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BARRY M KATZ Written by Miranda Squires Photography by daniel garcia


s an undergrad, Barry Katz never gave design a second thought. He was situated squarely in the humanities, studying history and philosophy, politics and economics, wrapping the whole of it up at the end with an interdisciplinary humanities PhD. He landed neatly at Stanford, teaching history of technology courses to engineering students. But over time, his focus shifted from the history of the objects themselves to the way that people and objects interact. And that was design. When this was pointed out to him, he can be forgiven for being a bit taken aback. “Design” seemed a rather thin concept to encompass his wide-ranging background and interests. It took some research into the professional discipline of design—so much richer and more complex than the typical understanding of the term—to recognize that, much to his surprise, he had become a designer. Or more precisely, a design thinker. A design historian. “I’m actually somewhat agnostic in terms of design. My ultimate professional interest is in design and I don’t really care what flavor it is,” says Katz, whose work explores origins and effects—“how people design, build, use, and interact with their human-created environments”—rather than the end products themselves. And so he was welcomed into the Design Group, one of five major research groups in Stanford’s department of mechanical engineering, settling after 10 years into one home department, instead of floating, as he had been, between several. Perhaps being affiliated with only one department felt a little too limiting, but within the next few years Katz had joined the teaching staff of California College of the Arts as well, as a professor of what is now known as industrial and interaction design. “If you want to be a designer,” Katz tells his students, “you will be a designer 24 hours a day. You will be a designer when you’re asleep, because you are always surveying the world, your environment, and looking for opportunities.” For the next several years, he comfortably balanced the two academic positions before being invited by founder David Kelley to join IDEO, a global design and innovation consultancy, as the consultancy’s first ever fellow. Though neither Katz nor Kelley were certain at the time what the position would entail, Katz accepted. Over the years, Katz’s role has evolved from offering support to providing insight essential to the process of designing products, beginning with the research (“phase zero”) stage. Working from a historical perspective, with his deep understanding also of the principles of user interaction, Katz develops what he calls


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