Make it New

Berry M. Katz:
Make it New. The history of Silicon Valley Design. 

Foreword by John Maeda. MIT Press books 2015

In the previous book by Lee, China was seen as the contester and Silicon Valley as the obvious center of the world, or at least as the comparison point that everyone is aware of. This book by Katz is quite refreshing in this aspect. It tells the story about how Silicon Valley and the design activities there were built up. It also reminds us that this wasn’t very long ago. Much of this development we can also recognize from elsewhere.

The book has three objectives. The first objective is to show how design is the missing (or often unshown) link in the Silicon Valley ecosystem of innovation. Although not so much has been written about it, designers have played a significant role in creating and transforming the Silicon Valley we know today. The second objective is to trace back the history of the Silicon Valley design community and describe the arc of its growth. The third objective is to show the dramatic rise of acceptance of design. “Design is today recognized at the C-level and a design strategy is on the same level of impotence to a company’s survival as a business plan. Some observers even talk about the rise of the DEO“. Or as the director of Google[x] explains it: “Design unlocks the space and reframes the question”. This approach of design asking questions comes very close to the conclusions by Colomina & Wiley.

In many ways the book is a traditional history book showcasing the early steps of design in Silicon Valley. As an example, we learn how Hewlett-Packard created their design team. They started by hiring a newly graduated industrial designer Carl Clement in 1951. Gradually a second designer, Clement’s classmate Tom Lauhan, was hired, and then a third designer, Allen Inhelder from Art Center School in LA. In less than a decade, Clement headed an industrial design section of nine young men. The designers did not sit together, but were arrayed throughout a large R&D room, and in 1964 the activities where formalized when Allen Inhelder was made manager of corporate industrial design. Katz also shows how the story of IBM inhouse design developed from 1956 onwards.

The first in-house design team in Finland was the A-studio that was founded in the Ahlström corporation in 1957, led by Tapio Wirkkala. Wirkkala had been working with Raymond Loewy, and wanted to incorporate something similar to the Nordics. In the late 1950’s (pictured above) the design team consisted of three people; Wirkkala, Heikki Jänkävaara and Saara Sappinen, who is not in the picture herself but to whom I am grateful for the photo. 

These steps, first using design without any inhouse-designers, then building the internal design organization, initially part of the general R&D activities and then gradually becoming a function of their own, can be recognized from many companies. It happened in the 1950’s and it is still happening today. For anyone who is interested in developing the design capabilities in an organization these stories and anecdotes can serve as a good reference point.

An example of in-house design growth: the first designers, Jouko Tattari and Petteri Kolinen, then part of R&D activities in Nokia, from 1993, and Nokia Design in 2004.

The timing from the 1950’s onward in the adoption of in-house design organisations is very similar to the development of these activities elsewhere. What is different, however, is the fact that these activities weren’t developed on top of well-established practices, but at the same time as Silicon Valley itself was developing. The early steps were taken together, design and all the other spawning activities. With a garage-spirit and as part of the team, not a group for decoration when the products were already finished.

If design usage in Silicon Valley has always been pretty successful, the story of education in design has been somewhat more scattered. The first Industrial Design curriculum in the US had been initiated in Carnegie Mellon Institute of Technology in 1934. In 1956, John Arnold at MIT said that students didn’t need more analytical training but a comprehensive approach that would help them overcome blocks to their latent creativity. He had, according to Katz, founded the MIT’s “Creative Engineering Laboratory”, where students were introduced to radical concepts such as “brainstorming” (borrowed from the advertising industry), “operational creativity” (borrowed from management consulting) and “applied imagination” (derived from Arnold’s own undergraduate studies in psychology). Arnold was wildly popular amongst students but viewed with extreme scepticism by his more conservative peers at MIT. The Provost of Stanford, Frederick Terman, with his belief that engineering formed the heart of liberal education, hired Arnold to Stanford in 1957, where Arnold started building his “design division”.

By the time Arnold started to build industrial design education in Silicon Valley there was already some fourty-five degree programs in other American colleges and Universities. Arnold’s aim was to awaken the creativity in engineers and to foster interdisciplinarity. He considered design to be a perfect vehicle for experimenting in bringing people of diverse backgrounds together in creative effort.

Stanford’s product design program settled uneasily into its home in the department of Mechanical Engineering, and was very much personified by John Arnold, who died in 1963. Educational programs for (industrial) design were also set up in San José State College, where Wayne Champion taught in the Industrial Arts Department since 1955, as well as in the California College of Arts and Crafts. Many of the designers in Silicon Valley were still educated elsewhere.

The first steps of design research in Silicon Valley (through the explosion of research into “ergonomics” in the mid 1960’s) were taken in places like Xerox corporation’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARK). In 1974, PARC director George Pake agreed on funding a ten-year effort to build theory for predicting human behaviour and methodology for designing human-machine interfaces.  This led to the Applied Information- Processing Project (AIP), conducted by PARC and the Carnegie Mellon University, leading to the text “The Psychology of Human-Computer Interaction”. In 1982 Arnold Wasserman announced the new “user-oriented” design strategy at Xerox. It created a major shift in Xerox and in the professional practice more generally, with the key insight of “the user operates the interface, not the machine”. Much of this thinking was then coined “interaction design” in the mid-eighties by Bill Moggridge & Bill Verplank.

The Center for Design Research (CDR) was founded at Stanford in 1984. This was twenty years before the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, the d- School, which was formally launched in 2004.

The d- School,with its ideology of “design thinking”, is an institute that gathers its students from almost every sector of the university EXCEPT design, and introduces them to a range of design tools. They are seeking to produce “innovators, not innovations”.

Design agencies were a later development in Silicon Valley than in-house designers. The GVO partnership was formed in 1966 by Dale Gruyé, Noland Vogt and George Opperman. It was the first of the independent consultancies and would eventually play a defining role in Silicon Valley’s ecosystem of innovation. GVO pushed the industrial design landscape to include ethnographic research, anthropological fieldwork and sociological analysis. They were later followed by companies like Frogdesign and Ideo. If the first in-house design organisations were formed in parallel with the early technology waves, many of the agencies occurred in the same timeframe when a more research-based approach in design grew. 

Results from Apple´s “Snow White” competition with agencies in 1980, above the entry from BIB Design, below Esslinger Design.

In many instances of the book, Katz describes different developments of design within Apple. He opens up the role of design in Apple and Steve Job’s approach, he describes the birth of Apple’s “Product Design Guild”, a first trial to coordinate design at Apple – that failed, and the birth of the Human Interface Group (HIG) at Apple.

An early icon study for Macintosh computer in 1982 by Susan Kare.

Many other big companies are also opened up, like Adobe, which Katz positions as a second-generation company that has moved from an engineering- driven to a design-driven company. Marc Rolston, who has until recently been Frog’s chief creative officer, coins this “second-generation” approach as “people are understanding value through systems, through experiences, through brands, more than through the physical instance of the product”. He is echoed by the former Frog President Doreen Lorenzo who states that design strategy has the same value as a business plan to today’s companies.

This emphasis on design as an important part of business and its planning tools has also been criticised. Gadi Amit, founder of the NewDealDesign-studio, has expressed his impatience with the current rage for “design thinking”. He claims that action (prototyping, sketching) often comes before analysis or thinking in design, and that great innovations have come through bursts of creativity and not through rigorous (business) planning.

Now a third-generation wave of post-industrial companies are transforming Silicon Valley. The goal of many of these companies is to create innovations that are scalable and sustainable. Designers are also asked to apply their creative methodologies to whole nations, and non-profits, not just companies. In this design and the social agenda -approach, they seek to address big challenges. This, according to Katz, also puts design and the new design companies in a very different field, in a field already crowded with foundations, charities, agencies, governments etc.

Katz gives many examples of this third-wave companies; like D-Rev, which is a design-driven social enterprise, with products developed in the Silicon Valley but donated to recipients, or Catapult Design, who claim to be “designing WITH the other 90%”. Katz also mentions the Design Accord -initiative, where the five principles of environmentally and socially responsible design practice were agreed on.

To summarize, the book describes a history of how design went from something peripheral to the core of many businesses. It concludes with how design now focuses on the larger good, and on solving grand challenges.

Interestingly, the book also clearly highlights the “little brother” syndrome of design in Silicon Valley in comparison to other places in the U.S. – this was clearly not the place where many of these phenomena happened first – although they might now be the most powerful.

From a Nordic perspective this rhetoric is interesting, we are used to arguing why we are good at something although we aren’t the oldest and biggest in the field. I doubt that many people consider Silicon Valley the underdog in this game, on the contrary, it is the example that many other regions aspire to mimic. And still, there is a clear quest to explain….

The book is a good historic description of how (industrial) design entered Silicon Valley, how it is and has been utilised in various companies and design agencies. In different times the challenges have been different but what strikes me more than the differences are the similarities. The very same challenges and successes could be described in some other region just by changing the names of the organisations.

The first pioneers have the quest of explaining what they actually do, why, and what the benefit of their work would be. Then design is already largely approved but still struggle for not only being seen as an add-on or a surface, and finally the whole approach of design is embraced and an increasing number of organisations are design-driven.

Many of the current companies, Facebook, Google, Amazon, Uber, and Airbnb, are examples of this end-user driven approach. Google states that “design drives everything we do”. 

What’s even more interesting is Katz view of what was needed to create the success of Silicon Valley. It is not just new technology or design, it is the fact that they all work together in the same environment (ecosystem, we would now call it) and the fact that speed is the dominant character of Silicon Valley. This sounds very similar to the advantages of China and Shenzhen that Lee was listing earlier. 

Maybe this is the formula for success – attract great people to come because they see opportunities, create an environment where they can interact together and an approach where you are able to do something fast? Is there something we could learn in this?

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