Design wisdom for the age of artificial intelligence

Barry Katz is a Visionary Circle Advisor at Entefy. A Fellow at IDEO, he is also a Consulting Professor, Design Group, at Stanford University and Professor of Industrial and Interaction Design at California College of the Arts.

I spent much of last spring immersed in the legacy of Charles and Ray Eames, the legendary design partnership that defined the culture of midcentury America and lives on today in the 21st century’s reverence for Midcentury Modernism. After Charles’ death in 1978, Ray closed the office in Venice, California and spent much of the next decade archiving the record of their historic 45-year partnership (Ray died ten years to the day after Charles). 

One portion of their legacy was deposited to the Library of Congress where it is available to researchers; the remainder resides at the family ranch in northern California where, thanks to the family’s generosity, my students had the opportunity to rummage through models, fabric samples, color swatches, film stills, books, tools, correspondence, photographs, props, and memorabilia. It’s one thing to view the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman from behind a velvet rope in the “design” section of a modern art museum, or to watch their iconic Powers of Ten on YouTube. It’s quite another to see the scores of experiments, trials, prototypes, and dead ends that preceded them.

That experience—juxtaposed with my opportunity to observe Entefy’s growth and evolution in designing the first universal communicator—has led me to reflect on the relevance of some of Charles Eames’ key precepts, principles, and parables to design in the digital age. Here are a few:

“The details are not just details. They make the product.”

It’s easy to spot the unresolved details of a physical product: the latch doesn’t close securely, the stitching is uneven, the on/off switch is awkwardly placed. But the same can be said about a software interface, a mobile application, or even the invisible, underlying code that most people will never see. Charles once boasted that he willingly accepted constraints, but never accepted compromises. And so I say to the designers of the digital: No compromises!

“Start from a pure place.”

The giants of Silicon Valley—Hewlett and Packard, Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce, and in successive generations, Steve Jobs—became fabulously wealthy, but no one will ever convince me that HP, Intel, or Apple were built on dreams of wealth. 

I once had the opportunity to ask Jobs what motivated him and he replied, “Things come along now and then that change the way we live, and we happen to be in the right place at the right time to influence the evolution of these things. You know, when you change a vector in its first inch by just a little bit, when it gets three miles out there it's moved quite a bit.” Nothing there about the size of his bank account.

“After the age of information comes the age of choices.”

For most of human history, we have suffered from a lack of information—about the best season to plant our crops, when to retreat to higher ground, whether to save, to spend, or to invest. Abruptly—sometime around 1945, according to some—civilization was upended and we began to suffer from too much information. Submerged under a torrent of data, bits, pixels, texts, and tweets, we might be poised now to evolve to the next plateau: not more information, or even (as Eames imagined) more choices, but simply the power to get what we want.  

“The role of the designer is that of a very good, thoughtful host, anticipating the needs of his guest.”

This is something that every software engineer, coder, data scientist, hacker, and information architect should take to heart: You are not creating for yourself. You are creating for another person, not an “end-user” (ugh!) but a guest, whom you must welcome into your world. The people who use what you build must be made to feel at home with what you have done.

“Eventually everything connects—people, ideas, objects… The quality of the connections is the key to quality per se.”

This is surely the promise of Entefy’s universal communicator: augmented intelligence that is smart enough to weave together the threads of our ever-more-complicated lives, seamlessly, invisibly. And so Midcentury Modernism enters the 21st century.