Art + Thought / AF 2005 - Bruce Sterling

AF 2005 - Bruce Sterling

For the year 2005, I am the "Visionary in Residence" at Art Center College of Design. I think you'll agree that it's an interesting academic title.

Let me describe what this job entails.

   First, my job needs somebody has to volunteer to be a design visionary. There are never many such people around. Here are some historical role models for my present line of work: John Ruskin, Filippo Marinetti, Normal Bel Geddes, Buckminster Fuller, Walter Gropius Reyner Banham and Siegfried Giedion.

    Some contemporary practitioners: Bruce Mau, Karim Rashid, Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, William J. Mitchell, Jane Jacobs.

    What do these people have in common?

    First, a visionary should be impractical. People with sensible profitable businesses or sound models of governmental reform should never call themselves "visionaries."  No one allows successful businessman or capable bureaucrats to inspire exotic flights of airy wonder. That makes the stakeholders nervous.

    The second requirement is to be noisy. Many people suffer from visions, but design visionaries must be LOUD about their visions; they must be PERSISTENTLY loud, IN PUBLIC. A professional visionary has to write and publish rather a lot. If this requires you to embarrass yourself, well, that's too bad: you must do it.

    Then come the various minor arts of the visionary calling. It helps a lot to be imaginative. It helps almost as much merely to be foreign, or even just personally eccentric. The most potent flight of imagination comes when one tells people rather obvious things -- true things, that they ought to know already, but just don't.  It's not the raw imagination that matters in the design visionary trade, but the cognitive estrangement -- the bracing shock to the listener's sensibility.

     As a professional visionary, one should be radically insistent on framing big issues. For instance, even though the superbly ergonomic Oral-B Toothbrush by Lunar Design is an important design advance, you can't really become a "toothbrush visionary." There's simply not enough elbow-room in the topic of toothbrushes. Clearly, everyone on the planet should possess and use an ergonomic toothbrush, but if you're a visionary, you're much better off glamorizing some apparently grander issue, such as, say, space flight, or nanotechnology, or universal Internet access, or comprehensive worldwide moral reform through the Total Work of Art. 
If you yourself get a toothache, you'll be in too much pain to manage any visions, so get an advanced, decent toothbrush and use it, but use it quietly.

    Visionaries are commonly involved in describing or assembling design movements. Critics of this ilk tend to be big-tent guys, dragging practitioners together into private lodges and gymnasiums. 
People outside movements hate "movements." People inside movements hate their own movements almost as much, but movements are not for the benefit of people in or out of movements. Movements are mnemonic devices. They keep work from being forgotten by the general public. A movement is a verbal handle on something too fleeting and complex to be summarized. Visionaries shouldn't hesitate to use and  
name movements whenever convenient.

     Visionaries should be inspirational and motivational types, cheerleader figures urging creative people on to their best efforts. 
It's entirely possible to be a mournful, gloomy design Cassandra. 
For instance, you can insist, with plenty of cogent evidence, that everything we've built is useless, stupid and ugly, and that our civilization is doomed. However, a prophet of doom lacks a positive agenda. He's misplaced as a design visionary. He's more likely to fully exercise his native talents in some more congenial role, such as a Waco-style cult figure in an apocalyptic compound.

     Visionaries need a comprehensive vision-thing. They need to sweep through vistas of time and have an ozone reek of forward- looking futurity.  Design observers who lack a historical thesis aren't visionaries; they are better described as wonks, fans or technocrats.

    Visionaries should be able to attract public attention and capture some useful chunk of the public imagination. A design vision can't be a merely private dream-castle, for, in order to intervene in design, other and more practical people have to pick up that vision and run with it. Similarly, visionaries need to be able to argue coherently; it's not enough to assemble a wunderkammer of design hits. Some ideological clarity is in order.

    Anyone entering an unfamiliar line of work will profit greatly by studying its founding figures. Wannabe visionaries should be on intimate terms with their professional forebears. If you examine the biographies of various design visionaries, you will swiftly learn that they're by no means a sweet, jolly, perky bunch.

    Real designers can be, and often, are delightful and congenial people, but design visionaries have a sober and melancholy occupation. To be a visionary is never a particularly lucrative line of work. Although there's some small fame involved, there will never be enough to really glut a writerly ego. A design visionary does not have a profession. Basically, it's a calling.

    The historical record about visionaries speaks for itself, and it's not a pleasant chronicle. Consider  John Ruskin, my personal favorite, perhaps the first thinker and writer to deserve term 'design visionary.'  Ruskin was, of course, the maestro of the Arts and Crafts movement. Internationally revered and deservedly popular, Ruskin was the first intellectual and cultural figure to  critically confront industrialism on its own ground, and to boldly challenge its tenets in some design-centric, practical detail. Furthermore (rather  
than merely blithering from the comfort of a Victorian gentleman's inherited income), Ruskin was more than willing to step outdoors and do some useful fieldwork.

    His chapter "On the Nature of Gothic," about ten pages long, was hugely influential. It was a formulating document of Romantic Nationalism, an igniting spark for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an intellectual substrate for Dante Gabriel Rosetti, William Morris, Jugendstil, Liberty Style, the Vienna Secession, Green and Green, Mission Style and even Bauhaus Modernism.

   John Ruskin was extremely intelligent, miraculously sensitive, awesomely fluent, deeply inspirational, very sincere and  totally wrong about almost everything he said. To have the benefit of hindsight on a cultural critic of genius  is like walking on stilts. 
It really gives one some fantastic sense  of giddy, mind-expanding exaltation.  Every design visionary should read John Ruskin. He's like a compass that always points south.

    Ruskin inspired a host of bright and energetic architects and designers who ended up doing just about the exact opposite of what Ruskin actually recommended in his various scriptures. That tends to happen a lot with great prophets, actually. It's a sign of their greatness.

   What became of Ruskin, the first design visionary? Well, Millais, a Ruskin disciple and painter, ran off with Ruskin's wife Effy. 
Another and even bolder painter, Whistler, broke Ruskin's spirit in a public libel suit. Ruskin suffered a series of nervous breakdowns, and he ended up as a wasted, bearded lunatic in hiding on his own estate. John Ruskin died in January 1900. When the architect Henry Wilson heard the news,  he said, "Is Ruskin dead? Thank God! Give me a cigarette!"

    Design visionaries should keep stories like this well in mind.

   The primary product of a visionary is visions. People who aren't visionaries imagine that the hard part is coming up with the visions. "How on earth do you think like that?" they might ask. 
"Where did you get such weird ideas?"

    We visionaries have few problems generating wacky ideas. They are a given.
No, the hard part is when they come unbidden, and when they just won't stop.

    The fun part is when abstract visions manifest themselves in real life. When someone gives a vision form. When someone turns abstract concepts into useful and attractive actualities.
That's what attracts me to design.

  As a science fiction writer, a journalist and a futurist, I'm rather interested in things that can be done, but I'm fiercely interested in things that cannot be done -- that is, not yet.
I'm also intensely interested in things that can no longer be done, and the reasons why that is so. Obsolescence is innovation in reverse; the innovator does not merely bring a new design into the world, he is frequently expunging an old one.

   It makes no sense for a working practitioner to do the undoable. 
But someone entirely and exclusively practical and capable is the puppet of the present moment and the present space.
Those who march in the parade don't get to watch it. And, more than anything I can name, I dearly love to watch that parade.


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