Make It New: A History of Silicon Valley Design

I read this book to gain a better understanding of the processes and approaches used by past contributors to Silicon Valley design. While I have a solid understanding of the current methods used by UX Designers and UX Researchers, I had not come across a book that examined the history of successful technology products. Furthering my interest was the fact that this book focused on the last few decades of history of the world’s most impactful technology hub.

Katz traces this history far earlier than the recent tech companies that are dominating the Silicon Valley scene. Outside of the companies that emerged following the 2008 recession (Facebook, Uber, Twitter, etc.), Silicon Valley is often associated with the dotcom era and the crash that followed. Katz demonstrates that there is a much larger pre-internet history that involves industrial designers, researchers, and local universities. He gives detailed descriptions of different players, the companies they worked for, and their contributions to design at large. Further, he examines how universities such as San Jose State and Stanford began creating programs that prepared their students to enter the local industry while also offering teaching posts to local working professionals. Katz argues that all of these together, especially the harmonious relationship between industry and academia, created a unique opportunity for the creation of Silicon Valley as it is known today. With this history, the book weaves from the design of thermostats, to early human-computer interaction, to interaction design becoming product. He also explores how the roles of people working in design shifted from “engineer with taste” to experience designer to early design researchers.

The uniqueness of this complex and interwoven history was perhaps the greatest takeaway from the book, especially given the fact that many cities are currently trying to replicate Silicon Valley by reshaping local policy in attempts to create new tech hubs. What I also found interesting was the large role played by design researchers during the 1960s and 1970s. This is due to the fact that, based on my knowledge, tech hubs outside of Silicon Valley don’t often direct resources towards design research. It is an area that still has to fight for its legitimacy even though this work has been heavily utilized in the history of successful technological products. My biggest complaint of the book was that it did not dive into the processes and successes of products as I initially hoped. However, that would have been a history of Silicon Valley products, which is not the intention of the book. It is instead specifically focused on the role design played in shaping Silicon Valley.

Because of this approach, I’d recommend this book to just about anyone, but for different reasons. Students and people looking to break into the tech industry would benefit from the simply from the rich history the book provides. For people who have worked in tech, it provides examples of the benefits of design research (UX Research), and how it has contributed to Silicon Valley design and products. However, one must have a strong desire to learn this history, as the book can be difficult to read with its in-depth academic tone. A tip for anyone considering this book would be to not think of it as a design book, but rather a strict history book with rich information.

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