Recently, sophomore Megan Mulholland had the good fortune to attend To Be Designed, a gathering of a select group of thinkers, makers and near future speculators, organized by Near Future Laboratory and hosted by the Stamps School and faculty member John Marshall.

For Megan, the conference was an inspirational introduction to the world of interaction design, as well as a crash course on collaborative idea generation. Here's her account of the three day conference...

I’m not entirely sure how to start this post because I’m still trying to process what I can confidently say was the most incredible three days in my undergraduate career so far. (Granted, I am only a sophomore, but this experience will be incredibly hard to top).

I just returned from three days in Detroit working as one of two assistants to “a multidisciplinary group of thinkers, makers and near future speculators” who, in Julian Bleecker’s words, were gathering “to “do” science fiction: tangle up in fact and fiction and engage in curious crosstalk about the things that could be.”

To spark ideas, Julian sent each participant a “Generative Product Design Work Kit” through the mail two weeks before the conference.

“Design is about the future in a way similar to science fiction. It probes imaginatively and materializes ideas, the way science fiction materializes ideas, oftentimes through stories.”

– Julian Bleecker, co-organizer of To Be Designed

Like most conferences, one of the main goals was to spur conversation and share ideas. Unlike most conferences, this one aimed to produce an actual artifact based on the conversations – a SkyMall catalog of sorts, filled with plausible products from the near future. Akin to science fiction, Julian calls this “design fiction.”

Day One

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The conference officially kicked off with a tour of the Henry Ford Museum and its archives as a means of spring-boarding the first brainstorming session for the catalog. Marc Greuther, who has curated the museum for the past 25 years, first guided us through some of the most influential machines of the industrial revolution. Apparently, Henry Ford had a true affinity for this period of history and its machines, and was very dedicated to bringing back artifacts, particularly from England, to fill his “Industrial Cathedral”, as Marc called it.

One of the items on the tour was a white steam engine with majestic gothic embellishments.

Julian questioned whether this kind of embellishment was “blinging out a cell phone” or if it really served some greater aesthetic purpose.


These kinds of questions helped the group relate the objects from the museum to the objects we would be brainstorming for the near future catalog. In response to this particular question, the consensus was that every item goes through a gaudy adolescent phase and is then domesticated.

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After a brief break, the main group of designers, writers, technologists, artists, and creators sat at a square table and began to bounce ideas off each other. It was my job to listen to these conversations and put the ideas on paper in the form of an image that we could come back to later.

Fellow assistant, Zack Jacobson-Weaver, recorded the conversation, as well, by writing the group’s ideas down on post-it notes and then trying to quickly organize them.

Ideas included:

  • a home MRI helmet
  • drone halo
  • tromp l’oeil duct tape
  • automatic universal fact checker (‘apptribution’)
  • a home blood/bodily fluid filtering system that would allow the user to reuse things the body had already used.

It was an incredibly stimulating and ultimately pretty exhausting creative session for everyone involved, and we ended up with 172 individual ideas.

Day Two

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The next morning, we made our way back to the Detroit Center to begin the next round of brainstorming. Zack and I took the post-it notes from the previous day and assembled them on one of the walls.

We tried to group them by type and category. The categories were: Item-Based, Home, Style, Gadgets, Pets, Meds, Apps, Services, and Office. Meanwhile, participants set out on a tour of Detroit with the task of bringing one or two products back with us as inspiration for the catalog. When they returned, each participant presented an object that they had found and talked about how they would update the item for the near future.

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This kind of thinking illustrated the level of innovation that was needed for the catalog, because it was decided that near future items are ideally updates or improvements upon current objects.

For example, Moka Pantages brought squeezable kid food, and opened up a discussion about the future of food that doesn’t look or feel like natural food. Karl Daubmann talked about new devices to help people deal with increasingly dangerous weather through the use of a wallet sized ice-scraper, while science fiction writer Bruce Sterling and professor John Marshall brought up the possibility of having multifunctional objects.

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Zack wrote down buzzwords on post-it notes while I illustrated these potential future-objects as a means of recording them.

Next, there was a lot of talk about the audience of this catalog. A major concern was that the magazine would be too funny; some participants thought that this would make viewers disregard the work that had gone into envisioning the catalog. Others argued that SkyMall was still a good model because of its ability to balance sillier objects with more serious ones. Additionally, a few people thought it would be best for the project to be a holiday catalog from the near future. After a lengthy conversation, this was still left mostly in the air.

Next, the participants voted for their five favorite ideas. After the voting, Zack and I organized the post-it notes by the number of votes they had gotten. Then Nick Foster put these items in stacks and split the larger group into three smaller groups.

The groups of people had to come up with a quick tagline, design, and price for each item. They were given 10 items and 60 minutes, so about 6 minutes was spent on each idea.

Day Three

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Our last day started bright and early at 9am. The smaller groups started out the morning by critiquing the other groups’ work, as Bruce had suggested. This process enabled each product to be scrutinized and improved by other perspectives. This included devising better taglines, refining ideas and features, etc. Afterward, each individual idea was hung on the wall and each group gave a brief ten-minute presentation on what they had refined or changed about each product.

Most of the lunch break and an hour or so afterward were then spent aggregating images from across the Internet. The categories ranged from pool furniture to artificial intelligence interfaces. Some searches required a little more digging than others.

Next, as a way to quickly put the first draft of the catalog together, everyone split into groups according to what tasks people did best. I continued image searching while others designed the layout of the pages or wrote descriptions and testimonials.

The first draft of the catalog was essentially a mock-up made with the stock-photos that we had collected as placeholders. The mock-up was then printed, taped to the wall, and critiqued.

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Only two of the twenty-eight products — a toilet-based pH-like system that tested for diseases, and the pet death masks — were approved as they were, while the rest needed more work. Groups formed again, and I helped by Photoshopping a classic Eames chair so it would look like a pool floatie chair.

Around five o clock in the evening we put the final draft on the board and assessed our work, which everyone was generally pleased with.

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The final catalog included, among many others:

  • home blood transfusions with so much oxygen that it was unnecessary for the user to breathe for three hours (ArmStrong)
  • social-media friendly makeup (only take perfect photos)
  • .gif tattoos
  • a social media evidence deleter/replacer for fresh starts (‘Phoenix’)
  • A.I. Life Coach
  • the $99 funeral
  • building deconstruction kit
  • digital automatic apologies (scans outgoing messages and does damage control before you even know about it)

There was a brief discussion of the future of the catalog (refining, printing, distribution, etc.) and a mass exodus to our last dinner as a group.

After a whirlwind three days of learning, working, absorbing invaluable information/advice, and getting to know this truly incredible group of people, I am trying to simultaneously go back to my “real life” and convince myself that this amazing experience actually happened (because sometimes it seems as fantastical as Michael Bay Vision goggles).

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And while I particularly enjoyed observing how these creators worked/thought and watching ideas literally and figuratively fly around the room during the work sessions, I found the individual conversations I had with the participants – successful, talented and passionate people on career paths I would like to pursue - to be equally beneficial and enjoyable.

Most of all, this experience inspired me to delve deeper into my study of design (especially interaction design). My only regret is that we didn’t actually create a time machine that would allow me to go back in time and relive this beyond-incredible experience.


Postscript: Filmmaker Christian Svanes Kolding is creating a documentary about the To Be Designed conference. Watch a trailer for the film here.


Bottom row, left to right: Aaron Straup Cope, Moka Pantages, Raphael Grignani, Bruce Sterling, John Marshall, Marc Greuther, Julian Bleecker. Top row, left to right: Karl Daubmann, Chris Woebken, Tom Bray, Cezanne Charles, Christian Svanes Kolding, Nicolas Nova, Emmet Byrne, James Bridle, Nick Foster, Megan Mulholland, Zack Jacobson-Weaver, Marcus Bleecker.


To Be Designed


"My only regret is that we didn’t actually create a time machine that would allow me to go back in time and relive this beyond-incredible experience." You did. It has even an id. The question becomes how long will you maintain this space-time bridge connecting present and past. It's all in your hands.

Posted by karl on October 14, 2012

Congratulations Megan...what you have accomplished in this 3 day intensive, is an incredible journey not only for you as a student but for the participants as well. As an alum, I would have loved to have been part of this exciting workshop. Along with having my own design studio, I am also teaching design at the UM-Flint campus and head up the student run studio. I'd love to take your framework from this experience and develop it into a creative brainstorming project for the winter semester. Nice work

Posted by Jennifer Weaver on November 07, 2012





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