Design Futures: Part 1

by August 23, 2006

In July 2006, a group of designers with nearly 50 cumulative years of experience designing products for companies like Apple, eBay, Macromedia, Nike, Palm, and Yahoo got together to talk about the future of design. We weren’t looking to predict what’s next but instead to discuss the patterns and trends affecting the design industry as we move forward.

Bob Baxley Director of Design, Apple Online Store Author, Making the Web Work: Designing Effective Web Applications

Dirk Knemeyer Principal, Involution Studios Author, Numerous

Jim Leftwich Founder/Principal, Orbit Interaction

Luke Wroblewski Principal Designer, Social Media, Yahoo! Inc. Founder/Principal, LukeW Interface Designs Author, Site-Seeing: A Visual Approach to Web Usability

Design Futures

A conversation about what’s next for design and design practitioners.

Dirk Knemeyer Over the last few years, conversations here in the U.S. about the future of digital product design typically have an undertone of fear because of the perception that India and – especially– China are presenting a critical long-term threat to U.S. business and design hegemony.

One of the typical threads in this conversation is a belief that, while the lower value and more production-oriented jobs might be in danger, the more creative and higher thinking jobs remain safe. That is an incredibly shortsighted – not to mention condescending – view. The reality is that emerging markets such as China, India, Eastern Europe and others represent a broad and total future for our industry. The long-standing dominance enjoyed here in the United States is going to diffuse and result in far more global balance. Ultimately that is a good thing, even though we might expect the standard of living for average, middle class families here to suffer a bit in the years ahead. Obviously that is the result of myriad factors, only one of which is the impact of emerging centers of digital product design leadership.

Understanding this broad dynamic, then, we’re compelled to think about the future and try to figure out how we’re going to fit into it. Luckily for the four of us, our combination of experience, reputation and track record will almost ensure comfortable and profitable careers. But what of the next generation? For the 10 and 15 and 20 year olds in our culture who may be drawn to a career similar to our own, what does their path look like? How will they find success? And, taking the question a level higher and beyond just the culture that we share, what will the international tapestry of digital product design look like as the children of today come of age?

Luke Wroblewski To set some context, I just came back from a 4-day seminar in Asia where we discussed visual design, interaction design, and the intersections of design and business with design professionals from China, India, Taiwan, and Korea. The design community there is not only very interested but also very informed about the state of digital product design in the US. I can't see the folks I met on this trip being content with "lower value and more production-oriented jobs". They have both the ability and the desire to secure "creative and higher thinking jobs." I also think they have a few advantages.

While the US might have been an early winner in the global economy, we made a lot of mistakes getting there. So countries joining the hi-tech race now have learned from our successes and failures. Whereas the standards underpinning many of our products in the US have developed organically, other countries essentially have a blank slate and the ability to enforce consistencies that our free market economy struggles to implement. This applies to design as well. Countries like China and Sweden have set policies that ensure a strategic role for design. The Chinese government actually issued an edict that mandated how people will graduate with degrees in design within a certain timeframe.

So designers in China have the support of their society (ensured by government) and the hindsight of being able to see what did or didn't work to date. They also have the power of numbers. As Jim once stated "the smartest 1% of 1 billion is more likely than not smarter than the top 1% of 1 million". These are all clear advantages.

So where does that leave the next generation of designers in the US? How can they compete against the hindsight, societal support, and sheer numbers of rapidly developing nations? From my perspective it’s about embracing new opportunities. Real world experience is still the best way to create personal value and the flattening of our world, our disciplines, and our information makes it easier than ever before.

Right now, building an online business only requires a server, some coding, and a great idea. Starting your own drive-in is as simple as a getting a laptop projector and a wall. And as fab labs become widely accessible, the barriers to designing and manufacturing products will only get lower.

Lower barriers to entry enable you to stretch significantly. You can try your hand at publishing with a blog or building an audience for your photography with community sharing tools. The more unique experiences you embrace the wider your value proposition. The bigger your overlaps. So it practical terms: don't get pigeonholed into a specific role. Live in the overlaps between design and business, between art and engineering, and between medium and message. Develop a deep understanding of a particular discipline AND a broad awareness of other domains.

This applies to culture as well. As Edward Hall stated "culture is communication". As interactions between the world increase, be aware of how context is being defined and learn from it. The best advice I can offer here is hands on experience in different cultures.


Keep reading: part two of Design Futures