SVA MA Design Research

SVA MA Design Research, Writing & Criticism1 is a one-year graduate program2
devoted to the study of design, its contexts & consequences.
Our graduates have gone on to pursue research-related careers in publishing, education, museums, institutes, design practice, entrepreneurship, & more.3

  1. Formerly known as D-Crit
  2. About the program
  3. Applications accepted on a rolling basis. All successful candidates awarded a significant scholarship!
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Speculations From Tomorrow: Characters and Empathy in Design Fiction – SVA MA Design Research

Mark Dudlik

Speculations From Tomorrow: Characters and Empathy in Design Fiction

A version of the popular Rider-Waite deck from 1920. Photo courtesy Bill Wolf,

Design fiction, inherently a practice grounded in narrative, aims to create believable speculative fictions about future objects through storytelling.There is a need to develop a discourse between the fields of design fiction, narratology—the study of narrative’s structure and effects on perception—and the psychology of fictional characters. Narratology shows that empathizing with fictional characters can lead to deep psychological and emotional connections between character and reader.

This research demonstrates that by integrating itself more closely with a critical theory of narratives, the practice of design fiction can continue to grow as a distinct and relevant discipline. And including fictional characters treated as design objects as part of this speculative practice, an opportunity presents itself to create narratives and images of possible near-futures that have more depth, more empathy, and as a result more humanity.

The Science of Narrative

Narratology looks at how narratives, in particular fictional narratives, affect our perception of reality. By looking to a formalized study of narrative, we can help delineate the boundaries within which design fiction works as a discipline, adding a level of theory that can better frame our understanding of its practices.

When narratology looks at diegesis, it considers the world created within a story. Any story’s diegesis is constructed from what exists within the narrative world of the story. If something can be thought, seen, felt, imagined or interacted with in any way by the characters, it can be considered diegetic. For example, in the movie Titanic, the iceberg, the boat, the sounds of the ocean and of the violinists are all considered diegetic. The Celine Dion soundtrack playing in the background is not, since the characters do not actually experience the music.

While diegesis is the story world, mimesis is its counter point. Mimesis refers to the imitation of reality. It is the representation of the real world in the narrative. When New York City is represented as part of a fictional narrative, it is most likely considered a mimetic element. Another way to look at these in contrast is to consider diegesis as “showing” while memesis is “telling.” Mimesis can be a key to maintaining a suspension of disbelief or “verisimilitude.” A fictional work grounded in reality, enough so that it remains believable, allows for the audience to immerse itself into the story more completely.

As an example, movies with car chase scenes often take place on city streets, some in New York City. The mimetic element of the narrative is the factual New York City that we can imagine the chase taking place in. Because people are familiar with New York City, and can imagine speeding cars, we have a sense of verisimilitude. We can imagine that this is a possibility, and accept the chase as believable. In a Fast and the Furious-style New York City car chase, the diegetic elements of the narrative would be the fictional car drivers, the fictional cars themselves, the manufactured sounds of the wheels squealing and the engines revving and anything else that the characters may experience. Because we can believe a car chase might happen in New York, we can become immersed in the story, feeling concern about what’s happening. We can become invested in the story, and the characters.

The last component of narratology included in this study, narrative empathy, focuses on the shared feelings and relatable perspectives induced by reading, viewing, hearing or imagining narratives. It is a type of mental simulation that happens when interacting with fiction. It is different from sympathy or simple concern, where the reader simply understands the emotion a character may be feeling. Narrative empathy can be seen as direct concern, almost as if for one’s own self. People have the capacity to project and absorb from fiction, often in ways that are psychologically and physiologically indistinguishable from how they relate to the real world and real people. Continuing the car chase example above, a viewer could experience real concern about the driver of the car as they try to get away, and be genuinely fearful about them getting caught or crashing.

Besides the structural elements, narratological studies look at the effect of narratives on perception, in particular the roles fiction can play in the psychology of the reader. The study of the psychological impact of fiction is a growing area of research and there are a number of studies related to its effects on social interactions, its influence on personality, and its potential to increase empathy.

Cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley conducted studies of fiction where he presented a Chekov novel in two ways: One set of readers were given the original fictional text. The other participants were given a document that was rewritten to appear as a non-fiction documentary-style piece. Based on before and after assessments of personality traits and emotions, those who read the original fictional piece went through greater changes in personality, experiencing more empathy with characters, even taking on traits of the characters they related to the most. When reading fiction, it is possible to alternate between an “a-personal” mode to a “personal” mode, where the reader adopts the vantage point of a character. This can be considered as narrative empathy. And Oatley’s study shows that it’s easier to make this empathetic switch when you believe the characters to be fictional.1

Other studies, such as those by David Rapp and Richard Gerrig, show that readers have to actively attempt not to accept information about reality that they are acquiring from fiction. Accordingly, it’s actually a “willing construction of disbelief” that requires a deliberate mental effort (rather than the “willing suspension of disbelief”) and that should be a concern of narratives.2“Fiction becomes something to think with, a space for reflections and an inspiration for escaping the conventions of academic disciplines and the limits of established modes of thought” writes Julian Bleecker, a technologist with an interest in design fiction. 3This makes the process of inducing verisimilitude, not just easier, but possibly automatic. It gives a greater freedom to those involved in producing design fictions.

Narratology and Design Fiction

Looking at the power of narratives, we can examine first the effectiveness of incidental design fictions. Created outside the design fiction process, the visual presentations and the plots and characters found within are more well-rounded than the objects created as intentional design fictions, and offer the chance for a more thorough analysis.

Children of Men is a 2006 film based on the 1992 novel by P.D. James. The film is set in the year 2027, a world where women have been infertile for nearly two decades. As a result, the world has descended into dystopia, with immigrant issues all over the world while authoritative governments have become over-reaching police states. The plot focuses around the main character who has been tasked with getting the first pregnant woman in 20 years to safety outside of London, where the film is set.

“We wanted to set it in such a near future that everything would be recognizable as today,” says director Alfonso Cuaran.4 He talks about how the art department for the film didn’t want to present the future with stereotypical things like supersonic cars and gadgets. “We tried to avoid completely the high-tech scenario.” Instead, he looked to make the London feel like areas of conflict like Iraq, Somalia, or even Chernobyl.

In a visual analysis of the film, video essayist Evan Puschak reminds us that, “we experience the world through the eyes of the main character. This process of identification is automatic and strong. So strong that we can even be made to sympathize with people that we otherwise would identify with as bad or evil. It’s hard to see anything but the foreground. The lead story.”5 It is hard to ignore the plot of the main character, an apathetic government bureaucrat, as he now tries to smuggle a pregnant woman out of a dystopian London. We follow along with him, regardless of the other cues for our attention.

Cuaran uses the setting of the film, the environmental elements within which the main story is set, to tell another story. The diegetic objects and advertisements in the background tell a story of a society with little hope, and a lot of frustration.

Cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek agrees with Pushhak’s assessment, but goes one step further in his commentary on the film. “The true focus of the film is there, in the background. And it’s crucial to leave it as a background. You can’t see it if you look at the thing too closely, directly. You can see it in an oblique way, only if it remains in the background.”6

It is in the background that suicide pills are offered up through commercials and bus ads. There are shots of protestors and long lines of immigrants in prison-like border stations waiting for entry, stranded in the war zone boundary surrounding London. There are terrorist attacks in the city, while along the walls are posters informing people of their requirement to submit to fertility tests. Background items with a very powerful message.

The main plot-point is closer to fantasy and an attempt to ask “What would the world be like if children could no longer be born.” And in the end, the reactions frame London as a place that could be as war-torn, dangerous and hopeless as the settings Cuaran used for inspiration. The film, made in 2006, has become more believable since. “In this film the research wasn’t so much about gadgetry and how the world would be in years to come,” says Cuaran. “I immersed myself into the different perceptions…of what we perceive as reality today.”7

Black Mirror is a BBC drama series focused on near or alternative futures. The series allows us to experience how a variety of people would react to technologies familiar to them, but futuristic to the viewer. In the second episode “The Entire History of You,” a biotech implant, Willow Grain, records every moment from a character’s vantage point. They can replay every moment of their day, privately viewing them through what look like bionic contact lenses. They can play their memories for others just as one would play a movie from a phone. Depending on how you view the pervasiveness of Facebook’s Timeline and the sharing culture of other social media, this episode could be quite disturbing. The technology is optional. In a scene where someone talks about having it removed, the other characters are shocked, similar to how people sometimes react to the news that a person has deleted their Facebook account. The diegetic technology is realistic and “feels so possible, so familiar and desirable that it makes it all the more chilling,” says Devon Maloney in his review of the series for Wired. 8

The episode features homes furnished with very few differences from today. These mimetic elements make the story feel almost as much a story from the past as one from the future. And they make it easier to believe in the fictional world. The diegetic object, the Willow Grain, acts as the driver of the conflict found in the episode at first. But in the end, the human relationships still become the focal point of the narrative arc.

The story focuses on a couple fighting about past relationships and we watch them use the technology to recall memories of past arguments. In one scene, the male character yells at his wife, calling her something derogatory. In the middle of her anger at the name-calling she stops, plays her experience of what just happened back for him, and walks away. Designer Mike Laurie observes how the show “slightly alters the otherwise unremarkable everyday lives of its characters just enough—through advances in tech—to render them unsettling.”9 You can more fully consider your own feelings about the objects, by empathizing or disagreeing with how the characters react to them. The narrative empathy becomes a way to analyze your own thoughts.

In the movie Her, writer and director Spike Jonze extrapolates where the world is heading, given the reliance on technology and the isolation from others caused as a result.10 The narrative focuses on the main character Theo Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and his relationship with Samantha, the artificially intelligent operating system that runs Theo’s technology, voiced by Scarlett Johannson.

Jonze looked to the futurist writings of Ray Kurzweil, met with architects Elizabeth Diller and Richardo Scofidio and designers at Sagmeister and Walsh to develop the film’s diegesis. Jonze describes the movie as being set in the “slight future,” and Diller observes that “It’s so close to everyday normal life. It makes you slightly uncomfortable.”11

The movie is set in Los Angeles, but some portions were filmed in other cities, like Shanghai. As such, an urban environment presented as a single city was formed from several. Diller says “I think it said a lot about a kind of monocultural, globalized future, where buildings all more or less look the same. It’s very generic space.”12 This generic space, a familiar place, a mimetic skyline with unfamiliar attributes, enhanced the verisimilitude. “It’s kind of like, “Where is this? I think I know this place. I think I know that skyline,” she goes on. That vague familiarity is the exact emotional connection that design fiction is aiming for.

The movie has been touted as the next great tech-inspiration movie, as Minority Report was in 2002. “You could say that Her is, in fact, a counterpoint to that prevailing vision of the future—the anti-Minority Report,” says Kurt Vanhemert in his Wired article, “Why Her Will Dominate UI Design Even More Than Minority Report.”13 “Imagining the world wasn’t about heaping new technology on society as we know it today. It was looking at those places where technology could fade into the background and integrate more seamlessly. It was about envisioning a future, perhaps, that looked more like the past.”14 Again, the familiarity of the past is used to affect a verisimilitude about a future world.

Adding to this idea of the “slight fiction” is Jonze’s adoption of current hipster fashion. For example, Theo’s mustache and his pants being worn high on the waist. Those diegetic elements aid in the suspension of disbelief, slight extrapolations of fashion that already exist, but exaggerated enough to seem only vaguely familiar. Suspension of disbelief, a feeling of reality being represented in the fiction and all leading to an engrossment in the film, an ability to believe and then even ignore the background. In this case: to focus on the story of Theo and Sam.

“Jonze arrived at a critical insight,” says Vanhemert. “Her, he realized, isn’t a movie about technology. It’s a movie about people.” The OS becomes a character to empathize with, almost as much as the real fictional human. The relationship between the characters is at the foreground, made more lucid by the overly personal technology, which disappears into the background almost completely, represented most often by a voice instead of any tangible item.

The diegetic objects in the movie are considered some of the most exciting aspects of the film, but are used to frame the personal relationships. Theo interacts with his operating system, an object that becomes as real to him as any other person.

  2. Uri Margolin, “Individuals in Narrative Worlds: an Ontological Perspective,” Poetics Today 11, no. 4 (1990): 843, doi:10.2307/1773080.
  3. Julian Bleecker, “Design Fiction: a Short Essay on Design, Science, Fact and Fiction.”
  4. Alfonso Cuaran interviewed by Brad Brevet, December 2006,
  5. “Children of Men: Don’t Ignore the Background” user Nerdwriter1.
  6. Commentary by Slavoj Zizek. “‘Children of Men’” Bonus features. DVD. Universal Studios, 2006.
  9. It’s worth mentioning that despite Spike Jonze view of where things may be heading, there is evidence that Gen-Z (those 19 and under) are actually moving away from technology and more towards ephemeral, authentic experiences. Finding a way to empathize with how the personalities of children of millennials will develop was one of the first ways I thought narrative empathy might be applicable.