John Harwood. The Interface: IBM and The Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945-1976. Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
During the post-WWII period, IBM instituted a coordinated design program headed by Eliot Noyes, that led to more or less consistent industrial design of computers, architectural design of corporate headquarters and manufacturing facilities, and designs of popular exhibits and other computer-human interfaces. In this book, John Harwood sets out to investigate how the design program “elaborated theoretical positions and set standards of practice that quite literally changed the technics of corporate and architectural culture alike.” Although Harwood focuses almost solely on describing and analyzing IBM’s design program, he claims that by doing so, “we may come to understand more about its contemporary corporations that so reshaped the global economy, whether they adopted IBM’s specific approaches to corporate practice or not” (8). The basis of this claim is that IBM was widely influential in the computer and cultural fields in the second half of the twentieth century.
I am not an expert in industrial design or corporate history, but Harwood’s analysis seems to be theoretically rich and appropriately well grounded in primary source material. He touches on one of my core interests, the design of exhibits and public spaces at World’s Fairs in the twentieth century, analyzing IBM’s contributions to the New York (1964) and Seattle (1962) Fairs. His analysis seems appropriately ambitious, meshing well with his broad theory through the inclusion of chapters on the design IBM’s computers, the buildings they were created in, and the places where they were popularized.
My major criticism of this work is that the book length analysis of the design program left Harwood unable to follow through on the logical implications of his work. He acknowledges that it was a “rather brash claim at the outset of this book that the IBM Design Program constitutes a determining case in the mutual imbrication of architecture, corporations, and information technology,” but then states that analyzing its wider impact will require the work of other scholars. Harwood’s contribution, he says, was only “to establish both the rough outline and fine points of the design program itself” in the hopes that other scholars could use the threads of his narrative in their own work (221). In the following pages he lists a few of the corporations directly influenced by Noyes and his co-designers Paul Rand and Charles and Ray Eames, but he fails to prove the wider applicability of the theory he seems to be propounding. Those of us who think that Harwood is on to something with his theory will have to wait for other scholars to follow through on this challenge, or engage in our own research and analysis to see how well it works in practice.
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