If you went to architecture or environmental design school back in the day (when you had to use punch cards to enter data into a room-sized computer), you have witnessed the great shift from analog to digital in the design industry. You’re also old enough to have begun taking for granted the many ways the digital revolution changed our professional lives.
As 2013 draws to a close, seems like a reasonable time to share a personal list of “best ways the digital revolution changed my professional life.” Since I tend not to use CAD--arguably the tool that has had the most influence--my list will be different from yours, but please add your own list in the comments section below. (And no, you don’t have to be an architect to play along.)
So here we go: my list of the best ways the digital revolution has changed my life:
The internet. Thank you, Tim Berners Lee. Thank you, DARPA (although you also brought us the NSA. Why does every sword have to be double-edged?). Let’s just agree that the internet is the background noise of the new universe described below.
Email. The reigning game changer. Email could have retired after killing the fax machine (bonus points if you knew “fax” was short for facsimile) but it didn’t. It just kept getting better. As the most universally adopted feature of the internet (remember, email preceded widespread use of browsers), it changed the way we communicate, and importantly, it prepared the way for other innovations, including the “cloud” (Gmail, Hotmail), viruses (Y2K) email newsletters (Constant Contact), and addictively checking our email (“You’ve got mail” first, and now the bold text that signals new mail in the present era) but mostly, it just works.
Netscape (i.e. the browser). What did we do before the browser? Admit it. We used AOL (as in YourDadsNameHere@aol.com). Then along came “open” Netscape, the first autonomous browser that didn’t lock you into its own ecosystem of content (though you had to pay $29 for that freedom). Later it became free as others sniped at its heels, causing Microsoft to worry about Netscape’s market share, see the writing on the wall and build Explorer, and Mozilla (the non-profit made possible by the $billions earned by a Netscape founder) to create Firefox, and others to build Opera and Safari and Chrome and...well, if none of this had happened you’d still be logging on to AOL or some other “content” company which would keep you captive consuming only the content they provided...and that really sucked.
The scanner. The professional quality scanner truly made it possible for self-employed old school artists to “work at home.” (It also led to there being several boxes full of original watercolor renderings in my basement, gathering dust and mildew, waiting to be sold on ebay as the last of my deluded schemes to make some spare cash, or doled out to particularly sweet grandchildren in need of something to hang on the wall of their incredibly small first apartments.) Before the scanner, one had to finish a rendering, then either take it to Mailboxes, Etc (subject for a separate blog post on the history of bizarre 1990s franchise opportunities) to be packed and shipped overnight or, as was more typical given the usual need for more time, take a round trip train ride to NYC the next morning and hand deliver the finished work to the client. Not that that was a bad thing. I can’t tell you how many additional jobs I got because an architect from a nearby cubicle strolled by during those deliveries and asked “Hey, are you available to do a rendering next week?” But still, once I got my first scanner there was hardly ever a need to go to a client’s office. I could work up to the deadline, scan the finished work in the comfort of my studio, juice up the colors in Photoshop and zip off a 2MB scan via email which, admittedly, sometimes took an hour or more due to the constricted bandwidth of the commercial internet of the time.
- Overnight shipping. Fedex. Wait, maybe that’s actually the innovation making all of this change possible and I’ve only mistakenly remembered it as being the internet? That would be embarrassing. Anyway, to reward you for reading this far, here’s a game. Picture, if you will, what would have been required to start Fedex. What was the cost of setting up a private air force and advertising the concept before you could even serve your first customer? Can you imagine Fred Smith’s pitch to investors, or their reaction? “So Fred, not that this will ever work, and not that any of us actually believe your name is “Fred Smith,” but if we did, how much do you need to get this started?”
(to be continued)
(Author James Akers is a registered architect and freelance traditional architectural renderer who collaborates with some of the world's most admired architects to create inspired architectural designs, house portraits and architectural renderings in all media, including watercolor, pen and ink, pencil, photoshop and computer.)