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New Materials and Revolutions in Design

Going through Dardi and Pasca’s Design History Handbook, I’m realizing that the materials available to designers have been a major influence in the history of design. Perhaps this is obvious, but it’s also obviously profound. I quote:

Designers, accustomed for millennia to operating with natural materials, were no faced not only with the enormous availability of iron, cast iron, and glass, but with new procedures. Vulcanization allowed for the use of gutta-percha or rubber to simulate wood, stone, and metals, inlays included; electrotyping made it possible to reproduce objects by electrochemically depositing a metal into a mold; granite and marble could now be easily cut. The new responsibility of designers was to give shape and meaning to the artificial processes [and materials] that the Industrial Revolution was developing.

Design History Handbook, p. 17

Maybe what I didn’t realize was the full extent of materials suddenly available to people once the Industrial Revolution came around: an explosion of new materials and methods to make them.

Here’s a pile of vulcanized rubber–again, a never-before-seen material–witnessed at the Great Exhibition in 1851:

Charles Goodyear, display of products in Indian vulcanized rubber (1851-1852)–a material that . From the Library of Congress.

Can you imagine? Seeing a material like this for the first time?

Andy Crouch, in his book Culture Making, talks about questions to ask of any “cultural artifact” (meaning anything from an iPhone to an omelet). One of those questions is: what new horizons of possibility does this artifact open up? What does it make possible?

So: what did vulcanization, and vulcanized rubber, make possible? It made possible “rubber hoses, shoe soles, tires, bowling balls, bouncing balls, hockey pucks, toys, erasers, and instrument mouthpieces.” Tires, of course is the biggest of these (which is why Goodyear Tires is named after Charles Goodyear, the inventor of vulcanization). But note that “most rubber products in the world are vulcanized, whether the rubber is natural or synthetic.”

In other words, one artifact–from Charles Goodyear–made possible businessmen and designers who could suddenly imagine new worlds of possibility: a world with tires, toys, and instrument mouthpieces. And of course, a world with tires, was a world with cars; and a world with cars, a world with highways and commutes. (Thanks, Charles. Could’ve done without commutes.)

What a revolution that just one of those new materials instigated. Each of these new materials became the blueprint for new products, technologies, and works of art. And those products, technologies, and works of art have remade the world we live in today.

My friend Will Hall explained to me that in the Bauhaus school of design (in the early 1900s), they had two teachers in every classroom: a master of form and a master of works. The former was a visual artist; the latter an expert in the production of the new materials, and the machines involved. Together, the students learned to create and craft from all sorts of materials: textile, wood, glass, color, clay, stone, and much more besides. They were tutored in the realms of possibility that each material opened, and how to act in that realm. This, combined with a distinctive aesthetic approach, is part of what made the Bauhaus school so successful.

So: I’m only just learning about the larger history of design, but it seems apparent that design is shaped by the materials available to me. New materials? New opportunities. What materials do I have to work with?

It’s exciting: as a UX designer in the twenty-first century, I get to work with digital materials of all kinds. Pixels, sound waves, moving pictures, photographs; a flexible canvas of colors and layout and typography. These materials can be combined to create something wonderful: a digital interface, and ideally, a wonderful subjective experience within that interface.

I do a lot with conversational design, and I’m starting to wake up to the materials I really have to work with. New synthesized voices from places like Vocal ID and Lyrebird; new abilities to alter not only the gender and tone of the voice, but the paralanguage–the prosody, the breath, the intonation, and feeling of the voice; libraries of foley sounds and music loops; the ability to create music, fashioned from the raw materials of rhythm, pitch, timbre, amplitude, and harmony–all available to me from the use of different instruments, and even synthesized music. All of these can be combined to create immersive soundscapes and aural experiences on smart speakers and phones.

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