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Book Review: Digital Design Theory: Readings from the Field

Dialectic Volume I, Issue II: Critical Book Reviews
Digital Design Theory: Readings from the Field
Compiled and edited by Helen Armstrong (2016); published by Princeton Architectural Press,
New York, , ; 152 pages. : 9781616893088
   -¹    ²
1. Assistant Professor of Art & Design, Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design,
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, , 
2. Assistant Professor of Graphic Design, J. William Fulbright College of Arts & Sciences,
School of Art, The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, , 
 : Murdoch-Kitt, K. & Lane, M.M. “Digital Design Theory: Readings from the Field.” Review of Digital
Design Theory: Readings from the Field edited by Helen Armstrong. Dialectic, 1.2 (2017): pgs. 189–193. : http://dx.doi.
Copyright © 2017, Dialectic and the  Design Educators Community (). All rights reserved.
:  ,  
  
Three color-coded and historically
progressive sections comprise the
book: “Structuring the Digital,”
(blue) “Resisting Central Process-
ing,” (yellow) and “Encoding the
Future” (red). Armstrong briefly
introduces each section, making an
effort to frame, contextualize and
thread together each diverse group-
ing of texts. The pieces themselves
differ wildly in lengths: some are
half a page, while others reach nine
pages. Succinct manifestos in the
first section transition to longer,
more reflective essays in the second
and third sections. Anecdotally, it
is interesting to note that all eight
authors whose work is included in
the “Structuring the Digital” section
are male, four out of ten authors
whose work is included in “Resist-
ing Central Processing” are female,
and four out of twelve authors whose
work is included in “Encoding the
Future” are female. The imbalance
in the first section is perhaps an
historic reflection of the number
of women operating in the 1960s–70s
technology space.
Structuring the Digital forges con-
nections between early computer
processing, making and breaking
grids, and other methodologically
oriented art movements. These are all
linked by the approach of setting up
a system and then pushing or break-
ing that system either intentionally
by the maker or through an outside
force (computer or person). For exam-
ple, in her introduction to “Doing
Wall Drawings” (1971) by conceptual
art pioneer Sol LeWitt, Armstrong
discusses how LeWitt’s design of his
famous Wall Drawings affected the
creation of his detailed plans for
their execution. He created these not
: Book cover Digital Design Theory: Readings
from the Field, edited by Helen Armstrong (2016).
Digital Design Theory:
Readings from the Field
Compiled and edited by Helen Armstrong (2016); published
by Princeton Architectural Press, New York, NY, USA;
152 pages. ISBN: 9781616893088
   -¹
   ²
1 Assistant Professor of Art & Design, Penny W.
Stamps School of Art & Design, University of
Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA; 2Assistant Professor
of Graphic Design, J. William Fulbright College of
Arts & Sciences, School of Art, The University of
Arkansas, Fayetteville, , 
“Accessible” is generally not the
first word that comes to mind when
setting out to describe a book
about design theory. However, Dig-
ital Design Theory: Readings From
The Field, edited by Helen Armstrong,
is beautifully comprehensible. A
thoughtful collection of twenty-four
essential historical and contemporary
texts, the book encourages readers to
reflect on ways intersecting fields
and revolutions within design prac-
tice have shaped the current state
of the discipline. The collec-
tion is concise and understandable
while it explores a diverse array
of material compiled for a broadly
constituted design audience, and is
aided by the Armstrong’s additions
throughout. She has carefully chosen
and organized these primary works,
tracing the roots of contemporary
digital design in the diverse (yet
convergent) disciplines of computer
science, typographic design, concep-
tual art, sustainable design, social
media, and graphic design.
  
- & 
were not uniformly embraced. These
shifts placed the pressures of pro-
duction preparation and cost risk on
designers, sometimes putting them
at an economic disadvantage. Design
was streamlined (i.e. standardized)
to accommodate this process as the
1990s gave way to the 2000s. However,
some designers began to question how
this could be used to a designer’s
creative advantage, partially in an
effort to resist standardization in
favor of more unique, specific, or
bespoke approaches. Ultimately, this
move towards desktop publishing was
transformative for our discipline,
specifically in the area of typog-
raphy. Designers taking charge of
various production and dissemination
methods led to more unique and radical
designs for typefaces and typographic
compositions, as evidenced in publi-
cations such as Emigré and Raygun in
the 1990s and early 2000s.
The work of Alan Kay, inventor of
the GUI and a co-inventor of the
object-oriented programming upon
which it is based, began encourag-
ing the public to learn to code. The
democratization of coding furthered
the embrace of digitized tools by
designers and many of their collab-
orators. Kay's advocacy for these
approaches is articulated in his
piece in this section titled “User
Interface: A Personal View.” Arm-
strong ends her introductory framing
of this section with the following
query: “A disciplinary debate had
been ignited that continues today:
should designers learn to code?”
Encoding the Future investigates the
ethos that if tools shape the design,
then designers should shape the tools,
as evidenced in the work and writings
of Hugh Dubberly, Ben Fry, and Casey
only as a set of logical instructions
for others to follow and execute, but
was also deliberately ambiguous in
some of this wording, which led to or
perhaps promoted the idea that each
participant would create her own ver-
sion of the drawings and therefore
have a different experience as she
attempted to execute them in a given
installation space. In LeWitt’s words,
“The artist must allow various inter-
pretations of his plan.” There is an
easy corollary to interactive design
here, in that one can only create
conditions for experiences and must
accept that almost everyone will
take something different away from
the interaction. Also relating to the
role of the participant, Armstrong
discusses Stewart Brand’s 1968 Whole
Earth Catalog as an instigator for
future DIY (“Do-It-Yourself”), open
source, and collaborative cultures.
Resisting Central Processing is sit-
uated around two pivotal developments
that involve the broad social intro-
duction of new computing technology:
the introduction of the Apple Mac-
intosh computer in 1984, and public
access to the Internet in the 1980s–
90s. With the advent of more complex
computation technologies, modes of
production started to become democra-
tized. This led the work of designers
to expand from being predominantly
product-oriented to focus on using
design to catalyze positive social,
technological, economic, and public
policy change. Writings that exam-
ine this shift comprise the bulk of
this section of the book, with sem-
inal essays appearing by pioneers
including Muriel Cooper, Alan Kay,
and Sharon Poggenpohl.
At first, these pivotal changes to
the evolution of production in design
Reas. In this section, Processing
is just one example of the shift in
production from proprietary, costly
and inaccessible means of making
to networked, free, and accessible
approaches. In addition, a change
in communication from “one - to - many”
to “one - to - one” allowed for people
across a diverse array of socio-eco-
nomic and socio-cultural strata to
interact. The collection of work Arm-
strong has gathered here tracks the
eventual shift away from set systems
of communications towards a “trans-
human” state of existence, one where
our conditions for existing and
aspiring should be aided and abetted
by advanced technologies. The work
on offer in this section describes a
watershed moment for the design pro-
cess, and how it was forever changed
due to these seismic shifts in who
controls it. To wit, Armstrong writes:
“In the face of exponential techno-
logical growth, we have changed our
process. We prototype, iterate, and
respond instantly to user participa-
tion. Our methodology now mimics that
of software developers as we release
early and often. Influenced by open
source models of collaborative
making and peer-to-peer production,
we hack, think, make, and improve
our discipline.”
Armstrong’s curation of the entire
book creates topical threads that run
through all three sections. Of note
are design education, typographic
design, systems, and pushing against
the status quo. In Sharon Poggen-
pohl’s “Creativity and Technology”
essay from 1983, she identifies
three problems that make it diffi-
cult for designers to bridge the
gap between design and computation:
attitudes with computer science,
graphic designers’ ambiguous role
:  ,  
  
rather than craft pedestrian objects
that imitate a tradition.”
This volume contains many interesting
and topical visual elements. Keetra
Dean Dixon, who contributed the
visual foreword to the book, has also
left her mark on the end papers just
inside the front and back cover. It
is absolutely appropriate for these
essays to be sandwiched between Dix-
on’s labyrinthine “We push tools” /
“Tools push us” piece at the (literal)
open and close of the book, as it
echoes the carefully woven thematic
thread that permeates this collec-
tion. Her visual foreword, “Building
towards a point of always building” is
also inherently relatable to anyone
participating in the ever-evolving
world of digital design.
Adding to the book’s visual value
is the timeline that follows Arm-
strong’s powerful introduction. The
timeline includes the “lifespan
of each designer” and “publica-
tion dates of anthologized texts,”
which help readers understand, at a
glance, when these designers lived
and worked (many are still living),
as well as the chronological points
in which the noteworthy primary texts
that comprise Digital Design Theory
were originally written.
The “Theory at Work” chapters that
conclude each of the three sections
offer a rich array of visuals, pro-
viding visible examples for many of
the topics, creations, and innova-
tions discussed within each section.
Armstrong’s image captions serve as a
continuation of her robust voiceover,
providing additional information that
tie everything together. However,
this content might be more effective
if it were integrated throughout each
in planning computational approaches
and methods, and the overarching
structure of design education. With
regard to design education, she cites
issues related to lack of funding for
necessary equipment, the need for
seasoned faculty to embrace new meth-
ods, and a pressure to respond to
the needs of industry. Although this
piece was originally published in
1983, many educators face these same
issues today, and Poggenpohl pro-
vides an equally relevant reminder of
our responsibility to prepare future
thought leaders by stating: “Finally,
in the low-threat environment of
the university, we need to encour-
age risk-taking and tackle nontrivial
design projects that help the student
examine large communication issues
: Inside front and back cover illustration by
Keetra Dean Dixon.
  
of the book’s three sections rather
than being relegated to its own
chapter. If the caption content and
images were given a bit more visual
prominence, it might ensure that
readers do not miss or skip over these
important additions to the texts.
Incorporating the visual content from
the “Theory at Work” chapters also
might have provided an additional
opportunity for cross-referencing
and illuminating connections between
the content inherent in each of the
essays and the broader scopes of
work undertaken over time by their
respective authors.
In her initial introduction, section
overviews, chapter introductions,
timeline, and glossary, Armstrong
- & 
: Visual Foreword by Keetra Dean Dixon.
provides helpful historical contex-
tualization, enlightening insights,
and occasional amusing anecdotal
details. She furnishes just enough
additional information to make the
book cohesive, while leaving room for
students and educators to make con-
nections and conclusions regarding
how some of these historical texts
connect to present-day digital design
practice on their own. Digital Design
Theory is a thought-provoking and
recommended read or reference text
for practicing and aspiring design-
ers, both in and outside of academia
due to its general accessibility
and the scope of its highly relevant
material. It would make an excel-
lent course reader, and could promote
interesting classroom discussion as
well as help students (and educators)
better understand the roots of our
current digital landscape.
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