UNIT 2.4.


This unit aims to:

  • introduce and connect approaches to language and multimodality
  • outline views and approaches to multimodal language and discourse
  • connect multimodality and futures design
  • explore connections between multimodal design and multisensory futures


1-2 hours


Design futures are materialised through a mix of modes: verbal and visual, touch and motion, smell and taste. Modes are used selectively, in combination or to distinguish matters or items or views from one another in design communication. Language, and futures words, are used together with these various modes. In doing so, they form what is called multimodal discourse. This refers to the configuration of different modes of meaning making above the level of a sentence in verbal language and above a unit of communicative act or ‘move’ in drawing on our different sensory capacities and expectations.


In a way the use of a mix of modes, media, materials and communication forms is very familiar to designers and designer-researchers. When it comes to FUTURES DESIGN and how DESIGN FUTURES LITERACIES are composed, shared, and evaluated as part of them, we need to unpack how it is that multimodality works and how we may work with it as a type of meta design material. This necessarily involves looking further into the specifics of different domains and disciplines of design and how they work with materials to achieve their goals and participative use.

When the future is our domain, regardless of a specific design discipline, there are also a number of meta matters to consider. These have a bearing on how we understand and shape by design FUTURES DESIGN discourse as multimodal and multisensory. At one level, this is a matter of making connections and distinctions between the relations of design and time, space, processes, settings and actors. At another level it is a matter of  making connections and distinctions between the relations of the means and processes, outcomes and influences in futures designing.


1. Find an article in a current online news site that features futures trends, projections of techno-daily life or proposed developments for the city of the future.

2. Broadly, what is the overall message being conveyed? How is it achieved: verbally and visually? What sorts of futures are being portrayed? How is this woven together?

3. Draw a sketch of the images presented and annotate it using the 5O FUTURES DESIGN WORDS (List only).

4. Write a 200 word description of what is being presented and how this is achieved, visually and verbally.


Elsewhere in this Lexicon we introduced the FRAMES 4 FUTURES (Frames filled) to assist you in your inquiries into investigating and understanding the Context, Conditions, Complexities and Cultures of change and FUTURES DESIGN. Multimodality – the mix of modes of communication to achieve an effect – is designed. It is composed as a large design to achieve effect, to position and to persuade, to convey views and to orient us towards a perspective.

For designers and designer-researchers this is intriguing in the sense of composing multimodal communication by design. It is also a challenge, though, of critically locating the arena or zone of the discourse being shaped by words together with selections of other modes of design communication. When studying and researching futures design we draw on our emerging DESIGN FUTURES LITERACIES and we grow them through practical and critical use. It is important that these literacies connect to the content and the contexts in which futures designing is located and directed. 


1. Think for a moment on the project or task you are working on or will need to begin, or one you have completed that embodies matters of FUTURES DESIGN and DESIGN FUTURES LITERACIES. What modes of communication and designing does it include? Which ones are most prominent?

2. Choose two main items from  the following list:

  • climate, environment and ecologies
  • work, daily life and leisure
  • narrative, media, digital-physical 
  • expressions, engagement, experiences
  • software, robotics, AI,
  • economics and governance
  • tools, techniques, methods and processes
  • reach, revisions, reconfigurations, radical change, disruption

3. Find two examples for each of the two items you have chosen, one from your own design university and one from another design company, institution, organisation or group.

4. For each of the pairs of items, note down the focus of the modes and mix of modes that are used to convey what is being presented. How are words used to convey supporting, persuasive or promotional direction, support or consolidation of the modes in use?

5. Repeat the exercise, choosing two additional items from the list (a-g). Perhaps try out a rather different selection and see how far you can go with the activity.


The mix of materials, media, forms and styles involved  in designing is also supported by the ways in which design draws on our engagement through our senses. We come to know things not only through words and arguments. We also encounter and fathom them out through our direct and indirect sensory experiences and responses. THisis a hugely important part of design discourses, design as performance and design as experience.

How we come to be aware of things and their character and influence is suggested by sight but also by sound, movement, taste and smell. Mobile apps engage us in sight and location based sensing but they also depend on our sense of distance, time and proximity. We function through what is known as embodied knowledge and communication and much of design acknowledges that we are individuals, members of groups and indeed virtual participants and contributors to design events. 

Co-creative design processes that draw on a diversity of expertise may be needed to develop and support meaningful and engaging multimodal, multisensory design experiences. They need to anticipate our actions and wishes to some degree, yet they need to leave us agency and space for shaping our experiences through design. This usually refers to designing for and with user experience in view but it also means we need to engage with the affordance, or potential material and immaterial qualities, of a material, technology, device or process. Equally, we need to work with the cultural materials of design such as the views of stakeholders, the roles of participants, expectations of specific and diverse users and  communities and ways in which identity and engagement may be inked or need to be rethought and offered differently according to need.

These matters of multimodal and multisensory design and design discourse are of course connected to words and their values and associations. This applies also to our acts of ‘worldmaking’ when we engage in shaping futures design designs and resources for others to access, think through and critique design’s informed, speculative and dialogue-setting ‘visions of tomorrow’.


1. In working with ‘sensing futures design’, think for a moment about how the following senses: movement, touch, sound, smell, taste, movement.
Choose two items from this list.

2. How might your two chosen senses seem when located in a near future (10 years away) and a far future (50-100 years ahead of today)? What is it about the future that might have an impact on your experience and understanding of these senses?

3. How do you feel this manifested in your body? What do you hear, smell or feel bodily in the time and setting you have placed yourself in the future?

4. How do these sensations inform your wider understanding of futures? Are they about you? Are they about settings and other actors, human, environmental forces, political design strategies, a result of a policy, or a surprising sensory encounter?

5. Sit quietly with your eyes closed. Let your senses in the future setting you find yourself in ‘do the talking’ as it were. Let the sense of touch or smell, sound or movement come to the surface and allow yourself to connect it to and inform the future setting.

6. Open your eyes suddenly and see what you miss of that sensory future!

7. Can you smell, taste, touch the future? How does it feel? What does it sound like and how can you move in it?
Are you alone? Do you feel this future in relation to how others also express and show their sensory experience and understanding?

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Fairclough, Norman. 2013. Critical discourse analysis: the critical study of language, 2nd edition. London: Routledge.

Kress, Gunther, and Theo van Leeuwen. 2001. Multimodal Discourse: The Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication. London: Arnold. Krippendorf, Klaus. 1995. The Semantic Turn. London: Taylor & Francis.

Morrison, Andrew, ed. 2010. Inside Multimodal Composition. Cresskill: Hampton Press.

Morrison, Andrew, Timo Arnall, Jørn Knutsen, Einar Sneve Martinussen, and Kjetil Nordby. 2o11 “Towards discursive design.” In Proceedings of IASDR2011, 4th World Conference on Design Research. Delft: TU Delft.

Raymond, Corbin, Bruce Snaddon, Alettia Chisin, Monica Di Ruvo, Andrew Morrison and Amanda Steggell. 2019. “Relational ontologies for futurescaping.” Curated session at the 3rd International Conference on Anticipation, AHO, Oslo, 9-11 October, 2019.


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