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Capturing the history of software design
Issue 166: Capturing stories to preserve the future.
I was in New York this week. The first two days was an offsite with other design executives hosted by GV (formerly Google Ventures). Last year was in wine country in California, and this year we gathered at The Big Apple. It felt like a reunion with this group of incredible humans.
Of the dozen leaders of the group, I am the youngest. Despite being the baby of the group, we’ve all seen software design continue to evolve across multiple generations now. In one of our evening conversations, we talked a lot about how the history is not captured. The irony of this is the digital age makes it worse because we assume everything will be cataloged and searchable. We have a reference of historical things, but the stories are hard to find. This conversation inspired me to write about the importance of capture stories told and how crucial it is for such a youthful practice.
Software design as a discipline is young
How old is software design? You could argue it was when software was born with the Manchester baby on June 21, 1948 if you consider everything to be designed. One might also point to when Interaction Design was coined in the 80s by two Bills (Moggridge and Verplank). That is still under 40 years of age. Regardless of where one chooses the marker of origin software design is a baby disciplines such as architecture; a discipline started in the Neolithic age.
I'm not trying to be the Herodotus of software design. The stories I tell and what I know is minuscule in comparison to the entire history. I want people who lived experiences that become historical to collaboratively share these stories so they don't get lost. One of the great moments at the GV offsite is hearing Kate tell the story of how they made the offer to close Rasmus Andersson to join Facebook from Spotify. Without sharing these stories we might lose the context of the historical moments. We spent the evening talking about all the moments and people who connected the whole group; almost building our own historical graph verbally.
Big moments during my career
Even though I’m the baby of the group of execs I spent the few days with, I’ve been around for a while. We reflected on key moments in design and recalled how we felt when it happened.
Acquisition of agencies
In the late 2000s during the first recession of the 21st century, many design studios and consultancies formed. There weren't many in-house jobs, and employers loved design studios due to the flexibility of scaling up and down. The early 2010s marked what people called Web 2.0 and tech giants such as Google and Facebook began acquiring intellectual properties and agencies at scale.
One of the monumental acquisitions at the time was in 2013 when Facebook acquired Hot Studio; one of the most popular design service companies in San Francisco and New York. Big companies wanted design talent and capabilities; willing to pay big for it. In October 2 of 2014, designers heard news that was earthshaking as Figma getting acquired by Adobe today. Adaptive Path was acquired by Capital One (what's in your wallet?).
Acquiring companies for the people
Facebook was building their version of the 1998 New York Yankees with their acquisitions. Many of these weren’t actually for the product or intellectual property—it was for the people. This is known as an acquihire.
In 2011, Facebook acquired Push Pop Press, an interactive publishing tool that explored interactivity in storytelling. One of the most popular interactive stories was Our Choice published by Al Gore. Though Push Pop Press was a cool product, what Facebook was more interested in were the co-founders: Kimon Tsinteris and Mike Mata. These two were key in the creation of Facebook Paper, a standalone mobile app for their timeline (RIP).
Invention of patterns
In November 2011, a mobile app called Path launched a re-design and new features. With the launch came a cool interaction pattern I've never seen before—a big button that expands with additional options. Brian Lovin wrote about the Path iOS app in his app dissection. Many years later, Google adopted a pattern in their Material Design Language with a Floating Action Button (FAB). I'm not saying Path invented it and Google copied them; someone else likely explored it before. What's important is knowing what happened during the contemporary moments.
Learn the history of the game
Many athletes talk about being a student of the game. They discuss historical references of players who came generations before them as if they lived that experience. This is being a student of the game; having the intimate understanding of how humans elevated and defined your craft. This is true regardless if you're pushing the football down field or pushing pixels to draw representations of what will become software.
Learn the history not to worship the giants before you. In fact, you’ll be disappointed by who you met and realized they’re fallible humans (just like you). Instead of worshipping, understand the impact they made and what you can learn from it
Stories are artifacts that form history
There are living greats in the midst of us now. It's important to capture these deep cuts and share with the next generation of designers. The goal is not to tell them exactly how history played out, because history is subjective. What's important is to capture the stories and give them access to historical recollection.
Historical references will tell you that Mike Matas now works at LoveFrom, Facebook, and Apple. What stories tell you is Matas spent his early career in Seattle working at Zoka Coffee in the University District where a lot of people worked at the U-Village Apple Store, started Delicious Library, and The Omni Group took form. From there he then moved to California to work at Apple and Steve Jobs tested Photobooth; the software he designed.
History captures events. Stories capture how the events felt with the people who lived through them. If you don't take the time to tell stories and capture them, they get lost in time, especially in the digital age of information overload. We don't get the right to deem what is historical. What we can do is leave artifacts for the future generations to catalog it.
For the OG designers (if you thought OG meant OmniGraffle, that's you), write and orate the stories; create the artifacts. If you're beginning your journey in software design, study the game.
The young history of software design and how rapid it’s taking shape is the most exciting aspect about working at startups—the chance to fail big or make history.
What story will you tell?
Collection of what I read and related to this week's post
Maria Giudice's book (founder of Hot Studio): Rise of the DEO: Leadership by Design
If you're in San Francisco I'll be doing a fireside chat with Liveblocks about collaboration tools
Events Manager (This one is on my team)