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Design in the 21st Century: A Coffee with Barry Katz (Part 1)

Posted on Thursday, May 15th 2008

It’s 8:45 in the morning and I have just sat down for a cup of coffee and a chat with Barry Katz. A bit whimsically, he describes himself as a “dyed-in-the-wool humanities guy”; however, it is very easy to see past his humility and recognize his tremendous passion and intellect within. He is a historian of Silicon Valley (and by extension the world) design, an educator who has molded the minds of many a Stanford student, and a role model for us all. It is a privilege to share our conversation with you.

SM: Barry, where do you come from and how did you come into design as a profession?

BK: I am the purest, most dyed-in-the-wool humanities guy you will ever meet. I studied history and philosophy and culminated my studies with an interdisciplinary humanities PhD. I got my first teaching job at Stanford in 1980. I was the humanities guy in an engineering environment. I was be the guy talking about historical problems, the rise of technologies, the history of engineering practices, and philosophical, ethical, and cultural issues surrounding this.

I did that for ten years, and at some point somebody pointed out to me that I was spending less and less time talking about the history of the technological practices and more and more time talking about the way people and objects interacted with each other, and that was design.

When I was confronted with that reality, I went home and began to read and get a feel for the nature of the processional discipline of design and what it was all about as opposed to the two or three dozen different ways in colloquial speech we use design. That corresponded with an administrative shift in my position at Stanford. The provost decided he was nervous with me kind of flitting around between established disciplines and he wanted me to become permanently affiliated with a department. I always thought that would be the equivalent of death. The thought of living in a history department with a Latin American historian here and a Chinese historian there and a medieval historian upstairs….

SM: What department did he put you in?

BK: We scheduled a series of interviews. The history department was first, and they were very suspicious. Next was the philosophy department and they were even more suspicious! Finally we went to mechanical engineering, which is where one of the design programs was housed. They asked how much I would cost and when they found out I was already in the budget, and hence would cost nothing, they agreed to take me.

That is how I became what I am now, a consulting professor in mechanical engineering. The design programs at Stanford are a little more complex than most people are aware of. There is an undergrad product design program, and there is a graduate program which is referred to as the joint program because it is shared between mechanical engineering and art.

About 12 years ago I took on a second position as a Professor of Humanities and Design at the California College of the Arts which is a school for design, art design, and architecture in San Francisco and Oakland. It is this wondrous 100-year-old place which was part of the English Arts and Crafts movement. It is now CAD-driven and state of the art.

In my spare time I am a fellow at IDEO, the big design innovation consultancy in Silicon Valley. Nobody there knows quite what I do. Actually, nobody anywhere knows quite what I do, but they all assume that somebody does!

This segment is part 1 in the series : Design in the 21st Century: A Coffee with Barry Katz
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This was a great interview and I found Barry’s comments on design to be spot-on. You might be interested in a recent post I authored entitled “Design Matters” which can be found here:

Mike Myatt Friday, September 19, 2008 at 9:50 PM PT