The Daily Heller: Can You Believe It? Digital Design Now Has Its Own History

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According to art and design historian Stephen J. Eskilson, the digital age has come of age—and his new book, Digital Design: A History, is the first to provide origin stories and analysis of how the genie out of the bottle has impacted the field and culture at large. Many inventions, theories and scholarship laid the groundwork for computer-aided design prior to the irreversible change it has triggered. When Apple introduced the Macintosh in 1984, it was the beginning of the beginning of the new multi-platform graphic, product, type and interface design era that has consumed us all.

Eskilson, previously the author of Graphic Design: A New History, takes a broad approach to the evolution of digital practice and outcomes, examining all the hot-button areas, including games, UX/UI, digital typography and prototyping. As the first book of its kind, it is the foundation for future study—and here Eskilson discusses how and when blank slates are filled with historical detail.

Walter Gropius, Dessau Bauhaus, 1926. Photo by Cethegus, CC BY-SA 3.0. From chapter on digital type.

Although there are many books addressing how to be a digital designer, yours is the first “a history of” the revolution. At what point did you feel the time was right to codify the design history of the digital age? Would you agree that a period of gestation must occur before a phenomenon as significant as digital design can be codified as history?
Well, when I was in art history undergrad, then grad school, there was a “20-year rule” that you should never discuss something that recent as it’s impossible to make a neutral assessment. That informal rule has really fallen by the wayside! Art and design history is now replete with contemporary work. Since I had always looked at the flurry of exhibitions on digital art/design of the year 2000 as a turning point where there was a critical mass, I am mainly sticking to the rule! Obviously one of the reasons the book is called “A History” is to signal that history writing is plural and contingent.

Portrait of Edmond Belamy, 2018. Public domain as a work of computer algorithm. From chapter on algorithms and artificial.

In Philip Meggs’ A History of Graphic Design, he traces graphic design back to cave paintings, and Paul Rand agreed when he titled one of his autobiographical monographs From Lascaux to Brooklyn. What is the equivalent of cave painting for the digital era?
Would love to chat sometime about the idea of graphic design going back to cave paintings, as I have never felt that the premise made sense; I think of graphic design as arising really in the industrial age of mass production (of course with antecedents, but not cave painting). It strikes me as a Schopenhauer-driven idea of a human “will to form.” That being said, I think there are multiple entry points that people have experienced—games, web, even command line text. Of course, I constantly see analog/digital connections; today I was pondering what A.M. Cassandre, with his love of sequence, would do with motion graphics.

You write, “to fully understand digital design, one needs to grapple with both the future and the past,” and use the example of the word digital that originated from the Latin digitus, “which [means] fingers or toes—appendages that are the analog gateway into counting.” You add that “Today digital design is still an emerging concept.” How do you distinguish analog from digital practice?
Digital/analog: talk about an overlapping Venn diagram! I see two clear paths:

1) Straightforward utilization of a computer and, 2) an attempt to create a digital aesthetic akin to the machine aesthetic of the early 20th century.

Paul Philippoteaux, Cyclorama of the Battle of Gettysburg, 1883. From chapter on virtual reality.

You also state that digital communication had a distant relationship to the inventions of Morse Code and telegraphic communication. The evolution of one into the other makes sense, but at what stage in the story of communication do little dots and dashes become ones and zeros?
My interest here is really a cultural one. The telegraph was an incredibly disruptive technology that overturned contemporary communication systems yet was never treated as a cultural force in the way that digital tools have been defined. I wonder what parts of the digital world remain invisible yet have enormous practical impact.

William Playfair, The Statistical Breviary, 1786. From chapter on data visualization. Courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.

What was the importance of Sketchpad in becoming what you call “a major step in demonstrating the potential of what will become two foci of digital design?
Sketchpad could be seen as able to produce a veritable cave painting, interacting with a screen (HCI) through the TX-2’s light pen with the implicit promise of making graphics faster and better (CAD).

When I started out as a “designer,” the leading technological advancement was the IBM MTST typesetting system, with its Selectric typewriter used for input and output. Was this the beginning of the digital present?
To my mind it’s one of many incremental steps. Still, the MTST was a professional tool of the trade that does not resonate with the idea of an expansive digital culture; I think more in terms of breaking into the mainstream such as with PCs, web, etc.

Set designers constructing a futuristic city scene in miniature for Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis, c. 1925. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images. From chapter on virtual reality.

In 1989 I was invited to attend a workshop at Adobe prior to the release of Photoshop. Designers and illustrators were given an opportunity to learn the basic program and make artwork from scanned images. You write glowingly about Photoshop’s impact. There were other image-making programs—what was it about Photoshop that took the lead?
I tend to think that Photoshop’s success was indicative of good marketing and brand-building by Adobe as opposed to some inherent quality of the program. And I think it was part luck; I had a friend at ’90s Adobe whose project was shut down in the C-suite because he wanted to stream compressed video on the web and was told “nobody wants to watch video on a computer.”

Herbert Bayer, Universal project, 1926. Photo by Lelikron, CC BY-SA 3.0. From chapter on digital type.
Jørn Utzon, Sydney Opera House, 1973. Photo by Bernard Spragg, CC0 1.0. From chapter on digital architecture and origins.

How does the Bauhaus—and notably its typography—become a pathway to the digital age?
This is one of the central stories in the book, as I am fascinated as to how big tech has adopted a whitewashed version of the Bauhaus as their go-to design format. In a literal sense it’s the story of ex-pats and institutions like MIT and Aspen promoting the style. The stickiness of minimalism continues to amaze me; as a corollary the Chicago skyline is filled right now with Miesian towers under construction. Will this style ever look dated and obsolete?

One of the pioneers you call out as a paradigm-shifter is April Greiman, a formerly Swiss-trained graphic designer. She worked with pre-Mac and then Macintosh hardware to break out of the grid. How do you define the early “look” of digital design?
In terms of style I think layers, complexity of composition, pixelated type, fragments of photos. But I also really look at the futuristic iconography: outer space, timeline, etc.

Regarding David Carson, you say that the “digital roots of his work are often completely overlooked.” How can you claim that to be true, since his era-defining aesthetics have inspired so many digital works today?
This question is so right on and really made me think: Why, back in the ’90s, did I form an idea of Carson as almost the antithesis of a digital designer (even knowing he was awash in Emigre types and digital tools)?! I think it’s partly my blind spot and partly testament to how authentically hands-on his grunge style felt in an intuitive sense.

After reading your book, I took a look at my old surviving copies of the early WIRED, which you describe as being the essential chronicle of the current digital age. I must say, with the exception of visuals by Erik Adigard, it was under-designed in a sense. It wasn’t the futuristic new typography that underscored digital design. Did not following an Emigre or Carson path give it a more subtle widely understood impact?
I guess I see the fluorescent mind grenades, with their over-the-top quotes, as emblematic of the cultural arena; I agree not as much the designed one.

John Snow, Broad Street Pump, 1854. From chapter of data visualization. Welcome Collection University of London.

Although your prior work has been rooted in graphic design, your liberal definition of digital design in this book addresses product, games, interfaces, data visualization, textiles and virtual space. In your view, is “digital” or “design” the overarching thrust of your scholarship? In other words, is any form of design now just a component of a larger holistic discipline where perhaps one cannot work without the other?
I think it’s a shame that the various design paths have been siloed in the contemporary age. I love it all, from academic, experimental digital projects to major commercial undertakings. Design is my overarching interest: My dissertation from way back when focused on the introduction of color into consumer goods, while I wrote a little book about glass in modern architecture a few years ago.

Would you agree that “digital” was synonymous with “future”? And if so, how has it shaped the language of design? The book ends with a coda that explains and predicts the digital future. Are there other futures waiting to be pioneered?
I definitely agree it is synonymous although always rooted in the past. I think of Futura branded as “the type of today and tomorrow.” I’m also definitely agnostic on the future and skeptical that anyone can predict it with accuracy.