It’s safe to say that a book on design theory has never succeeded in scaring the crap out of me, but that was before I read futurist Haakon Faste’s convincing prediction that “It appears reasonable that human intelligence will become obsolete, economic wealth will reside primarily in the hands of superintelligent machines, and our ability to survive will lie beyond our direct control.” Scarier still is the role designers play in shaping that not-too-distant future.

It’s the last essay in Digital Design Theory: Readings from the Field (Princeton Architectural Press), the new follow-up book from graphic design instructor and principal of Strong Design, Helen Armstrong, who wrote Graphic Design Theory: Readings from the Field (2009). Here, she pulls the most important writings by 24 seminal designers, dating back to Ladislav Sutnar’s well-known 1961 “Visual Design in Action” essay, as well as Bruno Munari’s 1964 “Arte Programmatic,” and Karl Gerstner’s “Designing Programmes” from the same year. Yes, these early insights are still remarkably relevant today, but what can a young digital designer really expect to learn about their practice and onscreen process from designers working decades before the first computer was even introduced? Loads, actually.

Presented chronologically, the essays compiled by Armstrong are remarkable in that together, they read like a quick yet super-informative history of design, from the nitty gritty of the grid system to the more expansive view of how the design process informs not just the world of design, but the world as a whole. We see how the modularity beloved of advocates of the New Typography in the early 20th century paved the way for computers, starting with a 1963 computer program called Sketchpad all the way to ARPANET, an early version of the internet; to 1964, when IBM gave birth to its groundbreaking computer family, System/360, the first general use computer, and eventually to the excitement of 1984, when Steve Jobs introduced the original Macintosh. All leading eventually—if Faste and his future-thinking cohorts are to be believed—to the year 2030, “when computers in the price range of inexpensive laptops will have computational power that is equivalent to human intelligence.” Cue punch to gut.

by Keetra Dean Dixon for Digital Design Theory
by Keetra Dean Dixon for Digital Design Theory

But it’s not such a stretch. After all, Armstrong argues, the computer is just another tool, a way to “manipulate a limited number of aesthetic parameters to enact a design project.” As easy as it is to get distracted by the timeline of new tech products that changed the way design looked and functioned over the past several decades, it’s the change in the design process itself that’s key here. For example, in 1984 Rudy VanderLans and Zuzana Licko launched Emigre Fonts, which were designed directly on the Mac for immediate use in the popular Emigre magazine. Software was becoming more than just a tool to get a job done; it began to shape the creative process itself.

And if software was having this kind of impact on their work, it follows that designers who really wanted to take the reins would shape the tools themselves. Perhaps no one made a better case for getting your hands dirty with raw computation than AIGA Medalist John Maeda, whose work as the director of MIT Media Lab Aesthetics and Computation Group from 1996-2003 inspired a generation of programmers. According to Maeda, computation is “the only medium where the material and the process for shaping the material coexist in the same entity: numbers.”

From there things moved even faster, with advances in processing that let designers and artists mold the language of programming. Suddenly the highly technical world of computing, previously accessible only to engineers and data scientists, had become an egalitarian, open-source environment where entire programming communities pooled resources and knowledge that were then made available to all. This hyper-connected way of working, and the culture of software development in general, began to permeate the design world. The systems thinking of the ’60s was officially back in style, with users becoming an active part of the process.

Now, if Armstrong is correct in her assessment that “we’re moving beyond 20th-century systems thinking into a period in which we frame systems than evolve on their own,” it makes predictions from futurists like Ray Kurzweil a bit more believable. He posits that around 2045 “we will be forced to merge with intelligent machines—becoming a hybrid of biological and nonbiological intelligence.” To cope, Faste advises that we shift our focus from human-centered to posthuman-centered design, and move beyond the “species limitations of human-centered design… More than ever designers need to look beyond human intelligence and consider the fact of their practice on the world and on what it means to be human.” No pressure, right? Armstrong sums it up a little lighter. “After all,” she says, “isn’t giving form to the yet-to-exist what designers do best?”