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.


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.


Spekkl is a small, handheld device that claims to detect GMO contamination, pesticides, herbicides, irradiation and freshness in any food or drink item using infrared spectroscopic scanning.

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Spekkl allows us to create a performative fiction that takes place online via the Spekkl website and dedicated email. We have accumulated contact information for over 65 blogs and Facebook groups in the topics of food safety / parenting / health. We will send a Spekkl press release to this list in hopes that the bloggers will publish our content and market the product:

Spekkl Begins Pre-Orders for Spekkl Food Safety Tool

April 13, 2015 (Pittsburgh, PA) – Beginning April 13, Spekkl is offering pre-orders for Spekkl, the on-the-go well-being and food safety tool. Spekkl is a small, handheld device that detects genetically modified organism (GMO) contamination, pesticides, herbicides, irradiation and freshness in any food or drink item. The device leverages infrared spectroscopic technology to read and interpret the chemical makeup of food in the grocery store or at home, empowering the everyday consumer to know exactly what they purchase and eat.

Spekkl will be available for pre-order at spekkl.com and will retail for $69.99. Pre-order submission will act as a waitlist with no purchase necessary. A limited supply will be available for purchase beginning June 1 and orders will begin shipping around July 1.

Spekkl was developed by a team of engineers and industrial designers to be practical, powerful and beautiful. Spekkl features a 1.5 x 2.2 inches (38.1mm x 56mm) 256-color transflective TFT display and simple three-button control. At 7.5 oz. (213 g) and 2.4W x 6.1H x 1.3D inches (61mm x 155mm x 33mm), Spekkl fits easily into a purse or bag. Spekkl is powered with two “AA” batteries (not included). An adjustable, detachable wrist strap and information guide to the measured food safety levels are included with Spekkl.

About Spekkl

Spekkl is a health technology startup based in Pittsburgh, PA, founded in September 2012. The Spekkl team began within the Center for Technology Transfer and Enterprise Creation at Carnegie Mellon and is made up of two chemical engineers and two industrial designers. In a world of false advertising, buzzwords and sensationalized labeling, Spekkl aims to make accurate food knowledge accessible to each and every person.

The website will feature renderings of and information about the product, why you should use it, and a form to pre-order (with no purchase necessary). We will measure the success of this project based on the number of pre-orders we receive, signaling belief and desire for the product.

Towards the end of the project we will send reply emails to individuals who placed pre-orders, describing the nature of the project and that the product is not real.

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 11.09.25 PMWe will present our project as the physical product and branded website, along with the email conversations we have with potential consumers and their reactions to the project.

No Pain, No Gain

The U.S. cultural obsession with health and fitness has evolved from checking our weight on a scale to monitoring our steps, amount of sleep, heart rate and calories burned on wearable technology. The pieces of plastic and metal we attach to our bodies serve as a constant reminder of our wellness and physique. More and more we voluntarily seek to be notified of our fitness accomplishments and failures from these devices. We crave their validation—they quantify our feelings of success.

We are slowly forming dominant and subordinate relationships with these devices. Fitness, especially weight loss, requires restraint. These devices will enforce our obedience. We seek new sensations to help us commit to our fitness goals. We accept the infliction of pain, both verbal and physical, to maintain our regimen of diet and exercise.

Inspired by BDSM culture, dog shock collars and the Fitbit “taunt” feature, these modern fitness trackers have been modified in the near future to contain the personas of Mistresses and Masters that keep their users in line. Like a dominatrix, these pieces of technology use physical pain and abusive language to discipline and motivate a submissive user. Electric shocks, burns and pin-pricks from mechanisms housed in the devices are used to cause pain, while language from the interface is used to humiliate. Humiliation in this method is important in maintaining user participation, causing lowered self-image and therefore continued need for the fitness tracking products. With greater endured suffering comes greater feelings of success when goals are met. The validation we feel from these products is a powerful force that keeps us in this cycle of failure and achievement.

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Inside Out

I am going to talk about poetry again because I have my poetry class on the same day that I do these readings and the discussions are fresh in my head. Today in class we talked about how far a writer can take a metaphor before losing their reader. My professor described the effect of unique and perplexing literary imagery as “turning the reader’s metaphysical being inside out”. This came up as we were reading Finding Something by Jack Gilbert. The opening line of the poem was puzzling the class: “I say moon is horses in the tempered dark, / because horse is the closest I can get to it”. We debated whether the language was adding to the emotional quality of the poem or if it was creating unnecessary mental strife in the reader’s head as they attempted to decipher it. Some were opposed—even if the image created was beautiful, the lack of logic in the line makes it incomprehensible and is mostly distracting. Others, a majority, found the line enjoyable—poetry doesn’t need to follow any physical logic, and the line certainly has an emotional and melodic appeal that works hand in hand with the strange syntax and objects in comparison.

In imagining the future with vision videos, the article by Kinsley discusses a balance between the “apparent and the anticipated”. It is argued that showing how a technology can actually function is important, because these visions of the future are “elongations” of the present, playing on what we already know, expect and have learned from observing other illustrated futures. Also quietly mentioned is the fact that not all questions are answered, that some “magical illusion” is present in these depictions of the future. We don’t know how the screens are capable of appearing on any surface, for example. I believe these unknowns, or unexplained bits, are as important as the believable stretching of existing technology. These future visions, if they are to provoke change, should extend what we currently know much further than we can imagine. In some ways we should answer the unstoppable urge to know how something works, but more importantly we should make an audience feel and act on that urge. A viewer of a vision video should ask how this is possible, and if they don’t know, they should be provoked to make it a reality. Our metaphysical being should turn inside out.

Learning Could Be Fun

I’d like to read more satire for classin general, not just for this design fiction course. This week’s readings of Dunne and Raby’s “Speculative Everything” and the Tonkinwise review were really bogging me down in analyses and argument deciphering. There is an obvious need for academia and the back-and-forth rebuttal it provokes, but I’m not going to say I enjoy reading what is produced from it. I would much rather be entertained, intellectually.

The irony-soaked “Design Fictions about Critical Design” from Tonkinwise makes engaging with critical design theory and practice easy to understand. The quick bits of stories, design fictions in themselves, allow a reader with just some knowledge of critical design to understand the pitfalls and annoyances that Tonkinwise cites of the practice. As part of a course reading assignment, the satire allows me to learn faster and enjoy more. Next to the traditionally dry papers, this style of communication is energizing. The entirety of this practice is aimed at engaging and provoking the public, so it should take some cues from it’s own discipline when publishing for purposes within its own community. Make learning, and advancing your discipline, fun.

The Power of Unlearning

What I connected to the most in the chapters of the first edition of Futurish was the discussion of improvisation in design. I’m taking courses in poetry and modern dance this semester and the theme I’ve observed between the two creative fields is the necessity to let go of inhibitions and avoid overthinking.

In a room of people who have never taken a dance class, you can feel the collective intimidation when asked to improvise and perform a 32 count routine. The instructor describes the most powerful routines as containing the most subtle movements like walking and crouching. She emphasizes that you don’t need to overcomplicate or attempt to mimic what you see professional dancers do—simply move as you feel.

In poetry, the same rapid improvisation applies. Within the timeframe of 5 minutes we are expected to release poetic lines onto our paper. The key, our professor says, is to not think about what we write, but to let a stream of consciousness and emotion guide us. My professor emphasizes what he calls the “unlearning” of objects in order to transform them into powerful imagery. This technique of taking ordinary objects and describing them as a child would, without learned meaning or connotation, allows one to create linguistic surprise and interest.

Just as discussed in Futurish, we must acknowledge the present but release ourselves from the expected in order to create a subtle, realistic future. We can’t rely solely on what is given to us in the world to create compelling change, and we mustn’t be overdramatic in our designed futures: this is a delicate balance. What makes a future powerful is the ability for the present day public to believe it, digest it and reflect on it. The authors cite Johnstone who “warns that we ‘mustn’t try to control the future or to win’; instead, he says, we need to empty our head and improve our skills of observation”. The authors also mention Gupta’s visionary adaptation approach, in which you must adapt realities to become your imagined futures. It is reassuring to read about the role of improvisation in design after experiencing it in other expressive media. To me, this is the power of design—creating unique perspective and the ability to distribute that perspective in a compelling way.

Takeout Sex

Craigslist Hookup Pages Linked to 16% Rise in HIV Cases

In a future with an increased reliance on online intermediaries in daily life, casual sex and hookups are initiated only through digital platforms.

What began as the taboo and distasteful personal ads section of Craigslist has become the overwhelming norm for dating and sex. In a transitioning from Craigslist’s anonymous “blank seeking blank” to Tinder and Grindr profiles, finding a casual encounter in the present has become as simple as ordering takeout.

No longer does one need to flirt or date in the physical world. Emotional intelligence between humans outside of digital contexts has diminished, and displays of affection in public are largely uncommon. Dating requires a connection through digital space, but little written or verbal exchange is made between participants. Like a food ordering system, the participants select desirable traits for their delivery. These valued traits can be accessed remotely or input manually by a participant. A match within a specified distance is made and the individuals are tracked by geolocators as they engage at a private meeting place.


Social interaction has declined in public, and has been compensated for in humans in the form of private sexual expression. The population has become increasingly driven by constant sexual desire. Cases of rape increase.

The increase in casual sex with strangers has led to an increase in HIV and STD transmission rates. Sex education did not meet the rate of change seen in technologic social interactions and young adults are therefore not prepared to protect themselves. An increase in HIV and STD transmission has caused higher medical costs and subsequently a growing number of people who cannot afford treatment. Classist divides grow: the poor have become poorer and sicker with drastically lower life expectancies.

Along with height, weight and body type attributes, the ordering process for hookups includes selectable options on HIV and STD status, which is publicly accessible information. Complete trust is given to the digital systems to protect the user’s health by pairing only documented HIV negative participants. A black market for clean blood samples grows, allowing for unknown transmission between sexual partners. Once diagnosed, it is impossible to live life without being socially ostracized. Communities of diagnosed individuals form in digital and physical spaces as they are shunned from society.



Freese Gonzatto, Rodrigo, van Amstel, Frederick M. C., Merkle, Luiz Ernesto, Hartmann, Timo. 2013.The ideology of the future in design fictions. Digital Creativity, Vol 24, No 1, 1 – 10, 2013

Malpass, Matt. 2013. Between Wit and Reason: Defining Associative, Speculative, and Critical Design in Practice in Design Culture, Vol. 5, Issue 3, pp 333 – 356


Design as Liberation

I am excited that critical engineering is being practiced. I am a believer that everything is designed and everyone is a designer. I support the application of creative methodology in any field. It allows for the design and creation of things outside of the preferable future. It supports the provocative nature of critical design that drives socio-political change in the present.

The ability for any profession to create beyond its for-profit industry requirements is liberating and I am glad that Oliver, Savičić and Vasiliev have provided a precedent and manifesto for critical engineers to follow and expand on. I’m not an engineer but I can relate to these practices in my own work as a designer, and that transdisciplinary value is what makes them powerful.

Unless Provoked

One theme I enjoyed reading about among the writings was the place of critical design in juxtaposition to commercial products. As I’ve understood from previous readings, critical design is defined by its provocative nature and, as Mazé and Redström reference Dunne and Raby, the ability to “establish an intellectual stance of its own”. Bardzell, Bardzell, Forlizzi, Zimmerman and Antanitis described the shortcomings in their critical design experiments as due in part to their lack of provocative nature.

When considering what critical design is, the line seems to be drawn at preferable futures, as Revell describes in the Candy’s futures cone. The Microsoft futures example is one that illustrates the concept nicely, with the corporate-produced videos showing no signs of normalcy, but rather a world where everything is perfect. This capitalist, commercialist approach to designed futures is not critical at all, as Revell points out. Critical design takes places when meaning and effect are the main goals rather than the formation of a product for sale.

My favorite point from Revell was in his description on the importance of normalcy: “Bad design relies on fireworks and spectacle to create engagement. Good design uses the normal to build a relationship”. If we should avoid the future of design as capitalist profession that Dunne and Raby talk about, designers must avoid producing purely for profit and planned obsolescence. We should instead create substance and discourse with our work. We must use what is familiar to the humans we engage with every day and transform it into provocation and meaning.

We’re Not So Different, You And I

Once again, the writings revolve around a theme of disparities and relationships between design, futures and scientific research. The authors talk about the accessibility of design fiction and design research by the public and by field of scientific research.

I had no strong reaction to anything mentioned by the authors. I found Candy’s concept of design joining forces with future studies to make sense. I agreed with the idea of the fields learning from each other rather than separating themselves. In a similar vein, Grand and Wiedmer talked about accessibility and shared methodology between the practices of traditional scientific research and design research. I agree with their stance that design research should not attempt to define itself as separate from scientific research but rather that research should be seen as design. I’ve stated before that my opinions on labeling practices and methods is not very useful except to an outsider to the field. In these instances, the defining and labeling makes sense because the authors are looking at ways that seemingly dissimilar fields can interact and share. Auger focused on some terminology as well and explained that he uses the word speculative so that the work is accessible by the public as work that references the current, present world in order to design for the future. This is an acceptable form of name-defining.