At Quora, Alan Kay himself rather awesomely answers the question, what made Xerox PARC special?. Among many other things, Kay invented the modern graphical user interface (GUI) during his years at PARC, which is the birthplace of technologies including the laser printer, ethernet, and object-oriented programming.

Kay answers the question with a list of the principles that animated PARC’s early years. Among them:

  • Visions not goals
  • Problem finding, not just problem solving
  • “It’s ‘baseball’ not ‘golf’ — batting .350 is very good in a high-aspiration, high-risk area. Not getting a hit is not failure but the overhead for getting hits.”
  • Researchers should design and build their own tools

In an era when we tediously debate “should designers learn to code,” that last bullet might seem extreme. Kay would say designers should not only learn to code, they should learn to build hardware, too:

The idea was that if you are going to take on big important and new problems then you just have to develop the chops to pull off all needed tools, partly because of what “new” really means, and partly because trying to do workarounds of vendor stuff that is in the wrong paradigm will kill the research thinking.

To pull in a well-known Kay quote, “the best way to imagine the future is to build it.”

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