A pioneer of digital design looks back on a defining era

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When Apple introduced the Macintosh in 1984, it was the dawn of an era. Personal computing was bottom-up. The World Wide Web was on its way. Screens would soon begin to take over people’s lives – a precursor to the ever-active Zoom-to-Zoom world we live in today.

The men, especially those called Steve and Bill, have a lot of credit for heralding this modern era of information technology. But behind the scenes, at tech and design companies around the world, the look and feel of these screens were defined by lesser-known graphic designers – the people who created the windows, dialogs and icons. taken for granted these days.

Susan Kare, for example, created the original icons, graphics, and fonts for the Macintosh operating system: the smiling Mac, the trash can, the system error bomb. And although the industry was predominantly male, it had many female peers, one of which was Loretta Staples, an interface designer in San Francisco.

For seven years, she imagined interactive experiences intended to delight and satisfy the end user. This was long before “design thinking” became the talk of Silicon Valley, before its field was renamed UI. When she started, the field was so nascent that most software did not exist.

“It was so exciting,” Ms. Staples said on a Zoom call in December. “You had to put things together and fashion your own tools and ways of making things. “

Now 67, living in Connecticut and working as a therapist (the fifth phase of her professional life), she views these years as formative, not only for her creativity, but also for her worldview.

Ms. Staples grew up in the late 1960s reading The Village Voice on a military base in Kentucky, dreaming of life in the Northeast. But after completing her studies in art history at Yale and graphic design at the Rhode Island School of Design, she began to question what she saw as regional values.

One of its teachers, Inge Druckrey, has been credited with introducing Swiss modernism to American schools. Also known as the International Style, it is visually defined by rigid grids and sans-serif fonts. The designer wants to be “invisible”. The New York subway signs and Volkswagen’s “Lemon” ad are good examples of its manifestation in American culture.

Ms. Staples appreciated the visual authority and logic behind this school of thought, but found its core neutrality puzzling. “Here I am, first generation, middle class, half black, half Japanese, I was never going to go to college and weirdly ended up at Yale,” she said. “What does all of this have to do with ‘where I come from’, anything? “

She also found that institutions in the Northeast despise rapidly evolving digital tools. “I kept scratching my head and wondering, when is the East Coast going to realize how important all of this is? ”Said Ms. Staples.

So in 1988, she responded to a newspaper ad for Understanding Business, or TUB, a design studio in San Francisco run by Richard Saul Wurman, a graphic designer known today for creating TED lectures. At the time, TUB was one of the largest studios focused on Macintosh computers.

Ms. Staples taught herself to use a beta version of Adobe Photoshop and other new tools that would allow her to design for interaction. Because the field was still emerging, she often “drove” different programs together to achieve the desired effect.

“In some ways it was a more diverse world,” she said. “It wasn’t that kind of unified, ubiquitous World Wide Web browser application.”

Ms. Staples became a full-time interface designer in 1989. She worked for renowned designer Clement Mok, briefly under John Sculley at Apple, then opened her own studio, U dot I, in 1992.

“We take this for granted because UI is a big deal now,” said Maria Giudice, who worked with Ms Staples at TUB and has remained a friend. “But she was one of the few people who really worked in this space.”

The interface design was full of thoughtful little innovations and touches of magic, like hovering a cursor over a blurry object to bring it into focus. “I know it probably doesn’t sound like a lot now, but back then it took a lot for it to happen,” Ms. Staples said.

The icons, while limited to a measly dollop of large pixels, were also a place of personalization. Using ResEdit, a programming software, she once built the icon of a ceramic coffee mug with a small donut nestled against it. “There was even a little shading,” she said.

Her clients in the 90s included AT&T, the Smithsonian Institution, Sony, and Paramount / Viacom, where she helped create a prototype interactive TV design (a precursor, in many ways, to streaming TV).

During this time, the World Wide Web was erupting. “For me, the Internet was the beginning of the end,” Ms. Staples said. When she started working as an interface designer six years ago, the graphical user interface was not widely understood; now web pages were popping up in the hundreds and everyone was surfing the net. Everything was becoming more and more standardized, commercialized, cluttered and boring.

In a letter to the editor published in both Adbusters, an activist magazine, and Emigre, a graphic design magazine, Ms Staples described her recoil from an expressively designed progressive political publication – a stark contrast to the appearance increasingly homogeneous of the world in its own domain at the turn of the millennium.

“I was viscerally programmed to respond predictably to graphic conventions,” she wrote. “Could it be that graphic design is less and less the solution and more the problem?

“I felt like I recognized design as a particular type of cultural practice that I didn’t want to do anymore,” Ms. Staples said.

After taking an outing, she roamed the professions with agility: design educator (her essays, which documented a pivotal period in digital design, are still used in classrooms today), fine artist, consultant in online business. In 2000, she moved from Michigan, where she taught design, to New York City, getting rid of a basement of working papers.

“I’m not an archivist at the end of the day,” she said. “Things come and go, and that’s how my life has been.” Her website, however, contains a selection of artifacts from her early working life: 12 images of her designs, as well as student work and course schedules that she taught.

Looking back, Ms Staples said she saw herself as a cultural critic disguised as a designer; now she’s a cultural critic disguised as a therapist – one who has spent the last year working exclusively through video conferencing.

“It’s weird to have the ability to control a sight,” she said. “Not everyone looks the same. “

“She still thinks like a designer,” Ms. Giudice said, “just by applying it in a different way.”


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