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Publishing / Journals

Make It New: A History of Silicon Valley Design

Barry M. Katz

How did a small peninsula between San Francisco Bay and the western rolling hills of California become the backstory of human-centered pioneers who continually invented technological breakthroughs and breakaway products by design? Silicon Valley is a place where reach, in many cases, exceeded grasp, thus propelling, pivoting, and at times derailing people and ideas within a microcosmic diaspora. Barry M. Katz's book, Make It New, describes in exacting—and at times dense—detail the corporate culture and timing that created the products we know, as well as many that never made it to market.

Katz states that design arrived in Silicon Valley in an engineering-dominated world. Designer Carl Clement joined Hewlett Packard’s production engineering group in 1951 and demonstrated that design could improve the visual appearance, function, and operation of HP products with a systematic approach. While this development might sound as if design at HP achieved parity with engineering, it did not; design was still viewed as an “auxiliary service.” As HP VP Bruce Wholey told HP’s future manager of corporate design, Allen Inhelder: “If you irritate my engineers, you are outta here.” This view led to an atmosphere in which “...designers waged an ongoing guerrilla campaign to gain a hearing from their engineering overlords.”  

Illustrating how the role of design has evolved in Silicon Valley, Katz defines three waves of design firms. First wave design consultancies in the 1970s and 1980s focused on engineering-based projects supported by design. Second wave consultancies in the 1990s and 2000s embraced problem-solving by collaborating in new ways with marketing and engineering. They used digital technologies to prototype and release solutions. The third wave, in the 2010s, is represented by corporations and design consultancies operating in a fluid post-industrial landscape. Designers, engineers, and marketers worked together to focus on the simplicity and speed of digital services. Ideation and creation “...may be crowd-sourced or cloud-sourced, solar-powered or sensor-activated, portable, wearable, implantable, and of course networked.”

In parallel to this, Katz outlines how research labs and think tanks created an environment for innovation. The synergy between Silicon Valley institutions—Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), founded in 1970; Systems Science Lab; and the Stanford Research Institute’s Augmented Human Intellect Research Center—provides a good example of a corporate/academic alliance. Research labs were not just focusing on emerging technologies, but also exploring emerging media of human–computer interactions that affect the way we work.

The 1960s was a tipping point in the balance between computing and the foundation of personal computers. Douglas Engelbart’s oN-LineSystem (NLS) spurred two differing initiatives at Xerox PARC : 1) PARC On-Line Office System (POLOS) envisioned office machines that would “time share” their computing with a small number of Nova minicomputers, while 2) Alto envisioned personal computers that had graphic user interfaces networked together. These rival philosophies were tested in 1973. Alto demonstrated more promise as a paradigm within which users did not need to program a computer. The resulting development of the Xerox 8010 Information System (STAR) “...marked a fundamental shift in the balance between hardware and software....” These efforts sowed the seeds of fundamental questions involving the relationship between hardware and software, the definition of usability, and the difference between specialized and consumer computing.

Unfortunately, Xerox PARC did not capitalize on these advances and lost key staff through “...a dispersal of core talent that rivals the flight of Greek scholars during the declining years of Byzantium....” As Make It New repeatedly illustrates, the concepts from these labs would be dispersed and iterated upon by other design consultancies. The consultancies were able to integrate research methods and design practice to innovate and release successful products at a much faster pace.

The computer game market, the rise of which was initiated by Atari in 1972, was an early transformational innovation that benefited from the integration between research labs, corporations, and design consultancies. Its new model of storytelling poured the foundation of interaction design where “...sorcerers practiced a dark art for which precedents did not exist and parameters had yet to be defined”. Market appetite accelerated the expanding the power and sophistication of gaming which caused Atari’s to hire Alan Kay of Xerox PARC to become Chief Scientist at Atari Systems Research. This new confluence of cognitive, behavioral, and learning areas propelled many applications using game play as a force. In parallel, Bill Moggridge, from ID Two, hired and mentored Tim Brown and Jane Fulton Suri. These designers were a new breed who focused on human factors to define the new field of interaction design.

The growing importance of interaction design and the transition to software applications led to a new perspective: “...The idea that design might drive engineering and marketing decisions—rather than be driven by them—represented a dramatic reversal of the sequence that prevailed in even the most progressive companies.” A new breed of T-shaped designers had a strong major focus and several minor skills and could radically collaborate with other disciplines for iconic outcomes. The increased importance of observational research would create tension between data-driven market research and qualitative field research as design gained more visibility and legitimacy within companies.

As a result of the shift from physical hardware to the conceptual universe of software solutions, delivered through software-as-a-service and the Internet-of-Things, “...connectivity has eclipsed materiality.” This shift was – and still is driven in large part by the increased abstraction of infrastructure from bare metal (on-premise single server) to Internet protocol (IP) and virtualization (through cloud data centers); design could focus on inventing situational experiences supported by these flexible software-defined environments. Divisions between work and personal platforms have blurred and are now infinitely customizable, social, and increasingly cognitive.

Emphasized throughout the book is the continued need in larger corporations for centralized design efforts from a strategic planning perspective, as well as the need in design firms and smaller companies for decentralized efforts. The drive to centralize and streamline at Apple through Rob Gemmell’s “Project Snow White” brought order and defined Apple’s design language. In the 1990s, HP hired Sam Lucente as its first VP of Design created a coherent product line through the program, “HP Design Attitude,” by working strategically with only a few external design firms (Lunar, IDEO, frog, and Astro). Meanwhile, Chris Wiggins at Google launched “Project Kennedy,” respected “...the engineer’s devotion to ‘complicity and speed’ with the designer’s quest for ‘beauty and cohesiveness’” allowing the system to organize the wide variety of Google products.

A pervasive global desire to emulate Silicon Valley has led toSilicon Alley in New York, Silicon Prairie in Chicago, and Silicon Wadi in Israel. This attempt to imitate raises the question: What is so unique about Silicon Valley? It was the first of its kind and continues to be the most important center of design and technology. In this place, we can “…track the entire developmental cycle of a new product—from laboratory science to engineering prototype to design, testing, and marketing—all within a fifteen-mile radius.” This system is supported by the coordinated efforts of venture capitalists, law offices, trade publications, universities, and the social and economic forces of the Bay Area.

Although the book is seemingly brief at 191 pages, the sheer amount of detail and names of players at times overwhelms the narrative (and requires 52 pages of footnotes). However, Katz's goal to “ . . . trace products upstream to the research laboratories where they may have had their origins and follow them downstream to the clients who will sell them and the customers who will use them” succeeds in making the story worth the effort. Katz illustrates in great detail how nothing was predictably certain, and few had any inkling of the enormity and influence of the ideas, technologies, and solutions that are now hallmarks of Silicon Valley.