Designing My Next Step with Fictional Headlines of the Future

Designing My Next Step with Fictional Headlines of the Future - student project

Designing My Next Step with Fictional Headlines of the Future

How to apply Design Thinking to rehearse your future.


Why is making the next step so hard? Dan Gilbert, a psychologist at Harvard University says “At every stage of our lives we make decisions that will profoundly influence the lives of the people we're going to become, and then when we become those people, we're not always thrilled with the decisions we made.” Why not design your next step?

Questions I want to explore, that make me curious:

  • I’m curious about the combination of applying design thinking to corporate cultures.
  • I want to explore the idea of creating my own job description, based on a real problem that is out there.
  • I’m curious if organizations *really* want to help the world, or just talk about it.
  • I’m curious about storytelling the future for an organization that wants to rehearse it.


Relevant facts and historical examples, that give me strength:

  • I’m a design leader with 22 years experience.
  • When I look back over the past 10 years, I am now an ‘expert’ on things that I used to know nothing about.
  • The roles of design and leadership are merging into unforeseen industries across the globe.
  • I have a wealth of connections between people. It’s a historical archeology of opportunity.


Discoveries I hope to find along the way:

  • Peter Drucker was right, culture DOES eat strategy for breakfast.
  • Listening (empathy) comes before action. I have to listen more.
  • My next step can be a journey of discovery for me, but I can help others in the process.
  • Most of my greatest discoveries include something I know very little about. If it scares me that it is large and unknown, it’s probably worth doing. That means It’ll be a step where I will be growing.


Actions that I envision myself taking as a creative leader:

  • I will have several headlines of the future that will help me prototype my next step, wherever that might be.
  • I will proactively bring opportunities to people & organizations, creating an opportunity for myself.
  • I will listen carefully for needs & problems, and align them with my aspirations. I will prototype next steps by making them fictional outcomes first, then rationalize them against my discoveries.

Several years ago I read 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven R. Covey. His lesson to ‘Begin with the end in mind’ has influenced me as a designer and leader ever since. I often apply design thinking to my work & projects, but have also discovered how to apply design thinking to my own future.

There are a lot of ways to design a future state. You can imagine it, prototype it, visualize or write about it, but probably the most useful exercise I’ve found in recent years is designing fictional Headlines of the Future. I work with product leaders & executives from around the world and I’ve used this exercise to help them write their fictional headlines of the future. It helps them play (quickly) with hypothetical language that describes a future with a precise language that can be attributed to varying degrees of impact and influence. It’s an amazing tool to help build a product & build stronger business stories.

When I think about Designing my own next step, I often begin by designing fictional headlines of my future. It’s sometimes helpful to play with the outcome before having to worry about the details of getting there. Once you find a future with qualities that excite you, extend those into a deeper narrative and then a plan can emerge. They will most certainly bring up questions that invoke your curiosity.

How does this work? First of all, you have to look at yourself deeply, looking into your aspirations and then apply the components of a narrative headline.


  • Headline (The What)- Precise language that draws you into a story or narrative.
  • Date - (The When) - When the news takes place.
  • Author - (The Who) - The author who is attributed to the Headline/Quote.


It turns out that about 80% of people ONLY read headlines, and never read the full story. A headline about yourself about your achievements in the next version of yourself can be filled with aspirational, yet precise language. By incorporating the three components of a headline, they give context to the words and affect the content & perception of the material.

By rapidly prototyping the language in a fictional headline, you can put valuable insights into a hypothetical future that you can make reality. From there you can drill into the ones you like, study their characteristics and then work backwards towards a plan.

The exercise is simple and quick to execute. Here are a few repeatable steps that can be done by yourself or with trusted friend,family member or colleague.



1)  START WITH EMPATHY - (see Fig 1. --> listen to & understand your Aspirations)

  • Give Language to your passions, aspirations, skills and who you want to be.
  • Go Deeper - Allow yourself to drill into one or several of those points

2) WRITE HEADLINE -(see fig. 2)

  • Write several headlines that incorporate your aspirations as if you’ve achieved them by taking the next step. Many times you can give a voice to how someone has responded to your actions.


  • Give further meaning & context to your headline by giving it a date and attribution. This is critical to bring a voice to your potential headline.


4) PLAY & ITERATE (see fig. 3)

  • Change the words in your headline, date or attribution to quickly iterate on impact of your headline. (NOTICE the difference between Fig. A and Fig. B --> the words in red are changed and how they dramatically change the impact and meaning of the headline)



Once you have a few headlines you’re excited about, you can take a headline farther by drilling into the story and creating a deeper fictional story or press release about the context. This gives you more fidelity into your hypothetical future. As a visioning exercise, this can provide additional details that can inform a plan. This can take more time to author, but you’ll enjoy the freedom of inserting perfect pull quotes and an ideal story of your next step.



Once you have a series of headlines & potential stories, run them by the trusted advisors or mentors in your life. Use them as prototypes to create discussions about action and how you might pursue conversations that will give you momentum towards this goal.

Don’t worry if some of your aspirations seem ridiculous. That’s what a plan is for. Headlnes can help you with the ‘What, Who, Why, & When’

Timothy Goodman, who is a Designer and Illustrator says, “Don’t worry about what you want to do as much as who you want to work for.”



I’m thankful for John Maeda’s challenge and assignment. There are some very thoughtful guidance and wisdom he uncovers for us in helping take this to the next level and taking the next step.

 Most of all, I hope to make the journey as fun as the destination.


I'd love to get your thoughts, reflections & feedback about creating fictional headlines of the future. Reach me on Twitter @danemhoward