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Design: The Missing Link in Silicon Valley's Ecosystem of Innovation

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Co-written by Dr. Barry Katz

Scattered across the globe, concentrated ecosystems are creating our future, from Formula One racing in Southern England, to new furniture design created in Northern Italy and high-tech consumer products designed in Silicon Valley. Design is a key factor in the development of all these cornerstones in the Creative Economy. Dr. Barry Katz has studied how design helped build an ecosystem we have all come to depend on in our daily lives and his new book, Ecosystem of Innovation: The History of Silicon Valley Design, will be available from MIT Press later this year.

In the space of approximately thirty years, the San Francisco Bay area arose from almost total obscurity in the design world to become, arguably, its global epicenter. Nowhere else in the world has design played so critical a role in an overarching ecosystem of innovation.

During the first postwar decades, corporate design groups could be found scattered among west coast companies such as Hewlett Packard, Lockheed, and the once-mighty but now forgotten Ampex. Almost without exception, they toiled anonymously among the vanishing vineyards of an emerging Silicon Valley, stuffing electronic components into sheet-metal enclosures and begging for the rare audience with a divisional engineering manager. The rare instances in which a tech company ventured into the consumer market were either the exception that proves the proverbial rule (Atari and the invention of video games) or a flat-out disaster (Intel's ill-fated attempt to extend its expertise in miniaturization from chips to wristwatches). Mostly they avoided what journalist Michael Malone has referred to as "the siren's call of the consumer market."

The inflection point can be tied to Steve Jobs' correct prediction that "for every hardware hobbyist who was capable of assembling his own computer, there were a thousand software hobbyists who were not." Bringing to market a product that a consumer could unpack, plug in, and start to use was a challenge not only of technology and marketing but also of design. Within a decade, this once fragrant sliver of inflated real estate sheltered a community of industrial designers, graphic designers, interface designers, web designers, interaction designers, user experience designers, and design researchers unrivaled anywhere in the world.

Whereas designers in Milan, London, Tokyo or New York were mainly preoccupied with extending existing product typed into new and often striking directions--a typeface, a furniture piece, a household appliance, a restaurant interior--in Silicon Valley designers found themselves grappling with entirely new categories of products: a mouse; a modem; an MP-3 player; an e-reader. To a greater extent than elsewhere, this required the collaboration of designers with corporate engineering and marketing teams, but also with the affiliated institutions that constitute the densely networked culture of the region: the venture capital firms that fund them, the universities that supply their workforces, the law firms that protect their intellectual property.

Not surprisingly, this web of interconnectedness does not favor the celebrity designer, and it is rare for an individual designer to achieve widespread recognition. Even more unusual is the association of a name and a product, as is commonly the case in the world of fashion, furniture, or architecture. Indeed, many clients go so far as to forbid their consultant designers to identify themselves with the branded products that fill our homes, cars, offices, and computer screens. It is easy enough to discover the designer of a dining room chair or a leather pump. Not so easy to attach a name to Google Maps or the Facebook Timeline.

As frustrating as this can be, it is a mark of the maturity of the field, and of the distinctive character of the Bay Area's ecosystem of innovation.

Special thanks to Dr. Barry Katz for researching and co-writing this article.