Alternative timelines: Counterfactuals as an approach to design pedagogy

James Auger, Julian Hanna

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Counterfactual histories modify the outcome of a historical event and then extrapolate an alternative version of history. In literature, imaginaries based on a counterfactual history can offer thought-provoking insights on contemporary life:
It’s America in 1962. Slavery is legal once again. The few Jews who still survive hide under assumed names. In San Francisco the I Ching is as common as the Yellow Pages. All because some 20 years earlier the United States lost a war and is now occupied jointly by Nazi Germany and Japan. (Dick, 1992)
The Man in the High Castle describes the consequences of one popular starting point for counterfactual histories, Germany winning World War II. Historians tend to focus on military "decision points" at which events could have taken another path (Bernstein, 2000), or they imagine the absence of powerful individuals to speculate on how things might have been different. Since history is “often written by the victors, it tends to ‘crush the unfulfilled potential of the past’, as Walter Benjamin so aptly put it. By giving a voice to the ‘losers’ of history, the counterfactual approach allows for a reversal of perspectives” (Deluermoz & Singaravélou, 2021).

A counterfactual approach offers much potential as a methodology for practice-based design research and pedagogy – designers typically design for the world as it is rather than as it could be (Dunne & Raby, 2013). Design happens within entrenched systems whose foundations in many cases were laid centuries ago. Systems of economy, infrastructure and popular culture inform and constrain design methods, motivations and approaches to the evaluation of designed artefacts. Technological advances are applied via these rules, facilitating the iterative development of products and providing a neat lineage from the past and, more importantly, into the future (Auger et al, 2017). This version of design is increasingly being revealed as fundamentally flawed – highly successful in placating shareholders, it is not fit for purpose where ethical or environmental issues are concerned.
Counterfactuals provide an almost surreptitious method of combining design theory with practice. Through a rigorous analysis of history, the designer identifies key elements that are problematic when viewed through a contemporary lens. The approach can expose dominant structures of power and the influence these have on design culture and metrics: for example, the influence of legacy systems and how they limit the imagination and reveal the hidden or unexpected historical events that influenced the timeline.

In A New Scottish Enlightenment, Mohammed J. Ali proposes a different outcome to the 1979 Scottish independence referendum (Debatty, 2014). A “yes” vote leads to the creation of a new Scottish government, whose ultimate goal is the delivery of energy independence and a future free from fossil fuels. The project was exhibited shortly before the 2014 referendum. This starting point (a yes or no vote) resonates because it vividly presents a life that could have been. It makes us think about the power of our vote and the potential implications of a “bad choice”. The second aspect that gives the project wider relevance is the agenda used to drive extrapolation from its fictional starting point – a simple paradigm shift on energy generation and distribution. By defining energy independence as a national goal, it becomes possible to outline the ways this might happen. Important earlier examples of a counterfactual approach to design include Pohflepp and Chambers (Auger, 2012; Dunne & Raby, 2013).
Here is a rough summary of a counterfactual design methodology:
1.      The approach begins with the choice of subject – what is to be designed and the creation of a detailed and diverse timeline of its history.
2.      The identification of key moments that have led to the state of things; in particular the elements that could be critiqued from alternative value systems.
3.      The creation of a counterfactual timeline based on numerous possibilities – this is the key difference in method between historiography and design. The approach facilitates the creation of new value systems, motivations, rules and constraints that can be applied in practice.
4.      The design of things along the new timeline; it can be furnished at key moments with artefacts informed by the alternative rules.
A recent Master’s project at the École normale supérieure Paris-Saclay followed this brief. Themes included rethinking approaches to aging based on the elimination of the royalist doctrines of 18th century France; a counterfactual history of agriculture with the tool acting as intermediary between the person working and their environment; and the archive – an examination of the modalities for a deployment of queer, feminist and trans-feminist archive design forms in everyday life.

With its focus on underrepresented groups and unrealised possibilities, this last concept resonates with a broader discourse about decolonising design. What alternative value systems and approaches to design might have emerged if 20th-century design history had not been defined by the works of Morris, Dreyfus, Bel Geddes, Gropius, Rams, Starck, Ives, Dyson, and the rest?
Taking up Benjamin’s point about “the unfulfilled potential of the past”, the most vital use of counterfactuals in design is to allow different voices to emerge that were drowned out by dominant or “standard” narrative(s). Recognising alternative histories can open up valuable future paths and create space for new possibilities and imaginaries to flourish.

Works Cited
Auger, James (2012). Why Robot? Speculative design, the domestication of technology and the considered future. PhD thesis, Royal College of Art, London.
Auger, James, Hanna, Julian and Encinas, Enrique (2017). Reconstrained Design. Nordes, Oslo, 2-4 June 2017. ISSN 1604-9705.
Bernstein, R. B. (2000). Review of Ferguson, Niall, ed., Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals. H-Law, H-Net Reviews.
Chambers, James (2010). Artificial Defence Mechanisms.
Debatty, Régine (2014). A New Scottish Enlightenment. We Make Money Not Art.
Deluermoz, Quentin & Pierre Singaravélou (2021). A Past of Possibilities: A History of What Could Have Been. Yale University Press.
Dick, Phillip K. (1992). The Man in the High Castle. Vintage.
Dunne, Anthony & Fiona Raby (2013). Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. MIT Press.
Pohflepp, Sascha (2009). The Golden Institute.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAnticipation 22
Subtitle of host publication4th International Conference on Anticipation
Place of PublicationTempe, Arizona, USA
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2022


  • Futures Studies
  • Design
  • Counterfactuals
  • Speculative Design


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