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Designing Mythologies: Building Worlds to Frame the Future

What we see helps guide our collective imagination. Filmmakers create the mythologies that bring entirely new worlds to life—providing a powerful storytelling framework for designers.

From the first time we saw a lightsaber slice through the air with the full power of the Force behind it in Star Wars, any stick or plastic sword has had the potential to take on that electric schvrmmmmmmm sound. Watching Joaquin Phoenix’s character fall in love with his Artificial Intelligence system in the movie Her made many of us think about our relationship with Siri or Alexa a little differently.

Good storytellers, especially in science fiction and fantasy, build worlds with the power to give new meaning to our perceived realities. The mythologies created for these fictional worlds often take what we know to be true, then extrapolate by incorporating cutting-edge science and experimenting with new rules for physics, government, anatomy and religion. Designing these mythologies is good entertainment, but it can also be a powerful design tool. As a framework, designing for mythologies gives designers a new way to envision and design for the future.

Real rules for fantasy worlds

Director George Lucas described creating the vast world of Star Wars by saying, “The whole culture has to be designed. What do they believe in? How do they operate? What are the economics of the culture? Most of it doesn’t appear in the movie, but you have to have thought it through otherwise something always rings very untrue or phony about what’s going on.” Thus, designing mythologies requires grounding fictional scenarios with some rules to enable stories to exist within a richly developed, holistically considered world. Recalling his decisions to put rules around materials that lightsabers could and could not cut through, Lucas adds, “One of the things I try to achieve is a sort of immaculate realism in a totally unreal and fantasy world. I can make up the rules, but once I make it up, I have to live with it.”

Working closely with directors, production designers create and develop the overall visual look, atmosphere and mood to support a story. Through location, costumes, set design and props, they establish the rules that govern the story’s world. The Batmobile, Harry Potter’s wand, the aliens in Men in Black, TARS in Interstellar, the earplugs in Her—these were all overseen by the production designer to support the mythology of their respective worlds.

These fantastic worlds are entertaining, but they also help us understand, address and more responsibly design our own future. For example, watching The Jetsons might help us envision a flying car. To actually design this car, however, we would have to establish the larger world of the flying car. We would need to consider the future driving test, road signage, legal and ethical standards and other considerations to make flying cars feel real and achievable. To do this, we would need to reach into the future and seriously consider the desires and pain points of key members of that world, from the taxi driver whose flying car breaks down during his shift to the politician working to loosen regulations on who can operate flying cars. In other words, we must create complete mythologies for the things we design and the worlds in which they exist.

Designing mythologies for business success

Similar to film production designers, frog designers have a process called “Futurecasting” that we use to design products and services for new worlds in partnership with our clients. Futurecasting is grounded in scenario planning, in which we craft possible futures as a means of understanding what lies ahead for an organization. This exercise produces valuable insight that informs decision-making, such as necessary investments in technologies to pursue or skills to acquire. Examining these futures also sparks associations and creates momentum for suggesting potential behaviors that will lead towards a desired future.

Over several years, frog partnered with the semiconductor company Rambus to develop a new IoT strategy and a series of emerging technology prototypes. To help them cultivate a new vision, we used Futurecasting to bring it to life through design and film. To do this, the team ran several collaborative workshops to design mythologies for a future in which every object on Earth is connected to the internet. The results of these sessions included dozens of product and service concepts, and business opportunities for Rambus to own their industry in this possible future. This led Rambus to experiment with a completely new sensor technology, essentially reorienting the organization’s trajectory.

Much like ancient mythologists used storytelling to communicate the unknown, designers need to communicate humankind’s future experiences to help build shared meaning. Our goal as designers is to responsibly consider societal implications as an input into the design process. We do this to weave a grand narrative tapestry of a culture, composed of the human stories of the technological advancements that have enabled future products and experiences.

Why designers should be mythologists

It is already known that the better we understand the people we design for, the more successful our new products can be. I propose a new role for designers, which is that of the mythologist. This would involve writing stories, customs, laws and traditions. Designing paradigms for the future worlds that new products or experiences will inhabit. As Lucas did when creating the mythology of Star Wars, design mythologists define these new worlds in detail beyond what is needed to simply communicate product features. We will push beyond flat archetypes and made-up personas—where a lot of design research stops—to establish the rules and context in which people would actually live with our designs.

Designing mythologies to support products and experiences is a lens for designers to create a more complete, higher resolution picture of the world in which their users live. These mythologies are expressions of psychological, cultural and societal truths. Empowered with such truths, designers can create more thoughtful and impactful things that reflect the holistic context customers live in, not just their specific functional or emotional needs.

Every day as designers, we are contributing to creating a new world – one filled with international social networks, virtual personal assistants, and self-driving car fleets. In lieu of a long history of shared culture with these technologies, we need new stories and mythologies to address the societal implications of these transformations. In the years to come, our global society will face perpetual disruption at unprecedented scales in the way we manage information, communicate with each other and deliver goods. We will continue to see the disruption of centuries-old institutions that define our civilization, within sectors like education, government and healthcare. As we transform these systems, we as design mythologists can examine what they do, what they mean to us, and how they fit into our personal and shared narratives of what the world is, and what it should be.

The role of the designer is always evolving, but a remaining constant is that clients will continue to ask designers to make the future a reality. As long as we are projecting into the future, let’s send into that infinitely vast fourth dimension not only exceptional design, but also immaculately realistic mythologies of the not yet.

Seth Snyder

As a Senior Interaction Designer at frog San Francisco, Seth leads multidisciplinary teams building transformational digital and physical experiences for clients ranging from early stage startups to Fortune 500 clients. In his free time, he can be found in the park with Tux, his Boston Terrier, traveling the world on urban photo safaris, and researching topics like emotionally intelligent AI and robotics.

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