) near future solution to a problem or challenge, a provocatype represents the vision of a future (> 5 years) world as conceived by the designer. It is either an artefact “from” that world, a diegetic artefact, or artefacts that allow the audience to experience (a part of) that future world. This implies a broader focus: prototypes take into account the direct context of the designed solution, provocatypes are placed in a larger context where societal, technological, environmental, economical and political developments are taken into account.

The last difference deals with the quality of the artefact. A prototype aims to be recognizable and understandable: it should be clear what the suggested solution is in order to evaluate and iterate on that idea. A provocatype should be slightly dissonant in order to achieve the desired effect. The suspension of disbelief is an important aspect in designing the artefact and encounter. It is a balance between being familiar enough to understand the future world it represents, but on the other hand it should alienate or estrange the viewer to evoke curiosity, to raise questions and to form an opinion.

The differences between a prototype and a provocatype

Phases: dream - make - share - improve - pursue

You can distinguish five different phases in the provocatype-process: Dream, Make, Share, Improve and Pursue. The process is not only about designing and developing a provocatype, but also staging the encounter between the artefact(s) and an audience. Dream is about mapping the project: what is the topic, the intented effect (on the audience) and budget etc.? During the Make phase you develop an artefact that represents your envisioned future world, but at the same time you create a setting in which the future world is experienced by an audience. The main event -sharing and discussing the future world with the public by means of artefact- takes place in the "Share" phase. Based on the conversations and feedback gathered during the Share phase you can reflect on and improve the vision of the future. Depending on your project intentions you draw conclusions and formulate next steps. The outcomes should enable you to pursue the bright future for people and planet you’ve envisioned and discussed. The phase are shown in a linear fashion, however, in practice -as with all design processes- those phases are not clearly marked: it is not a strict step-by-step approach but rather a rough guide that represents different stages.

The different phases of the provocatype proces: dream make improve pursue


The first step in the process of making a provocatype is about defining your project and creating a vision for a possible future world. There are some straightforward, but fundamental questions to consider regarding your intention, budget, topic and stakeholders (see Card 1 - framing your project).


There is no “single future” (Dator, 2009) and therefore it is not possible to predict The future. What is possible however, is examining different alternative futures. The futures cone (Voros, 2017) represents this idea (Figure 3): the baseline future is the future when no major disasters or miracles happen. You might prefer a certain idea of the future above another, preferable future, and focus on these futures. Now is the time to “build” your future world in words (e.g. scenario) and images (e.g. mood-board). When building a future world around a specific topic a good place to start is by looking at historic developments. Understanding why something came into existence and researching present challenges and associated benefits, forms a foundation for building your future world on.

Futures cone based on Voros (2017)

Signals and drivers

This phase is named “dream” because anything is possible in the future: it is influenced by our current choices and actions. However to picture a plausible future, collecting signals -current hints of a future world- and drivers -long-term developments with a likely impact on the future (Howard, 2021)- to substantiate your vision is essential. Collect and analyse signals and drivers from demographic, economic, socio-cultural, technological, ecological and political categories (see Card 2 - signals and drivers).

What are the consequences of these signals and drivers on how we live together? Imagine the effects these factors might have on our societies (see Card 3 - envisioning the future). Consider the direct and indirect implications for different aspects of a society like (moral) values, laws, aesthetics, organizations, education, crime, governance, climate, and write a brief vision of your (preferable) future. Let’s check if your future is plausible and complete enough to be inhabited. Write short stories about “a day in the life” or an common event (like a birthday party, shopping, commuting) of a future inhabitant. It is interesting to write different scenarios from different perspectives using archetypes like a child or teenager, prime-minister, criminal, factory-worker, robot etc. Ask yourself: Is your future not too rose-coloured or too dark? Is there a level of dissonance: is it clear that your vision is different from our current world, but still believable? Can you explain how the changes came about and isn’t there too much emphasis on one aspect (e.g. technology)?

The intangibles

A final activity before we move on to the next phase is to capture the “intangible” aspects of the future world; the atmosphere in this future. Making a mood-board is not only useful for communicating and explicating your vision (“it should be more technological, friendlier, personal, less masculine etc.”), it also is a guide for creating your artefact(s).


There are two distinct but parallel things you’re designing in this phase: (1) artefact(s) from or about the future world you’ve described in the Dream-phase and (2) staging the encounter with the future for an audience.

Artefacts from the future

These artefacts from the future are objects, services, “things” that are often diegetic ( Kirby, 2010): they are from the future world. With most projects you do not have the time and budget to create the entire future world, therefore you develop a thing (or more things) from that future world to represent it. Be smart and practical about what thing(s) you choose to create. “Supportive” artefacts like manuals, packaging, ads, accessories, protest signs, conversations etc. can tell as much or more about the ”main” artefact and future world.

Another option is to create non-diegetic artefacts. In this case you try to give an insight in how this future world is going to be different than our current world. It is not an artefact from that future, but ”something” that is about that future. It highlights the differences between the present and the future.

Staging the encounter

The encounter can take place at different moments in time and on a variety of platforms e.g. video on website, exposition, article in magazine, postcards, posters. Part of the encounter is (an image of) the artefact from the future (diegetic or non-diegetic). However, you need to set the stage for this so people will suspend their disbelief: the future you propose is different and you want to make sure your audience do not immediately dismiss this idea but are willing to postpone their judgement and critical thinking in order to be able to get immersed in the possible future.

To achieve the intended effect (defined at the beginning in the “Dream-phase”), you need to attract curiosity. For this a certain level of dissonance is needed. If the artefact and the vision of the future is “too normal” the audience will not be triggered and they won’t start to wonder “what if”. However, if the artefact and future world are unrelatable different from today, the audience will get confused and lose interest. Therefore balancing the dissonance is important: if the future world is very different from our current world, the artefact(s) should be more recognizable (based on Mather, 2002). If the world isn’t that different from our current, the artefact can be a bit more alien (see Figure 4). There are several knobs you can turn that affect the level of dissonance (see Card 4 - creating dissonance).

There are two final checks in this phase: (1) do the artefact(s) and the encounter set-up fit your vision and mood-board? And finally how do you start a dialogue with and capture the reaction of your public? (see Card 5 - planning the encounter).

Level of dissonance, world vs artefact


You’ve created a vision of the future and a “thing” (or collection of things) from or representing that future world, you’ve decided how your audience is introduced to this possible future and now is the moment to share your vision and start the conversation. What exactly needs to be done in this phase depends on your intention and how and where you designed the encounter, however the following things are worth noting.

Details, details, details

The aim is to convince the audience -for a brief moment- that this future world exists. Therefore it is crucial that the entire encounter is staged with attention to detail: building a story with convincing characters, context and artefacts from the beginning (whatever that might be in your project) to the middle right to the end. The artefacts therefore should have a high level of fidelity. It is worth repeating that this does not mean you only can show technically advanced artefacts: in the future hand drawn sketches, flimsy manuals and home made protest signs probably still exist.

Consider in the staging of the encounter the rhetorical aspects as well. Based on Mollon and Gentes (2014), who illustrate the three foundations of Aristotles rhetoric of design for debate, there are three aspects to take into consideration:

  1. how do you communicate the authenticity and credibility of the designer/organizer of the event,
  2. how do you relate to the audience’s interests and feelings and what is the visceral, behavioural and reflective effect you want to have on your audience,
  3. what is the story you tell and how does the artefact(s) contribute to your intended effect: what triggers this effect?

Don’t lie (too much)

Your audience need to suspend their disbelief, but take extra care not to leave your audience feeling mislead or betrayed. This is a fine line: you want them to feel immersed in the possible future world and convince them that it is real, but it should also be obvious to them that they are taking part in a simulation, a “what if…?” world.

Engage in the conversation: listen

The artefact(s) you designed are conversation starters about a possible future and its desirability. This conversation should not be the end of the process, but a opportunity to learn from different perspectives: concerns, values, hopes, visceral reactions, feedback, new ideas, additions, etc. Make sure you capture the responses in a way that can be communicated to others and used as input for the Improve-phase.


Hopefully you’ve had a lively conversation and gained new, surprising insights. Just like you focused on two distinct but parallel aspects in the “Make-phase”, there are two things you should reflect upon for improvement: (1) the effectiveness of the artefact(s) and the design of the encounter in light of the intention of your project, (2) the desirability of this future world.

Effectiveness of the artefacts

At the beginning of the project you’ve identified your intention (see Card 1 - framing your project), the question is, did you succeed and how do you know? Did you observe the visceral, behavioural (maybe even reflective) response you were aiming at? If not, is it possible to pin point what could be improved: were the artefacts too dissonant or too mundane? Was the audience unwilling to suspend their disbelief about the future world you created? Which parts of the encounter or details in the artefact “broke the spell”? Did people feel betrayed because they were convinced your vision was already reality? What can you improve about the quality of the provocatypes, the storytelling of the encounter or any other world-building and staging aspect?

Improving the future world

In addition to the persuasiveness of the artefacts and encounter it is also time to reflect on your vision of the future. Based on the insights from the conversations: did unintended consequences surface? Are there any fears or distrusts you need to address? Were there value tensions between people of the audience (or maybe between stakeholders and the audience)? Do you need to fill gaps in your scenario? Is this a future worth pursuing? Why/who not? Should you update your vision of the future world?

If you conclude that something needs improving, this is the time to do it: you can stage another encounter, update your vision etc.


The final step in the process is an action plan. Depending on your project intention and stakeholders this can take different forms. Making the artefact(s) and starting the conversation might be the starting point of your process e.g. when you give strategic advice how to future proof an organisation, in other cases the artefacts and conversation are the end-product e.g. when you convincingly made a group of people aware of an issue. A few general things to consider are:

  1. Make any advice or follow up action convincing and actionable. You can for example use the back-casting method to identify steps to take for e.g. an organisation: starting from your preferred future world, plot the steps that are needed over time. Also indicate who should take these steps and whether you have influence on them or not (see Figure 5). This results in a clear overview in the form of a roadmap.
  2. Often the vision of the future is not going to be The future. Starting a conversation, developing ethical sensitivity, gaining a broad and contextual overview, learning about the possibilities of a technology, becoming aware of unintended consequences are just a few worthy outcomes of creating provocatypes.
backcasting to identify actions Above all I hope that the process of creating provocatypes will empower everyone, directly or indirectly, involved in the project and evoke a renewed feeling of hope for and agency in creating a bright future.