teasing out the history of interaction design and finding my own history

At my core, I am archivist and historian. I have always been the one who saved everything, took all the pictures, made the scrapbooks to commemorate life and relished doing research for school papers all the way up to current times, researching the best material for teaching the classes I teach at CCA (California College of the Arts).

Title screen from the Dr. Leslie hypercard master’s thesis. ©1994 photo collage by Erin Malone

I studied graphic design in school and my Masters thesis (1994) was an interactive design history project in Hypercard about Dr. Robert L. Leslie and the Composing Room. As part of that work, I wrote hundreds of mini-biographies for the artists and designers and art directors that Leslie featured in his publications PM and AD. That meant a lot of research in the library (this was before the internet) and it was heavenly. (an aside—I am still working on this project in the form of a book biography and am still researching this material.)

Now I am taking on teaching the History of Interaction Design course in our program at CCA and I am trying to weave a story of the multiple disciplines that funneled into our current practices of interaction design.

Disciplines that feed into Interaction Design from my perspective and research. Some would say that the Interaction Design box should be User Experience, but I am using this to illustrate a point to my students that the methods and practices we teach them in our program, come from a variety of places and that learning a bit of history from these lines, will help give context to what they are learning in their other courses. ©2020 image by Erin Malone

It is a fascinating brew across traditional design disciplines—graphic design, industrial design, film & animation, game design—as well as the soft sciences—anthropology, cognitive psychology, human factors—and of course computing and lastly, the internet.

In my process to educate myself on the discipline areas that I was not familiar with, I have created a giant master timeline/spreadsheet (still in progress) of key moments across time in distinct discipline swim lanes to show events happening in the same years across disciplines. I did something like this with my Dr. Leslie work—world events/design events/Dr. Leslie-Composing Room events—it gives everything a lot more context. This has been a great tool for me to understand that context and to see the key events in ID happening at the same time as Graphic Design major events or Psychology methods that have affected GD and ID work or how advances in computing changed the way we designed interactions for people. As I read and research and learn, I fill in a bit more. I know that there are many details still missing but it’s a fun scavenger hunt across time. It’s also crazy big but has been helpful as I pull my syllabus and weekly assignments together.

The other focus I have been concerned with in my research and planning for the class, has been to make sure I pull out stories and biographies and events about women, people of color and other marginalized designers. This has been exceedingly hard. Even historically, when women are mentioned, like Lillian Gilbreth—who was considered one of the first industrial engineers (think proto-human factors)—or Ray Eames—a multi-talented designer across multiple disciplines—they are mentioned and talked about in the context of their husbands, who for the most part, got the glory for the work they did as partners. How many have heard of Massimo Vignelli? Everyone. How about Lella Vignelli? Not as many.

In the majority of cases, when I can find information (in books, articles, journals and the internet) the women are mostly, if not all, white. Finding historical contributions within the different lines of design, feeding into the history of Interaction Design from non-white people is exceedingly hard—I am hoping they are out there but I am seeing they have been erased or were never let into the system to begin with. As my research moves into contemporary times though, I am finding lots of amazing people to learn from and I plan to share these stories with my students so they also hear from a wide variety of voices and experiences across this practice. That said, our practice is still overwhelmingly white and male.

While my intent is to cover the major milestones, I am over-emphasizing the voices of women to counter the ubiquitousness of the myth of the white male genius. Additionally, I am attempting to make this NOT a story of only Silicon Valley, but of these disciplines and industries as a whole, across a swath of geography—although I admit this is mostly western culture centered—except for brief mentions of the first cases of moveable type and the invention of paper coming from China and Korea. While attempting to not focus on SV, I recognize that there are major milestones and inventions that came out of the unique brew of the valley and we will be discussing those as well.

It’s been interesting to get to the point in IXD history where the Internet starts to take over. This is the history of my own career; of the people I have worked with over the years, all coming from different paths and disciplines. It’s an interesting perspective to look back over the last 30 years of history and realize that the work I have been doing all these years is all rolled up into this evolution of a single practice from many, and that my journey is the history of IXD—from BBS’s to Kodak touchscreens to AOL Greenhouse to Adobe’s first website to Elon Musk’s first startup (Zip2) to the dot com boom of AltaVista Live! the portal to the great bust and being laid off and back to AOL then Yahoo! to platforms and patterns and products and websites and software as a service to social apps and helping startups take advantage of mobile and cross media delivery and finally to working with the ADL to map and model the systems of online hate. I am like many of the thousands of working designers, writers, researchers, psychologists, and anthropologists drawn into this practice BECAUSE of the fact that it touches on so many disciplines to become it’s own thing and because when we started, we got to make the whole thing up as we went along—refining and iterating to see what worked and what didn’t—and in our own way, we designed our way into a solid profession.

Visual syllabus outlining my IXD History course and the general sense of the topics and people I will be covering during the semester. All of this is subject to change as I learn about more people and finish my own research and reading.

Follow along—I have created a visual syllabus and a nice framework of readings and videos through the ages for my class — I will be posting those details soon—the class is 100% online this Fall and hopefully will work out well for everyone (me and the students).

Community request—if you know of Interaction designers from across these different eras not listed in the visual syllabus that I should be highlighting or telling my students about, please leave a note in the comments so I can investigate and integrate in to my list of people—or if you are interested in a brief 5–10 minute interview about your own work please let me know. It’s important that the overarching story I teach isn’t the same old story.