What does the future of design look like? What role will it play in shaping our behaviour and interactions with the animate and inanimate? And what function does it play in ensuring that organisations have a positive impact on the environments and communities in which they operate?
So many questions.
So little time.
So let’s quit dallying and get stuck into the good stuff.
What is Design?
Lights dim. The stage appears to glow with a soft white light. A video starts playing.
An arcade spaceship jerks awkwardly through space, firing randomly at asteroids that drift across the screen. One of the bigger linear lumps shatters into smaller pieces that get closer… closer…
The vision cuts. Now we’re watching a man, whose forearms are dripping cables.
Back to space. This time the movements are less irregular. The shots fired are less frantic. The score in the top left corner ticks higher. A meteor gets closer.
Close up of the man’s wired forearms on the arcade’s controls. His digits move quickly between the controls. And now, the little space ship is really flying. The stream of numbers in the top left corner grow higher and higher as the asteroids are blasted into oblivion. They never stood a chance.
YOU NEED TO EXPLAIN WHAT THIS IS ^^^
What even is design?
Seems like a fitting place to start, right?
What comes to mind when you contemplate design? Do you think of it in the more artistic, aesthetically pleasing sense? Or do you go full-Bauhaus – does designing good functionality come first and foremost?
There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to design. In fact, the lack of concrete definition is what gives the concept of design so much potency. As put by past head of the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University – Richard Buchanan has observed that “fields in which definition is now a settled matter tend to be lethargic, dying, or dead fields, where enquiry no longer provides challenges to what is accepted as truth”.
Given the diverse applications of the term in architecture, industrial or graphic design, fashion, art, or any other field that springs to mind, it becomes evident that design is less about “making things pretty” and more about using innovation to explore challenges and develop solutions.
Rather than the end product, good design is a process of understanding why something is, and then applying this why to the end product of how it should be addressed.
Truth & Design: Off Screen // Into Body
Semi-permanent has been running for 16 years. They have a global community of over 400,000 people. And they run 60 events across 12 cities. So what’s the aim? To showcase the global frontiers of design and demonstrate how this industry can be applied to every aspect of life.
What does this look like in practice? Well, take the opening video that was described earlier. No, it wasn’t just a nostalgic throwback to the days of Atari. The question being posed by world-leading experience studio AKQA was this: What does it feel like to be controlled by technology?
That’s right. By connecting AI to a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation apparatus (yes it’s a mouthful) technology was able to play Asteroids through the forearms of the person in question. Yes, you heard it correctly. AI playing humans playing games.
Yes, this feel more than a little creepy. After all, the experience of being a passenger in your own body doesn’t happen every day. If at all. I mean, how often do you get to sit back and watch your fingers move, controlled by…something else? And who knows what effect this invasive technology can have on the mind? Particularly given that it inverts all of our basic assumptions about agency and intimacy.
“It’s important to start to think about the choices we make”, says AKQA’s Executive Creative Director, Tim Devine. “We’re kids in candy stores.”
In lives that are determined to a greater (and greater) extent by algorithms, we could argued that AKQA’s Neuromuscle project is just an extension of the current reality. And just a great opportunity to get some critical distance.
After all – Direction apps dictate our routes. Text completion technologies finish our… sandwiches. And dating apps tell you who to date, which leads to little algorithmic babies. Sometimes.
So really, the “logical next step” is to just put the AI into our bodies and do away with the farce of pretending. Right?
We live in an age where convenience is King, Queen, Jack and Ace. And so, the not-quite-natural extension of AKQA’s work is that “body parts can be augmented to complete tasks without the brain experiencing any cognitive load”. In plain English: you could soon be able to program your body to perform menial tasks without having to think about them.
Really want to finish that blog, but also need to fold the laundry? That’s right, name a more iconic activity pairing, I’ll wait. Just program your left hand to do the linen and dedicate your full brain power, plus your right hand, to writing.
The overarching theme of Semipermanent 2019 was ‘Truth’. Technology and future trends are incredibly difficult to grasp. Every time we think we’ve found the next great thing, it’s promptly flipped on its head. Take, for instance, the role that social media played in both the Arab Spring and Donald Trump’s election.
Devine offers a great way to understand the future role of design in his comment that “the tech is ok. We’re the problem … We don’t understand the technology and that’s part of the story. We need more critical design to counterweight the gloss and hype”.
So, in order to get a bit more critical perspective into our lives, let’s take a look at our key takeaways from this year’s Semi Permanent conference.
#1 Using Design To Adapt To Change
As a problem solving process, it shouldn’t be a surprise that design is particularly adept at adapting.
Tom Armstrong, VP at the New York Times, gave an incredible insight into how the global news provider made their hugely successful transition to embrace digital.
It seems as though the defining characteristic of the Information Age is disruption. Disruptive companies and disruptive technologies make highly uncertain futures. The New York Times is certainly not the only entity to be thrown by the fast-paced digital world. However, their response makes them a pretty spot-on case study for designing for change.
Although, it was by no means a smooth ride for the folks at the Times.
It took years for the paper to realise that the good old approach to selling advertising space to make profit wasn’t a mould that could be copied and pasted from print to digital. In fact, their ground-breaking, path-paving Innovation Report didn’t come until 2014!
That’s a long time to stick to your guns in the face of falling profits.
Published by one of the best journalistic organisations in the world, it’s little wonder that the Innovation Report is a benchmark when it comes to understanding and communicating the heart of the problems faced by The New York Times.
Confronted by a new medium, seemingly built upon the idea that all information should be free, The New York Times did something that few other papers did or have since. They put up a pay wall.
Not really groundbreaking stuff when it comes to design, right? A paywall in isolation is simply a deterrent. The Times underwent an entire redesign of not only their online user experience but the way that they told their stories. And they did so to leverage the strengths of this new medium – to create visual stories and immersive experiences for their readers.
The result? They created something worth paying for.
#2 Sustainable Design Is Good For Your Bottom Line
Next off the bat was Michael Kobori, vice-president of Levi Strauss’ sustainability division. So it was unsurprising that his discussion focused mostly on the role of design in shaping a more sustainable future.
What was surprising, however, was the bombshell that he dropped partway through his speech. I come from a generation whose defining socio-political characteristic has been to feel outnumbered. Outmatched by the sheer numbers of that massive demographic blockade – The Baby Boomers.
So imagine my surprise when Kobori casually mentioned that by 2020, Generation Z will comprise 35% of the global population.
Unlike their Boomer counterparts, Gen Z are defined by their native relationship with technology, their uncertainty when it comes to envisioning the future, and, most crucially, their intolerance of brands who have a bad brand image.
The plugged-in lifestyle of Gen Z means that they’re constantly navigating and engaging with brands. And this fact alone makes them particularly adept at spotting when a brand isn’t ‘walking their talk’. Not to mention being all over it when a brand gets called out for a human rights breach.
So, to tap into this vast market of purchase-power, brands need to first take a good, hard look at their organisational design.
Is it transparent? Is it fair? Is it sustainable?
Power to the people indeed.
#3 Let Your Brand Be Shaped By What You Love
One of the major highlights of the day was getting the chance to see one of my all-time favourite brands, Deus Ex Machina, unpacked by its co-founder Carby Tuckwell.
From its origins at ‘The House of Simple Pleasures’ in Camperdown, the brand’s now expanded to become an international institution with flagship stores in Milan, Bali and Spain, to name just a few. And their core offerings cover apparel, custom motorcycles, surfing, cycling and cafes.
Kicking off with a custom motorcycles shop in Sydney, the company has expanded and modified their product to fit within the locations that they find themselves in. Bali has great surf, so their Bali store goes heavy on the surfboards. They’re keen cyclists in Milan, so you guessed it – their store is a hub for all things cycling.
When you think ‘Mercedes’, you think ‘luxury car’. When you think Harley Davidson, you think ‘rebel motorcycles’. When you think ‘Nike’, you think ‘sneaker’. When you think ‘Deus’… where does your mind go?
How do you design for a brand that crosses international borders and changes its offering to be more relevant to its specific location?
According to Carby, it all comes down to how well you can define your guiding values.
For Deus, their brand design communicates a lifestyle that’s dissociated from one singular product. Their designs reference their analogue origins, and ‘The Endless Summer’ pop-culture wave that they rode into existence.
If your core culture is all about pushing the limits and your designs reflect this, it doesn’t matter whether you’re selling surfboards or motorcycles. “It’s all the same juice”.
#4 Design Stories That Are Worth Being True
Last but by no means least, Uber’s Vice-President of Design Michael Gough took the stage to discuss the elements that inform good design and how to preserve the pre-existing patterns and structures of the places that it moves into.
Now, Uber doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to preserving. As a company that’s built itself on being fast moving and disruptive, it has a pretty poor image when it comes to designing stories that are “true”.
Gough echoed the business ethos of Levi’s in his comment that “doing good is a good business model”.
Technology has a tendency to overcomplicate. So the role of design has to be to counter this excess. To be more inclusive and sustainable through simplicity. So whether it be incorporating more features to enable the deaf and hearing impaired to become drivers…or actively playing a part in redesigning our cities to promote sustainability and a reduced carbon footprint…Uber has an unquestionable part to play in the shape of our future.
If you tell a story often enough and well enough, it becomes true. Which is why it’s so important for designers to only tell stories that are worth being true.
From AI-integrated bodies to the inherent profitability of sustainability, design is about so much more than aesthetics. Rapid surges in technological developments have produced an environment of flux and change. Technology is not only affecting things like the layouts of our cities and the types of jobs available. It’s also having a profound effect on our perceptions of self, agency and humanity.
Much like good art, good design functions as a mediating force. On one hand, design allows us to navigate complex questions with the necessary critical distance. And, on the other hand, it is empowering us to shape our interactions for good, not evil.