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Make It New: The History of Silicon Valley Design

by Barry M. Katz; John Maeda, Foreword
The MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2015
280 pp., illus., 30 col. Trade, $29.95; eBook, $20.95
ISBN: 9780262029636; ISBN: 9780262330916.

Reviewed by Jussi Parikka
Winchester School of Art/University of Southampton

Now that Silicon Valley machines, software suites, and platforms have increasingly crept in as Art and Design schools’ global infrastructure, it is about time to investigate what the history of design in Silicon Valley is like. Professor Barry M. Katz’s book is a timely – perhaps even overdue – take on the historical development of the appreciation, role, and insights of design in some of the key corporations of digital culture. But thankfully it is not merely a corporate or business history. Make It New is a very useful work of design history that outlines why it is not sufficient to engage with Silicon Valley based merely on engineering nor on marketing, not merely the economic impact or the aura of geniuses that are among the usual narratives one encounters. Katz’s book shows how from a mere tolerance of designers in technology companies it became gradually recognized as a form of activity and discourse that started to shape not only the corporations or their products, but also the wider environment in which digital culture took place. Hence this shift in the focus and importance of design over decades is what enables people like Tim Brown (IDEO) to claim in a much later phase of Silicon Valley design culture that “We are still designing machines but also the ghosts that live inside them” (161).

Katz shows how the many contexts and situations had an impact in reshaping design as field of practice and education. In other words, it was not only design that entered Silicon Valley but Silicon Valley that entered how design was thought of globally. In many of the interesting discussions in the book, he details the work of knowledge exchange, both in the post World War II situation where German expertise was brought to assist American work in technology and science, but also the continuous relations between design institutions and Silicon Valley. Furthermore, his book touches on how emerging disciplines become synthetized – for example interaction design in the midst of the recognition to take into account “human factors”. Indeed, in the 1970s and especially in the 1980s the “turn” in digital culture and design of interfaces brought to the fore the design task of how to find effective ways to incorporate users into the system. Design became attached not merely to the industrial design of the machine and its interface, but the wider environment in which they work. For example Xerox Corporation was very much embedded in this dilemma (110-111).

Further to a consideration of the environments in which machines were used, this rethinking was crucial in the shift from computers as office equipment to the idea of them becoming integrated in educational institutions and for educational use. This was one of the key questions in the early Apple Multimedia Lab. Design itself become an interdisciplinary field, or perhaps more accurately a clustering of expertise under a lab environment: not merely information, graphic, or industrial design, such labs had to also incorporate considerations of anthropometrics, physiology, psychology, sociology, anthropology and even ecology in the activity of design and the projected user/environment of use (115). Besides the activity, Katz gives useful attention to the history of “labs” as sites where the various disciplines met and became operational part of the corporate design of digital culture. This is an important context for the current considerations of design education and innovation, the spatial sites, which become concrete but also rhetorical markers of interdisciplinarity. Already in 1960, Kermit Seefeld, the chairman of the Industrial Arts Department at UCSB voiced how different traditional and new academic education and scholarly places of activity can be: “The library is thought of as a quiet place, whereas the shops are decidedly noisy; the classroom is clean whereas a lab is dirty; books are read sitting down, whereas we work standing up, with sweat on our brow” (126).

Katz’s book includes a whole chapter dedicated to “Designing Designers”, i.e. the design education culture in the Bay Area. The overview is useful and apt reading even against the backdrop of current discussions in arts & design education (at least in Anglo-American countries). The chapter includes some inspiring accounts as to the insufficiency of vocational training (a trend that we recognize in current anti-intellectual and narrow atmosphere that pertains to design and university education in general). Katz paraphrases here Wolfgang Lederer, a refugee from Europe who started to work at the California College of Arts and Crafts and later known for example for his book design for University of California Press: “To his students he insisted that a diploma is not the academic version of a union card, and that while a coveted position in a corporate art department might await a few lucky graduates, their real goal should be a lifelong process of continuing artistic growth” (133). Of course, such anecdotes don’t cover the whole, wider debates in design becoming institutionalised part of university training and Katz is able to offer a good understanding of broader themes, too.

Make it New touches on the shift of design from ergonomics to affect and (algorithmic) sociability (such as the Like-button), from things to environments of use, from different spaces of design as practice and education to the spaces in which design is used, and much more. As such it also includes good material for further work for scholars in art, design, critical theory of cognitive capitalism and more. Katz’s book does not itself offer an explicitly critical evaluation of some of the aspects of design – for example related to planned obsolescence, the global infrastructures of labour and material sustaining the product design, environmental issues that are merely contained under bland notions of “sustainability” and more, but for any critical reader wanting to develop more far-reaching theoretical suggestions, this context should anyway be kept in mind when reading the book. Make It New delivers well what it sets out to do: a well-research and lucidly written overview of the radical changes in practices and understanding of design in technological culture.

Last Updated 1st February 2016

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