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Designing the Future

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”—William Gibson, NeuromancerThe cyberpunk existence first posited by William Gibson in 1984 and then expanded by a number of other writers including Bruce Sterling has become more science (or factual) than fiction.

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”—William Gibson, Neuromancer

The cyberpunk existence first posited by William Gibson in 1984 and then expanded by a number of other writers including Bruce Sterling has become more science (or factual) than fiction. It isn’t surprising that some of these writers, Sterling, in particular, are turning their attention to things that are still on the edge but manifest in a real or potential reality. One such essay in what is, or ought to be, which should be of particular interest to designers is Sterling’s Shaping Things. He writes: “By their nature, designers are accommodating problem-solvers. Their basic instincts lead them to unsnarl social embarrassments with graceful efficiency.” And some social embarrassments are things that have actually been created by designers, so one of their functions is cleaning up after themselves. Sterling’s book, which riffs on the concept of what he calls “SPIMES” (think of products that are not only created via a PLM system, but which fundamentally carry all of that information with them such that it is accessible to the consumer, so there are, in effect, “intelligent” products: he uses the example of a bottle of wine that would have all manner of information related to the grapes, vineyards, etc.; imagine what something like a car or truck could bring along in terms of information). But more importantly, he brings to the fore a concept of Raymond Loewy’s, that of MAYA: Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable.

Sterling writes: “MAYA, according to Loewy, is what industrial designers are supposed to do with their skills, for their clients, and to the world. Designers create objects, products, processes, symbols that anticipate the future. However, these innovations can also be metabolized on a broad scale by society in general.

“It just will not do to settle for the one activity or the other. Most Advanced would be ivory-tower scientific researchers. Yet Acceptable would be crass mass manufacturers. A designer is neither MA or YA, but MAYA, with all that implies. He is not compromising; no, he is synthesizing! This is not a lack of integrity on a designer’s part, but the very source of integrity.”

What is more accurately the state of affairs in the market is that there are many products that are MA or YA, with the latter being the default mode and the former being things that have but a brief existence due to the fact that they’re probably beyond the capabilities or tastes of the broad demographic so desired by purveyors. Finding that synthesis is essential, though demanding. And it is probably how the successful products of the future—SPIMES or not—will be created.—GSV