On Design: Thinking Like a Historian

Let me tell you about one of my favorite “smart” devices. It’s basically a radio alarm clock—same as your parents had next to their bed—but with a twist. On the back of the device is an ungrounded AC electrical socket. The user sets the alarm, and when it sounds, it also completes a circuit to the socket, powering whatever the user has plugged in. It’s multipurpose—in your kitchen, a morning alarm could turn on NPR and start your electric kettle for tea.  In the bedroom, an alarm can flip on a bedside light. With no required network access, a plastic case (available in a range of colors), and no specialized circuitry, it’s both inexpensive to produce and accessible to a wide user base.

I’m talking about the GE model 914-D. It came to market in 1957.

I chanced upon this clever device in the course of a curatorial internship at The Henry Ford. My job, with this and hundreds of other under-studied objects from the collection, was to write a brief narrative identifying the object and how it would have been used. And this, I believe, is where the job of a historian intersects with the job of a designer. In the absence of a user who can sit in front of you and tell you how they use a product, you have to think like a historian.

The tricky thing about understanding a particular historical moment is that we, from our modern vantage point, know how most historical stories end. To avoid the trap of “presentism”—of evaluating history based on our present perspective—historians ruthlessly seek to broaden their contextual understanding.

So, how can I tell how a user might have understood this radio in 1957? I start thinking about what a person would have known in 1957. I start rebuilding, as best I can, the web of cultural, social, political, and visual associations into which this radio would have fit. The timed power socket speaks to a growing interest in automation and a concurrent expansion in the availability of new consumer goods and devices. Why were there so many more consumer goods available? Because 1957 was about decade along in a massive postwar expansion in industry and a new understanding of what it means to be a both an individual consumer and a member of a collective American marketplace. How do we see this new consumerism reflected in the GE 914-D? In the fact that it was available in a range of trendy colors and in the forward-looking starburst pattern on the radio dial. How do I know all of this? Because I’m leaning on the work of as many experts as I can, from Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumer’s Republic to Thomas Hine’s Populuxe. The radio evokes Levittown. It evokes the 1957 Chevrolet. It came out the same year the Russians launched Sputnik I. It’s of a moment.

So far, I imagine that design practitioners may be thinking this sounds pretty straightforward. I’m essentially laying out a map of design associations, and it’s as much a clever presentation trick as it is an act of deep insight to make a plastic clock radio into an illustration of the Eisenhower era.

But I want to come back to presentism, because the way historians talk about presentism sounds rather like the way I hear “futurism” when it’s thrown around as a buzzword. In my first sentence, I called the 914-D a smart device. That, after all, is the reference point most likely to resonate with present-day museum visitors. But in 1957, automation would have been understood as a mechanical process. Their thinking was more likely to based on the assembly line, not the cloud. It’s worth remembering that a 35-year-old radio buyer in 1957 would have seen Model Ts driving around alongside horses and buggies when she was a child. The thing that made this clock radio “smart” was the physical wire running from the clock assembly to the auxiliary power socket. We know now that hiding this technical ability within a stylish case was a portent of sleek smart devices to come, but a user in 1957 had never dreamed of something like a Google Home.

Designers, you see, also know how the story ends. A skilled futuristic thinker can envision how to fulfill a brief with possibilities as-yet unrealized, so new as to be seemingly without cultural points of reference. But people don’t think this way. People tend to think in terms of narrative, of their lived experience, and of cause and effect. They repeat the maxims their grandparents used. They evaluate things based on their sense of self and heritage. People have their own histories. And the more deeply we can understand these histories, the better we can “design the intervention,” as Tim Brown and Roger Martin put it in 2015. The more we can think like historians, the better our future designs will be.