Over the July 4th holiday weekend, with patriotism and fireworks in the air, some colleagues and I began discussing the concept of American Design — that is, the design characteristics and elements that are distinctly and recognizably “American.” While discussions of national design themes typically focus on areas with relatively long-standing histories such as architecture, furniture, fashion, and even automotive — all areas where the United States has had varying levels of influence over the years — it is apparent that the most original and influential contemporary design field coming out of the United States is user interface design, a field that is American in its origins, growth, and spirit.
User-Interface design is American in its origins, growth, and spirit.
The graphical UI was invented and refined here at American universities such as Stanford and MIT and by American companies, including Xerox, Apple, and Microsoft. But as history has repeatedly shown, inventing something is not necessarily synonymous with being known for it. So it may be more meaningful to acknowledge that the graphical UI paradigms and visual elements designed by Americans have become the dominant features of user interfaces on computers and smart phones throughout the world. Even the World Wide Web, invented by Tim Berners-Lee (a Brit working in Switzerland at the time), was only able to spread massively with the easy-to-use interface of the Mosaic Web browser created at the University of Illinois.
In fact, it’s something of a challenge to identify the key characteristics of American interface design because they so strongly define current interface design in general: simple, approachable, consistent, and responsive. To those in the UI field those terms might sound cliché, but consider how applicable such characteristics would be to other design fields: Is fashion design generally driven by consistency? Furniture design by clarity? American design might now be best defined as easy to use (albeit a goal not always achieved).
Apple and others succeeded in UI design because they were more risk-taking.
It is the emphasis on user-centered design that has made American interface design so successful and difficult to replicate or export outside of the United States. As a nation of technology users, we are designing for ourselves better than others outside our culture could. As a result, American interface designers have an advantage in creating more effective technology interactions for Americans than their international counterparts can. By the same token, we might expect American dominance in interface design to endure only so long as Americans are the predominate technology users — clearly a short-term state with the growing economic power of Asia.
But even with those emerging changes, there will always be something uniquely American about interface design: its entrepreneurial spirit. In the early days of graphical user-interface design, relatively smaller companies like Apple and Microsoft succeeded in interface design because they were more pioneering and risk-taking than their larger, entrenched competitors like IBM and Xerox. Today, virtually any individual can compete in the Web/app/software marketplace with a good idea and an effective interface design. And whether those individuals are American or not, they will share a common beginning, rooted in baseball, apple pie, and UIs.