Review: Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things

Author-cum- design-critic Bruce Sterling has written another great book on design, Shaping Things. Ignore its surprisingly sophomore-typography-project design, with its ugly, Adaptive Path green and wacky type choices throughout; it’s really a must-read for interaction and industrial designers alike.

As he did in Tomorrow Now and his keynote speech at SIGGRAPH 2004, Sterling makes a timeline of objects, starting with artifacts (“things made by hand, used by hand, and powered by muscle”) and going through machines, products, gizmos, and finally spimes, the objects of the future. It’s a great model. Spimes are about sustainability, creating objects so full of information that they are able to be tracked and monitored throughout their entire lifecycle, allowing us to see the impact of each item on our natural environment. Indeed, sustainability is a major theme of this book, much like John Thackara’s In The Bubble.

A great nugget from the book is the idea of metahistory.

“Every culture has a metahistory. This is not the same as their actual history, an account of places and events. A metahistory is a cultural thesis on the subject of time itself. Metahistory is about what’s gone by, what comes next, and what all that is supposed to mean to sensible people…a cultures metahistory helps it to determine whether new things are appropriate…”

Sterling uses metahistory for broad cultures, but I am going to suggest that organizations also have them, and that designers have to muck about with them all the time when creating products (in the generic, not Sterling-sense of the word).

Sterling also goes through probably the best breakdown of Raymond Loewy‘s MAYA principle that I’ve ever read. Part of this breakdown is a discussion of what it means to be “designery.” To whit:

“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 glamor.”

Sterling goes into a discussion that should be of great interest to interaction designers about RFID tags (“arphids”) and how, combined with monitors and wireless, they could form an internet of things, communicating with each other and the internet like a swarm. Really fascinating stuff.

Near the end of the book, Sterling reaches a little far into the future for my taste, but then I’m a designer, not a prophet.

For a book with a good amount of theory, it’s very readable. Recommended.