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Claptrap enters the design age

[On a rainy day in 1994], the influence of technology on design (and vice-versa) was the ostensible subject of discussion at a seminar entitled “Putting Culture into Business: Design and Technology: Culture Technologies Convergence,” held in Toronto as part of a three-day conference on culture and technology sponsored by the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto. A Thursday session was muddily described in the conference program thus: “Design interprets and provides access to technology and facilitates its adoption.... How are designers from various disciplines using and interpreting multimedia, interactivity and other technologies?”

These questions were not even obliquely answered by the panel, consisting of moderator Alexander Manu, a Toronto industrial designer; John Tyson, VP of the Corporate Design Group at Ottawa’s Bell-Northern Research; graphic designer Bruce Mau of Toronto; and Gaetano Pesce, an Italian architect/industrial designer. Tyson’s speech, entitled “Design to Value,” described some “basic facts” about the way technology, in his view, is ahead of culture, with “no direct correlation” between the two. Technology, he says, is converging at the speed of light, culture at the speed of generations. It’s easy enough to find examples of technologies converging – combination telephone/answering machines, CD-ROM drives that play audio CDs, and of course the nascent unification of computers, TV, and telecommunications – but Tyson did not explain how cultures are converging on anything. It might be more accurate to say that cultures consume each other, with, for example, Hollywood cinema choking out Canadian films at movie-houses across the land, or Chinese culture consuming Tibet.

His goals in designing telecom equipment are “profound simplicity,” “conspicuous customer value,” and “self-evidence.” As Tyson puts it, “The smarter we make phones, the dumber people feel.” (Anyone who has dealt with a cranky voicemail system or tried to transfer a call on a Northern Telecom phone knows what he’s talking about.) Tyson made great hay of the mental paradigm his team uses to reach those goals, something he calls “backcasting,” but it was never clear exactly what he was talking about (and why it’s not called “aftcasting,” a more apt converse of “forecasting”). Backcasting, which he says shows the strengths and weaknesses of current product design, sounds suspiciously like learning from your mistakes. Combine this with the willingness to take a few bold leaps and boom, you’re a success. Tyson’s speech left delegates, a crowd that’s used to the jargon of the design and technolgy trades, in something of a haze.

Bruce Mau’s presentation took a different form. The noted graphic designer, who has worked on everything from I.D. to hoity-toity books in the Zone series to postage stamps, elucidated his theme with the slogan “imagination is device-independent.” Interesting. But instead of explaining what he meant, Mau spent most of his time reading a list of things TV does well and poorly from Jerry Mander’s 1978 polemic Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. While entertaining enough, Mau’s reading shed little light on his own impressions of “Culture Technologies Convergence.” Indeed, it was the kind of stunt someone like Mau could get away with only because he’s a big star in the graphic-design cosmos. Delegates who anted up $321 for the three-day conference could be forgiven for feeling cheated.

Some hope for salvaging the discussion came from Pesce, an avuncular figure who would fit right into a Jean-Luc Godard film. His was the session’s most winsome view of the impact of technology, which he believes opens up possibilities for customization and individuality. Quoting the example of a bicycle factory that can produce thousands of bicycles, each slightly different from the next, at only 10% higher cost than identical bicycles, Pesce concludes that mass production is giving way to mass customized production. “To be different is [the] main characteristic of this historical moment,” he says. Pesce’s remarks only obliquely referred to culture, which was consistent with an implicit message: Technology’s impact on culture is so subtle it can be hard to pinpoint.

Still, the session as a whole failed to bring designers down to earth. The success of the Ford Taurus, inline skates, Macintosh PowerBooks, and other “designy” products notwithstanding, Joe and Jane Sixpack still think of “design” as a twee and irrelevant preoccupation of intellectuals. Tyson, Mau, Manu, and Pesce did not even hint at real-world issues like the difficulty of designing a truly easy-to-use VCR remote control, or the still-developing etiquette of cellphone use, or why parents who ten years ago decried their children’s saturated TV viewing now shell out megabucks to buy them video games, or what kinds of cultural shifts transformed anti-lock brakes and airbags from frills for deep-pocket Mercedes drivers to features demanded by customers on even the most basic cars. The main “convergence” the session highlighted was one between jargon and ego.


I should have done far better homework for this story in its original run. Gaetano Pesce has been around forever and is a major luminary in industrial design. (Among other things, he masterminded the [in]famous no-offices interior of Chiat/Day in New York.) Why wasn’t his arrival in Toronto more loudly proclaimed? Also, I have since gotten to know Alex Manu a wee bit, and I’m not sure a funnier lecturer exists anywhere. And now he’s making toys! Go figure.

Originally published 1994 ¶ Updated here 1999.07.25, 2007.03.19

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