The Brief History of (UX) Design and the simple reason why people fail to understand what it is all about

Before I start repeating the popular narrative of Taylor-Toyota-Dreyfuss-PARC-Don Norman-Apple, I want to briefly talk about the history of Design and the Process. It was shocking to me that a timeline of design is spreading across the internet without the mention of Bauhuas and Ulm. The history of UX Design is not divorced from the history of design itself. It is a continuation of the same idea. Hence this article:

All major human activity can be broadly simplified to two distinct categories: Making Tools and Telling Stories.

It is the result of these two tasks being done continuously since the beginning of civilization that we have the myriad of experiences around us. Ever since the first protohuman chipped the first flint tools or painted the first cave painting, the ‘Idea of Design’ has been in existence.

Acheulean handaxe found in Douro valley, Zamora, Spain. [Source: Wikipedia]

Since then we have been constantly engaged in making houses, objects and graphic arts across ages and cultures. Till the industrial revolution, it was carried out by craftsmen and was artisanal in nature. The processes and styles of different crafts kept evolving with time and the advent of new tools.

A woodcut of Shoemakers, presumably in their guild. [Source: Wikipedia]

During these periods the design activity was predominantly carried out by ‘Guilds’ and followed the Master-Apprentice model. Remnants of this model can still be seen today in traditional crafts and in some contemporary artisanal practices.


With Industrial revolution came mass manufacturing and brought a different set of constraints along with its obvious advantages. Bauhaus(1919–1933) along with Vkhutemas(1920–1930) laid the foundations for modern design thought. They became the first two schools to formally train ‘artist-designers’. With close similarities in intent, organisation and scope, these two schools aimed at merging the traditional craft tradition with modern Technology.

Bauhaus at Dessau [Source: Wikipedia]

In his prospectus, Walter Gropius, the founder of Bauhaus, formulates three principal aims:

1. To unite all arts to allow painters, sculptors and craftsmen to work harmoniously on cooperative projects.

2. To raise the status of craftsmen practicing applied art and decorative art to the same level as those involved in fine art.

3. To maintain close liaison with the leaders of the main crafts and industries in the country, to ensure the school operated in line with their basic requirements.

Bauhaus’ aim was to train artists, architects and designers to accept and anticipate the 20th century needs. Second, it wanted to eliminate traditional boundaries between art, architecture and craft. Third and probably the most critical, it hoped for a marriage between art and industry — a synthesis of design and production. [1]

Wassily Chair by Marcel Breur — Synthesis of Design and Production [Source:]

After Walter Groupius, his successor Hannes Meyer distanced the discipline of design from any lingering taste of craft and the fine art-ness and famously said,” As a ‘University of Design’, Bauhaus is not an artistic but a social phenomenon.”

By the time Mies van der Rohe took his place as the director of Bauhaus in 1930’s the political climate in Germany was not suitable for ideas of Architecture and Design that Bauhaus propagated. After a brief ideological struggle with the ruling National-Socialist German Workers’ Party which did not like the idea of ‘Modernism’, Mies van der Rohe decided to shut the school down in 1933.


Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm or HfG or the Ulm School of Design (1953–1968) started as a continuation of Bauhaus under Max Bill after the World War II, and it quickly abandoned the model to innovate a new model of design- the ‘Ulm Model’ which is the blue print for most design schools even today.

Founded in the memory of Hans and Sophie Scholl, who were executed by the Nazis as members of the resistance, HfG Ulm was established by their younger sister, Inge Scholl with Otl Aicher and others. [2]

Ulm School of Design [Source: Wikipedia]

Under the leadership of Tomas Maldonado, the school dropped the “artist” focus of Max Bill and proposed a new philosophy of education as an “operational science”, a systems-thinking approach which embodied both art and science.[3]

Maldonado saw the design process as a system embodying both scientific-based and intuitive-based thinking, HfG adopted new way of thinking. Aesthetic considerations were no longer the primary conceptual basis of design. The professional designer would be an “integrator” with responsibility for integrating a large number of specialties in addition to aesthetics, mostly the diverse requirements of materials, manufacturing and context of product use, as well as considerations of usability, identity and marketing.[4]

Braun Poducts [Source:]

I am reproducing an interview of Dr Rene Spitz by Steven Heller, because I could neither explain it better nor could I find anything explained the ‘Spirit of Ulm’ better.

“ There are three main characteristics that distinguish HfG from every school of design. First, it was based more than any other school on dealing with the question of what the social responsibility of designers is. Second, it was a strong impulse for the development of design as a research-based activity. Third, the HFG Ulm integrated all disciplines, not only within design, but also humanities, engineering, sciences, politics and economy. The designer should work as a team player, not as an artist.

The integration of various forms of creative activity was a major feature of the HfG Ulm. The objective was not the technical idiot, but the generalist, based on strong critical judgment and solid experience.

From 1953 to 1962 there was a mandatory, common first year of study, the so-called Grundlehre. As a result, the students learned to recognize inter-relationships. Only then, the students chose one of the four directions: visual communication, product design, building and information, and later film. But there were also students who changed their discipline. And since the school was small, separation of each other was impossible.

There were also many collaborations among the lecturers. For example, the work for Braun was a joint project of product and communication design (Hans Gugelot and Otl Aicher).

‘Ulm-Braun-Rams-Apple’ — Tempting in its brevity [Source:]

There is a new link, which is tempting in its brevity, but also falsifying. Today we are happy about the contribution of design to the economic success of Apple. It is known that Jonathan Ive and Steve Jobs appreciated the work of Dieter Rams. Dieter Rams is considered “Mr. Braun.” And Braun design is unthinkable without the impulse of HfG. So a new stereotype is everywhere: “Ulm-Braun-Rams-Apple.”

The image of “Ulm” is reduced to this notion, which is too superficial. Ulm is much more. It represents an attitude, an approach that reaches far beyond the formal aesthetic of the surface. It reaches out into society.” [5]


I call it popular history because this is what google throws at you when you search for ‘History of UX’. A lot can be found about the history of User Experience on the internet and almost all of them, follow the similar narrative, so I am not going to write about it here (now).

Taylor-Toyota-Dreyfuss-PARC-Don Norman-Apple

Add a little bit of Ancient Greece, da Vinci and Disney to the mix. The oversimplification and complete neglect of the Design Movements, especially Ulm, makes me think twice about things that I learn from the internet. But let me not rant and genuinely appreciate the people who wrote these blogs so that there is something available for curious people to springboard from.

The History of User Experience Design by Marcin Treder.

Here is another well written article by Ali Rushdan Tariq who very aptly also adds Disney to the timeline. I would highly recommend reading this one too.

Happy reading to you.


[1] Gardner’s Art through the Ages: The Western Perspective by Fred S. Kleiner]

[2], Retrieved on 12 May 2016.

[3], Retrieved on 12 May 2016.

[4] Maldonado, Tomás. “New developments in the training industry in product design”, in: “ulm”, 2 October 1958, p. 31

[5], Retrieved on 12 May 2016.

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