For Elliott Montgomery, assistant professor of strategic design at Parsons’ School of Design Strategies (SDS), design is not an end in itself. Rather, it is a powerful tool that can uncover unseen possibilities for reorganizing the world.
Montgomery is a design researcher and strategist who explores the effects of social, technological, and environmental shifts on design. After completing an undergraduate degree in industrial design, Montgomery consulted for several major brands — including
PepsiCo, General Electric, and Johnson & Johnson — interviewing stakeholder groups to determine how design could make product experiences more seamless and constructive and better overall.
Through these industry experiences, Montgomery came face to face with the reality that design doesn’t intrinsically promote social progress; the designer’s intent and process are crucial. “The reality was sinking in that many design projects fabricate
needs that don’t exist, using design as a way to generate revenue,” he says. “Very rarely were these big companies truly trying to ‘make the world a better place.’ They were bolstering their bottom lines.”
Eager to shift his career trajectory, Montgomery returned to academia and completed a master’s degree in design. The program introduced him to futures studies, a discipline used to posit a range of possible futures and explore the effects of emerging
technologies and social movements. “Futures studies helps us make plans and navigate towards preferable versions of worlds we might live in,” explains Montgomery.
Futures studies principles can be applied to a range of disciplines. Montgomery says that future studies opens up the creative process when connected to design. “By combining design with a focus on futures,” he explains, “we start to see the potential
for visualizing and collectively generating narratives that open doors we never knew existed.”
Montgomery joined the Parsons faculty in 2011, bringing his experimental design approach into the classroom and introducing futures studies as a framework for conducting research. In a recent studio, graduate students in the MFA Transdisciplinary Design
program imagined what would happen if city buildings grew unsustainably tall. If they towered so high that residents on the ground were living in perpetual shade, how would this change life for urbanites? How might government mediate between citizens
and real estate developers? What solutions could arise?
After grappling with these questions, the students proposed a scenario in which residents of megacities would be given access to privately owned rooftops where they could soak up their share of sunshine — a new kind of commons. The students created a
short film of a New Yorker seeking entry to a crowded rooftop where fellow citizens have gathered to enjoy the sunshine.
“Part of what we’re trying to do in the course,” says Montgomery, “is to help students think about how they can nuance their own approach to proposing versions of futures, to make their speculation more understandable and convincing or provocative.” It’s
nearly impossible to work toward a future that we can’t see, he explains, which is why it is important to encourage students to imagine and visualize a multitude of possibilities.
Futures studies is not an approach for generating predictions of what is to come but rather a means of broadening our thinking, preparing us for a range of conceivable outcomes. “If we introduce futures studies as a framework for asking questions that
help us understand the present,” says Montgomery, “then we can see the discipline as a necessary component of the design researcher’s skill set.”
Rather than teaching students how to design things, Montgomery shows them how to use design as a process. This is an approach he models in his own practice, Extrapolation Factory,
a futures-based design and research studio co-founded with Chris Woebken. He hopes his students will come to understand that design is not only about producing objects or bolstering businesses but also involves asking whom we are designing for and why — and what futures we want