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Make it New: The History of Silicon Valley Design

February 4, 2016 • EMERGING TRENDS, BUSINESS & INNOVATION, Digital Transformation, Editor’s Choice, Unprotected Post

By Barry M. Katz

Barry Katz’s book Make it New: The History of Silicon Valley Design sets out to answer the question of how ‘design’ evolved from a marginal service to a strategic imperative. Drawing upon a vast array of original, primary-source materials it explains the role of design in transforming the fragrant orchards of Santa Clara County into the most powerful economic engine in the world.

 

The 1979 edition of the Palo Alto telephone directory lists exactly nine design firms, squeezed between ‘detective agencies’ and ‘diaper services’. Today there are more designers working in the San Francisco Bay Area than anywhere else in the world. How on earth did this happen?

Nor is it merely a question of numbers: where designers once had to plead for a rare audience with an engineering manager, today they are sought out by C-level executives in some of Silicon Valley’s – and the world’s – most powerful and influential companies. How did ‘design’ evolve from a marginal service to a strategic imperative?

And there is one more novel feature to the emerging character of design, and that is the nature of the problems that designers are being called upon to solve. To be sure, industrial designers still work on office furniture and graphic designers still dabble in typography, but the design community in the San Francisco Bay Area is also tuning its attention to the billions who dwell at the bottom of the pyramid; to epidemics of pediatric obesity and teen pregnancy; to urban violence and human rights. How did the reach of the designer come to embrace the most wicked of the wicked problems facing humanity, and with what authority do they address them?

The design community in the San Francisco Bay Area is also tuning its attention to the billions who dwell at the bottom of the pyramid; to epidemics of pediatric obesity and teen pregnancy; to urban violence and human rights.
Make it New – the phrase is borrowed from Ezra Pound’s call, in 1934, for a renewal of culture – sets out to answer these questions. It draws on numerous sources, such as corporate and university archives, private collections of papers and artifacts, and is supplemented by more than 200 interviews with nearly every major figure in the Silicon Valley design community from 1950 to the present.

To locate the origins of the Silicon Valley design community, it is necessary to return to a period long before the millennials who populate the bayfront campuses at Google and Facebook were even born. In 1951, Hewlett Packard, then a 250-person instrument company in sleepy Palo Alto, hired the first professionally trained designer to work in the region, and over time a corporate design office took shape. In their first decade the work the internal design group evolved from improving the graphics on HP’s cardboard boxes to developing a consistent design language across the company’s line of products to suggesting ways to improve not just the appearance but also the safety, efficiency, and functionality of the products themselves.

For the next twenty years the corporate design offices at HP, Ampex, IBM, and a handful of other companies were preoccupied with microwave counters, gas analysers, and audio oscillators. With almost no exceptions, and stung by the $18 million disaster of Intel’s Microma wristwatch, the tech companies scrupulously avoided what Intel’s Gordon Moore called “the siren’s call of the consumer market.” The HP-35 calculator – essentially the world’s first handheld – may serve as the exception that proved the rule, but at $399 (the 1973 equivalent of a high-end laptop today), this breakthrough product remained tucked away in the shirt pockets of professionals.

A technical instrument, built by engineers for the use of other engineers, needs to function with accuracy and precision; questions of ergonomics, aesthetics, or cultural fit – questions that are the stock and trade of the designer – are of little relevance. Only toward the end of the 1970s, when a handful of products began to migrate from research and development environments toward the market, did such factors begin to assert themselves: it is one thing to market a mainframe computer to the technical specialists who will operate it from the IT centre of a bank or an airline, but quite another to try to sell a ‘personal’ computer to middle school teachers, small business owners, or what the industry was beginning to call ‘casual users’.

Herein lies the significance of Apple and its headstrong founder, Steven P. Jobs, who shows up not at the beginning, but at exactly the midpoint in the story and in a role somewhat different from the one in which he is usually cast. As he explained to the author:

“It was our belief that for every hardware hobbyist who was capable of assembling his own computer there were a thousand software hobbyists who were not. We thought that if we could make a computer that people didn’t have to assemble you could sell a lot more – and we were right. So we wanted to put the Apple II in a housing that would reflect more of a humanistic point of view. Once we found a way to do that, the next question was, “What should it look like?” “What should it express?” “How should it work?” And that led us down the path of having to think about those things.”

Jobs’ alleged fixation on ‘design’, in other words, was a function of strategic objective, not—as innumerable commentators have wrongly supposed – the primordial force driving it. Having committed himself to the idea of the computer as a sealed, self-contained consumer appliance, questions of design necessarily followed: the aesthetic statement of the enclosure; the experience of unpacking the box or browsing through the user’s manual; the post-purchase service arrangements – in short, the emotional valence of the entire product in all its details.

Thus began the historic convergence of technology and design that would define the Silicon Valley design culture. As computers began their relentless march from the labs of the Stanford Research Institute and the Xerox corporation’s Palo Alto Research Center and toward the shelves of department stores, a small number of ad hoc design groups began to spring up in downtown Palo Alto – an easy bicycle ride, it should be noted, from the graduate design loft at Stanford University. It was a pivotal moment in the history of Silicon Valley, but also of design: whereas designers had traditionally been called upon to improve an existing product, the demands of the consumer electronics industry were calling upon them to give form to entirely new categories of products: the mouse; the modem; the MP3 player. They could hardly take their cues from last year’s model, for the simple reason that there was none.

Steve Jobs’ alleged fixation on ‘design’ was a function of strategic objective, not – as innumerable commentators have wrongly supposed – the primordial force driving it.
As the first generation of independent consultancies matured, they began to develop distinctive cultures and increasingly refined methodologies adapted to the exceedingly rapid development cycles of Silicon Valley industries. Where the corporate offices of established consumer goods industries indulged in lengthy programs of quantitative market research, the Bay Area design firms became adept at applying qualitative methods to small samples. A philosophy of ‘human-centred design’ emerged to help them understand not just how products worked, but how people might actually use them. Inevitably, these methods and methodologies were extended far beyond the realm of computer peripherals to embrace the products, services, environments and interfaces of every industry.

The largest of the first generation consultancies – IDEO, frogdesign, Lunar Design – remain emblematic of the Silicon Valley design culture and their leaders can now be seen mingling with heads of state at the World Economic Forum in Davos, rubbing shoulders with Fortune 100 CEOs at the TED conferences, and chatting with the First Lady at the White House. They have also calved off dozens of second- and third-generation firms that have transformed the region into the most concentrated field of design talent in the world: AmmunitionGroup; New Deal Design; Whipsaw; Astro Studios; fuseproject… Whole new subdisciplines have emerged to address the challenges of electronic gaming, interactive software, wearables, and social networks, and there is no evidence that the tide is turning.

To the contrary, it is now universally accepted that reliable technology is merely the price of admission to the market. Design – understood not just as the outward appearance of a product but the entire experience of using, operating, or inhabiting it – is recognised as the differentiating factor that is key to a product’s success. “I used to have to persuade clients of the value of design,” remarked the CEO of one of the Valley’s most prominent consultancies, “but the battle has been won. It is recognised at the C-level that a design strategy is at the same level of importance to a company’s survival as a business plan.”

Design – understood not just as the outward appearance of a product but the entire experience of using, operating, or inhabiting it – is recognised as the differentiating factor that is key to a product’s success.
Evidence of this shift can be found up and down the peninsula that connects San Francisco to San Jose: in the same week that Larry Page became CEO of Google he announced that henceforth the company would be driven not by engineering or analytics but by design. The unprecedented authority accorded to designers in the creation of breakthrough products such as the Apple iPhone, the Amazon Kindle, the Tesla Model S, and Nest Lab’s Learning Thermostat has not been lost on the competition. Designers are employed by the hundreds at New Age companies such as Facebook, Uber, Pinterest, Airbnb, and Dropbox. Kleiner Perkins recently named its first “Design Partner”, and four other venture capital firms hastened to follow suit. The urgency was succinctly captured by the director of GoogleX: “Design unlocks the space and reframes the question.”

The most far-reaching product of the Silicon Valley design culture, however, is not a mobile device, a medical instrument or even an app. In fact, it is not a product at all. Design Thinking – the idea that the tools of the designer can be applied to the totality of life – has taken root and, like a tweet or a like, spread rapidly across the globe. Although commonly reduced to a linear methodology, Design Thinking is better conceived as comprehensive approach to the entire field of human experience.

In bygone times, designers in New York and Milan boldly promoted themselves as masters of an art that could be applied to everything “from lipsticks to locomotives” (Raymond Loewy in 1951) and at scales extending “from a teaspoon to a city” (Ernesto Rogers in the following year). In comparison with the ambitious programs of Silicon Valley designers today – income inequality, public health, environmental justice, political reform – their bravado seems timid and parochial.

Over the course of their sixty-year history, designers in Silicon Valley have moved from a loading dock at the back of a midcentury factory building to the inner sancta of some of the world’s most powerful companies.
There is no shortage of observers who have concluded that Design Thinking heralds the end of a golden age: the skilled professional has yielded to the T-shaped generalist with a limitless appetite and an excess of confidence in the power of design to effect large-scale change. For others, however, it is the disruption that the design profession has been waiting for and the fulfillment of a century-old dream. Designers in Silicon Valley are being asked to design not only objects, but systems. They are integrated into the operations of corporations and NGOs, and are being called upon by the governments of Iceland, Singapore and Colombia to apply their creative methodologies to whole nations. Designers who have been clamoring for an invitation to the party are now asked to organise it, to orchestrate it, and they not infrequently end up being the guests of honor. Having resigned themselves to being at best a link in a chain, they find themselves functioning as the hub of a wheel.
siliconvalley1Over the course of their sixty-year history, designers in Silicon Valley have moved from a loading dock at the back of a midcentury factory building to the inner sancta of some of the world’s most powerful companies. They have expanded their field of practice from discrete electromechanical devices to integrated socioeconomic systems, and calved off a host of new disciplines to tackle them. Designers have brought their methods to middle-school playgrounds, executive boardrooms and Navajo reservations, and watched as their products are launched into space and inserted into the most intimate recesses of personal experience. They play an indispensible role in the Silicon Valley ecosystem of innovation.

This article is adapted from Barry Katz’s recent book, Make It New: The History of Silicon Valley Design (MIT Press, 2015)

About the Author
barryBarry M. Katz is Professor of Industrial and Interaction Design at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, Consulting Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University, and Fellow at IDEO, Inc., the Silicon Valley-based design and innovation consultancy. He is the author of six books, and consults with businesses, universities, and governments worldwide.

 

 

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