Precis: Make it New

Make it New: The History of Silicon Valley Design
by Barry M. Katz, 2017

Why did Hartmut Esslinger’s design philosophy become canonical for digital technology? Why do designers try to recreate and extend these stylizations? Why does anyone pay for it?

This is a good book. This is an important book to contextualize contemporary design in the tech industry. It is also easy to read and has good examples.

Now that the takeaway has been served, I want to explore Katz’s thesis and central claims.

Thesis: Silicon Valley has been home to important design work for several decades, essentially co-extensive with the rise of microelectronics from microwave signal generators to smartphone apps. The design practiced in this scene shifted over time and is now essential to the tech industry.

Design in Silicon Valley is distinctive. From early on, designers worked closely with engineers and would only be successful in partnership. “If you irritate my engineers, you’re outta here.” Early on, designers simply optimized existing plans. Their mission was to reduce costs, provide demonstrable ergonomic improvements, and consolidate what engineers had built. In this stage — 1950s and 1960s south bay hardware firms — there was no visionary role for design. The work that designers were doing was previously handled by an engineer with taste, or had never been done at all. In this period, designers were low-paid art school grads accustomed to burning the midnight oil and improvising against impossible constraints. They used using razor blades, balsa wood, clay, plaster, and paint to test designs and create specifications. Removing an unnecessary screw was a badge of honor. Katz focuses on what did happen, giving little thought to what might have happened. Katz also says little about what came before this moment, and how the realities of this period extended or denied existing tradition. Significantly, Katz does point out that design generally grew up around manufacturing hubs, and so has always had scenes. 1950 to today in the California Bay Area is just described as one evolving scene.

HP’s 150A and 150AR High Frequency Oscilloscopes. A design challenge.

In 1970, things started to change. HP took a risk and began work on consumer electronics, asking designers to create the first pocket calculator. This project did not start with an existing engineering plan that design might optimize. Instead, it started with a specification of what could be sold, inviting designers to make a product that could be built soon at reasonable cost. These designers were working on new products the world had never seen before. They were excited. They started taking acid and imagining the future of the Earth. They started establishing parallel design organizations to those of industrial and graphic design. They started resenting the “short order cook” work they did before, and started demanding more autonomy and influence. They started design agencies.

Katz focuses on these agencies, which presented design as autonomous and valuable for business. These agencies had a rough start. Their early work was simply executing what they would have done in-house, without the political position to exert much creative control or maximize their impact on the business. Within a few years, they began pushing concepts from cultural anthropology to reframe their work and add value to products. Katz mentions specifically Geertz, Barthes, and Goffman as relevant authors. Ethnographic work allowed these agencies to expand their role and provide greater value. One fledgling agency, GVO. recommended Canon separate its efforts on home printers from its office line, making an ethnographic case that the product was entirely distinct and the market worth addressing in a novel way. Katz presents Engelbart’s NLS and Xerox PARC’s many innovations as examples of relatively independent design offices pushing for more ergonomic and adaptable human-machine interactions. Personal computing for knowledge workers was, then, a product of this phase of industrial transformation and a critical site of design’s influence on computing at a societal scale. Katz is demure and assiduous, but I think he has actually just argued that design research was fundamental to design taking a lead in business. Design research allowed designers to advance wide-eyed, foresighted changes in approach.

One curious effect of all the research is that designers championed users, even when users wanted stupid things. In particular, Katz points out many cases where the research showed office workers didn’t like to see keyboard or cables, and associated these things with feminized labor. Thus, the design concepts of Apple (and most of personal computing) represent a concerted effort to bring computers to men and hide away any residue that women had worked on them before. (Katz does not explore this gender dynamic in much depth, but Marie Hicks’s Programmed Inequality does a great job.) Anyhow, not all these decisions were based on quality research, and Katz points out that Apple’s design direction (in particular putting the computer in a plastic case, rather than metal) was mostly informed by the observation that there were many more software hackers than hardware hackers, in the hobbyist community. So Apple was just trying to follow the market and get people past the blocker of hardware — a very different explanation of their immaterial style.

1970s Silicon Valley designers also started forming their own professional associations. Design associations already existed. But they were in league with manufacturing businesses that supported them and they represented mature markets with more mainstream, and politically moderate, professionals. The 1970s computer scene of California was in general a far more left-leaning affair, with great concern for social justice, education, environmentalism, and radical social experimentation. These political values can be seen across a number of design programs nationally, where students were trained to creatively design new products, without too much concern about supporting technologies. (This idea should resonate with digital designers today, who have a huge pile of technologies to work with, but need to assemble them in practical ways.)

California in 1973 was interested in land, labor, race, and social justice. It should be no surprise that designers were attracted to some of these themes during this decade. Poster: Xavier Viramontes: Boycott Grapes, 1973

A particularly relevant chapter focuses on software design, beginning with Atari. Atari was one of the biggest outfits selling to consumers. However, game design was still a rogue operation, with plenty of drug use on the job. (From what I understand, this has become more taboo in the gaming industry today, with alcohol partly taking its place.) Alan Kay’s teams at PARC, Apple, and Atari get special attention here. Katz doesn’t focus on specific products or patents coming from these groups. His point is that these groups of people trained and prepared the designers to think about interactive media, interface design, and what users can do. Katz highlights the product design mentality again (which, I would venture, blurs into what we would call product management today) and the enthusiasm in these communities for user generated content. Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines group — again, the people working on the project, not the project itself — developed design practices close to what we expect today. In these groups, especially entering the early 1980s, design was becoming “user-centered” and designers “T-shaped.”

Alan Kay’s 1972 drawing in his paper, “A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages.”

Katz then follows this chapter up with one devoted entirely to educational institutions and their design programs, stepping back to the early 1970s and moving forward through the establishment of programs at CCA, MIT, Stanford, and San Jose State. Black sheep lecturers encouraged students to think about form, function, and use. These teachers foregrounded design thinking, just as these schools started to reduce support for industrial design — which required more space and resources. (This move was repeated later for art departments, pushing them more and more to digital art.) The training for these new designers was: understand why someone would want what. Second, worry about how it will work technically.

The final chapter begins to reflect on the contemporary scene, jumping from Facebook to Tesla, presenting design as an increasingly normal part of the corporate machinery, alongside marketing, finance, engineering, or legal — a long way from simply removing an unnecessary screw. Design offers many ways to gain competitive advantage and increase value for a company, and Katz’s history provides a much richer explanation of what this can look like than stab-in-the-dark guesses about ROI.