In the beginning — lecture 1 from my Interaction Design History course

Cave marking in southwest Utah— location not specified. ©erin malone — photo by erin malone

In which I go back to the beginning when humans started making marks to tell stories

In the early stages of civilization humans made marks on walls and drew pictures of experiences to tell stories, share their successes, or to leave information for future visitors. We actually will never know exactly why, but story telling is part of our innate core of being human and as part of that evolution, we have moved from telling stories orally — passing from one person to another through generations — to capturing those stories with pictures — to evolving common meanings of symbols that everyone understands which has in turn become formal written language using alphabets and pictography.

Pictographic language evolved simultaneously in Asia, Egypt and in the Mayan culture between the 31st century BC and the 2nd century AD. These languages were very sophisticated and often only priests and royalty knew how to read it.

Much like our current systems of iconography used in applications and signage around the world, these languages were full of symbols, metaphor and direct representation of objects and ideas.

The picture writing that evolved in Mesopotamia into cuneiform — the process of making symbols on clay tablets — was mostly to keep track of commerce between people and goods and was used extensively by merchants.

This proto-alphabet eventually evolves into the Phoenician alphabet between 1050 BC and by 800 BC we have Greek and Aramaic evolved from the Phoenician and shortly thereafter, Latin, Cyrillic, Runic and Coptic from the Greek and Aramaic.

These alphabets and the need to read them spread as people moved along trade routes. Common languages and ability to trade stories, keep track of goods bought and sold were just a few of the reasons to solidify common alphabets.

At the same time language and alphabets are evolving and solidifying, we have paper making techniques being brought from the east into Europe as the Moors invade Spain (711 AD). Around this same time, the Book of Kells, in Latin, is being produced in Britain and Ireland. The Book of Kells was a hand written manuscript of the Gospels that is one of the best and most ornate examples of an illuminated manuscript still around. These manuscripts were created in scriptoriums by monks for other monks, priests, bishops and kings. The common people didn’t have access to these books and in most cases they didn’t know how to read.

Why am I asking you to consider this early human history and writing history? as Interaction Designers, we tell stories. We also have need to communicate complex ideas in small amounts of spaces so we rely on pictography and icons to help make actions clear. Understanding how people are innately hardwired for story and how we learn and process symbols and metaphor will help make you a stronger interaction designer.

This lecture was followed by watching these videos:
Thoth’s Pill — an Animated History of Writing (YouTube)
Robert Fabricant’s talk on the missing history of Interaction Design from Interaction Week 2020 (Vimeo)

Note: All these lectures were delivered via video with related slide decks of images. Following the intro, students had a series of readings and videos to watch related to the topics covered in the lecture or the overall time frame. They were then given a set of prompts to stimulate their thinking and writings which ended up in a class blog.

Setting the Stage
See the visual syllabus and how I approached putting this class together