Just What is Design Becoming?

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

If ever there was a quote that is difficult to attribute to an author with certainty, it is this one. The list of possible candidates includes  U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, business philosopher Peter Drucker, computer pioneer Alan Kay, and aerospace engineer Dandridge Cole. Perhaps it’s fitting that no one can claim ownership of a quote about designing the future. Design, once the business of designers, has recently become everyone’s business. It is expanding into most industries of business and domains of life, becoming synonymous with problem solving.  It goes without saying that it’s difficult to summarize or predict it’s course. Still, there are a few significant trends effecting designers that I believe are going to be around for at least the foreseeable future.
Acceleration of New Technologies
Co-Creation and the Rise of the Citizen Designer
Trans-Disciplinary Collaboration
Careers Depend on Creating New Markets
Design for Social Innovation

Acceleration of New Technologies
It takes no insight to see that new technologies will continue to emerge at an accelerated rate. When predicting which technologies are most important to design, key considerations are how form factors and human factors combine to offer interactive, individualized, and responsive experiences. Here are just a few technologies that I think designers will play an important role in:

  • Wearable Tech will certainly need industrial and user interface designers. The larger opportunities will be for service designers who can innovate with data scientists on ways to use the abundance of data for more than spying and selling, but to build hero’s journey experiences for consumers. We will continue to experiment with virtual and augmented realities in location-based applications, but until consumer GPS can locate in terms of centimeters instead of meters, we probably won’t see a true proliferation of mobile AR applications. (See HoloLens below.) While on the topic on wearable tech, new smart materials, tech fabric, or E-textiles offer fashion designers new expressive grammars.
  • 3D Printing will continue to change industrial age paradigms in both manufacturing processes and design processes. While predictions of Asian factories becoming obsolete are premature, new additive manufacturing technologies offer OEM companies the agility of integrating design, prototyping, and testing into the manufacturing process. This opens up new  windows of collaboration for designers in diverse industries, including health care equipment and supplies, consumer electronics, transportation, fitness wear, music instruments, and many others.
  • 3D pipelines will continue to become much more intuitive and integrated, with tools like Microsoft’s HoloLens  blurring the lines between real and virtual. Ironically, the intuitiveness of these tools will  lead to software coding becoming a part of design literacy. I’ve talked with several interactive studios who would rather train designers how to code, then hire experienced software coders with no design training. Related to this, gaming will continue to be a huge industry for designers of course, and so accessible gaming engines like Unity, Unreal and others can contribute to a designers multi-literacy. However, even with cheap game engines, not to mention HoloLens, I’m still unsure if the much-anticipated of “gamification” of other industries is going to become mainstream.
  • Robotics, are an important intersection for design, engineering, and business. From hamburger making machines, to homemade drones, there will always be a market for devices capable of cheap skilled manual labor. Designers can play a role in the not only the design of robots from both a form and human factor perspective, but also the service models that they are sold and serviced in.
  • Advanced technologies, such as article intelligence, nano-technology, and gene sequencing, may be out of direct reach for most designers currently, but the ethical dimensions of these technologies certainly call for participation in social innovation and transition design thinking.

Designers in general are early adopters of new technologies. However, if there’s one cardinal rule I’ve learned about technology, it’s that it giveth and it taketh away. The same digital tools that can empower designers, can just as quickly decommission them. Take for example what is happening to VFX designers in the film industry. For this reason I am wary for designers who market themselves on their technical capabilities alone. The best way to show capabilities is by not letting them be an issue that distracts from strategic goals.
The Rise of the Citizen Designer
As we talk about the impact of technology on designers, we can also talk about the impact of technology on “non-designers.” On second thought, perhaps there will be no such person in the future. While professional still design has it’s geniuses and luminaries, much of design’s technical craft has become democratized. Ours is a D.I.Y. era, where everyone with an iPhone is a practicing multi-literate audio-visual artist. “Unauthorized” citizens everywhere are building their own robots, filming their own movies, and printing their own jewelry.

Consequently the future will continue to be very promising for design, yet also a time of reflection and repositioning for many design graduates. Thousands of years ago scribes could earn their living just by giving written expression to other people’s ideas and stories, but with the rise of written literacy, the sanctified role of the scribe literally became part of ancient history. Likewise, not too long ago the designer could earn a living by owning a rare technical literacy, but as those skills sets are replaced with free mobile apps, the professional designer must reposition themselves in the market.

In light of this fundamental reality, the future of professional design is in facilitating co-creation and participative design processes. With the rise of design literacy comes the rise of the citizen designer. Whereas design was exclusive, it is now inclusive to anyone who wants to play a role in the shaping of their own environments and lives. Of course designing with people, as opposed to for people, is a conversation that has been around at least since the 1970’s, but in those days the conversation was relatively small and academic. Today inviting people to participate in the design conversation is a matter of economic and environmental sustainability.

Trans-Disciplinary Collaboration
In full disclosure, collaboration is one of those meatball words that tastes good, but we aren’t always sure what it’s made of. Certainly the idea of collaboration has a nice egalitarian ring to it, and so people often mistake their intent for practice. Actual collaboration requires more than vague aspirations, but disciplined methods for communication and other project management requirements. In other words, collaborations themselves need to be designed.

Accordingly,  collaboration opens more opportunity for designers to lead. Designers see communication not as an event but as continuous process. They know how to share processes as explicit mental models, while at the same time remaining adaptable to changing parameters. They know how to provide the right combination of human empathy and process analysis for navigating ambiguity and leading team outcomes. As a result, collaborations are often the first areas a young designer can demonstrate organizational leadership. As trans-disciplinary collaboration becomes more vital for solving complex problems, the designer will become more vital as a leader in business and social communities.

On a related topic, many aspects of current Intellectual Property law will need to be reconsidered for a future where co-creative and collaborative situations become standard practice. Currently, rights too often default to the largest entity in the collaborative relationship. As Milton Glaser once observed, many contracts with designers read like unilateral surrender terms. In the future, designers will not only need to understand their rights and obligations as collaborators, but also become advocates for change whenever entering into a relationship is inequitable.

Careers Depend on Creating New Markets
Trans-disciplinary collaborations, by their very nature lead to disruptions. Larry Keeley in his book Ten Types of Innovations makes the claim that successfully innovating in 5 areas of a business creates a disruption in the market. This means creating a new category of product, service, or business model.  These new categories introduce competitive advantages that are technological, financial, logistical, or relational in nature.

In the future, creating new markets will be the primary means designers use to build and sustain long-term careers. Simply creating better products and services are no longer sustainable strategies for either design or business. So whether for themselves, for clients, or for employers, designers will need to help open new market categories, or find themselves at the back-end of businesses where activities are viewed as costs rather than value.

The good news right now is that established legacy brands have less equity then they did 10 years ago. Small attackers can topple large defenders. New start-up brands increasingly have more trust with shoppers then established companies. We are living in a time of quiet revolution where status quo is being questioned even in consumer markets.

The need to create new markets extends into social innovation as well. From a technical execution standpoint, commercial and social innovations often require the same skill sets. The question is how technologies, finances, supply chains, and other components can be re-imagined and re-arranged for more equitable and sustainable outcomes for people. In this way, the designer can gain leadership experience in the commercial sector which can then be applied the social sector. Or perhaps, more crucially, the designer can look at even commercial markets from a social perspective.

Design for Social Innovation
Historically, Design has been a field where you can be a for-profit professional while still being wary of capitalism. Today the conversation is morphing away from cynicism against business towards co-opting business practices for social purpose. Whether innovating in commercial or social scenarios, design for business is clearly becoming a human centered occupation. I see this as a good development, as improving people’s lives is a principle upon which I believe design should “nail it’s flag to the mast.” Surrendering to any other motivation may provide a temporary sense of job security, but ultimately will turn the designer into a commodity and render the design profession irrelevant.
If  the trends in the above paragraphs – new technology, co-creation, collaboration, and creating new markets – are to have meaning it will be because they benefited people’s lives and environments in appreciable ways. This is as much a concern for business interests as it is for social interests. So while much design literature is preoccupied with tools and processes, I believe design’s ultimate purpose is in the service of people. This is where it’s finds it’s courage and creativity to lead through uncertainty.
Happily today’s designer is armed with more than mere sentiment. The recent years has seen a virtual explosion of tools and methods for conducting qualitative human centered research. Firms such as IDEO and writers like Donald Norman have shown how designers can use a wide variety of methods developed within ethnography, anthropology, and psychology to solve complex design problems. (And perhaps create a few good problems too.) So while in the 20th century design was defined by it’s ability to apply critical theory, today the discipline is being redefined by it ability to apply empirical inquiry into the quality of people’s experiences and lives.
Everyone seems to be interested in design these days, so it’s no surprise that defining it leads to contested consensus. As designers, we find ourselves in Plato’s proverbial cave, interpreting events as best we can. All of these mixed interpretations are expanding the definition of design to include MBA’s, engineers, anthropologists, and psychologists. Accordingly, the demand for design in business and social innovation has never been higher. So, perhaps the important question in all of this is not what is design becoming, but whether today’s designers can keep up with it’s future.

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