Shaping Things

Tons has been written about Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things. He’s an active speaker, with material from the book informing many of his talks. One must give him highest credit for reusing his ideas but not reusing his material. In other words, when he spoke at CCA recently, he didn’t even mention spimes (an important term in the book) and fleshed out the talk with other examples about futurism that are not in the book at all. I haven’t listened to his IDEA presentation, but the comments I’ve seen suggest that this is true here as well.

That notion of the book (well, they call it a pamphlet) as a platform for an ongoing evolving conversation is actually comforting, since the book itself is insufficient. It’s passionate, provocative, confusing, and frankly, unconvincing. The theses stack too high and too wide to keep track of.

And that’s one reason I like to imagine Sterling in a very very large box labeled visionary. We need people like him (with passion, genius, insight, charm, energy, and an audience) to throw wild ideas out there and see what they can hit. He knows more than most of us, he’s seen things further than most of us, and although he wraps his ranting in something that approaches believability, I don’t believe that’s the best use. I hope that his ideas contain germs and seeds and sparks that leave his semi-solid-serious proposals behind but indeed do go somewhere.

But the book itself.

Yikes. Designer Lorraine Wild is given a credit for the book, somewhere it says “lovingly designed.” Sterling talks about his camaraderie with big-name designers and his passion for design as a non-designer.

And the book is horribly designed. Yeah, maybe that’s subjective but it’s really ugly (very subjective) and impossible to use (less subjective). Figures appear at random locations, never referenced in the text. And ambitiously silly visual devices are thrown in but create an acne surface of typographical eagerness.
Different terms are presented in a specific font every time they are used. Oh, and in a different green color, as well. Yes, every time.

It really is hard to read when that’s going on. Not to mention that some of the fonts chosen cause the word to creep to the left or the right (I don’t know the typographical term here) so badly that it appears to be flush with the adjacent word. How readable is that? Is there any thought about how people’s eyes work, how reading happens? Or just a conceit to advance the ideas? Add to this the silly typefaces being used and you’ve just got a mess.

And when a term is used repeatedly you get (instead of the ransom note effect of the above example) this mess. Like someone else has used the book before you and taken a highlighter to it. Does this help or hinder your comprehension?

I haven’t had many conversations with others about this book; I’d be curious to hear what you think.


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