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Design in Four Revolutions

21. February 2017
The progression of design is inextricably linked to the industrial revolutions. Interface- and Interaction design are the design disciplines of the third industrial revolution.

In order to understand interface and interaction design, it is useful to look at the history of design – and at the history of industrial revolutions. Every single one of these revolutions had its characteristic technologies that changed social, economic and environmental conditions. And each revolution had its specific design.

Industrial production and design are fundamentally connected. New technologies allow for new ways of production. Industrial products are not crafted but designed and mass-produced. A design is a template, the production is the implementation of the design.

This connection is not necessarily obvious. The Arts and Crafts movement was highly influential for the emergence of design as a professional discipline – but it was essentially anti-industrial although it advocated economic and social reform. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the working conditions in most factories were hellish and many workers lived in squalor. Furthermore, many of the industrial products had a poor quality compared to those created by a craftsman. As an answer to the poor quality, the Arts and Crafts movement emphasised traditional craft methods.

But some members of the Arts and Crafts movement – notably Henry Cole – realised that industrially manufactured goods also had the potential for creating durable and aesthetic products for the masses. Not a designer himself, Cole campaigned for improving the standards of industrial production and industrial design. He understood that by employing good and thoughtful designs it was possible to industrially mass produce goods of a high quality. So in his understanding, the designer was no longer a craftsman but someone who created templates and planned the production process while the machine and the factory worker implemented the design.

Industrial manufacturing and design are deeply related. So in a strict sense: if you create a unique chair, you are a craftsman – but not a designer.

I will come back to industrial manufacturing later. My main point right now is to illustrate the inextricable link between design and industry. As industrial revolutions have changed the working conditions, production process and product development, the design questions changed accordingly. So let’s have a look at a bit of history.

The zeroth industrial revolution

The printing press is usually not considered in the canon of industrial revolutions. And yet – it allowed the mass production of books, posters and pamphlets. It was definitely a revolution in terms of mass communication and it certainly was a catalyst for social change. Without printing, the Reformation would not have had the same impact.

Johannes Gutenberg is widely considered to be the inventor of modern printing. He introduced moveable type to Europe and invented a number of important methods and devices for printing. But more important for our debate, Johannes Gutenberg was the first designer. He was the first graphic designer – and the first type designer.

When I mention the “printing press”, it is important to point out that I mean a whole manufacturing process – and not simply the press itself. In order to truly revolutionise printing, the process had to become fast, flexible, robust – and cheap. It involved a number of different devices and techniques that are easily overlooked. And at the heart or the printing process was an inconspicuous invention that allowed for the mass manufacturing of letters: the hand mould.

The hand mould was used for casting moveable type. Each letter was cut in metal and then used to create a matrix. This matrix would be held in the lower part of the mould. Molten metal was then poured into the hand mould, casting the letter. Using this method, Gutenberg was able to quickly create large numbers of letters that were all copies of the designed template.

This process is an early precursor of industrial manufacturing. Gutenberg designed a product – the letters – and then mass-produced them. Furthermore, he designed the letters as basic elements and then used them to design the layout of a page. The modularity of moveable type enabled him and other printers to plan the layout of a page in a highly flexible and iterative manner, thus creating the disciplines of typography and graphic design.

The design of the letters was strongly influenced by the calligraphy of the time. It is based on the Textura Quadrata that was one of the leading book hands for bibles. Gutenberg formalised the Textura and optimised it for printing. Instead of coming up with a completely new design, his typeface is clearly a simulation of calligraphy. The aesthetic simulation of “old” technology in a revolutionary product is (by the way) a typical pattern in design history.

Although the printing press is not an “official” industrial revolution, it already introduced design problems and it demonstrates how fundamentally design and industrial production are linked.

The first industrial revolution

The first “proper” industrial revolution was triggered by the invention of the steam engine. Steam not only powered trains – it created to possibility to deploy large machines with enormous capabilities. These machines produced everyday merchandise (not just letters) in large quantities at low prices.

New manufacturing methods emerged that also created new design possibilities. A prime example for this is the no. 14 chair by Thonet. It was introduced in 1859 and became one of the best-selling chairs ever made. Its design is based on a new manufacturing process called steam-bending. The wood was heated with steam, bent into the required shape and then dried. All the tasks could be completed by unskilled workers – a craftsman was no longer required. The product was planned by designers and engineers and then manufactured by machines and unskilled workers.

So instead of conceiving and constructing each product individually, the planning and the manufacturing of a product were clearly separated. A new discipline – industrial design – emerged.

Even for us today, the no. 14 chair is an ingenious design. But in 1859, the chair was revolutionary. It was novel, elegant and comfortable – but also cheap, lightweight and durable. Furthermore, it could be disassembled and easily reassembled – making it possible to ship and sell the no. 14 chair in the entire word.

The no. 14 chair is another great example for the fact that design and industrial production are deeply related. The design of the chair would not have been possible without the means of production. But the production method itself would not necessarily have led to the design. This is still valid today. As new forms of production emerge, new chairs will be designed that facilitate the new technologies.

The second industrial revolution

The second industrial revolution introduced electricity. So with the second industrial revolution, a new type of product entered the households: the electric appliance. Different kinds of energy generation (lamps, stoves, ovens, etc.) were suddenly replaced with electricity and completely new types of products were introduced (vacuum cleaners, washing machines, radios, etc.). These new machines had to be controlled and they brought a new complexity with them. So electricity created the user.

In many ways, the electric appliance was a strange product. It was neither tool nor kitchenware. In order to introduce them to the households, a new visual language was required – and product design was born.

The first designs for these new products followed the tried-and-tested pattern. They basically looked exactly like “old” technology. A good example for this is the electric water kettle by AEG. It was designed by Peter Behrens in 1909.

The electric water kettle is very beautiful – but it still looks like a kettle to put on a stove. New technology is dressed up as old. It is not quite clear if this was intentional – but it made the introduction of the electric appliances much easier. The message was clear: “This water kettle looks and works just like the one you already know”. Even the completely new types of products pretended to be old technology. Vacuum cleaners tried to look like brooms, washing machines like laundry tubs and radios like a cupboard.

However, over time product design moved away from quoting traditional forms and tried to find a visual language that would not attempt to hide the new – but to emphasise it. After the First World War, it was relatively easy to break away from traditions and to develop new, modern aesthetics that embraced technology and tried to show the machinery as it is.

This new approach – often called “functionalism” – was conceptually oriented towards a utilitarian design. The idea was that the aesthetics of a product should be derived from its function. Consequently, the use of ornaments and “styling” should be abstained as they were irrelevant for the functionality of the product. So instead of finding a design that hides the technology, the design should be derived from the technology. The workings of a machine or the construction of a building should be visible and should define the overall form.

Conceptually, this approach was laudable. Instead of pretending that an electric kettle is “old technology”, designers were trying to find an aesthetic that reflected the qualities of the new technology.

In reality, however, this approach did not always work out. The main problem was that designers and architects mainly focused on the aesthetics of a product and not on its everyday use. They confused the workings of a machine with its functionality. Instead of designing for use, designers celebrated the machinery. In the end, technology became just a new form of ornament.

Even if it did not work out – the design of the second industrial revolution tried to address the aesthetics of technology based on the technology itself – and not on something pre-existing. Technology became part of the aesthetic discourse.

The third industrial revolution

The computer – in all its forms and networked states – is at the core of the third industrial revolution. And the design of the third industrial revolution is interface- and interaction design.

The previous industrial revolutions tried to replicate existing products but make the manufacturing cheaper, more efficient and aimed at large volumes. This is as true for Gutenberg’s printing press as for the Thonet chair. And it is partially true of the digital revolution: many digital products and services are faster and more efficient iterations of analogue technology. Word processing software is the digital iteration of a typewriter.

Furthermore, an important design strategy of the previous industrial revolutions is also valid in the era of computerisation: making technology accessible by referring to well-known, “old” technologies. Just as the electric water kettle by Peter Behrens pretended to be “old” technology, the desktop metaphor pretends to be based on items and elements of pre-existing work environments.

But the third industrial revolution is not simply another iteration of technological innovation. There is something genuinely new to it. I believe that the third industrial revolution is at its heart a design revolution. This statement might surprise some readers – especially those with a tech background – but let me explain.

There are fundamental differences between the third industrial revolution and its predecessors.

The first difference relates to the objective of the industrialisation. As we have seen before, the first industrial revolutions aimed at simulating manual labour through machines. Steam power and later electric motors replaced manual labour and human strength. The manufacturing process was broken down into clearly describable units that were either performed by machines or by workers at the assembly line. So the objective of the first industrial revolutions was the mechanisation of manual labour.

In the digital revolution, this is different. The object of the digital revolution is not to simulate the human hand but the human mind. As Frieder Nake put it: “computers are the mechanisation of intellectual labour” – or “Maschinisierung der Kopfarbeit” in the German original. Software is the automatisation of thought.

The second difference relates to the first one: the computer is not a single-purpose-machine. This sounds trivial – but it has far reaching consequences. In the analogue industrial age, machines were build and optimised for a specific task – bending wood, punching metal sheets or printing a newspaper.

The computer, on the other hand, is a universal machine. The hardware itself – in the strict sense of the CPU and the memory – has no specific use case. Even if we add hardware interfaces to this configuration, the computer becomes more specific – but it remains a universal machine. Input devices like keyboards, mice and touch screens as well as output devices like monitors, speakers and printers form a standard setup for most computers. This configuration limits the scope of possible applications, but overall it is still a highly unspecific system.

It is the software that specifies and defines the application. And within the limitations of the hardware, the software can be anything. Software itself is ethereal. It only becomes corporeal through interfaces. And transforming the ethereal into the corporeal is a design task.

To put it in a different way: on a sensual level, software only exists in the form of an interface. If you want to experience software and if you want to interact with it, you need an interface. And this interface is always the result of a design process. Design gives software a gestalt.

So interface- and interaction design not only makes the software accessible – it constitutes our idea and our understanding of a computer. Without an interface, the computer would not be present in our world.  This sounds esoteric – but it is not. Imagine a future without electricity. If you wanted to understand how a computer works, you could maybe figure out the relationship of the hardware components. But it would be absolutely impossible to understand how a computer was used.

But software is not only ethereal – it is also incredibly flexible and can simulate any kind of machine. This is a fundamental property of the computer that was already proposed by Alan Turing and then later on extended by the teams around Douglas Engelbart, Alan Kay and Steve Jobs. In his essay “Alan Kay’s Universal Media Machine”, Lev Manovich points out: “It was only Kay and his generation that extended the idea of simulation to media – thus turning Universal Turing Machine into a Universal Media Machine, so to speak.”

Software offers us an amazing optionality. It is possible to create any kind of software-machine within the hardware-machine that we call computer. Compared with analogue machines, designers and developers have an immense freedom for experiments, invention and creativity. Furthermore, the interface and the software itself have an intricate relationship that goes both ways. The interface is not just a representation of an abstract system. The interface also defines and demands how software is organised and what functionalities are required. As Johanna Drucker puts it in her book Graphesis: “We look at interface as a thing, a representation of computational processes that make it convenient for us to interact with what is ‘really’ happening. But the interface is a mediating structure that supports behaviours and tasks. It is a space between human users and procedures that happen according to complicated protocols.”

The desktop metaphor was not successful because it solved a technical problem but because it solved a usability problem. And it is important to point out that many other design solutions would have been possible. It proved to be an successful solution – but the user interface of the Xerox Star was not determined by the technology. As it is software, it could have been designed in a completely different way. Again – we sometimes tend to forget that out there are innumerable possible solutions that were not realised.

The extraordinary thing about software interfaces is that they are completely fictional, fabricated and imaginary. If you take an analogue camera apart, you can see how it works. It’s complicated, but you can figure out the relationship between the cogs, wheels and lenses. The controls are directly and physically linked to the workings within the machine. So the user interface of an analogue camera is determined by its mechanics. This is very different with computers. If you take a computer apart, you cannot figure out how the software was used and operated. There is no inherent and binding relationship between the hardware and the software interface.  On a computer, the technology does not determine the software interface.

We have agreed to interact with software in a certain way – via programming languages, command line interfaces or graphical user interfaces. But not out of a technical necessity but simply because it seems to work. So the software user interface is more of a social convention than a technical requirement.

All these observations lead to my statement from above: the third industrial revolution is at its heart a design revolution.

The design of an analogue machine can be derived from the technology. But software interface design has no technical form it can derive from. Due to its ethereal nature, software can only be revealed and experienced through design. Furthermore, due to the fact that the computer is a universal machine, the relationship between the software-machine and the software-interface is completely arbitrary. The only limiting component are the human mind and the human hand.

All this gives interface- and interaction design a relevance and a potency that goes way beyond the form-giving of the previous industrial revolutions.

Final words

The industrial revolutions are not sequential, clearly defined events. They are models that allow us to talk about social, economical and environmental change. Furthermore, none of these revolutions are over. We still print books, produce furniture, manufacture appliances and develop software, hardware and services.

But digital technology – in all its forms – is the dominant revolution of our time. And it is not only an industrial one. The digital revolution has great implications for almost every human being and for our planet. We are still right in the middle of it and its impacts and consequences are still not yet fully understood. Over the next few years, the relevance of digital technology will increase – and so will the importance of interface- and interaction design.

I believe as designers, we should be aware of our professional role and our responsibilities. Not only in a pragmatic sense within our team and our company – but also in the context of the history of technology.


This essay was reviewed by my colleague Prof. Dr. Jan Distelmeyer. He is professor for the history and theory of technical media. I got tons of valuable feedback from him and we discussed so many authors that in this case I will add a list of references for further reading. Some of the references are only available in German – apologies for that. If you speak German, I highly recommend Jan’s brand new book “Machtzeichen” – it was just released this January.  

References:

In Defence of Intuition

13. January 2017
As design becomes more methodological and scientific, it is important to acknowledge that the core ability of designers is intuition.

In the last few years, design — and especially interaction design — has become more methodological. There are methods for all parts of the design process. For inspiration, ideation, interpretation, sketching, composition, building, evaluation, prototyping and implementation. Students like methods because they are fairly easy to learn and provide confidence. Clients like methods because they make the design process understandable and accountable. Furthermore, as design research is becoming more and more recognised in other academic disciplines, designers need to adapt to certain ways of writing and thinking about their work. If you want to publish the design of a new visualisation in an academic context, you need to adjust to the scientific expectations of the HCI community.

So it seems that design is not only becoming more methodological but also more scientific. This is not surprising. Design as a discipline has moved from “product beautification” to being a central part of product development. It has incorporated methodologies from human computer interaction, sociology, anthropology — but also from advertising and management. And with the rise of “Design Thinking”, creative methodologies were introduced to a wider range of professional disciplines.

In this essay, I don’t want to criticise design methodologies. (I’ll save that for later.) But against the backdrop of a structured and methodological design process I believe it is important to remind our community that there is one fundamental aspect to design that cannot be formalised in a methodology. And that is intuition.

Intuition is a difficult term. It is not a subject in design school. It’s nothing you talk about. Many designers get a bit queasy when asked about intuition. It is often associated with a impulsive, irrational decisions and aesthetic extravaganza. This is completely missing the point.

Intuition has been the subject of philosophical and psychological study. But its definition varies depending on the discipline and the context. So I would like to explore what intuition means for design.

Generally speaking, intuition is the ability to reach conclusions and make decisions without conscious reasoning. This is something every professional designer does on a daily basis. We know how to make social, conceptual and aesthetic decisions based on our intuition. We know how to achieve goals, solve problems and create effects. We know when something is right.

This sounds quite esoteric. But it’s not. Intuition is an essential and elemental ability of designers.

Intuition has a prominent role in nebulous situations. It allows us to act and to decide even if we just have little information and are dealing with unforeseen events. It enables us to handle ill-defined problems. And as most design projects are — by definition — open, vague, unclear and sometimes chaotic, intuition plays a prominent role in the process of finding the right design.

If you are working in a very strict operation and if you are not dealing with any unforeseen problems, you don’t need intuition. On the assembly line, you need manual skills — but you won’t use your intuition that much. As the setting for design work is quite different from working on the assembly line, intuition has a much more prominent role.

There are many clichés about intuition. In order to to understand what intuition is, I would like to talk about what intuition is not:

Intuition is not instinct

Instincts are deeply rooted in our biological self. They are behaviour patterns that are not learned or acquired. Instinctive actions are carried out in response to a clearly defined stimulus. Instinctive behaviour is characteristic in all members of a species.

Design sometimes tries to evoke instinctive behaviour through a certain visual language. This can be useful for marketing and advertising purposes. But triggering instinctive behaviour in the audience has nothing to do with intuition. These are two completely different concepts.

Intuition is not irrational

In my opinion, there is a tremendous difference between irrational and non-rational behaviour. Irrational is acting against better knowledge. Non-rational behaviour is — in the worst case — random and chaotic. Intuition can be non-rational — but it is not irrational.

Compared to the natural sciences, the design world does not offer a strict system for evaluating the quality of an outcome. But design is an extremely context-dependent process. So there are are a number of possible criteria for assessing the outcome of a design process. Is a design useful? Is it technically feasible? Is it robust? Is it understood and liked by its audience or by its users? Is it successful on the market? Is it socially, economically and environmentally responsible? Is the client happy? Does it win awards? And what is the feedback from fellow designers? Depending on the specific design, more criteria can be defined.

Decisions that are based on intuition should not be obscure. I strongly believe that it is important to talk about and evaluate them. For this, we have to use adequate language that reflects the process and qualities of the decision. A simple “I kind of like it” is not enough.

Designers make decisions based on intuition. The decision itself may not be based on a strict rational derivation. But this does not mean that intuitive design is detached from scrutiny. Intuitive design decisions can be discussed, tested and evaluated.

Intuition is not unscientific

I am in no position to discuss the role of intuition in the sciences. But I do believe that intuition is underrepresented in epistemology.

The natural sciences have a great conceptual framework and a great toolkit for testing a hypothesis. The scientific method allows for rigorous testing of new theories. Systematic observation, experiments with reproducible results and critical peer reviews make it possible to evaluate a new hypothesis.

But how do scientists come up with a new hypothesis in the first place? Not every scientific idea is derived from rational arguments and analytical reasoning. There are a lot of examples for scientists who came up with a completely unfounded new theory. Furthermore, a lot of scientific problems are systematic — such as two proven theories that contradict each other. In these controversies, intuition plays a powerful role.

Even in mathematics — the strictest of all sciences — intuition is recognised as a way to solve a problem. In the early twentieth century, the dutch mathematician Luitzen Egbertus Jan Brouwer developed a mathematical-philosophical theory called “Intuitionism”. Brouwer believed that intuition and time are fundamental to mathematics — and that both cannot be formalised.

Intuition has its role in the sciences — and many scientists understand the importance of intuition. In a conversation with Alexander Moszkowski, Albert Einstein famously said that “the really valuable factor is intuition”. And René Descartes noted: “The two operations of our understanding, intuition and deduction, on which alone we have said we must rely in the acquisition of knowledge.”

Intuition is not “intuitive”

I am always a bit sceptical when someone describes an interface as being “intuitive”. Intuition is a purely human quality. An object or a system simply cannot be intuitive. The sentence “this software can be used intuitively” actually means that a piece of software can be understood and used by someone based on his or her intuition. Human beings — not software — are intuitive.

But does intuition help us to understand and use software interfaces? This is a surprisingly tricky question. As mentioned above, intuition is helpful when you are dealing with an unclear situation, are encountering something unforeseen or are handling an ill-defined problem. So — consequently — you only need intuition if you are dealing with a bad interface. Good interfaces are actually those where you don’t need intuition in order to complete a task.

The above statement may sound a bit surprising. But if a software interface is used effortlessly it is simply because it is predictable, clearly defined and based on interactions that we have learned before. We don’t need our intuition to use a book. We might need intuition in order to understand and interpret the text. But the handling of a regular book does not require intuition.

In reality however, software systems are extremely complex and even good user interface designers cannot anticipate every possible condition. So users are dealing with unforeseen events and unpredictable situations and dialogues. In these cases, intuition can help the users to solve the problem. And good interface design can support the users in training their intuition. But I am sure this is not what is meant with the label “intuitive software”.

Designing an usable, understandable, elegant, efficient and delightful software interface requires intuition. Using it should not.

Intuition is not talent — it can be taught

I strongly oppose the notion that intuition is a nature-given characteristic that some people are born with. Everyone has a disposition for intuition. And — most importantly — intuition can be trained, honed and cultivated. This training is an important part of design education. Students are confronted with ill-formed briefings, create designs and then get feedback on their process.

More importantly, intuition is not limited to the design world. Most jobs that require some sort of decision-making are involved with intuition. Doctors, politicians, teachers — they all have their own domain-specific intuition. Some jobs require a higher degree of intuition then others. And I believe that education should reflect this.

But as most teaching is based on the instruction of systematic knowledge, this can be quite a challenge. How can you teach something if there is no right and wrong — only good or poor solutions? And — as a teacher — how can you convey your feedback in a way that is not superficial and opinionated?

I strongly suggest to take a look a how singing is taught on a professional level. It is really, really amazing to observe professional opera singers teach young, aspiring talents. Just watch this clip where Joyce DiDonato is teaching a Master Class at Carnegie Hall in 2016. It is intriguing how she physically and verbally critiques and reflects on both artistic expression and technique.

Intuition can be trained, criticised and developed. Being a design educator, I feel very passionately about this point. In design education, we need to be more aware of teaching intuition.

This part of the design education is very similar to teaching fine arts and music. As a teacher, you need to work very closely with your students and give them direct feedback on their work. Furthermore, you have to develop an appropriate language that reflects the subtleties of our discipline. Just like in art and in music, words have their own meaning and their own domain-specific context: strong, cold, balanced, discreet, contrast, noise, power, clarity, order, chaos, guidance, support, attention, (I could go on for a while) can be used to describe intuitive concepts that go beyond the direct meaning of each word. We need to cultivate this language and foster a practice of teaching intuition.

Conclusion

In this essay, I tried to demonstrate and discuss the importance of intuition in design. I believe we should give intuition the recognition it deserves and bring it back into the centre of the design process and design education.

Mainstream interaction design currently has a tendency to formalise the design process. This is not surprising as our discipline is industry oriented and aimed at designing concrete outcomes. Digital products are becoming more and more complicated. And the quality of the interaction design is becoming more and more important for the success of the product. So demanding a more formalised design process is understandable.

However, I believe it is good to remember our community that not everything can be formalised. We have to live with uncertainty in the design process. And we should remind ourselves that our greatest capital is the ability to make creative, intelligent and successful decisions in unclear, contradictory and complicated circumstances. This ability is called intuition.

Intuition does not necessarily lead to good design — but good design is always based on intuition.


This essay was discussed with and reviewed by my esteemed next-door-colleague Prof. Dr. Frank Heidmann. Many thanks for the great discussion and the feedback! It was originally published on Medium on 6. January 2017 under the original title: “In Defence of Intuition”.

Thoughts on Interaction Design

12. January 2017

Why we need more writing on interaction design.

Interaction design is a weird discipline. It shapes our perception of digital technology. It makes complex digital systems understandable and manageable. It provides access to huge information systems. It allows people to participate in all kinds of online social activities. It defines the look and feel of soft- and hardware. It is a truly global design. And yet — it is not a popular subject of public debate.

On the one hand, this is not surprising. Interaction design tends to be a discreet and unobtrusive discipline. In some ways it is like typography. Most people take words on paper for granted and spend very little time on the question of why some texts are more pleasant to the eye and easier to read than others. The same is true for interaction design. We take computers — in all their forms — for granted and don’t think too much about the intricacies of the interface and interaction design. Unless, of course, the design is really bad and stands in the way of the things we want to do.

On the other hand, it is astonishing. Currently, interaction design is the most influential design discipline. In September 2016, Facebook reported 1.18 billion daily active users. We now have more than 2 billion smartphones worldwide. 80 Million photos are uploaded to Instagram every day. This is not only a huge technological feat — it is also a major design achievement. Good interaction design enables people to participate in the digital world. And the impact of interaction design is tremendous. If Facebook changes the design of its website, it has implications for about 15% of the world population.

I don’t mind that interaction design is slightly obscure. But I believe that we — as interaction designers — should talk more about what we actually do. Our work is clearly relevant. Not only our community would benefit from a more comprehensive discourse, but also related disciplines.

In order to contribute to such a debate, I will publish a series of short essays on interaction design in the next few weeks and months. As I believe that debate also means personal engagement with experts and professionals, I will — prior to publishing — discuss every essay with a colleague. So in a way, every essay will be reviewed and challenged in two stages. First from a peer, then from the Medium community.

In the essays, I will reflect on my work as a practitioner, teacher and academic. I have very consciously chosen the form of an essay. Vilém Flusser once wrote an excellent text on essays in which he juxtaposes the form of the essay with the form of the treatise. Flusser argues that the distinction is of existential nature. The author of an essay identifies with the topic and must take full responsibility for his or her statements. The author of a treatise, on the other hand, dissociates himself or herself from the topic.

As a practicing designer, I obviously cannot dissociate myself from the subject matter. So choosing the form of an essay was the obvious decision. For me, it is a suitable framework for my thoughts on interaction design.


Note: This posting was originally published on Medium on 5. January 2017 under the same title: “Thoughts on Interaction Design”.

The Medium is Medium

7. January 2017

I have started writing again – this time on Medium. I kind of like it as a reading environment and as a social network. We’ll see how it works out, but for now I am quite happy with the overall feedback and experience.

Nonetheless – the day I started publishing on Medium, the company fired one third of its staff. That’s pretty drastic and it demonstrates very clearly that even the big online publishing platforms will not be around forever. So I will continue publishing here on esono. It is good to know that all my writing is available in a place that I own myself.

But for now, I will publish my essays on Medium first. So if you want to read my text right after they are fresh out of the word processor, I suggest you follow me at Medium.

Books are the new Horses

13. October 2014

Books will die out. eBooks are the future.

The pragmatic arguments for eBooks are overwhelming. Electronic devices are cheap. Storing text is simple – we can already download a huge amount of literature onto a single device. Schoolbooks can regularly be updated without the need to print them. They can be stored in the cloud – so you cannot loose them. The text display can be adjusted to your preference. You can easily search and annotate. Multimedia elements can be added and allow for a richer reading experience. And you no longer need to fell a tree in order to print a book. Books – in the sense of stacks of printed paper – will no longer exist in a few years.

80 years ago horses died out1. With the rise of the automobile and tractors, working horses became obsolete. Horses needed to be sheltered and fed – no matter if they were idle or working. Machines were faster, more powerful, flexible and cheaper. Horses were a thing of the past.

In 1945, there were about 1.5 million horses in Germany. This number dropped very quickly to about 250.000 in the 1970s. Horses were presumed to die out or live in zoos.

Today, we have about one million horses in Germany. Four times the number of the 70s. What happened?

Keeping a horse is not a pragmatic decision. Except for breeding there are very little economic incentives to have one. The reasons for the increase of the horse population can be found in economic changes. With an increasing living standard and more leisure, many people could invest time and money for keeping horses. Either for sport – or just as pets. In any case, there are almost no rational reasons to own a horse.  So the widespread existence of horses is a cultural phenomenon. Horses have become cultural artefacts.

I believe we will witness the same pattern with books. There is a strong notion that paper books will vanish. And a lot of this is very plausible. As smartphones, tablet computers and ebook readers are becoming ubiquitous, paperbacks will be less in demand. Having schoolbooks always up to date – and not having to carry around several kilograms of paper – is certainly attractive both for teachers and students. The number of printed books will decrease dramatically in the next few years. It will look as if books are going to be extinct.

But books have not only a pragmatic side. Horses had to become cultural artefacts in order to survive. Books have always been cultural artefacts.

The way printed books are edited, published and distributed will change fundamentally in the next 20 years2. I assume printing will be more more individual. There will be standard designs for books – pretty much like today. But books you really value can be designed just for your taste. If every book exists in a highly abstracted and well-structured format3, it is possible to create design variations that address taste, readability and sheer typographic beauty in different ways. For this to happen, the distribution and the licensing model has to change as well. Imagine the text of a book would not be published – but released. It could immediately be designed, printed and sold by anyone – as long as a licensing fee for every sold copy would go to the »releasing company« (I won’t call them publishers).

To be clear: printed books will be a niche market like other luxury goods. There is no need to own a horse – yet they proliferate. There is no need to own an analogue, mechanical and extremely expensive watch – yet it is an extremely profitable industry4. In 20 years, there will be no need to own a printed book – yet there will be individually crafted books and wonderful private libraries. It is quite possible that the rise of electronic books will actually improve the aesthetic quality of printed books.


  1. Tractor Versus Horse as a Source of Farm Power, published in: The American Economic Review, Vol. 25, No. 4, Dec., 1935 

  2. The Economist has just recently published an excellent essay on the future of the book

  3. Yes – I know. We are still far away from that. 

  4. In 2012, Switzerland exported watches worth 21,4 billion swiss francs. 

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