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Make It NewThe History of Silicon Valley Design$

Barry M. Katz

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780262029636

Published to MIT Press Scholarship Online: May 2016

DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/9780262029636.001.0001

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(p.189) Conclusion
Make It New

Barry M. Katz

The MIT Press

Abstract and Keywords

Make it New concludes by introducing the concept of “Design Thinking,” the most recent and possibly the most influential export of the Silicon Valley design community. Design Thinking suggests that the tools of the designer can be applied not just to products, but to the entire field of human experience—poverty, social justice, the work of institutions of every sort. This concludes the arc of a story that began on the loading dock of a mid-century factory building and now embraces the totality of life.

Keywords:   Design Thinking, Herbert Simon, Sciences of the Artificial

“Thinging, the thing things.”

—Martin Heidegger (1949)

The most far-reaching product of the Silicon Valley design culture is not a mobile device, a medical instrument, or even an app. In fact, it is not a product at all; and like so many other ideas that have come to fruition in the narrow strip of real estate bounded by Highways 101 and 280, it was (in the dreaded phrase of all engineering managers) “not invented here.” Design Thinking—the idea that the tools of the designer can be applied to the totality of life—has nonetheless taken root in the ecosystem of Silicon Valley, and like a Tweet or a Like, has spread rapidly across the globe.1

The flowering of Design Thinking is a fitting note on which to conclude this history of Silicon Valley design precisely because it captures the inherent difficulty of doing so. In his Compton Lectures of 1968, Herbert Simon famously stated that, “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” Simon’s intention was to open up to scientific inquiry a domain that had been claimed by artisans, craftsmen, and a motley assortment of specialized professional practices. The object of this nuova scienza of design followed from Simon’s generous definition: In contrast to the natural scientist, whose subject matter is the fixed and immutable universe, the domain of the designer is the “artificial” world of human creation: “The natural sciences are concerned with how things are. Design, on the other hand, is concerned with how things ought to be.”2

Simon proposed a radical expansion of the perimeter around “design”: No longer can it be construed as the practice of fashioning technically (p.190) efficient functions into aesthetically pleasing forms (“stuffing five pounds of shit into a two-pound box”), but rather a comprehensive approach to the entire field of human experience. As exhilarating as this program might be, it leaves us with an obvious quandary: How shall we define the limits to this new “science of the artificial?” How are we to think of a discipline that encompasses every manner of art and artifice? What common logic might connect an $80,000 electric sedan and an $80 prosthetic knee? The bottom-up populism of the maker’s movement and the top-down expertise of contract manufacturing firms? The design of a consumer appliance, a professional service, a pharmaceutical trial, and an educational curriculum? Under the banner of Design Thinking, Silicon Valley has laid claim to the entire field of the ought.

In the antediluvian age when Santa Clara country was still awash in cherry blossoms and Stanford a genteel finishing school, designers in New York and Milan were boldly promoting themselves as masters of an art that could be applied to everything “from lipsticks to locomotives” (the industrial designer Raymond Loewy in 1951) and at scales extending “from a teaspoon to a city” (the architect Ernesto Rogers the following year).3 In comparison with the ambitious programs of today’s designers—income inequality, urban violence, environmental justice, political reform—their bravado seems timid and parochial.

There is no shortage of observers who have concluded that Design Thinking heralds the end of a golden age: The skilled professional has yielded to the “T-shaped” generalist with a limitless appetite and an excess of confidence in the power of design to effect large-scale change.4 For others, however, it is the disruption that the design profession has been waiting for and the fulfillment of a century-old dream. Designers are being asked to design not only objects, but systems. They are invited into the inner sancta of corporations and NGOs, and are being called upon by the governments of Iceland, Singapore, and Colombia to apply their creative methodologies to whole nations. Designers who have been clamoring for an invitation to the party are now asked to organize it, to orchestrate it, and they not infrequently end up being the guests of honor. Having resigned themselves to being at best a link in a chain, they find themselves functioning as the hub of a wheel.

This returns us, in conclusion, to our starting point: Herbert Simon’s provocative, infuriating, inspiring suggestion that the province of design is (p.191) “how things ought to be.” In sixty years the Silicon Valley design profession has moved from a loading dock at the back of a 1950s Hewlett-Packard factory building to the SOMA lofts and Bayfront campuses of some of the world’s most powerful companies. It has expanded its field of practice from discrete electromechanical devices to integrated socioeconomic systems, and calved off a host of new disciplines to tackle them. Silicon Valley designers have brought their methods to middle school playgrounds, executive boardrooms, and Navajo reservations. They have watched as their products are launched into space and inserted into the most intimate recesses of personal experience. Their work may be constrained by schedules, budgets, and technology, but these are mere details. The only real constraint is the power of the design imagination. (p.192)


(1.) The genealogy of “Design Thinking” has become an academic cottage industry. Its origins lie arguably in the Ulm Model developed by Horst Rittel and his colleagues at the Hochschule für Gestaltung and imported by Rittel to the Design Methods Group at the University of California at Berkeley in the early 1960s. Canonical texts include Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, Policy Sciences 4 (1973): 155–69; Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, and A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977); John Chris Jones, Design Methods: Seeds of Human Futures (New York: Wiley, 1970); and Peter Rowe, Design Thinking (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987).

(2.) Herbert Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1969), pp. 55–59.

(3.) Raymond Loewy, Never Leave Well Enough Alone: The Personal Record of an Industrial Designer from Lipsticks to Locomotives (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1951). Ernesto (p.245) Nathan Rogers issued his call for architects to take responsibility for everything dal cucchiaio alla città in 1952.

(4.) See, for instance, the blogs of Gadi Amit, who dismisses Design Thinking as a confused marketing slogan conceived by consultancies in need of a new offering (Fast Company: November 28, 2009), and Donald Norman, for whom it is a benign but “useful myth.” (Core 77, June 25, 2010). (p.246)