To reach a global audience, Western designers must learn how to wrangle.
Illustration by Andy Martin
In Shaping Things, Bruce Sterling’s manifesto for design in a post-gizmo society, the author points out that technologies “do not abolish one another in clean or comprehensive ways.” If they did, the designer’s job would be far easier. Instead, we must design for the spaces between the old and the new—a challenge that Sterling calls “wrangling.”
In 2005, while living in Malaysia, I got to experience the importance of design wrangling firsthand. To my Western eyes, Malaysia seemed to have a sort of temporal rift at its center. You sensed it at any point where the very new slammed into the old but didn’t replace it: walking into a squatter village to see a hundred satellite dishes tacked to the edges of handmade dwellings, or standing in a diesel-belching bus with splintering wooden floors while the man beside you texted on an ultrasleek mobile phone. Sometimes, it was 2005. Other times—surprise!—it was 1965.
You can’t design a world like that. But it can tell us something important about the worldwide narrative of technology—that it moves in fits and bursts, not in the deliberately incremental progress of industrial technocracy. In the West, young people today are born into their parents’ futures. But throughout the world there are people who leapfrog into their own.
Leapfrogging breaks all the conventions of our linear, process-focused notions of design. It reminds us that maybe consumers don’t need to have used that before they can understand this. That there is no finished world, not even a resting one.