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

Overview

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

Letting the van cool down in Wyoming

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.

Secondary Research

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.

Zines can be downloaded to print at home here!

Expert Interviews

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.

Rapid Design Sketching

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.

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

Survey

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.

Group Bookmaking Activity

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.

Edible book for a pet rabbit

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.

Storytelling is an Integral Tool

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.

Meaning and Definition of the Book

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.

Overarching Themes in Anthropogenic Change

Image: Whole Foods
Illustration from Feral Atlas showing the ripple effect of “Invasion”
Participant comment from survey

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.

Reflection

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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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