by Lukasz Lysakowski

Make It New: The History of Silicon Valley Design

I recently read Barry M. Katz’s “Make it New” and am convinced that it’s a must-read for any digital product designer.

Make It New traces the role of design in Silicon Valley.

It’s the story of how a group of outcast designers in Silicon Valley transformed the design field. It’s how they advocated and advanced design from decorating hardware cases to strategic leadership. It’s the history of how these designers defined new design fields within Hewlett-Packard, Ampex, Apple, and a new breed of product design consultancies.

Silicon Valley designers became leaders of all new domains: interaction and (digital) product design. Fields ignored by traditional advertising and graphic design. As such, they were free to explore ergonomics of physical computers and interaction of virtual interfaces. Previous constraints and traditions did not apply. Instead, their creativity created the new field of interactive experiences by merging engineering with humanities.

Design in Silicon Valley was also defined by the freedom of designers to move between research institutes, corporations, and starting their own shops like frog, IDEO, and Lunar. This web of opportunities led to a fluid transfer of knowledge amongst the entire industry. New skills learned in one area were advanced in the next. Knowledge grew as designers jumped into new opportunities and collaborated. Disparate design experience intersected and created new interaction patterns and interfaces.

An important source of San Francisco Bay Area design innovation is West Coast Higher Education. The first wave of postwar designers attended the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles; a school focused on industrial design, illustration, photography, and advertising. It trained many returning post-war veterans that became the first generation of Silicon Valley designers. In the South Bay, a short distance from each other Stanford and San Jose State University added into the mix theoretical and technical designers. In the Oakland hills and the Dogpatch of San Francisco, the California College of Art added a new group of designers trained in interaction and business.

Design in Silicon Valley is much richer than just Steve Jobs and Moggridge. It includes people such as Carl Clement, who in 1951 was the first designer at HP. He redefined HP products by introducing standardization across all products. The final interface of hardware products was born from his introduction brainstorming and user research into the product process. Techniques that we now consider standard but in 1951 were revolutionary.

Of course, military and government were key players in the growth of technological innovation in Silicon Valley. The federal government unintentionally helped as it sponsored the development of computing that in return required designers to make more humane. Make It New touches on the government’s role shaping the foundation of computing.

The history of design in Silicon Valley is multithreaded and deeper than told in the popular press. Make It New is a great overview of the evolution of design in the Bay Area. The book ends not in the past but in the present as it touches on the role of AirBnB, Facebook, and startups in creating the next generation of Bay Area design innovation.

Make It New: The History of Silicon Valley Design By Barry M. Katz. MIT Press 2015. 280 pages.

Make It New
The role of design in the formation of the Silicon Valley ecosystem of innovation.mitpress.mit.edu