Designers Shaping Things

by November 28, 2005

Recent travels have taken me through Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things, a concise futurist manifesto about the technosocial transformation our objects bring upon us. If you are a digital product designer, read it.

The book outlines a history of objects that leads up to the development of spimes: location-aware, environment-aware, self-logging, self-documenting, uniquely identified objects that fling off data about themselves and their environment in great quantities. Spimes are objects that have “swallowed” our past by combining social networks, RFID tags, GPS systems, self Google-ing, peer-to-peer networking, auction sites, chat applications, digital storage, and more. Each spime is a node within an Internet of Things.

The following themes and passages from Shaping Things are particularly relevant extensions of recent discussions on Functioning Form about design vision and the role of design leads.

The Role of Designers

A world soaked in the information generated and gathered by spimes forces end-users (those of us making their way through the feature-rich vat of today’s objects) to become wranglers (those who chart paths through changing fields of object data and relationships). Complex objects bring with them personal costs: cognitive load (the personal brainpower required to think about things, talk about things, pay attention to things, be entertained by things, etc.) and opportunity cost (to make room for an additional object in your life, you have to sacrifice something you are already doing).

“There isn’t enough time in the world for people to sacrifice infinite amounts of opportunity and cognition. This means that in a spime world, designers must design, not just for objects or for people, but for the technosocial interactions that unite people and objects: designing for opportunity costs and cognitive load.”

Every person can’t wrangle all the world’s technosocial issues all the time.

“It follows that much of this activity should be done for [us] by other people. A class of aware, well-informed, trained and educated people who can navigate their way through this field of complexity, negotiating the snaky process of technosocial change and guiding them toward the sustainable. People who will make it their professional business, no, even their calling, their practice, their very mode of being –to create a human-object relationship that is as advanced as [we] can manage while still being acceptable to [us]. Who would that be then? Designers. Who else is there?”

Being Designery

Reacting to some of Jim Leftwich’s discussions about the power of wireframes and storyboards to drive a product vision, Jed Wood recently broached the issue of “designer arrogance”. Sterling describes this attribute (call it arrogance if you must) as an almost necessary part of MAYA (every designer’s quest for the Most Advanced Yet Acceptable solution to any given problem). MAYA is what designers are “supposed to do with their skills, for their clients, and to the world”.

“Being designery is not an affectation. Being designery is how one manipulates MAYA in public. Being designery is what one does, as a practical measure, in order to overcome the reactionary clinging to the installed base of malformed objects that maul and affront the customer. What cannot be overcome with reason can be subverted with glamour. That’s what design glamour is for. In the battlefield of MAYA, a reputation for omnicompetent genius is a valuable crowbar to jam in the door of the ‘Acceptable’.”

Design is Never Done

As recently articulated by Tim Brown, design is never done: “Even after you've rolled out your new product, service, or process, you're just getting started. In almost every case, you move on to the next version.” Sterling positions this attribute of design in the context of MAYA.

“No material thing can ever achieve full and utter acceptability. People are too ductile to have their problems solved. People are time bound entities transiting from cradle to grave. Any “solved problem” that involves human beings solves a problem whose parameters must change through time. A “thing” is no more stable than the humans who cherish it. Properly understood, a thing is not merely a material object, but a frozen technosocial relationship.”

Passionate Virtuosity

At the closing plenary of DUX 2005, Edward Tenner mused about the deviant ingenuity that enables people to create great ubiquitous designs by “going with their gut” rather than utilizing substantial processes and research. Steve Portigal summed up Tenner’s position by saying “although he knew nothing about user research he didn't think it was a good idea and that intuition was a better tool”. Sterling would be likely be in agreement with Tenner:

“Design is hard to do. Design is not art. But design has some of the requirements of art. The achievement of greatness in art or design requires passionate virtuosity. Virtuosity means thorough mastery of craft. Passion is required to focus human effort to a level that transcends the norm.”