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Coalition of the orthogonal

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“But a designer is not a major industrialist,” says Bruce Sterling, science fiction writer and self-described “design ideologue,” in an interview about Torino, the northern Italian industrial city that has been designated the first World Design Capital. “A designer is usually somebody who is putting together a coalition of engineers and financiers, marketers, advertising people and consumers, who can think the thing through and make it more user-friendly, cheaper, modish and a little ahead of the game.

“So what the designer is bringing to the table is a new conception of the product, and the coalition he’s able to form by coming in orthogonally and resolving a lot of the issues. If you tear most manufactured objects apart, you’d be able to name the departments who put it together. [Looks at the audio recorder] ‘This is the electric engineering guy, this is the console guy, these are the optics guys, the marketing department insisted on putting this logo here, and the legal department put that warning there…’, et cetera. Whereas the designer can come in, melt these warring things together, get everybody on the same page, and come up with something that looks really great to someone who is not one of the gang.”

Bruce has a great ability to see how things connect; and to see how everything could be shaken up so it connects better.

I was, as far as I know, the first editor to publish Bruce Sterling on design, when I was editor and publisher of U&lc Online. I was creating a web-based companion to U&lc, and to do so I brought in a trio of rotating columnists: Olav Martin Kvern, Eileen Gunn, and Bruce Sterling – one each month, to synch up with the quarterly publishing schedule of the printed magazine. It seems today like an amazingly slow, leisurely schedule for an online publication, but at the time it made sense. You can still find some of Bruce’s columns, “Look at the Underside First,” although the design and formatting has changed, in the archives of the ITC website.

I like the notion of designers putting together coalitions; it matches the complex way in which design really happens. There’s always a big emphasis on design superstars, sort of the auteur theory of design, but in fact design is always collaborative.

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