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How does imagining other worlds teach us about our own?


How do design outcomes change if we think about the problems of our world through the lens of another time, place, planet, galaxy, or universe?  In my thesis I am investigating how using alternate worlds to explore societal and personal problems in our own will offer original insights and novel solutions that expand the diversity of design processes and product experiences.

"Fiction offers the best means of understanding people different from oneself, short of experience... Fiction is terrific at giving factual, psychological and moral understanding."

- Ursala Le Guin, “Things Not Actually Present"


I am interested in using the tools of fiction to expand our access to our users hopes, fears, and dreams of the future. When we read fiction we engage things we may never personally  experience, and imagine how this world could be different. Fiction gives us space to explore issues in our own life through the safe medium of the story. 


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To better understand how fiction helps us share our thoughts on our own world I designed a series of writing workshops that focused on generating stories from a personal perspective. I was interested in what my users would bring of themselves to the world they imagined and why.

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After some initial workshops I decided to limit the scope of the world building to a single city on Mars. Exploration of Mars is a common topic in popular culture, and having this structure meant a coherent narrative throughout the workshops. Mars is the perfect template for a relevant and accessible alternate world, but also has room for great imaginative exploration.

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"A good story about a possible future, with its drama, action, and sensory detail, is psychologically more compelling and realistic than an abstract theory, static image, depersonalized futurist scenario, or statistical prediction." 

- Tom Lombaro, “Science Fiction: The Evolutionary Mythology of the Future”


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The major themes that came out of the writing workshops followed outcomes I had expected, but also offered new insights into what people fear about traveling, human connection, and their relationship to place.

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From my workshops I decided to focus on relationships across distance, and the idea of the human frontier. Both themes recurred throughout most of the stories and seemed like fertile areas for further inquiry. 

To test if my designs could match the fiction my users wrote I chose to design a respirator/helmet to give them a chance to feel like they were at the edges of Aurora City, and the human frontier.


Drawing on inspiration from a specific story I chose to make a mask and respirator that would give the experience of being on Mars in a desert environment. I used a series of prototypes and sketches to come to a final form. 


Once I had a final design for the helmet I created a solid wood mold for vacuum forming. The respirator was created in multiple steps by layering Styrene and PETG to create a solid and durable mask. 




Story excerpt: 

“And I remember your hands gripping the loft handles, your gloves caked in dust, your masks regulator working furiously to clear debris as if there was anything in the flat lands to watch out for. The thrill was never ahead but always how fast we could escape from what we left behind.”