Readings from the field: the interaction between design and tech

Published:  June 7, 2016

A new book bridges the gap between the discourse of print design and interactive experience by examining the impact of computers on the field of design.
Digital Design Theory: Readings from the Field, edited by associate professor of graphic design at North Carolina State University Helen Armstrong, is a curated introduction to key texts from the 1960s to the present by some of the most influential designers and programmers in the field including Ladislav Sutnar, Bruno Munari, Sol LeWitt, Muriel Cooper and more.


Muriel Cooper and Ron MacNeil – Messages and Means course poster, ca. 1974
Image credit: Muriel Cooper

With topics ranging from graphic design’s fascination with programming design to object-based and experience-based design, readers are provided with the background needed to better understand digital design theory and thought.

Containing graphic imagery and additional commentary on the importance of each featured essay to the working and intellectual life of designers, Digital Design Theory is essential reading for both aspiring and practicing designers.

desktop caught up with Armstrong to learn more about the book and the interaction between design and technology.

What was the inspiration behind Digital Design Theory: Readings from the Field?

Designers engage with technology every day, yet we seldom have time to reflect upon our intimate relationship with computation. This book gives designers that chance. Digital Design Theory is a carefully curated introduction (1960-present) to ground-breaking primary texts that move the reader through our own digital transformation, supplying the background necessary for an understanding of digital design vocabulary and thought. This collection begins in the 1960s, a period in which code began to pervade the design world. Essential works not only by designers, but also programmers, present the two threads of discourse—design and computation—that have rapidly merged into the increasingly interactive field of contemporary graphic design.


Emigre 10, 1988
Image credit: Graduate students at Cranbrook Academy of Art

What are some of the main themes explored in this book?

The big picture themes that pervade the book are the following: parameters rather than solutions, an aesthetics of complexity, and a culture of hacking, sharing, and improving the status quo. Out of these larger themes, contemporary issues have emerged: biomimicry, nanotechnology, emergent behaviour, ubiquitous computing, and the spectre of the transhuman. Digital Design Theory familiarises readers with each of these issues, helping them to see not only into the past, but also the future of our profession.

What are some of the design trends you’re seeing in the print and digital spaces?

In recent months we have heard a lot about two topics: virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI).

VR depends upon the designer creating a rich environment in which intriguing experiences are likely to emerge. To better understand this process of crafting open, interactive environments for humans—we can look back to Ivan Sutherland’s 1965 text, “Visual Display,” in which he famously imagines a display morphing into the “Wonderland into which Alice walked.” This text, along with the other material in section one of the book, provides context for the VR of today. After all, VR has been around a long time. What’s changed is that we finally have the technology to propel it mainstream.

In the last essay of the collection, “Posthuman-Centered Design,” Haaken Faste takes on AI and our subsequent evolution toward the transhuman. Faste envisions a future that requires designers to move beyond “the species limitations of human-centered design.” I have quite a bit of interest in this topic myself. My current research focuses on designers partnering with computation as equals rather than utilizing computers as tools.


Illustration from “Redefining Display,” 1993
Image credit: P. Scott Makela

Do you think that the gap between print and digital is getting wider? Is this gap a cause for worry for print and traditional designers?

Both print and digital designers, and everyone in between, approach their projects differently than they did 20 or 30 years ago because the culture for which they are designing has radically changed. People are more participatory. They expect to interact with and contribute to designs. They expect the designs to respond flexibly to their needs. They don’t fear complexity, as long as a system is in place to organise that complexity. Understanding the history of computation and design, particularly the birth of the personal computer and the internet, can help us better understand these changes in the public we serve.

I see no reason for designers to fear this move toward digital. If anything, technology is rejuvenating the realm of print through new avenues of production like on-demand printing. Even letterpress now uses polymer plates to experiment with new directions. Instead of a widening gap between print and digital, I see my own students comfortably moving between the two in a new hybrid practice.

What can designers do to stay on top of trends in a ever-changing digital landscape?

No one can entirely stay on top of trends. Everything happens too fast. But we do live in a time in which there are amazing resources available online — talks, courses, essays, etc. And thoughtful books coming out almost daily. The trouble is not in finding material, but actually carving out time to reflect upon it.


Ladislav Sutnar – Pages from Sweet’s Catalog Service, 1941–60: Atlantic Flexible Metal Hose
Image credit: © Ladislav Sutnar

Digital Design Theory: Readings from the Field is now available for purchase at the following sites: AmazonPAPressBooks at Manic

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