Design Tools: Future Backwards


Meredith Warner from The Action Mill stopped by the studio to introduce a synthesis tool for my independent study. This method helps externalize the current state of a situation with a “heaven” and “hell” state that represent the future. You then bridge the gaps between the future states, working backwards, with the steps that get you there. The heaven state represents what it is you are trying to achieve while the hell state represents that which you are trying to avoid. This activity has not constraints regarding time or amount of post-its used. The only rule is that you can only write one idea per post-it.

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You begin by creating a grouping of post-its the represent the state. Here, fellow MiD students Meghan and Lonnie worked on their thesis project. The problem they were trying to solve for was a disengaged community that has difficulty organizing and initiating projects to improve their environment. They started the furture backwards exercise by using yellow post-its to represent their current state.

They you start to build a line of post-its into the past. This begins with a recent event in the immediate past and you continue to work backwards.

You then create your “heaven” and “hell” states. These are two separate clusters off to the right of your current state cluster. First you establish the “heaven state” (blue post-its) and then the “hell state” (red post-its). Lonnie and Meghan’s “heaven state” has post-its stating “100% employment” and “full community engagement” while their “hell state” contained post-its like “completely abandoned” and “families driven out.”

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Then, you work backwards from the “heaven state” beginning with the most immediate event that would occur right before getting to the “heaven state.” Then you continue backwards, toward the cluster of yellow post-its, until you reach the current state. You then do the same exercise for the “hell state.” During this process, you can include potential obstacles or dissaters that might occur within each heaven and hell path. The end result should bridge the heaven and hell states to the past state by going through the current state.

Photo Feb 26, 1 55 59 PM

I think the value of the exercise is not so much the lovely collage of post-its but the conversation that occurs during creation. As Lonnie and Meghan worked through the exercise, they talked about each part of the process, discovering differences in how they understood the past, present, and future of their project. By the time they finished the activity, they had a better understand of each others understanding and expectations for the project. This seems like an effective way to make a more cohesive team when working on a project.


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