Industrial Age: Between the Wars & The Memex — intro lecture 4 from my Interaction Design History course

The Bauhaus spreads to America. Diving into the concept of hypertext with the Memex and how WW2 gave us human factors engineering and Fitt’s Law

Photo by Mitchel Boot on Unsplash

Between World Wars 1 and 2 there was a rise of artist and political groups that created many of the manifestoes you read in the intro lecture. In 1919 Bauhaus comes into being. Founded by architect Walter Gropius and later lead by Hannes Meyer and then Mies van der Rohe for the last 3 years of the school, the school sought to deliver an egalitarian education and has a vision of creating a union of art and design for a new kind of designer. Their manifest stated that it welcomed “any person of good repute, without regard to age or sex” and Gropius stated “there should be no difference between the beautiful and the strong sex” when they first started, they actually had more women students than men. After the first year, the directors and faculty directed the women to feminine arts or handicrafts like weaving, so fewer women ended up completing the full coursework.

The school taught a mix of arts and crafts and students learned color theory, composition, designed and built products and furniture, design posters and books and even costumes and performances. They practiced a philosophy of modernism which celebrated the machine and machine made objects and celebrated form giving clues to the item’s use.

Over time, this became a very male-centric group and they purposefully adjusted the student enrollments to favor men and pushed the female students away from things like architecture, painting, and carving. Despite this there were a few women who were teaching and students who became involved and eventually married some of the male faculty.

Anni Albers, who started as a student, met her husband Josef Albers in the school. Albers taught color theory classes. Anni, who had been working in glass was steered to textiles, as a student first, and then a teacher, eventually became one of the most celebrated weavers in the US. She was honored with the first solo textiles exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in NY.

Lilly Reich, a collaborator with Mies van der Rohe, while they were both at the Deutsches Werkbund, was responsible for designing all the interiors of Meis’s work and collaborated (if not fully developed) the tubular steel and leather furniture Meis is so famous for — according to Albert Pheiffer, Vice President of Design and Management at Knoll, Meis didn’t design furniture before or after his involvement with Reich. Reich was in charge of the Interior Design department that had been created when Mies took on the leadership of the school and was only the second female master at the school.

When the Bauhaus was shut down in 1933, many of the faculty, students, former students who became faculty emigrated to the United States. Several landed in New York, and with the help of Dr. Robert L. Leslie, through his composing room and PM / AD events, they were introduced to the who’s who of New York’s Advertising and Design agencies and in turn NY was exposed to the best of these European immigrants. PM and later AD helped to expose both emerging American talent as well as spreading the ideals of European modernism to a generation of designers and art directors. Included in the PM and AD publications and AD Gallery exhibits were immigrant designers such as Dr. M. F. Agha, Herbert Bayer, Will Burtin, Gyorgy Kepes, Ladislav Sutnar among others. These designers, in turn, became clients of The Composing Room, Inc., a testament to Leslie’s business sense.

Others emigres ended up in Chicago. Photographer and artist and former teacher, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and the former founder of the Bauhaus and architect, Walter Gropius created the New Bauhaus in Chicago. It ran for a year before closing and then a couple of years later, Moholy-Nagy founded the Institute of Design, where he taught for a handful of years or so before his death in 1946. His wife, Sybil, also taught at the school and was most known for her work as an architectural historian and critic. Mies also ended up in Chicago at the Illinois Institute for Design and he led their school of architecture for many years.

Others went to a most unlikely location — North Carolina. Josef Albers and Anni Albers — emigrated to North Carolina to become teachers at the Black Mountain College, where they taught for 16 years. The school, which was part art school, part collective, taught artists, writers, poets, musicians among others. It was also one of the first schools to enroll black students and alumni include Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Deborah Sussman, Elaine de Kooning, Ruth Asawa, and Mary Parks Washington — one of the earliest black students in the school.

During World War 2, the fields of computing, human factors made some great leaps due to the industrial war machine and the money put into that. In 1945, Vannevar Bush published his seminal article in The Atlantic. Titled As We May Think, Bush proposes a new machine to help scholars and decision makers make sense of the growing mountains of information being published into the world. This is before the internet and the web and was greatly influential on the people who invented hypertext and the internet as we know it today.

During the war, we also start seeing the application of human factors and cognitive science research techniques being used to understand issues with people and their use of technology. During the war, there were a lot of casualties in plane crashes. Most of these were flagged as “Pilot error”. But in 1943, Alphonse Chapanis showed that pilot error could be reduced by designing or re-designing the cockpit of the fighter planes in a more intuitive design. He had seen that controls like the flaps and the landing gear were exactly the same, and split-second-decision type experiences, pilots often used the wrong control, leading to fatal crashes. Redesigning these to have different shaped handles cut the number of crashes significantly. He also showed that using shapes, colors and grouping of controls to organize and inform the pilot seriously reduced the amount of guessing wrong that had been happening.

Another psychologist working on human factors issues during the war was Paul M. Fitts. Fitts analyzed the errors pilots were making when they were reading and manipulating controls in the cockpit. He posited that many of the errors made could be anticipated and avoided through an improvement in the design of the cockpit. Realizing that it was more important to design machines that matched operators’ capabilities than to train operators to use poorly designed machines, he began work on optimizing the design of cockpits, instruments, radar scopes, gun sights and navigation systems. His work gave birth to the field of engineering psychology, which is the application of basic research in human performance theory to the design of human-machine systems.

After WW II, Fitts took an academic position at the The Ohio State University, where he established the Aviation Psychology Research Laboratory in 1949. He later moved to University of Michigan to collaborate with Art Melton in developing the program on Experimental Psychology and Human Performance.

Fitts published his paper “The information capacity of the human motor system in controlling the amplitude of movement” in 1954 [Fitts 1954]. Fitts’ research allows predicting the time a human needs to point at a target of given size in a given distance. The law was first applied to Human-Computer Interaction in 1978.

Fitts’ law states that it takes more time to hit a target if the target is further away and it also takes more time if the target is smaller. Fitts’ law also states that the target acquisition time increases drastically if the target gets tiny. As it is clear that an infinite small target is impossible to hit, means it takes infinite time, the consequences (diverging time) of a very small target are also understandable with common sense.

This law is incredibly relevant to Interaction Design and the decisions we make every time we design an interface.

For this section, I had my students watch these two videos about The Memex and Vannevar Bush as well as read the original article and a couple of articles from the internet era to compare and contrast the ideas back then to ways people capture and follow information today.
Vannevar Bush (You Tube)
Memex Animation — Vannevar Bush’s diagrams made real (YouTube)
As We May Think by Vannevar Bush—The Atlantic, 1945
Foreseeing the Future: The legacy of Vannevar Bush by Erin Malone — Boxes and Arrows, 2002
On the Trail of the Memex. Vannevar Bush, Weblogs and the Google Galaxy by Dennis G. Jerz, 2003

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.

Industrial Age
Industrial Revolution & Manifestos, intro lecture3

In the Beginning
Read intro lecture 2 — In the Beginning Part 2
Read intro lecture 1 — In the Beginning Part 1

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