Spekkl: Food Safety, Revealed.

Core Concept

Our project addresses the themes of trust, information credibility and the relationship between fads and crises. We are using food safety and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as target issues because the information surrounding them is notoriously hyperbolic and their proponents are stereotypically ill-informed or easily persuaded.

We are creating a pseudo-scientific food safety product, Spekkl, that targets overtly health-conscious parents—mommies and daddies actively anti-GMO blogging and shopping. The caregiving and protective nature of these parents makes them an especially susceptible audience within the realm of food safety.

Related Work

Works of satire and designed hoaxes were influential to the way we approached our project.

Carrot Dan Angelucci

Audio Tooth Implant Auger

Bhopal Disaster The Yes Men

Food Babe

The Onion

Design Process

Finding a topic: Our team was interested in food because it is a necessity to life, and therefore can ignite highly controversial futures. We began to look at large, evil food manufacturers like Monsanto and the anti-GMO movement as starting points for areas of conflict.

Deciding an angle: We chose to, rather than pick a side of the GMO issue, use the topic as a method of critiquing the naivety of those that buy/write/discuss in reaction to it. We decided on a near-future scenario that would bring the issues of credibility and trust to a more believable, and possibly shocking, reality.

Creating a product and brand: We used our strengths as industrial and communication designers to build believable prototypes, renders and online content for the fake product. We believed these elements to be essential to creating a convincing project. The product’s form was inspired by products that are similarly trusted by our audience: baby thermometers and infrared meat thermometers. The brand materials such as logo, color and pattern were created to be friendly and relate to our key audience of parents.


Developing brand language and communications: Online content and our audience-reaching methods of website and marketing e-mails relied on fine-tuned language that delivered approachable authority. Again, realness was key. Our email marketing was sent to the food safety and wellness blogosphere, complete with a thank you coupon and link to the official product press release on the product website.

Response: An important part of the project is witnessing and recording how participants react to the fake product. We will send the email to our blogger list in the coming days and wait to see what their response is. We will be keeping track of pre-orders on the Spekkl website to understand the number of people who seem to believe and want to own the product.


Throughout the project we have more clearly come to understand that it’s too easy to make fake things. We haven’t confirmed that people will believe our product, but the process to make a pretty convincing, bogus product was fast and simple. We used free or cheap online services to build a functioning website and marketing email. This makes us question the responsibility held by designers and the power we put in their hands. Do we feel evil? Not really, but we’re a little scared by potential susceptibility of our audience.

The Anti-Intellectualism Association

Core Concept:
The Anti-Intellectualism Association is a satire organization which promotes anti-intellectualism in the US, believing normal, everyday good people should be running our country.  The AIA believes carelessly questioning our society damages America’s exceptionalism.

The goal of this project is to present a fictionalized organization or superpac that is both tongue in cheek and critical of the anti-intellectual movement that has been present in the US since it’s inception.  To goal is to initiate discussion and reflection on cognitive biases, to better represent that each of us are sometime hesitant to believe the educated “expert” in a field when they do not align with our existing belief structure.

Related Works:
Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter
Making a Better Tomorrow Tomorrow

Design Process
The process included quite a bit of research, to see how existing superpacs, political organizations, and associations represent themselves.  By exploring organizations like the Freedom Partners Action Fund and the Center for Existential Risk, I attempted to better understand how the narrative is crafted.  Ultimately, I learned there seems to be little structure to these narratives, with a simple straightforward vocabulary being the most consistent form.

I decided early on to create a website as the home for the organization to allow for easy distribution, increase visibility, and in an effort to add a bit of credence to the organization.  From there, I fashioned the site after other superpac sites which include simple layouts and straightforward goals (usually funneling traffic to a donate button) .  I decided on four key nav points:

About – Where the mission statement and founding of the association is discussed
Key Issues – Where the key issues the association feels most strongly about is discussed
Join – Where potential visitors who want to reach out to learn more can do so
News – A repository for real news stories which fit in the AIA realm.

For the exhibition, I’m intending on including some sort of collateral as a giveaway – potential options include postcards or stickers.

Final Deliverable

Link to the AIA Website



While writing the content for the site, I started to question a bit where I actually stand on issues. I found myself starting to write items which at first look seemed to fit the satire of the site that was clearly poor opinions, until I started to look a bit closer at the topic at hand. Initially, I thought I would be writing satirized content from the standpoint of issues I clearly did not share, but as I continued I found myself guilty of several of the cognitive biases the site addresses.

Placebo Interaction

About Placebo Interactions
Placebo interactions are interactions that lead you to believe you have control of something when really you do not. They take advantage of the sloppiness in feedback loops, giving either superficial, incomplete, or false feedback in response to an input. The primary example, and my introduction to the subject was with “close door” buttons in elevators. It turns out that these frequently are not hooked up to the elevator system, even though they may light up when pressed. The feedback loop is such that the tiny feedback from the light is enough to convince you that the button works even if it has no observable effect on the door closing. My idea was to project placebo design into the future via a public service portal–think public service announcement but in web form–that alerts the public to their dangerous lack of control over the built environment.

Key to my idea was to include both placebo interactions that already exist–the elevator door button, thermostat controls in large office buildings–placebo interactions that could exist right now–voting for instance–and placebo interactions attached to products and activities that do not yet exist. The reader, if proceeding through the site in order, encounters the real, then the plausible, and then the absurd. By the end, the ridiculousness of the project should be apparent.

The project hopefully gets people to think about a couple of things. First, placebo design itself. The best part of this process for me was hearing all of the stories that people had about design that could be considered placebo design. It was gratifying for storytellers to have a category for a life event that may have gone previously unrecognized, or simply left as “manipulation.” In an exhibit setting, I would hope it could spur conversation around this same topic, and give people a new tool to categorize design they encounter. Second, I am interested to encourage people to think about what they would potentially be invited to control in the future, and what controls will be taken away. Placebo design, in my research, can be used to manipulate–as in gambling–or to help cope and give oneself back a sense of control (even if it is acknowledged to be a placebo). If we are moving to a world with more embedded computation receding to the periphery but controlling things in unseen ways, what will we forget that we have lost control of? Will systems designers let us have that control back?

Related Work
The project relates only mildly to Anthony Dunne and Fionna Raby’s placebo design project. The title is similar but they had a specific investment in understanding how people cope with invisible electromagnetic forces. Where both of these projects align might be in what Bill Gaver calls ambiguous design. Gaver describes ambiguous design as design that can be interpreted based on circumstance. This was precisely the case with Dunne and Raby’s project where they asked people to use speculative projects over a period of time in their homes. For placebo interaction, the ambiguity of function can be interpreted for a different impression of the system. Gaver hope that “by impelling people to interpret situations for themselves, it encourages them to start grappling conceptually with systems and their contexts” (233). While placebo interactions do not encourage this kind of reflection in themselves–after all, they usually don’t want you to speculate about their system at all, lest it be uncovered–my hope is to show the ambiguity of these interactions and help people to project forward with a healthy does of mistrust.

The project most similar, in some ways, might be James Auger’s audio tooth implant. The project works in a similar problem space but with very different means. If the placebo interactions site fools anyone, it should only be momentarily, unlike Auger’s extended deception. But both deal with plausible technologies and the model that people create of those technologies in their mind. Placebo interaction generates a model through use, the audio tooth simply through press.

Process & Reflection
My process was a poor one: it involved months of exploratory writing and research (I have over 6000 words in notes and reflections–a full seminar paper of wheel spinning) and intense frustration about not knowing how to embody any of the ideas that I found engaging about placebo interaction. I wish that I had pushed myself to build more as a part of the design process, rather than figuring out the very best way to build a placebo design fiction project (which I never did, anyway). From here, I wrote all of the copy for the website, developed the graphics and coded it up.

In my explorations, I read news, reviewed projects that I had found engaging, and pondered how to extract the narrative value from placebo interaction (here’s a great article on placebo design). Most importantly, I collected anecdotes about where placebo design is and where it may be going. I then categorize those stories and ideas in an attempt to abstract principles that I could use to design new speculative placebo interactions. While none of the ideas I collected are immediately in the project, the talks did end up informing all of my later SPIs.

Gaver, William, Jacob Beaver, Steve Benford. “Ambiguity as a Resource for Design.” CHI Letters. Volume 5, Issue 15. 2003.

Process and Reflection

Design Process

We began with researching the history of prison systems, and how they supported mental illnesses, and utilized prisoners’ time in cheap labor. Using this background, we developed our concept to include such concepts, incorporating our statistics regarding the incredibly high percentages of mentally ill in prisons due to eradication of insane asylums, and scarcity of physiatric care facilities.

This led to our concept development, of harnessing the creativity of various perspectives found in different mental statuses.

We continued iterating through how the information would lay out in the context of the catalog and the roster, deciding on following the same format as the actual DSM editions that currently exist. Using their text as a starting point, we began adding in our own content, with descriptions and formulas for various forms of creative output.


Our experience in creating this project was both enlightening, and informative. I had previously known very little about the varying mental disabilities, and how they were categorized in this particular system. I had also known very little about the actual statistics of mental illnesses in prisons, and the means by which they have been addressed. The project opened a large set of questions revolving around morality, and methods of aid ranging from extremely viable, to completely abstract and borderline cruel. It was an excellent experience in both learning and exploring.

Sourcing Previous Work in Prisons and Mental Illnesses


Our concept centers on the history of mental illness aid within prisons, and how the system developed, functioned, and progressed. 70% of prisoners have some form of mental illness. Using this statistic, we developed a system in which prisoners are given the psychiatric aid they need, funded through companies who invest in the program to receive the output of creative levels of entrepreneurship found from prisoners, specified by their mental status.

The system is optimistic in its intent to provide aid to those who could not previously afford or access it, as well as give purpose to their time in prison, utilizing the entrepreneurship found in prison life today with makeshift methods of DIY with the little resources they have. However, the system holds a darker side in the alternative motivations of its funding. As we tell our story of the system’s history, we progress through the change from focus on prisoner-patient care for the mentally ill, to a system resembling the cheap labor exploitations corporations hold on prison labor, coupled with taking advantage of the mentally ill. We explore the range of cause and effects such a program could have on our current day prison systems.


Through much of our research, we have found a few articles that truly embody the statements our project highlights.

  • Tech Reform in Prisons


This article by Baratunde Thruston, titled “It’s Time for Tech to Embrace Prison Reform,” advocates for utilization of those in prisons to both diversify the workforce in technology, and to shake the current costs of letting these people rot away in jail cells.

This is mutually beneficial to both the prisoners and society in lowering the cultural disconnect after release, and he believes that it will help reduce recidivism in reintroducing fellow previous prisoners to society and immersion in tech. The entrepreneurship of prison life itself proves the resourcefulness of these people that could provide profound impacts on society’s tech immersion.

“Well, in [a prison] environment, innovation and iteration are happening out of necessity.” He then regales me with stories of inmates creating tattoo guns out of tape players and heating water without a microwave. In prison, terms like DIY, makers, hacking, and minimum viable product come to life every day.

We have focused our storyline in a similar pursuit, to explore what could happen if such resources were given larger consideration.

Many other articles have proved beneficial, looking into:

  • Path to Freedom

Very good video depicting prison life, and meditational techniques that can be used within prison culture.


  • Utilizing the Arts for Mental Illnesses


This followed a similar vein in using theatre as a tool for mental illness. The Theatre of the Oppressed is a now world-renowned framework using roleplay to explore new possibilities, with the belief that, if we start by observing our actions and interactions, we can then go on to do things differently in the future. Other forms of the arts are also used at the Nise de Silveira hospital, producing work that has been critically acclaimed and exhibited in museums.

“Plato and Socrates believed that poets and priests could commune with the gods through accessing a kind of ‘divine madness’, thereby identifying the source of creative inspiration and insanity as one and the same, and the ‘mad artist’ has remained a persistent motif in many cultures, from Vincent van Gogh to Kanye West. Eccentric behaviour is indulged, encouraged or even expected in creative people, who enjoy a privileged position outside of the normal rules of society, and who often play up to this idea as if to underscore their untrammelled creativity.”

This research also helped source many of the reasonings behind some of the mental illnesses we chose to focus on, and the creative outlets they produce.

Seen this way, madness might be a blessing of sorts, a kind of portal into a unique vision of the world.

  • Curing vs. addressing mental Illnesses


  • What Solitary Confinement Does to the Brain


  • Tools for the Brain


Creating a Critical Framework for evaluating Speculative Critical Design & Design Fictions

I started by looking at Video Visions of the future series by Microsoft corporation and wanted to create a critical version of the video so as to criticize the politics of anticipation and ambiguty and insensitivity towards various issues in these constructed visions of the future.

In the evolutionary process of creating a critical framework I have decided to work on creating a ‘Citical Kit’ with the intention of the making criticism accessbile to the masses. This Kit would enable viewer to submit his/her critical feedback in a tangible form and would give a material form to criticism.

The idea is based on ‘The Crit-Kit toolkit which was introduced in the Oxford Futures forum which was aimed to use annotation to evaluate scenarios critically. This could be also used to make design provocation and help to think on other scenarios. IT would be productive in analyzing existing designs.

The ideological stance behind such toolkit is that we influence our tools and then the tools influence us. It helps people identify missing parts and helps a person think.

Link to my research/thought process :



Refined Concept

Our critique is on the abuse of prisoner labor in our present day system, but reflected in a system for the mentally disabled. With the concept of companies using the unfortunate circumstances to their benefit by purchasing cheap rights to the creative nature of the mentally disabled. By doing so viewers are able to see the flaws without be clouded by the fact that they are criminals. A museum based display of capitalization on the mentally disordered and then carrying it down into the present day problems with cheap prisoner labor, can show the potential direction of companies getting involved in corrective facilities.

The items in the museum will be a progressive dialogue of the history of how the system began and its methods, as explained from 10 years after its establishment. The timeline of the museum begins in 2040 when the system was fully developed and quickly eradicated, and continues to explain the history from our current day, 2015, through to the cause of its collapse, comparing similarities to the cheap labor forces of our current day prisons.

We are going to provide digital documentation of objects mixed with some physical objects for the museum. Each item will be accompanied with a description and time stamp. These objects will include;

-Introduction of the collapse of the future system

-Past labor objects, such as license plate


-DMS codes


-Creativity tool

-Creativity extraction tool

-Closing of the System

Understanding people better than we do

Michal Kosinksi visited CMU today and gave a talk entitled “Predicting Personality from Digital Footprints” in which he describing a mechanism he’s developed for providing (sometimes) better than human ratings of personality over a range of common traits (the Big Five).

I found this pretty interesting as it describes a very effective mechanism by which the notion of philosophical grammars could be formed. Additionally, he and his collaborators have created a public instantiation of their tool with both datasets and a live tool which can be used for testing etc.

Hopefully I will be able to use some of what Michal has done as part of the engine in my project.

The abstract provided for the talk is:

Personality traits form a key driver behind people’s behavior, cognitions, motivations, and emotions; therefore, assessing others’ personality is a basic social skill and a crucial element of successful social interactions. However, based on a sample of over a million participants, I show that personality judgments made by computers―and based on generic and pervasive digital footprints (Facebook Likes)―are more accurate than those made by participants’ friends, family members, and even romantic partners. Furthermore, compared with humans, computers achieve higher inter-judge agreement and superior external validity (i.e. are better at predicting life outcomes). In some cases, computer-based personality judgments are even more valid than self-reported personality scores. I conclude by discussing the consequences of computers outpacing humans in this basic social-cognitive skill.