UNIT 1.2.


This unit aims to:

  • outline some of the main points about why words matter in design
  • explain how words are situated in communities of practice and use
  • introduce the notion of shaping shared futures design vocabularies


1 hour


Why do words matter? And what do they matter when talking about design and futures? Without words we can’t fully communicate our processes of designing nor how we present and explain our designs for ourselves and others. Design is one of the most future facing and positioned disciplines. We do need to be able to articulate how it works and what it is we circulate amongst ourselves as a community as well as how and what we offer to others.


Words and ‘things’ matter to each other. We need design artifacts and outcomes to generate purposes and items that need to be named. Equally, we have names of things that point to ‘objects’ in the world (see e.g. Krippendorf, 2006). 

You’ll come across the words denotation and connotation in your studies and work. Denotation refers to the one to one relation of a word to an ‘object’. Connotation concerns the qualities, characteristics and values we assign to a word and how that conveys meaning.

In the material that makes up this LEXICON you will hear it repeated and reiterated that words matter for design. Over time, we hope that you will yourselves echo that words matter in working and knowing through designing. Through your studies in design and in the processes of learning to be a designer you will hopefully appreciate you’ll need to use words in many different ways. 

Words will become part of what you refer to as materials for designing. They will be present in the artifacts and processes and engagements you fabulate and facilitate. You’ll communicate your projects as designs, whether products or services, interactions or systems. And you’ll use words to describe, present and explain your designs. 

What will likely become more important for designers is how they are able to articulate design in a futures view, one that is engaged in meeting, exploring and responding to the challenges of a changing world. This is a world where designers will constantly have to negotiate more than the here-and-now, or given practices and expectations. We will need to be able to use language within, alongside and about our design work and the many forms, materials and ‘media’ it uses.


In the FUEL4DESIGN project we assemble, question, create and activate a design futures vocabulary that is design oriented. This vocabulary will need to be concise and expansive, it will benefit from being responsive yet generative. This will make it like all human language: words and their meanings exist in use, through their application and because we put them into play in human communication. 

Yet that communication now includes complex data systems and software agents. We see new terms arrive and fallout of use in rapid social media use. We generate new words to account for processes and phenomena that emerge in our changing lives, as humans but now also in the context of the Anthropocene. That is words are too now adrift as systems larger than us (that we have had a part in influencing), play out their dynamics without our power to quickly or perhaps ever influence them.


When we work with Design Futures Literacies we encounter a spread of terms. They originate in different disciplines, professions and uses. It’s important that language has such diversity and energy and that we are able to draw on it to conceptualise and to communicate. Design needs to know, understand, use and borrow terms from other fields, such as Futures Studies. 

We do need to know what they convey and imply though. We need to think about whether they adequately address what it is a design-oriented mode of making and knowing does and reveals and how the words we use allow us to account for this clearly and concisely. 

We can understand this as generating a community of words for Futures Design. But what is the work that is going on when we work with futures in a design view? What is that needs to be connected between design – as a central specialist pursuit concerned with shaping futures – and our frameworks, structures, systems, means and mediations that impact on how futures may be realised and changed? This is no simple question. With design briefs as our self-theme making and critical creativity central to our shared practices, what concepts and terminologies do we incorporate?

Words are the matter that shape our imaginations, that give name to an idea and bring it from thought to reality. Words are vehicles that help you carry meaning from one person to another. Without words you can’t name a thing, and without a name that thing wouldn’t exist.

As designers, we use different tools to bring our ideas to life. We use drawing, modeling and diagramming. However, when we’re trying to express our concepts, we often fall short of the right words.


When we say futures, do we mean the same as your idea of futures? Maybe we are talking about a 10 year future, but your project is talking about a far-future! Similarly, it’s hard to know if everyone means the same thing by the word. Confusion may arise when people from different disciplines are used to using words in different contexts to the ones you might find yourself. This is why it’s important to have clear words within a discipline that people (within that discipline) can agree to and also explain to others (outside that discipline). A a dynamic domain of knowledge shaping, Design is in the process of refining its own specialist terms and their meaning on and for futures.

As Anne Balsamo (2010: 7), writing about design, technology and culture, notes that ‘Designing always offers an opportunity to do something that has not been done before and to create something unique and untried. Designing provides participants with the tools to exercise their technological imaginations in the creation of our collective futures.’

Language, terms, and their underlying and formative philosophies and world views are key to how we work with design in terms of teaching and learning as well as research. 

Download this UNIT in printable format: 

Print Version



Balsamo, Anne. (2010). ‘Design’. IJLM, 1(4): 1-10. IJLM.net

Krippendorff, Klaus (2006). The Semantic Turn: A New Foundation for Design. Boca Raton, London, New York: Taylor&Francis, CRC Press.


Future Education and Literacy for Designers (FUEL4Design) is an open project.
You are invited to contribute by presenting your own use of this UNIT as well as share feedback on this resource.


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Send your suggestions, cases, courses, projects and additions to: contactus@fuel4design.org