A short talk with Bruce Sterling

Elena Comincioli

Futurologist Bruce Sterling helps us define the role of the designer in the new market 4.0, where the most important asset is empathy.

(Image: Bruce Sterling, Joi Ito, CC-BY)


Last October, in Berlin, an inspiring Bruce Sterling opened the European edition of AWE, Augmented World Expo. A few years ago, he predicted how augmented reality would change our everyday life and, last summer, when Pokemon Go was released, he was stalked with calls recognizing his vision. Mr. Sterling has the ability to forecast future scenarios related to design and technology, and in his speech he gives us a glimpse of what the future could look like.


From the 11th of February to the 14th of May,  some of Mr. Sterling works will be exhibited at the Vitra Museum in the exhibition “Hello, Robot. Design between Human and Machine”.  The exhibition is an investigation aimed to understand how robotics are changing our domestic environment and also how design is influencing robotics.


Given all these assumptions, after his talk, I stopped Bruce Sterling for a quick question about the role of the designer in the new “Industry 4.0” environment.

An example of what is ususully recognized as a "creative process"

|  Bruce Sterling @ AWE EU 2016

BS: I don’t think the role of the designer has changed very much at all since the 1920’s.

It is basically about user centricity and knowledge of the grains and the materials.

The material changes: maybe it is immaterial, maybe it is software, maybe it is luminous instead of wood…. but, as a designer, you need to understand how things are made materially, you need to understand how they work and how they function, and what they do to people.

 You also need to have more sympathy for the person who is interacting with the object then you do with the financier or the engineer or whomever else is involved in the production

I don’t think that these qualities, needed by designers,   are going away because they are actually too difficult to get.

Everybody talks about being sympathetic  to the user, but they usually arm the user. They are somehow so interactive that they “design at people” rather than “designing for people”.

Someone who really “design for people” is rare; it is like a really good novelist or a genuinely talented musician.

So sympathy with the user and understanding of material and processes: that’s what the bottom line. That’s what the designer will always need to bring to the table.




Michael Bruce Sterling (born April 14, 1954) is a Futurist, journalist, science-fiction author and design critic.  He is known for his novels and work on the Mirrorshades anthology. This work helped to define the cyberpunk genre.






February 2017