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).

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