The tenor keeps evolving

While an innovation is usually designed with a specific purpose in mind, explains David Bernstein, its song doesn’t necessarily remain the same

‘The telephone was invented so that people could listen to opera without actually being there.’ That must be true – I heard it from a speaker at a Design Council seminar. The point he was making: the original purpose of an invention may not be the one that generates most use. The Internet was a computer linking device for high- powered techies. Radio was private and military before it became public and entertaining.

How an inventor sees an invention may differ from the viewpoint of the early adopter whose grasp may extend the inventor’s reach. Thomas Watson of IBM greatly underestimated the market for computers. Another doubting Thomas, Edison, a pioneer of the exploitation of electricity, was vehemently opposed to alternating current.

3M wisely enlisted the help of secretaries to find out if what became the Post-it Note would be used, and what for, before making it generally available. It was a paradigm shift in written messaging. The bigger the break with the past, the greater the need for help in divining the future of the product. Human nature is reluctant to recognise a paradigm shift. It prefers to

accommodate, to fit the new into the context of the existing, to adapt rather than adopt.

It takes time for terminology to catch up, for wire-less (telegraphy) to become radio and rail-road, track. There is a danger in recycling existing terminology. ‘Language is the dress of thought’ (Dr Samuel Johnson) and unless changed may reinforce old thinking and this may affect the technology itself. The term ‘carriage’ was appropriated by the builders of the first steam trains but, as the ‘Iron Horse’ got up speed, the earliest carriages fell off the track because they were modelled on the horse-drawn variety. If the invention really is a step-change then the terms should echo that. One consideration on any new product development team’s agenda should be a lexicon.

Marshall McLuhan said that man advances via the rear-view mirror. The earliest movies were filmed stage plays. Early television drama incorporated acts and even curtains. And the earliest commercials? Brian Palmer, who wrote the first to be shown on ITV in 1955 (for Gibbs SR toothpaste) regards it today as an illustrated lecture. Others were either press or radio ads with pictures. The latter were less incongruent since their words had been fashioned for the ear and thus made acceptable audio. Some ad agencies adapted established TV formats and made mini commercial panel games and soap operas.

But soon it became clear that new formats would have to be created. It was a time of trial and considerable error. Almost 40 years were to pass before advertising and design creatives were to enjoy another – the Internet.

I asked the managing editor of a major website about the background of his designers. They are either technologists (plus what he calls ‘hobbyists’, ie people who have an obsession with new technology, gifted amateurs) or designers from other areas such as conventional magazines or design consultancies. The question he had to answer was, ‘Do we teach the technologists design or the designers technology?’.

‘We are still technology driven. We are training designers, but it’s a slow process and technologists are generally determining the design. It’s not that designers can’t implement, but they need to check things out with the technologists: Can we do what we want to do? What are the restrictions? Where should the buttons go?’ he explained.

But whereas the designer can’t operate without the technologist, the latter can get by alone. ‘But,’ says my informant, ‘the quality of the end product won’t improve till the designer becomes more involved. Otherwise it’s like having your print magazine designed by the printer.’

In 1955 we had a similar quandary: did we recruit and teach film people advertising or did we teach ad people film? In ad agencies it was the latter. However, our learning curve was much gentler and the relationship not as enmeshed as that required for website design.

The Internet is a paradigm shift and rules for other media may not be relevant. Each has to be rigorously questioned. Meanwhile, back at the Design Council, a member of the audience questioned the speaker about the telephonic origin of opera: ‘Is this what inspired Verdi to write La Donna e Mobile?’

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