Visual Communication and Speculations: designing transitions towards a more sustainable future

Expanding Communities of Sustainable Practice Symposium,

Leeds Arts University, England

October 15, 2016

Article in Proceedings page 33-37


This paper considers how visual communication design can contribute to a transition towards a more sustainable future by proposing speculative scenarios of possible, preferable and drastically new ways of living and by doing this enable discourses that may lead to changes in society. Transition design suggests a framework towards a new and more sustainable way of designing by creating visions for sustainable transitions that may lead to theories of change and new mindsets and again new ways of designing. I will argue the importance of visual communication design in Transition design, through a collaborative and trans-disciplinary project concerning graphic design and art direction.

Keywords:Speculative design, visual communication, transition design.

A scenario towards a more sustainable future 

Envision a society with a payment system that thinks ahead of you in order to control overspending, minimizes waste and keeps an economic balance in the society so that every person get their share. In this society, a monthly quota is allotted, and overspending is not possible. If someone desires more than allotted, they have to wait until next month to buy it. This speculative ‘smart’ payment system is presented through visual identity and communication design elements printed on everything to be bought in the envisioned future society. The visualization makes it possible to relate to the omnipresent payment system. 

Figure 1. Student project: In order to live more sustainable SmartCoins controls consumption. A chip is implemented in the arm when buying something the chip is scanned. A hologram display on the underarm shows the consumption and how much is left of your monthly quota. 

This uncanny scenario by Oda Wahl, Mariella Toppe Hove and Maria Kanstad(figure 1) is an example of a student work and part of a project concerning graphic design and art direction, where students are using visual communication reflecting issues of sustainability, speculating how new currency systems may control our overusing of resources. As educators, we tutor design students to be able to address issues at a larger scale than the need of clients. Designers and design students can do more than solving problems; they can also find the problems and redefine them to attain better results (Dunne and Raby, 2013, Chick and Micklethwaite, 2011). But how? I will in this paper explore, through pedagogical exercises where students are involved, how visual communication has an important role in the transdisciplinary framework of Transition design developed by Irvin et al (2015). I will also argue how Transition design may scaffold students in designing more sustainably in the future. 

The paper is structured as follows: First I will clarify the main terms used in this paper. Secondly, I present one student project and relate it to the model of Transition design to present visual communications role in Transition design and finally I will conclude the importance of ‘alternative student projects’ to help students develop new mindsets.

Sustainability; terms and approaches

Sustainability is the term developedand defined by the UN Brundtland Commission in 1987 as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (Drexhage and Murphy, 2010: 2). Sustainability presumes that resources are limited. 

Speculative, critical design is a conceivable approach for designers where design is used to focus on possible, probable or preferable futures in order to trigger debate and serve as catalysts for enabling difficult discussions (Dunne and Raby, 2013, Auger, 2013). Speculative design as a framework is related to design fiction and requires imagination and creativity. The speculative approach may ‘guide students towards asking important questions about graphic designs’ social and political roles … which may potentially lead to behavioural change’ (Skjulstad & Rynning, 2015: 4).

Transition design is a new area within design, developed at the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University in 2012, that proposes a design-led transition towards a future sustainable society. The purpose of Transition design is a complete change in society. It suggests that we live in ‘transitional times’and argues that design is important in these transitions. Transition design is a transdisciplinary framework ideally consisting of teams from different fields, also outside of design. It proposes the needs of drastically new ideas and visions of sustainable futures. The framework of Transition design provides designers with a method that links constructions of scenarios of the future to how designers can evolve and develop their mind-set in order to design with a more sustainable and possibly more place-based lifestyle in mind (Irwin et al 2015). The framework presents ‘four mutually reinforcing and co-evolving areas of knowledge, action and self-reflection towards sustainable living: Visions, theories of change, posture and mindset and new ways of designing’ (Irwin et al 2015: 20). 

Figure 2. A simplification of the model of Transition Design Framework (Irwin et al 2015: 20) 

Creating change through future visions

As part of a current investigation into speculative design a project concerning the overusing of resources and the use of payment systems to control it, was given students at Westerdals Oslo ACT University College. The students were to explore speculative visions for the future (Dunne and Raby, 2013, Auger, 2013) as a pedagogical method of understanding the power of design and how design may change future postures and mind-sets. The speculative scenarios were brought to life through visual identity design applied to relevant areas and artefacts. Social media was used to simulate public engagement in order to create debate. 

The student project ‘Kontra’ by Line Rosvoll Holmen, Sara Abraham and Eirik Burhol(figure 3) suggests a society in which people can either choose between a modest lifestyle or if they want luxury products, paying through spending time in a Contra prison as a necessary parallel payment system, which is only to be used for luxury products. In Kontra-prison people are publicly exposed as ‘spenders’.

Figure 3. Student project. Price tag with regular prices and Kontra prison-time prices. Bus that will take people to the prison. The prison is projecting images and information about the inmates outside of the building. 

This student project of visual communication, presenting a speculative thought-provoking scenario, may be a possible near future action, using a payment system to control our overusing of resources, in order to achieve a more sustainable society. The clear visual identity design of the scenario may make the audience relate to the issue, although they understand that this incident is not real. 

Discussion and conclusion

Graphic design and art direction are encompassed, but not the main focus in Irwin et al´s (2015) transdisciplinary framework. Transition design is proposed to be a continuation of service design, design for social innovation and design for policy (Meroni, 2007; Staszowski, et al. 2014; see also Irwin et al 2015). Graphic design and art direction are often central parts of all of these design disciplines using graphical elements in order to communicate new solutions created. 

Communication design has a significant role in visually articulating visions for transition and graphical visualisations have the important ability to speak to our emotions, not only to our rational minds. Therefore, I suggest that visual communication design may have a significant role in Transition design. 

The student projects presented here are exploring future scenarios within the area of visions for transition (Irwin et al 2015: 20) based on theories of speculative design, creating possible future developments critiquing today’s lifestyles. As stated by Irwin et al (2015: 21)‘transformational societal change depends on our ability to change our ideas about change’.

I propose that visual communication design presented through a collaborative student project can be applied to the framework of Transition design and that visual communication is an important part of Transition design. However, the visual design in itself is not enough to pursue a transitional message, but it may be a starting point leading to changing perspective and reflectiveness. As educators, we hope that introducing projects such as this ‘Payment for the Future’ will motivate students to think beyond the needs of future clients and lead not only to problem-solving but also problem-finding in future design projects. The framework of Transition design may scaffold graphic design and art direction students in adapting new postures that may result in confidence in their contribution as designers towards a more sustainable future.


Thanks to Synne Skjulstad, Linn Skoglund, Hans Erik Næss and Didrik Telle-Wernersen for useful comments.


Auger, J. (2013) “Speculative Design: Crafting the Speculation”. Digital Creativity. Vol 4(8). pp 11-35.

Dunne, A. and Raby, F. (2013) Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Chick, A. and Micklethwaite, P. (2011) Design for Sustainable Change.

Ava Publishing, Lausanne, Switzerland.

Drexhage, J. and Murphy, D. (2010) Sustainable Development: From Brundtland to Rio 2012. Available from: [Accessed 25th August, 2016]

Irwin, T., Tonkinwise C., and Kossoff, G.(2015) Transition Design: An Educational Framework for Advancing the Study and Design of Sustainable Transitions. Paper presented tothe 6th International Sustainability

Transitions Conference, University of Sussex, UK. August, 2015.

Skjulstad S. and Rynning M. (2015) Graphic design speculations: Teaching visual identity for water sustainability within a speculative design framework. Paper presented to the CumulusMumbai Conference, India.3-5 December 2015.