Barry Katz, professor of Industrial and Interaction Design at California College of the Arts, has written a book that, at 200 pages, conveys a worthy and instructive history of consumer design as it has applied and evolved in the famous Silicon Valley.
The book has two objectives, to survey the development of the design business in the Valley and to explain the development of Design as a professional discipline, one with its own particular knowledge and methods. In both respects, the book is a great success.
It begins, logically, at the beginning, when Santa Clara county was a land of apricot orchards, walnut groves, and lima beans. After the Second World War, defence contractors set up shop there to service their military clients and take advantage of the proximity of congenial universities such as Stanford.
At this point, design meant more-or-less wrapping technical equipment in helpful and inoffensive boxes. A turn towards consumer design came with Hewlett Packard's development of the Model 35 scientific calculator. Intended for a wide market, the calculator could not merely be effective and sufficiently non-threatening—it had to be clear and pleasant too.
Broadening the usefulness and appeal of electronic technology became a focus of design in the Valley. Katz relates how this played out in the business world, with the development of many design consultancies, like IDEO, and in-house groups, like Atari Research Labs.
Some of these groups were market successes and some were not but many influenced the course of professional design in northern California none the less. Katz lays out the various twists and turns in a clear and logical manner.
Katz also outlines the development of design disciplines over the same period. Initially, design was focused mainly on style and ease, making packages for technical equipment that looked right and provided the given functionality.
Of course, Design has evolved quite a bit from that point. Design now involves the whole relation between users and their technology, as that relates to individual psychology, culture, and activist projects to improve society at large.
All this and more is presented clearly and concisely in Katz's volume. It discusses both key products and industry players without being rushed or slapdash. In part, I think this is accomplished by not focusing too much on celebrities like Steve Jobs. It is also well provided with sources and references for readers looking for more details.
As for shortcomings, the book is a little sparing when it comes to illustrations. Many illustrious products and figures are not pictured. Of course, illustrations can add to the cover price but the use of heavy paper, usually reserved for copiously illustrated works, seems wasted in the absence of much photographic material.
Some readers may also miss any commentary on broader social issues. Many people today question whether the brand of consumerism promoted by Silicon Valley and its designers is entirely a good thing, for example. Yet, Katz offers little consideration of the broader impact of Silicon Valley design.
However, this omission does not threaten the integrity of the book. It is an engaging, clear, and coherent account of the development of Silicon Valley design and is sure to be read with profit by the many people who, I imagine, are interested in this subject.