Book Notes: “Make It New”

Make It New: The History of Silicon Valley Design
By Barry M. Katz, with a foreword by John Maeda
The MIT Press, 2015

It’s been almost five years since my family and I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. We had several reasons for doing so, but foremost among them for me was the fact that the Bay Area is home to the world’s most important information environments. As a designer in this space, I wanted to be where the most interesting, impactful, and lucrative technology is being created. That meant moving to Northern California.

In this part of the world, good design is seen as a prerequisite for technology to succeed. But this wasn’t always the case. The first designers in the Valley (many of whom were drawn here, like me, by the “exceedingly fast pace and dynamic instability of the product development cycle within a rapidly changing technology environment”) had to prove their mettle. What was seen at first as a field for those who couldn’t make it as engineers — as a way to add superficial appeal to products that were first and foremost engineering marvels — would eventually become the force that puts human concerns at the core of technological products.

Make It New traces a curious arc for the profession. While the first design jobs in Silicon Valley were internal to companies such as HP an AMPEX, eventually the most important work came to be done by consultancies like GVO, IDEO, and frogdesign. These consultancies — and their patrons in world-changing companies like Apple — are at the center of the story. In the last chapter of the book, the arc comes full circle, with design again moving in-house in companies like Facebook.

Another thread in the book is the fact that design in Silicon Valley at first meant almost exclusively industrial design: the specification of the physical form of products like calculators, tape recorders, and computers. Eventually, the primary focus of the work would shift to digital design, and the book traces this evolution and the emergence of interaction design as a sub-discipline.

Alas, even as Silicon Valley design has undergone this significant transition, it hasn’t yet shaken its initial “product design” framing; in fact, the book’s conclusion opens with an epigraph by Martin Heidegger: “Thinging, the thing things.” This focus on designing “things” has come at the expense of an understanding of the object of design work as context, a fact we’re painfully reminded of every time we see our fellow citizens attempting — and failing — to hold civic discourse in digital “products” such as Twitter.

The story of design in the Valley wouldn’t be complete without a discussion of the institutions that have emerged here to rear the next generation of practitioners. Make It New includes a chapter that traces the history of design education in three Bay Area universities in particular: Stanford, San Jose State University, and the California College of the Arts (where professor Katz and I both teach.)

The book is both comprehensive and engaging. If you are a designer working in technology, it’s required reading. And if you aren’t, perhaps you still care about the technological systems that are transforming our world. If so, it behooves you to understand how they’ve come to be the way they are. Design is a central part of that story, and Make It New is the best resource I know for learning about its history in Silicon Valley.

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