Storytelling for the future: how designing books can help us understand the impacts of the Anthropocene

Master of Design Thesis — Research Phase

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Overview

In August 2019 while preparing to move from Pennsylvania to Washington state, I had to make a personally tough decision.

What books could I bring with me?

My partner and I were filling our 1984 Volkswagen Vanagon with all of our belongings, selling or giving away the rest. Whatever could fit in the van was all we would bring.

I probably owned a hundred books, collected over twenty-four years. I brought sixteen of them — some were practical, like a field guide of the Rocky Mountains. Some were sentimental, like the poetry books I read on the train when traveling home from school in Pittsburgh. I had to consider what a book meant to me in that moment, and what was worth keeping as my world changed.

We spent three weeks driving across the country. We passed through ten states, from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest.

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Letting the van cool down in Wyoming

Being in new places made it apparent how much our environments have been influenced by people. I didn’t realize how much the land in the Northeast where I grew up had been developed and deforested until driving through eastern Wyoming, where there was nothing but black cows speckling the fields for fifty miles. President faces are carved into the side of Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills. Yellowstone National Park is so preserved, except for the massive hotels near the entrance that house visitors from all over the world.

Subtle changes in these environments became clear too. I had never experienced wildfires until driving through dense smoke in eastern Oregon, where a gas station owner explained her worries about how aggressive they were becoming. Rising temperatures were also a lot more noticeable since we had no available air conditioning.

Throughout this trip, I held onto the books that mean the world to me. But our shared world is changing drastically, due to human influence. This experience forced me to contemplate that with an altering environment, how will our artifacts change along with it?

The Anthropocene is our current epoch in which the earth’s environments and residents — both human and nonhuman — are impacted by human influence. Some of these impacts include rising water levels; change in land use, such as deforestation and urbanization; rising temperatures and more severe seasons; stronger and more common natural disasters like hurricanes, floods, droughts, earthquakes, and wildfires; loss of biodiversity; dangerous air quality; and extensive waste, such as plastic in oceans, landfills, and littering.

Designers are heavily involved in the creation of artifacts. The Industrial Revolution introduced a surge in design as a recognizable field. But it also acted as one of the many catalysts for the Anthropocene.

As the Earth continues to change, designers need to consider not only how to produce work that will not cause further damage, but how our artifacts may need to adapt due to the adjusting conditions. How can design approach the challenges of Anthropogenic impacts and collaborate with the Earth’s environment, rather than exploit it?

In “Material Metaphors, Technotexts, and Media-Specific Analysis,” Katherine Hayles says, “Books are going the way of the human, changing as we change, mutating and evolving in ways that will continue…to teach and delight.” I believe that books will not disappear from our world, but the ways we interact with them will adapt as their physical form reacts to the challenges posed by the Anthropocene.

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Research

To further explore how the book’s future physical form could shift due to the challenges of the Anthropocene, I conducted research in a few ways. This included secondary research, expert interviews, rapid design sketching, a survey of personal experiences tied to Anthropogenic change, and a group bookmaking activity.

During secondary research, some of my main focus points were the meaning of objects, present and future Anthropogenic impacts, how to design for far-in-the-future societies, a history of the destruction of books and censorship, arguments for the need of physical books vs. digital solutions, design for humans and nonhumans, and the designers’ role as an interpreter.

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Zines can be downloaded to print at home here!

With such a wide range of topics, I found it helpful to compile the most useful secondary research into a zine series. This four-part collection features 6–7 readings, videos, or discussions per zine. This included a quote from each source that I found impactful as well as a brief description of its overarching ideas. While it was really enjoyable to make the zines, they also help immensely when quickly reviewing the main points of research, like the importance of storytelling in conservation and design, the argument that the physical book has a stronger case for lasting longer than digital formats, and the need for designers to think about the present even when designing for the future.

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Some notable readings featured in the zines:

I interviewed a member of the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group, where we discussed Anthropogenic change in the Pacific Northwest and how the group utilizes storytelling when collaborating with local communities. We also talked about how climate factors are interconnected. For example, if Washington has a particularly dry summer, there will be less snow. If there is less snow, there is less snow runoff. If there is less snow runoff, there is less available water to power the city of Seattle which highly depends on hydroelectric energy. One event can cause a ripple effect that contributes to other consequences.

I also spoke with a member of the Human-Centered Design and Engineering department who focuses on design in the context of the Anthropocene. We discussed human and nonhuman relationships, how storytelling can be a useful tool when designing for the future, and the need to be self-critical when working within the realm of empathetic design.

Some upcoming interviews that were unable to fit within this timeframe will be with the University of Washington Special Collections to discuss the form of the book and their process of deciding which books are worth collecting. I will also be interviewing a publisher about the process of designing and publishing books and how this could be reshaped in the future.

Film and television science fiction have portrayed the possible futures influenced by the Anthropocene for decades. These stories build worlds that are unknown to audiences, but often reflect problems or even future projections that are familiar to them. I decided to use this medium to practice designing a book to adhere to the challenges of a world much unlike our present one.

In this exercise, I watched two science fiction films: Mad Max (1979) and Prospect (2018). These two were chosen because they focus on how humans have to adapt to an altered or uninhabitable world. Also, the narratives are not centered around the very peak of this change — the characters already have some sort of understanding of these new environments.

In Mad Max, the characters live in a post-apocalyptic world, which is a consequence of a nuclear war over dwindling oil reserves. Although people have survived, their cities have fallen apart, the land is scarcely populated with long, dry drives, and there seems to be quite a lot of surveillance through the radio.

Prospect explores interplanetary living, mostly taking place on a planet called “The Green,” which looks like Earth but its residents are mostly being ferns and trees. Human visitors must wear suits with filters to avoid being poisoned by the “dust,” or plant spores.

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Left: Mad Max (1979). Image: Letterboxd.com; Right: Prospect (2018). Image: IMDb

While watching, I wrote observations and details to define the world, noting pressing issues for characters and use of books or other media.

After watching, I took about twenty minutes to quickly describe forms the book could take in the film’s world. Afterwards, I made rapid design sketches of these descriptions to help visually explain these forms.

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Several Mad Max Sketches
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Several Prospect Sketches

These sketches were great practice in considering how to push the boundaries on the book’s form today to adhere to the needs of a world outside of our present experience. Science fiction also proved to be a good guide for designing within the Anthropocene. In “Less Than One But More Than Many: Anthropocene as Science Fiction and Scholarship-in-the-Making,” the authors say: “Science fiction is not a prediction about the future as much as it is a thought-experiment about the present. The emerging field of the Anthropocene studies is a series of such thought experiments.”

In order to better infer how people personally view present and future Anthropogenic change as well as how they learn about it, I conducted an online survey. About 60 people responded, submitting sliding scales on how much they are currently affected by today’s impacts and how much they expect future generations to be influenced by the same challenges. Some of these effects included natural disasters, invasive species, war, change in land use, extensive waste, rising temperatures, rising water levels, and air quality. Those surveyed also answered questions about how much they believed humans to have an influence on their environments, how difficult they felt it was to understand projections by researchers, and what helped them to comprehend abstract and complex information.

My hope was to understand what future Anthropogenic impacts they felt would be the most pressing in the future and if they could easily recognize the ones happening today. I also wanted to see if my hypothesis that storytelling is an essential tool when trying to grasp theoretical and future-based information was valid.

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When evaluating the future forms the book may take, it’s helpful to understand how people define the book today. To investigate this, I prepared a bookmaking exercise in my apartment with a group of four people.

To start, I asked the participants to write their own definitions of a book.

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Next, I had them watch a short video by the Art Assignment that talks about making books with atypical materials to provide an introduction to the activity.

I then told the participants that they had twenty-five minutes to make at least one book. They could use anything they found in the apartment.

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By no longer being tied to the idea that a book is just paper pages and words, the participants created objects that they might not have deemed a book thirty minutes prior. One participant bound tea bags together with thread. Another made “The Essence of Turkey Day,” combining aluminum foil used when cooking, tea they drank throughout the day, and paper from a bag that carried bread eaten during Thanksgiving dinner.

Photos were clasped together with a binder clip. Leaves from a plant were sewn together to make an edible book for my pet rabbit. T-shirts were wrapped around a hanger and could be flipped to see a progression of undershirt use.

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Edible book for a pet rabbit

It became clear that the definition of a book is incredibly fluid. While most participants still held on to their original descriptions, it expanded to much more than just paper and text.

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Findings

Through all of this research, a few patterns worth noting emerged. These included storytelling as an integral tool, fluid definition of a book, and overarching themes within Anthropogenic change.

While many people are aware of Anthropogenic impacts in general terms, they can seem theoretical especially when they do not affect a person’s daily life. I found in the survey that while many felt they recognized the possible future effects of Anthropogenic change, it was a little difficult to imagine how the world would actually transform. Sharing stories with others, consuming media narratives, and viewing visual aids were some of the best ways for people to grasp more conceptual and future-based information.

Narratives allow us to weave diverse information together to relate to the experiences and struggles of others. In Thom Van Dooren’s “Vulture Stories: Narrative and Conservation,” he describes how stories, particularly straightforward and casual ones, are important for conservation because they provide simple explanations and a call-to-action. Storytelling can be an effective way to communicate complex information, especially when the data is abstract.

The science fiction films I viewed during the rapid design sketching reiterated this point. I was able to view a fairly comprehensive story within two hours that built entire, unknown worlds and allowed me to empathize with the characters within them. These stories were so effective in explaining the worlds’ complex systems that I was able to understand them enough to design books that could feasibly exist within them.

Design can act as a wonderful storyteller. In Ellen Lupton’s Design is Storytelling, she says, “designers invite people to enter a scene and explore what’s there — to touch, wander, move, and perform.” Through areas like speculative design, designers are able to bring attention to present societal issues while planning and designing for the future.

I believe the book is the perfect artifact to communicate the future consequences of the Anthropocene more clearly, with design acting as a storyteller.

Readings about the history of the book’s form, such as Michael Clanchy’s “Looking Back from the Invention of Printing,” made it apparent that the book has been a notable part of human histories, from stone tablets to papyrus, manuscripts to the printed copy, digital tablets to PDFs.

The book’s form often reflects the current point in our world. Gutenberg’s printed copy pointed to the rise of literacy, since it allowed for greater accessibility to information. Digital tablets, like the Kindle, are connected to a society spending more time with digital screens and adapted the book to the convenience as well. If the book will exist in the future of the Anthropocene, what forms will it take?

Books are also not just physical objects. They are ideas and personalities as well. Books were not burned throughout history for their physicality, but because they are a symbol of knowledge, ideas, and power. In “A Brief History of Book Burning, From the Printing Press to Internet Archives,” Lorraine Boissoneault explains that destroying them is a way to control people, erase cultures, and censor thoughts. Books are much more than just paper and text.

In a study recorded in The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self assessing the symbolism of collected objects in the home, books were found to be cherished across generations. Chosen objects become reflections of people by providing a cultural model on actions and goals.

Throughout the process of research, I had casual conversations with others about the books that were meaningful to them. Many of the comments revolved around the books that were passed down or given by friends and family, the handwritten annotations within the pages, and the discovery of old objects bookmarking pages. These conversations made me recall borrowing a novel from a friend in high school who wrote notes throughout the pages, even writing “haha, so funny!” next to jokes in the narrative. This changed my entire reading experience from a solitary activity to a more social one, making that particular book a more significant object. It became clear from these shared stories that books gain meaning from their use.

Because the definition of the book is already very fluid, there is more room to accept the ways that the book’s form may adapt in the future.

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Image: Whole Foods

Everything is connected: What do bees have to do with anything? Looking from afar, they seem fairly independent from other elements in our environment. We often see them outside around flowers, stay away from them in hopes of avoiding their sting, and move on.

Through the explanation from the Climate Impacts Group of how a dry summer could effect the city of Seattle, I was reminded that everything is connected when we look a little closer.

In 2013, Whole Foods partnered with the The Xerces Society to show what their store would look like if bees were to become extinct. More than half of their products would be unavailable.

When considering the impacts of the Anthropocene, one direct action does not have one direct outcome. In the digital publication Feral Atlas, the idea that each element in our environment is connected is very clear; through timeline illustrations, the publication shows that when one thing changes, it causes a ripple effect. This will be critical for me to remember while progressing through this thesis — the Anthropocene is a wicked problem.

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Illustration from Feral Atlas showing the ripple effect of “Invasion”

The Anthropocene is patchy: What this means is that the impacts of the Anthropocene will not affect everywhere and everyone in the same way. While one community could experience drought, another could lose livable land due to rising water levels.

This also points to the fact that the Anthropocene pushes socioeconomic inequities. In our present day, there are many instances of wealthier communities “fixing” their pollution problems by pushing it onto communities of lower socioeconomic status.

In a conversation through Cooper Hewitt, Theodore Watson of Design I/O said, “designers have a responsibility to strive for equity.” If the future form of the book is only available in the hands of a few, this will not be a valid Anthropogenic design solution.

Impacts, both present and future, are ambiguous: Looking towards the future, people often believe Anthropogenic change will be severe, persistent, and unable to be ignored in daily life. However, what that would actually look like is a little unclear and hard to imagine. Recognizing what these impacts actually look and feel like today is also ambiguous.

In “High Water Pants: Designing Embodied Environmental Speculation,” Heidi Biggs says, “local, personal narratives about experiences of climate change are more ambiguous and complex than ‘global’ or large-scale narratives passed through media.” In the survey, people tended to understate their responses. Many felt that while change is clearly happening, it was not particularly noticeable for them personally. However, even if they are subtle, these impacts are already affecting our environments now.

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Participant comment from survey

If it’s already hard to recognize how these impacts influence our environments today, it’s even more challenging to fathom what it could look like in the future.

Next Step

The next step in my thesis will be the design production phase. Through this, I plan to explore the possibilities of the book’s future physical forms through a survey of iterations addressing the challenges of the Anthropocene. I will utilize design as a storyteller to help readers better understand how their future, as well as the book’s, will need to adapt to our changing world.

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Reflection

A short look at what I learned throughout this research process:

  1. Be open to experimentation. I started this thesis process in an overly practical sense, with a completely different idea. I tried having an entire plan in place right away. Once I let that go (with the help of my committee), I was open to this direction. Although the process may still have some future ambiguities, it really touches upon my main design interests. Being a little more open to experimentation really helped me find the direction I wanted to move towards all along.
  2. It’s okay to change as you learn more. It took time for many of these ideas to connect and fully form past vague statements. Not every idea is a good direction, but even those helped place me on the right path.
  3. Making while researching makes a huge difference. There was some time when I was mostly just reading and talking. As a designer, I wanted making to be a constant action as well! I tried to find ways to apply my research to creating — whether making a small zine series or an animated sketch. This helped not only organize my research to be easier to reference, but it also felt like my ideas were stronger by having something visual to represent them.
  4. Researching remotely is difficult. This time is challenging with remote learning due to COVID-19. I had to be open to adapting at a sudden notice, work around libraries being fairly unaccessible, and find ways to focus on top of worries about a pandemic, a critical election, etc. However, there are positives to this situation, such as more accessible experts through video calls.
  5. This process is unexpected, but still so fruitful. I’ve grown so much just in the last year. It’s so wonderful to have the opportunity to focus on an area of design I’m passionate about with the support of so many amazing people. (Thanks to everyone who helped me the last few months!).
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Written by

University of Washington Master of Design Candidate taylor-miles.com

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