Illustration by Atipus

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An Abbreviated History of Design in Silicon Valley

Illustration by Atipus
An Abbreviated History of Design in Silicon Valley
Published April 24, 2017 by Matt McCue

Between the global tech firms, independent agencies, start-up scene, and boutique studios, Silicon Valley has a greater concentration of designers than anywhere else in the world. So how did this come to be? California College of the Arts Professor of Industrial and Interaction Design Barry Katz tells the history of design in Silicon’s Valley in his insightful book Make It New, which is now out in paperback. Below Katz discusses the notable people, milestones, and ideas that led to Silicon Valley’s awakening as a design hub.

Silicon Valley design didn’t begin with Steve Jobs.

I scratched all the way back to August 1, 1951 where I found the first professionally-trained designer to work in what was not yet even called Silicon Valley. His name is Carl Clement, and he showed up at Hewlett-Packard carrying around his industrial design portfolio. This instrument company, full of the physicists, engineers, machinists, had no idea what they were seeing, and even the more tolerant ones had no idea why this should be of any interest to them. Clement probably just talked himself into a job as a draftsman and then began looking for opportunities until he actually built up a design group.”

Stanford, naturally, played a role.  

In the mid 1950s, a guy named John Arnold migrated from MIT to Stanford. He was a self-trained engineer with a psychology background. He had this philosophy he called ‘creative engineering,’ which sought to blur the distinction between the creative arts and the hardcore analytical engineering disciplines. He believed that some of the creative techniques that artists use as a matter of course could be incorporated into engineering problem solving, and he brought that to Stanford. Out of that emerged Stanford’s Product Design Program. It tended to attract people who often had a pretty heavy duty technical background, but an interest or an inclination to look beyond the traditional canons of engineering.”

And Steve Jobs did too, of course. 

The turning point came 30 years later when Steve Jobs had a revelation: Jobs bet that for every hardware enthusiast who wanted to build a computer from a kit, there were a thousand software people who wanted to just buy the finished computer, plug it in, and be able to get to work. So that led him to selling the Apple II computer in a sealed box, which raised a whole new set of design questions. “Jobs said that ‘Design is not just about how it looks. It’s about how it works,’” says Katz. “So the effect is you should be able to design from the outside in and then turn around and design from the inside out.” A design culture emerged in which, if you’re not technically proficient, you’re disposed to talk to, work with, and take seriously the people who are, leading to a cross pollination of ideas between engineers and designers. “This is not unique to Silicon Valley, but I would say that the difference is out here we just do it a lot more,” says Katz.

Hardware competition among Silicon Valley companies has driven design innovation.

Consumers generally can't discern the difference between technologically-similar products. And the tendency for technologies to converge and competing projects to become functionally comparable opens the door for what will differentiate my product from yours. What happens then is that the key differentiator between your Galaxy phone and your iPhone is not the memory chip or the processing speed. It's the design, by which I mean the entire experience of using it, along with how it looks and feels."

The transformation of technology from enterprise to personal has allowed designers to drive more product value.

“Computers are no longer a refrigerator-size processing unit in the backroom of an insurance company. When we start putting computers on our desktops, then in our briefcases, then pockets, and then wearing them, our tolerance for a bad experience goes way, way down and our standards go way, way up. If you're a computer professional using a computer, you can put up with a lot. But if you're an athlete wearing the thing, the points of pain, discomfort, inconvenience, and difficulty of use become intolerable. And that's where design is in a position to make the critical difference.”

Product systems have further elevated the importance of design.

“We no longer really talk about individual products any longer, in which it's just a case of styling the box. What we've got now is an integrated system of products rather than a single object, and design then becomes a critical component in integrating those systems. Google, for instance, began thinking seriously about design when they had a group working on Maps, a group working on Search, and a group working on Gmail. As long as they were working in isolation from one another, those products and the several others that Google had were moving in different directions. Google co-founder Larry Page realized that they needed to be pulled together. And what pulls together disparate things? Design.”

As go tech companies, so goes many others.  

When you got a company like Apple, which is the single most valuable corporate property in the world, selling the single best-selling product in the history of the world, namely the iPhone, almost every company in the world asks: ‘What are they doing that perhaps we should know about?’ It’s not just Apple, but a range of companies in Silicon Valley that have defined whole new industries: Google, Facebook, Airbnb. These companies are heavily dependent and respectful of the work of their designers. And so places like banks, management consultancies, and insurance companies that don’t make products for consumer markets began to absorb some of those lessons, even if “design” in the classical sense is of questionable relevance. This is how the whole design thinking thing began to take off as companies like IBM, SAP, or Capital One Bank began to use the underlying process, mental pictures, and methodologies–the core of design thinking–that designers use."

Biotech is the next industry that will demand good designers.

“We’ve seen plenty of design work within the life sciences and the health sector, mostly in such areas as medical instruments, packaging, and things like that. But we are now seeing a growing interest in design strategies being applied to healthcare. I’m suspecting that biotech is now poised to make the same sort of move that software and electronics did toward the consumer markets–you know, it cost a hundred million dollars to sequence a genome 25 years ago and now you can do it at 23andMe for $100. At that price point when non-specialists, and non-scientists start buying these products, that’s an enormous opportunity for design.”


More about Matt McCue

Matt McCue is the former editor of 99U. He lives in New York City, but he is willing to travel long distances for a good meal. Find him on Twitter at @mattmccuewriter.

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