Design in Four Revolutions

Interaction design is the design discipline of the third industrial revolution.

Calligraphy by Stefanie Weigele

In order to understand interface and interaction design, it is useful to look at the history of design — and at the history of industrial revolutions. Every single one of these revolutions had its characteristic technologies that changed social, economic and environmental conditions. And each revolution had its specific design.

Industrial production and design are fundamentally connected. New technologies allow for new ways of production. Industrial products are not crafted but designed and mass-produced. A design is a template, the production is the implementation of the design.

This connection is not necessarily obvious. The Arts and Crafts movement was highly influential for the emergence of design as a professional discipline — but it was essentially anti-industrial although it advocated economic and social reform. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the working conditions in most factories were hellish and many workers lived in squalor. Furthermore, many of the industrial products had a poor quality compared to those created by a craftsman. As an answer to the poor quality, the Arts and Crafts movement emphasised traditional craft methods.

But some members of the Arts and Crafts movement — notably Henry Cole — realised that industrially manufactured goods also had the potential for creating durable and aesthetic products for the masses. Not a designer himself, Cole campaigned for improving the standards of industrial production and industrial design. He understood that by employing good and thoughtful designs it was possible to industrially mass produce goods of high quality. So in his understanding, the designer was no longer a craftsman but someone who created templates and planned the production process while the machine and the factory worker implemented the design.

Industrial manufacturing and design are deeply related. So in a strict sense: if you create a unique chair, you are a craftsman — but not a designer.

I will come back to industrial manufacturing later. My main point right now is to illustrate the inextricable link between design and industry. As industrial revolutions have changed the working conditions, production process and product development, the design questions changed accordingly. So let’s have a look at a bit of history.

The zeroth industrial revolution

The printing press is usually not considered in the canon of industrial revolutions. And yet — it allowed the mass production of books, posters and pamphlets. It was definitely a revolution in terms of mass communication and it certainly was a catalyst for social change. Without printing, the Reformation would not have had the same impact.

Johannes Gutenberg is widely considered to be the inventor of modern printing. He introduced moveable type to Europe and invented a number of important methods and devices for printing. But more important for our debate, Johannes Gutenberg was the first designer. He was the first graphic designer — and the first type designer.

When I mention the “printing press”, it is important to point out that I mean a whole manufacturing process — and not simply the press itself. In order to truly revolutionise printing, the process had to become fast, flexible, robust and cheap. It involved a number of different devices and techniques that are easily overlooked. And at the heart or the printing process was an inconspicuous invention that allowed for the mass production of letters: the hand mould.

The hand mould was used for casting moveable type. Each letter was cut in metal which was then used to create a matrix. This matrix would be held in the lower part of the mould. Molten metal was poured into the hand mould, casting the letter. Using this method, Gutenberg was able to quickly create large numbers of letters that were all copies of the designed template.

This process is an early precursor of industrial manufacturing. Gutenberg designed a product — the letters — and then mass-produced them. Furthermore, he designed the letters as basic elements and then used them to design the layout of a page. The modularity of moveable type enabled him and other printers to plan the layout of a page in a highly flexible and iterative manner, thus creating the disciplines of typography and graphic design.

The design of the letters was strongly influenced by the calligraphy of the time. It is based on the Textura Quadrata that was one of the leading book hands for bibles. Gutenberg formalised the Textura and optimised it for printing. Instead of coming up with a completely new design, his typeface is clearly a simulation of calligraphy. The aesthetic simulation of “old” technology in a revolutionary product is (by the way) a typical pattern in design history.

Although the printing press is not an “official” industrial revolution, it already introduced design problems and it demonstrates how fundamentally design and industrial production are linked.

The first industrial revolution

The first “proper” industrial revolution was triggered by the invention of the steam engine. Steam not only powered trains — it created the possibility to deploy large machines with enormous capabilities. These machines produced everyday merchandise (not just letters) in large quantities at low prices.

New manufacturing methods emerged that also created new design possibilities. A prime example for this is the no. 14 chair by Thonet. It was introduced in 1859 and became one of the best-selling chairs ever made. Its design is based on a new manufacturing process called steam-bending. The wood was heated with steam, bent into the required shape and then dried. All the tasks could be completed by unskilled workers — a craftsman was no longer required. The product was planned by designers and engineers and then manufactured by machines and unskilled workers.

So instead of conceiving and constructing each product individually, the planning and the manufacturing of a product were clearly separated. A new discipline — industrial design — emerged.

Even for us today, the no. 14 chair is an ingenious design. But in 1859, the chair was revolutionary. It was novel, elegant and comfortable — but also cheap, lightweight and durable. Furthermore, it could be disassembled and easily reassembled — making it possible to ship and sell the no. 14 chair in the entire world.

The no. 14 chair is another great example for the fact that design and industrial production are deeply related. The design of the chair would not have been possible without the means of production. But the production method itself would not necessarily have led to the design. This is still valid today. As new forms of production emerge, new chairs will be designed that facilitate the new technologies.

The second industrial revolution

The second industrial revolution introduced electricity. So with the second industrial revolution, a new type of product entered the households: the electric appliance. Different kinds of energy generation (lamps, stoves, ovens, etc.) were suddenly replaced with electricity and completely new types of products were introduced (vacuum cleaners, washing machines, radios, etc.). These new machines had to be controlled and they brought a new complexity with them. So electricity created the user.

In many ways, the electric appliance was a strange product. It was neither tool nor kitchenware. In order to introduce them to the households, a new visual language was required — and product design was born.

The first designs for these new products followed the tried-and-tested pattern. They basically looked exactly like “old” technology. A good example for this is the electric water kettle by AEG. It was designed by Peter Behrens in 1909.

The electric water kettle is very beautiful — but it still looks like a kettle to put on a stove. New technology is dressed up as old. It is not quite clear if this was intentional — but it made the introduction of the electric appliances much easier. The message was clear: “This water kettle looks and works just like the one you already know”. Even the completely new types of products pretended to be old technology. Vacuum cleaners tried to look like brooms, washing machines like laundry tubs and radios like a cupboard.

However, over time product design moved away from quoting traditional forms and tried to find a visual language that would not attempt to hide the new — but to emphasise it. After the First World War, it was relatively easy to break away from traditions and to develop new, modern aesthetics that embraced technology and tried to show the machinery as it is.

This new approach — often called “functionalism” — was conceptually oriented towards a utilitarian design. The idea was that the aesthetics of a product should be derived from its function. Consequently, the use of ornaments and “styling” should be abstained as they were irrelevant for the functionality of the product. So instead of finding a design that hides the technology, the design should be derived from the technology. The workings of a machine or the construction of a building should be visible and should define the overall form.

Conceptually, this approach was laudable. Instead of pretending that an electric kettle is “old technology”, designers were trying to find an aesthetic that reflected the qualities of the new technology.

In reality, however, this approach did not always work out. The main problem was that designers and architects mainly focused on the aesthetics of a product and not on its everyday use. They confused the workings of a machine with its functionality. Instead of designing for use, designers celebrated the machinery. In the end, technology became just a new form of ornament.

Even if it did not work out — the design of the second industrial revolution tried to address the aesthetics of technology based on the technology itself — and not on something pre-existing. Technology became part of the aesthetic discourse.

The third industrial revolution

The computer — in all its forms and networked states — is at the core of the third industrial revolution. And the design of the third industrial revolution is interface- and interaction design.

The previous industrial revolutions tried to replicate existing products but make the manufacturing cheaper, more efficient and aimed at large volumes. This is as true for Gutenberg’s printing press as for the Thonet chair. And it is partially true of the digital revolution: many digital products and services are faster and more efficient iterations of analogue technology. Word processing software is the digital iteration of a typewriter.

Furthermore, an important design strategy of the previous industrial revolutions is also valid in the era of computerisation: making technology accessible by referring to well-known, “old” technologies. Just as the electric water kettle by Peter Behrens pretended to be “old” technology, the desktop metaphor pretends to be based on items and elements of pre-existing work environments.

But the third industrial revolution is not simply another iteration of technological innovation. There is something genuinely new to it. I believe that the third industrial revolution is at its heart a design revolution. This statement might surprise some readers — especially those with a tech background — but let me explain.

There are fundamental differences between the third industrial revolution and its predecessors.

The first difference relates to the objective of the industrialisation. As we have seen before, the first industrial revolutions aimed at simulating manual labour through machines. Steam power and later electric motors replaced manual labour and human strength. The manufacturing process was broken down into clearly describable units that were either performed by machines or by workers at the assembly line. So the objective of the first industrial revolutions was the mechanisation of manual labour.

In the digital revolution, this is different. The object of the digital revolution is not to simulate the human hand but the human mind. As Frieder Nake put it: “computers are the mechanisation of intellectual labour” — or “Maschinisierung der Kopfarbeit” in the German original. Software is the automatisation of thought.

The second difference relates to the first one: the computer is not a single-purpose-machine. This sounds trivial — but it has far reaching consequences. In the analogue industrial age, machines were build and optimised for a specific task — bending wood, punching metal sheets or printing a newspaper.

The computer, on the other hand, is a universal machine. The hardware itself — in the strict sense of the CPU and the memory — has no specific use case. Even if we add hardware interfaces to this configuration, the computer becomes more specific but still remains a universal machine. Input devices like keyboards, mice and touch screens as well as output devices like monitors, speakers and printers form a standard setup for most computers. This configuration limits the scope of possible applications, but overall it is still a highly unspecific system.

It is the software that specifies and defines the application. And within the limitations of the hardware, the software can be anything. Software itself is ethereal. It only becomes corporeal through interfaces. And transforming the ethereal into the corporeal is a design task.

To put it in a different way: on a sensual level, software only exists in the form of an interface. If you want to experience software and if you want to interact with it, you need an interface. And this interface is always the result of a design process. Design gives software a gestalt.

So interface- and interaction design not only makes the software accessible — it constitutes our idea and our understanding of a computer. Without an interface, the computer would not be present in our world. This sounds esoteric — but it is not. Imagine a future without electricity. If you wanted to understand how a computer works, you could maybe figure out the relationship of the hardware components. But it would be absolutely impossible to understand how a computer was used.

Software is not only ethereal — it is also incredibly flexible and can simulate any kind of machine. This is a fundamental property of the computer that was already proposed by Alan Turing and then later on extended by the teams around Douglas Engelbart, Alan Kay and Steve Jobs. In his essay “Alan Kay’s Universal Media Machine”, Lev Manovich points out: “It was only Kay and his generation that extended the idea of simulation to media — thus turning Universal Turing Machine into a Universal Media Machine, so to speak.”

Software offers us an amazing optionality. It is possible to create any kind of software-machine within the hardware-machine that we call computer. Compared with analogue machines, designers and developers have an immense freedom for experiments, invention and creativity. Furthermore, the interface and the software itself have an intricate relationship that goes both ways. The interface is not just a representation of an abstract system. The interface also defines and demands how software is organised and what functionalities are required. As Johanna Drucker puts it in her book Graphesis: “We look at interface as a thing, a representation of computational processes that make it convenient for us to interact with what is ‘really’ happening. But the interface is a mediating structure that supports behaviours and tasks. It is a space between human users and procedures that happen according to complicated protocols.”

The desktop metaphor was not successful because it solved a technical problem but because it solved a usability problem. And it is important to point out that many other design solutions would have been possible. It proved to be an successful solution — but the user interface of the Xerox Star was not determined by the technology. As it is software, it could have been designed in a completely different way. Again — we sometimes tend to forget that out there are innumerable possible solutions that were not realised.

The extraordinary thing about software interfaces is that they are completely fictional, fabricated and imaginary. If you take an analogue camera apart, you can see how it works. It’s complicated, but you can figure out the relationship between the cogs, wheels and lenses. The controls are directly and physically linked to the workings within the machine. So the user interface of an analogue camera is determined by its mechanics. This is very different with computers. If you take a computer apart, you cannot figure out how the software was used and operated. There is no inherent and binding relationship between the hardware and the software interface. On a computer, the technology does not determine the software interface.

We have agreed to interact with software in a certain way — via programming languages, command line interfaces or graphical user interfaces. But not out of a technical necessity but simply because it seems to work. So the software user interface is more of a social convention than a technical requirement.

All these observations lead to my statement from above: the third industrial revolution is at its heart a design revolution.

The design of an analogue machine can be derived from the technology. But software interface design has no technical form it can derive from. Due to its ethereal nature, software can only be revealed and experienced through design. Furthermore, due to the fact that the computer is a universal machine, the relationship between the software-machine and the software-interface is completely arbitrary. The only limiting component are the human mind and the human hand.

All this gives interface- and interaction design a relevance and a potency that goes way beyond the form-giving of the previous industrial revolutions.

Final words

The industrial revolutions are not sequential, clearly defined events. They are models that allow us to talk about social, economical and environmental change. Furthermore, none of these revolutions are over. We still print books, produce furniture, manufacture appliances and develop software, hardware and services.

But digital technology — in all its forms — is the dominant revolution of our time. And it is not only an industrial one. The digital revolution has great implications for almost every human being and for our planet. We are still right in the middle of it and its impacts and consequences are not yet fully understood. Over the next few years, the relevance of digital technology will increase — and so will the importance of interface- and interaction design.

I believe as designers, we should be aware of our professional role and our responsibilities. Not only in a pragmatic sense within our team, our company or institution — but also in the context of the history of technology.


This essay was reviewed by my colleague Prof. Dr. Jan Distelmeyer. He is professor for the history and theory of technical media. I got tons of valuable feedback from him and we discussed so many authors that in this case I will add a list of references for further reading. Some of the references are only available in German — sorry for that. If you speak German, I highly recommend Jan’s brand new book “Machtzeichen” — it was just released this January.

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