A Pioneer of Digital Design Looks Back on a Defining Era

When Apple introduced the Macintosh in 1984, an era began. Personal computing was on the rise. The World Wide Web was on its way. Screens would soon be taking over people’s lives – an early precursor to the always-on zoom-to-zoom world we live in today.

Men, especially Steve and Bill, have received a lot of credit for ushering in this modern era of information technology. But behind the scenes at tech and design firms around the world, the appearance of these screens was created by lesser-known graphic designers – people who created windows, dialog boxes, and icons that are largely taken for granted these days.

Susan Kare, for example, created the original icons, graphical elements and fonts for the Macintosh operating system: the smiling Mac, the trash can, the system error bomb. And while the industry was mostly male, it had many peers – including Loretta Staples, an interface designer in San Francisco.

For seven years she invented interactive experiences that should delight and satisfy the end user. That was long before design thinking became a talking point in Silicon Valley, before their domain was elegantly renamed UI. When she started the field was so nascent that most of the software didn’t exist.

“It was just so exciting,” Ms. Staples said during a December call to Zoom. “You had to put things together and make your own tools and methods to make things.”

The 67-year-old lives in Connecticut and works as a therapist (the fifth phase of her professional life). She sees these years as shaping not only for her creativity, but also for her worldview.

Ms. Staples grew up in the late 1960s reading The Village Voice on a Kentucky military base. She dreamed of life in the northeast. After completing her degree in art history at Yale and graphic design from the Rhode Island School of Design, she began to wonder what she’d viewed as regional values.

One of her professors, Inge Druckrey, was honored for bringing Swiss modernism to American schools. Also known as the International Style, it is visually defined by rigid grids and sans serif fonts. The designer should be “invisible”. The New York City subway signs and the Volkswagen “Lemon” ad are good examples of this manifestation in American culture.

Ms. Staples valued the visual authority and logic behind this school of thought, but found its basic neutrality confusing. “Here I am, first-generation middle class, half black, half Japanese, never wanted to go to college and ended up at Yale kind of weird,” she said. “What on earth has all this stuff got to do with where I’m from, whatever that is?”

She also noted that institutions in the Northeast rejected rapidly evolving digital tools. “I kept scratching my head and asking myself, ‘When is the east coast going to get the importance of all this stuff?'” Ms. Staples said.

In 1988, she responded to a newspaper ad for Understanding Business (TUB), a San Francisco design studio run by Richard Saul Wurman, a graphic designer now best known for creating TED conferences. At the time, TUB was one of the largest studios for Macintosh computers.

Ms. Staples taught herself how to use a beta version of Adobe Photoshop and other new tools she could use to design to interact. Since the field was still developing, she often “bundled” different programs together in order to achieve the desired effect.

“In a way, it was a more diverse world,” she said. “It wasn’t that unified, ubiquitous world wide web browser app.”

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

“We take it for granted because the 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 room.”

The interface design was full of thoughtful little innovations and magical influences, like moving a cursor over a blurry object to bring it into focus. “I know that probably doesn’t sound like much now, but it took a long time to get that done at the time,” said Ms. Staples.

While icons were limited to a meager pile of chunky pixels, they were also a place for customization. With ResEdit, a programming software, she once constructed an icon of a ceramic coffee cup with a tiny donut. “It even had a little shade,” she said.

Her clients in the 1990s included AT&T, the Smithsonian Institution, Sony, and Paramount / Viacom, where she helped create a blueprint for an interactive television prototype (in many ways a precursor to streaming television).

Meanwhile the World Wide Web broke out. “For me, the Internet was the beginning of the end,” said Ms. Staples. When she started as an interface designer six years earlier, the graphical user interface was not widely used. Now hundreds of websites were popping up and all surfing the Internet. Everything became more standardized, commercialized, crowded and boring.

In a letter to the editor published in both Adbusters, an activist magazine, and Emigre, a graphic design magazine, Ms. Staples described the rebound in a progressive political publication that was expressive – a stark contrast to its increasingly homogeneous appearance of the world on its own territory at the turn of the millennium.

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

“I felt like I recognized design as a certain type of cultural practice that I no longer wanted to practice,” said Ms. Staples.

After leaving, she cycled through professions with agility: design pedagogue (her essays, which documented a crucial phase of digital design, are still used in classrooms today), visual artist, online business consultant. In 2000, she moved from Michigan, where she taught design, to New York City, disposing of a basement’s working documents.

“I’m not an archivist after all,” she said. “Things come and go and so was my life.” However, her website includes a selection of artifacts from her early professional life: 12 images of her designs, plus the student work and curricula for classes 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 worked exclusively with video conferencing for the past year.

“It’s strange to have the option to control a view,” she said. “Not everyone sees the same thing.”

“She still thinks like a designer,” said Ms. Giudice.

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