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Design Lessons From The Amazing 1980s Books That Taught Kids To Code

From the earliest era of programming come design ideas that are still surprisingly relevant.

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1982 was a big year for early computing, with the release of the Commodore 64 and the first computer with a graphical user interface, Apple’s Lisa, the following year. Computers were miniaturizing fast, and making their way to regular consumers even faster.

The same year, a U.K. publishing house called Usborne published the first in a series of how-to books aimed at children. The topic? Computer programming, as illustrated by an army of robots and mechanical cockroaches (the "bugs!") who systematically illustrated the concept of code in a series of blindingly colorful and vivid cartoon-style visualizations. The book, and its successors like Machine Code for Beginners and Practical Things to Do With a Microcomputer were major hits—but they were largely forgotten until recently when Usborne published them online as free PDFs, as Cory Doctorow first pointed out this week.

Usborne Publishing

"Though the subject matter is out of date, they stand up as some of the most engaging informational graphics ever made," Doctorow writes. It’s tough to argue with that—the comic-style illustrations are remarkably clear and sometimes very funny; in one pane a robot completes a computerized flowchart leading to the outcome "ROBOTS RULE OK," in another a robot busts through a brick wall, Kool-Aid man style, in an explanation of the "unusual results" that can occur when a programmer makes a mistake in their code.

Usborne Publishing

And while the graphical user interface was a concept that was just emerging, it’s easy to find the outlines of basic design concepts for UI within the pages. Readability gets a whole page: "You can make your programs look really professional by rearranging messages on the screen so they are clear and easy to read, and so that the screen looks interesting." And there are cautions: "Try not to leave the user looking at a blank screen. It is boring and they make think the program has crashed," warns a robot, while a pixelated mouse chimes in about syntax: "Make sure the messages are easy to understand and there are no spelling mistakes." Words to the wise, even today.

In another section, the authors introduce the idea of "designing on the screen" to create symbols and ASCII-style art with characters. The books even covered user-defined characters so that kids could make their own arcade games. On one page they give examples of how kids could design their menus to engage their users, writing "the menu needs to be clear and easy to understand, and look interesting."

While a lot of the technology itself is outdated, the foundational concepts—what a computer program is, how code can be used to shape an experience, and how the developer is responsible for engaging the user with clear and interesting interfaces—are still surprisingly cogent for being more than 30 years (and a zillion iPhone generations) old.

Usborne Publishing

Indeed, Usborne says that "many of today's tech professionals were inspired by the Usborne computing books they read as children," a claim that’s supported by dozens of commenters this week.

"These books (or rather their translation to my native language) taught me to write programs in elementary school. It definitely factored in me getting into IT," writes a commenter on Rock Paper Shotgun. "I loved and learned lots from these books (and similar)," writes another on Boing Boing, adding, "they were great, brave times."

You can check out (and download) the entire series right here.

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