Design Futures: Part 2

by August 25, 2006

Part two of Design Futures: a conversation about the role of design-driven leadership in the product development process (be sure to check out part one first).

Bob Baxley I always find these conversations about the future to be a bit curious. The fact of the matter is that none of us - none of us - have any real idea what the world is going to be like 5 years from now, much less 10, 15, or 20.

The only thing any of us can be certain of is that were are living through a time of unprecedented change, challenge, and opportunity. And this change is touching every aspect of our lives as individuals, as nations, and as a species. Never before have we encountered this level of complexity and inter-relationship between literally every facet of our existence. To my mind then, the only rational thing to do is prepare for the sole certainty the future holds: change itself. And such preparation requires a relentless focus on learning, adaptation, and creativity.

As designers we are fortunate in that our profession and discipline has already trained us in these core principals. As such, we sit in an enviable position relative to virtually every other profession in the modern economy. Therefore, rather than focusing on how we in the developed world can successfully compete against designers coming from emerging economies, we should be looking for ways to enlarge the opportunity for design thinking, striving to replace the traditional steady-state thinking that now dominates industry and government.

Given that the opportunity for Design to affect positive change in our world goes far beyond the realm of traditional design disciplines -wouldn't our energy be better spent expanding the opportunities for Design rather than figuring out how to compete against our professional brethren in the developing world?

The great thing about being a designer is the same thing that's great about being an artist, there's always plenty of room at the top. This is true of all non-hierarchical enterprises that depend on individual creativity and talent rather than the synchronization of machinery or the exploitation of markets. Do you know why Hollywood doesn't make more movies every year? It's because there aren't enough great scripts. Do you know why the NBA can't expand to more teams? It's because there aren't enough great players. As Luke mentioned, the Web has destroyed virtually all barriers to publishing or starting a company. There is plenty of room left in the marketplace for great products to be successful. What there isn't perhaps, is much room left for mediocre ones.

The lesson here is simple, each of us are unique individuals and unique creative entities. The market asks but one thing from us: envision, articulate, and build the best products, experiences, and services imaginable. There is nothing defensible or permanent about your position, your role, or your salary. There is but this - do great work.

Jim Leftwich I'll take a qualified exception with Bob's rather overarching statement about "none of us - none of us- have[ing] any real idea what the world is going to be like 5 years from now,..." While such a statement is inarguably true in certain regards, it's imprecise regarding a number of known technological development tracks that we can observe today and reliably extrapolate into the next few years.

For example, I'm doing a considerable amount of work in the mobile phone and device sector, and we can identify to a significant degree the evolutionary paths of a number of technologies, associated functions, and usage strategies. The global phone carrier companies certainly have technology and service maps that extend out that far. While certain forms of technology can move forward unexpectedly in disruptive or paradigm-changing bursts, the vast majority of systems I'm involved with evolve relatively slow. Mobile technologies are also led by Europe and Asia, so we can see the types of services Americans will be using in the next couple of years already in use elsewhere in the world, and there's a relatively clear path for where the enabling technologies underlying mobile technology are headed. This doesn't mean that disruptive advancements cannot emerge to alter, speed, or slow the course of these fields, and hence our work as designers, but the basic technological and usage evolution is steady enough to make a number of reasonable and useful forecasts regarding where things are headed.

Now Bob may be speaking in much more broad, societal and world event terms, but given that we're discussing Design Futures, I'd like to stay focused much more on specific examples of what we're actually designing and how these efforts have been affected in the past. I would agree that were a comet to slam into our planet, or a worldwide viral plague befall us, that all bets would be off. But business doesn't plan or operate around such force majeur considerations, and neither should designers, for the most part. A perfect example of how such greater scaled events affected my own consulting work was in how nascent efforts and startups in the wireless field in 1999 and 2000 were sharply curtailed by the one-two punch of the market collapse of the Internet Bubble in March of 2000 and the events surrounding 9/11 a year and a half later. It's taken several years to get the wireless field back on track and moving forward, so those events definitely had an impact on the development paths of technology, and on those of us working in affected fields.

My experience over the past two decades is that technology and usage tend to unfold much more slowly and steadily, and that an understanding of the underlying technologies and potential usage patterns can enable one to fairly accurately forecast usage models. In early 1994 when I designed two interactive computers for Apple that were part of a Disney Epcot Innoventions "Magic House" exhibit, I managed to create pretty accurate models of a number of internet-based services that appeared years later, including online shopping, live remote camera access, driving directions and interactive mapping, location-based services, and even a dock concept that pretty closely modeled how the dock in OSX works today. Even earlier, in the late 1980s, my InfoSpace whitepaper described and illustrated an integrated OS/Internet Browser model and contained a number of prescient insights into how we would facilitate related activities. Of course, merely being accurate in forecast or prediction doesn't mean that one will be in the right place at the right time to exploit such insights to their greatest advantage, but it does enable one to anticipate coming changes much more effectively and respond or take action accordingly.

In the web world, we've seen a number of slowly-emerging technologies and usage patterns. Blogging, a simple format-based usage of relatively common technologies that had been around for years, began to accelerate slowly beginning in the late 1990s to the point where it's very mainstream today. The same goes for even more basic types of internet usage like profiles and homepages, which have expanded greatly through such services as MySpace and FaceBook and other social networking systems. A couple of years ago, my friends began using the acronym YASN (or Yet Another Social Network) to describe the emergence of so many of these services, each targetting different demographics and usage needs. My longest-term forecast, reaching back to my InfoSpace project, is that more and more sophisticated usages of metadata will begin to emerge. We're seeing the first large-scale impact of this in tagging, but this will soon give way to far richer forms and classes of metadata as well as increasingly sophisticated methods of utilizing and interacting with it. Among these will be new forms of interactive visualization, finally allowing people to interact with much larger sets of data (media, sources, files, opportunities, etc.) and finally beginning to tackle what I've termed the "awareness bottleneck."

Design, particularly down at the "create yet another version of this" level will always face a number of trends towards its commodification. An increase in the number of designers worldwide, along with the fact that most "design" is not leading-edge architectural development, but rather follows and copies emergent successful products or services, along with lower production costs and increasingly sophisticated tools, is good news for design, but not necessarily good news for all designers.

Years of experience and a good network will be valuable to any designer. But it's also valuable to develop the skills of identifying large-scale trends in technology and usage patterns, and learn how to maneuver one's work and career. Doing so effectively is advantageous both for a designer personally, as well as boosting the effectiveness and value of design work.


Keep reading: part three of Design Futures