Vast in scope – referring to both design processes and products for which digital technology is an essential element – broad in geography and highly complex, digital design has proved hard to define since its first beginnings in the 1960s. How the V&A has come to study and collect this growing field of creativity reflects this. Mobile phones, for example, found a home in the woodwork collection alongside early telephones, which, when entering the collection, were considered in the same category as furniture.
In the 21st century, the V&A is more directed and confident in its approach to digital design. Foregrounding the digital in existing collections and acquiring new works goes hand-in-hand with exploring the role digital design and culture play in contemporary society.
This article is a collections-led introduction to the history of digital design focusing on specific object types that mark moments of significant change. Starting with the personal computer and reaching to social media it is a history told through objects in the V&A collections.
Designer and entrepreneur Steve Jobs and engineer Steve Wozniak stepped out of Jobs' Californian garage and into consumers' homes in 1977 by releasing the Apple II. Inspired by the homeware section at Macy's department store in the US, Jobs tasked industrial designer Jerry Manock to create a casing in the light-beige shade of Pantone 453 to hide previously exposed electronics. Designed to become part of the furniture, the Apple II is a pivotal object in the history of the personal computer. For the first time, it was designed to be taken out of the office and into the home.
Apple changed tack in 1992 as British designer Jonny Ive took charge of the company's industrial design. The bubble-backed Bondi Blue plastic iMac G3 fast became an object of technological desire on launch in 1998. Available in 13 different colour combinations, the iMac G3 was suddenly everywhere, from Zoolander to the Simpsons, and influenced the aesthetics of many other contemporary products. Translucency and a pop of colour became the way to standout, as can be seen in this pocket organiser, the Visor Deluxe.
Though not strictly a computer (it has no internal memory or processing capabilities), the Minitel videotext service, operating in France between 1982 and 2012, became a nationwide phenomenon and a hint of the internet yet to come. The small, plastic-cased Minitel terminal, given away for free by France Telecom, enabled users to interact over a phone line. In distinction to Teletext, which was a one-way, non-interactive system for the transmission of text and graphics, this two-way service allowed anyone to design and host their own services, leading to chat rooms, special interest sites, multiple different communities and even art works that continued right until it was turned off by France Telecom, 40 years after its creation. Minitel imagined the possibilities of a decentralised internet, one which was designed and controlled by its users.
A lack of fairness or equality between those who have access to technology and those who do not is a challenge many technologists, as well as policy makers, seek to tackle. The One Laptop per Child project, initiated in 2002 by Nicholas Negroponte, architect and founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, was a non-profit initiative that sought to provided digital access to school children across the globe. Durable, weatherproof and low cost, the XO-1 laptop designed by Yves Behar, ran at low power and was packed with open-source software to inspire young minds. Internal hardware failures, worries about the environmental impact of materials, and rising costs of manufacture, however, hampered the roll out of the project and ultimately led to its close. The One Laptop per Child Project came under criticism as an example of 'techno-solutionism', where long-term external factors, such as infrastructure provision, politics and local need, were not fully considered. Admirable in ambition for drawing attention to the digital divide, it ultimately failed to resolve the problems it sought to address.
The first smartphone was introduced in 1994 by IBM. The Simon Personal Communicator (SPC) advanced the capabilities of the mobile telephone allowing users to send and receive emails and faxes and use their phone as a mobile office with a calendar and contact book. A little less sleek than what we're used to, it was a revolution in personal mobile communications. In 2002, Blackberry released their first smartphone in Canada, the 5810, aimed at those who wanted emails on the go. In China a year later, Ningbo Bird released the DoEasy E868, while Siemens introduced the SX1 in Germany, which featured TypeGun, a competitive typing game, to get users used to its unusual keyboard.
Apple founder Steve Jobs' announcement of the iPhone at the 2007 MacWorld convention in San Francisco marked a turning point in the smartphone market. With its touchscreen technology and onboard software, iPhone OS, the iPhone enabled users to carry a computer in their pockets. Just seven years later, the iPhone 6 became the first phone to sell 10 million units in its first weekend of sales, cementing the iPhone as one of the world's most popular and profitable technological devices of all time. Its cultural influence has inspired countless copies and homages, including in China, where this practice is known as shanzhai 山寨. Translated as 'mountain hideout', shanzhai is often misattributed simply as bootlegging. Innovations in themselves, these devices remix and remake a product, such as the iPhone, into something new, often with multiple new functionalities, such as different operating systems and multiple SIM card slots, driven by market need and consumer desire.
Growing awareness of the ecological and human cost of fast, hyper-productive, innovation cycles is now too driving innovation. The Fairphone was first released in 2013 as a means to raise awareness of the use of conflict minerals in the manufacture of electronic goods. Conflict minerals, such as tin, tungsten and gold, are resources extracted from conflict areas with a significant record of human rights abuses, and through their continued extraction those perpetuating this violence continue to profit. Based in the Netherlands and led by Bas van Abel, the organisation created a phone that sought to make the industry fairer and more sustainable. The X Tigi Mobile is, in contrast, a phone meeting the needs of those living with fragile infrastructures. A bestseller in 2015 in Accra, Ghana, its inbuilt USB port enables users to take advantage of its high-capacity battery both to plug in attachments such as LED lights and to charge smartphones many times over during power outages. The dual SIM further adds versatility, enabling users to remain in touch across multiple contact numbers.
Since the first computer-to-computer link by ARPANET on 29 October 1969, people have sought to send messages to each other. There have been multiple social networking sites since the formation of the internet as we know it. For example, Usenet forums in 1980 enabled users to post and send messages through a bulletin board system (BBS) decades before Twitter (2006), Facebook (2004) or even Myspace (2003) came into being.
WeChat, owned by Tencent and launched in 2011, passed 1.17 billion users in 2020 (with 1 billion operating in China), is one of the world's most popular social media and messaging apps. What distinguishes it from every other social media platform is a design in which everything you need, from ordering food to a cab, making a medical appointment to messaging friends, is folded neatly into one easy to use app. In China, WeChat's streamlined convenience means other apps struggle to compete for users, and this, alongside government censorship of apps such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, heightens the platform's market dominance.
So, what other ways do we talk to each other through our devices? The first emoji were created in 1997 for the SkyWalker DP-211SW, a mobile phone released by the Japanese company Softbank. Two years later Shigetaka Kurita created the now famous 176 character set for Docomo featuring recognisable symbols such as animals, love hearts and musical instruments. Since then, emojis and stickers have become an important part of telecommunications and messaging culture. Increasingly widespread use has brought with it recognition of the need for them to be inclusive and to reflect contemporary life across the globe.
Emojination, founded by Yiying Lu and Jennifer 8. Lee in 2015, is a grassroots organisation advocating for greater diversity in emojis. They help individuals and groups propose new suggestions to the Unicode Consortium, the organisation responsible for annual new additions to the emoji character set. The Mosquito emoji, designed by Aphelandra 'Aphee' Messer – who also helped to design the proposal for the hijab emoji – was submitted to the Unicode Consortium by John Hopkins University and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with Emojination. Taking advantage of emojis' ability to leap across language barriers, the design is intended to aid disease tracking and help communicate public health campaigns, particularly in countries most affected by mosquito-borne diseases.
Smart devices and the Internet of Things
In 1950, the impressively complicated 'Push Button Manor' proposed by mechanical engineer Emil Mathias of Jackson, Michigan was featured in an issue of Popular Mechanics. This house harnessed electricity and a system of pulleys to create an early version of what would come to be known as the smart home – a residence where autonomous devices take on tasks previously carried out by humans. The term smart home was first used in 1984 by The American Association of House Builders. Fast-forward to the 21st century and the smart home looks a little different – smaller, slicker Wi-Fi and 3G-enabled devices, such as the Nest thermostat, are fully integrated into the domestic environment, learning and adapting to the habits of their users.
The 'Internet of Things' (IoT), a concept first coined by British technologist Kevin Ashton in 1999, had the ambition to turn domestic, personal and professional spaces into interrelated networks of objects that worked together as long as the connection remained intact. Early experiments ranged from David Rose's Ambient Orb, designed in 1993, which could be programmed via a custom data input to give a barometer-like response to changes in information. Rafi Haladjian and Olivier Mével's rabbit-shaped Nabaztag from 2005 could stream data and communicate fluctuations in stock market reports and the weather through the movement of its ears. Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino's Goodnight Lamp, first designed in 2005, works through the connection of two or more house-shaped lamps that can be located anywhere globally. When activated, the lamps illuminate, indicating that someone is thinking of them, without the need for words. Early projects, such as these, paved the way for more commercial products. The Philips Hue lightbulb, for example, has become a widely-used and profitable connected home device within the IoT domain.
The largest, even loudest voice in the connected home market is the Amazon Echo. The speaker, the shape and size of which has significantly changed since its first release in 2014, is merely a casing for the technology at work within – 'Alexa'. An always-listening voice assistant service, Alexa is built on a complex and opaque natural language processing system connected to Amazon's commercial services and internet more widely. The Amazon Echo, alongside other smart devices, has created significant critical discussion about the role of digital design in society – particularly with regard to surveillance, privacy and gender. Amazon's Alexa has, for example, drawn criticism, with projects such as Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler's Anatomy of an AI System exploring the service's hidden economic, environmental and human impact.