Building Towards a Point of Always Building – Digital Design Theory

Digital Design Theory: Readings from the Field is a curated selection of texts from the last five decades of print and interactive design. Perhaps compiled in hopes of underscoring the ‘missing links’ between the two seemingly distinct disciplines, editor Helen Armstrong looks to the origins of computational design to make sense of our post-desktop publishing present. Organizing its constituent texts within three epochs of digital cultures (in which ‘the digital’ is nascent, experiences growing pains, and the congeals into a material unto itself) Digital Design Theory presents thoughts from key voices at key moments in their careers: Karl Gerstner discusses the roots of computational art in 1964; Muriel Cooper anticipates the convergence of media and mediums in 1989; Paola Antonelli describes the ‘new normal’ of interactivity and expanding territory (as schematized in her influential exhibition Design and the Elastic Mind) in 2008 – these are the kind of historical vectors that run through the book’s chronology.

The first third of Digital Design Theory is dedicated to ‘structuring the digital,’ and while one might expect a hearty portion of computer science, it primarily serves up graphic design polemics. Czech graphic designer Ladislav Sutnar 1961 text “Visual Design in Action” astutely reads the postwar and mid-century trade winds, identifying the flexibility the discipline will need during a period of rapid development. Dutch designer Wim Crowell speculates a kind of utopian ‘futurist’ typography for the digital age – one that is tied to displays – that still reads as a bold provocation almost five decades after it was written. An excerpt from Karl Gerstner’s influential “Designing Programmes” (1964) is included, and a wide-eyed Ivan Sutherland opines on ‘the ultimate display’ in 1965 – a few years before he would develop the first functional VR/AR System at MIT. The selection of texts is exciting and a little spice is provided with some excerpts from Stewart Brand (the Whole Earth Catalogue, 1971) and Sol Lewitt (instructions from one of his ‘algorithmic’ wall drawings).


In ‘Resisting Central Processing’ Digital Design Theory turns its attention to the tumultuous 1980s graphic design scene. The arrival of the personal computer and desktop publishing would prove to be a disruptive force, but it took many in the profession some time to realize it. Sharon Poggenpohl had considerable prescience, and in her contribution “Creativity and Technology” (1983) she obliterates the divide between graphic designers and computer scientists, anticipating both the power tools will hold over designers and the transition of design into a more research-based discipline. She is joined by Alan Kay (who muses on McLuhan and interaction design), and type designers Eric Van Blockland and Just van Rossum (who lay the groundwork for their ‘RandomFont’, and important early experiment in computational typography), and John Maeda’s Design By Numbers (an inspiration for Processing) project also has a spotlight shone on it. Regarding that last inclusion, It’s interesting to see Maeda’s work positioned as the end of an era, rather than the beginning of our current one (which is how I’ve always thought of his time at MIT, anyways).

↑ From top left, clockwise: Muriel Cooper with David Small, Suguru Ishizaki, and Lisa Strausfeld, still from Information Landscapes (1994); Eric Van Blockland & Just van Rossum, Beowolf (1989); Rudy Vanderlans, Emigre 11 “Ambition/Fear” (1989); P. Scott Makela, illustration from “Redefining Display” (1994).

The final third of the book turns to ‘Encoding the Future’ and, fittingly, it opens with an excerpt from Ben Fry and Casey Reas’ overview (2007) from It’s a little basic to note the jump from the earlier design manifestos and position papers to open source development creative coding environment mission statements as the current ‘site’ of new discourse, but I admit I still find that fact quite striking. Reas and Fry are joined by the aforementioned Antonelli, Khoi Vin, Brenda Laurel and, most excitingly, Luna Mauer, Edo Paulus, Jonathan Puckey, and Roel Wouters – all of whom should need no introduction to CAN readers. Perhaps for reasons of familiarity this final section and its requisite nods to posthuman-centric design and two-way conversations on the web feels a static, as the milieu it describes is ubiquitous, and even kind of obvious; but it’s so easy to say that now. Is the old adage that “the best place to find new ideas is to read old books” true? And, that the dreams and provocations of the ’60s and ’80s have a newfound resonance in 2016? Or, perhaps, are Digital Design Theory’s texts from the last decade not as strong? Time will tell.


Juxtaposing commentary on the flexibility of grid systems, the formative moments of digital representation, quasi-manifestos from enfant terrible graphic designers, the philosophy underpinning creative coding environments, and new-school approaches to emergent form – Digital Design Theory certainly proves editor Helen Armstrong’s assessment that design thinkers have been fixated on “parameters rather than solutions” for some time. In the 1960s, this approach was a sea change and now we see evidence of this flexibility all around us: from contemporary branding strategies to responsive typography on the web. Beyond its content, the book is handsome and has a lot of little useful design details including margin quotes (from each source that aren’t pullquotes but instead point to other writing by the author) and a smart timeline that helps bolster the central chronology. Since Keetra Dean Dixon’s visual forward for Digital Design Theory whimsically proposes “building towards a point of always building,” architectural metaphors are clearly fair game: this survey text provides ample foundation on which to get one’s footing and it would be equally useful on the reference shelf and in the classroom.

Digital Design Theory | Get it on Amazon UK / Amazon US