The Changing Role of Design

This century, with the proliferation of the Internet in general and the shift from thick to thin software applications in particular, technology has spurred a seismic shift in the very function and meaning of being a professional designer. Specifically, the role of designer has lurched from that of artist or author to that of facilitator and translator. Today, people who professionally use some permutation of the title “designer” in the professional creation of digital products and services are more likely to have a liberal arts degree than they are to have attended design school. Twenty years ago this would have been heretical; today it is the standard.

This shift from designer as creator to designer as facilitator is only going to accelerate in the emerging technologies-fueled decades to come. It is akin to the shift in academic knowledge and research over the past 100 years. Until the 1920s having a single academic author on an important research paper was the norm. This changed because the complexity of more advanced scientific knowledge moved beyond the point where a single individual could independently contribute meaningful new knowledge to the overall body. Indeed, as the years pass, the list of authors generally attached to significant new scientific research grows longer and longer. Due to the nature of scientific inquiry becoming increasingly complex and built on the foundation that preceded it, this is a trend that will only accelerate as time passes.

Considering now the world of digital products, even 20 years ago devices were relatively unsophisticated. They shared far more in common with the antique computers that would fill an entire building of the 1950s than the smartphones most of us have today. Since then, massive improvements in a litany of modest technologies — from battery power, to LCD screens, to random access memory (RAM), to hard drive speed and size — have come together with advances in material science to result in a device that is remarkably advanced compared to the devices of just a decade ago. If you were to consider this in a vacuum, this is a truly momentous advance; yet, what is really intriguing is that it is only an infinitesimal example of progress within the context of all the emerging technologies converging at the moment.

We have robotics crashing together with synthetic biology crashing together with these same handheld digital devices. Engineers dedicate their careers to expertise in just one of

— or perhaps even a subset within — those fields. How are we to envision the potential of those combinations? From whom and how are we to take someone else’s vision and design as the best possible solution to exploit the opportunity? Who will take an existing solution bringing these things together and redesign it comprehensively to make it better, and how are we to take that? These are the challenges posed to designers, and they are being framed in contexts of compounding complexity.

Do you consider yourself a professional designer who could be considered an expert in the field of robotics? Are you an expert in materials science? How about handheld digital products? Are you a subject matter expert in synthetic biology? If your answer to all of these was yes, the world is your oyster and at some point in the near future you should have the opportunity to simply print money, owing to how desirable you will be in the job market; congratulations to your heirs. For everyone else — who I’m imagining is all of us

— this quandary outlines the essential challenge: how do we become suitably expert in the fields relevant to the domains that will produce the most interesting and lucrative future opportunities?

I went into software design in 2004. That largely meant designing user interfaces. It did not take me more than a couple of years to develop legitimate expertise in that field. Yet, the lack of complexity inherent in those challenges from 10 years ago is almost laughable from where we are today. Hardware design was explicitly separate and outside the reach of my influence; today the integration of software and hardware is a first-order concern. Vertical contexts had to do with domains and users; today, they relate to advanced technologies and sophisticated scientific influences. Even though these differences might not seem significant as words on the page, they are vast. Vastly vast!

Today, those differences have had minimal impact upon the designer or design process. There might be some additional context introduced. Designers and other people involved in the research, planning, and creationary process might be getting some education or trying to build some knowledge. But, it’s guerilla at best and haphazard at worst. We are still flopping around in the same limited, narrow ways that worked well a decade ago but are now woefully behind the opportunity and challenge before us, one that increases in difficulty each day.

In the more distant past of hardware and software design, the engineers were the designers. The role of a dedicated designer had to do with user needs. Ergonomics and aesthetics came later. And it happened for a good reason: most engineers were terrible designers! The things that made them brilliant and exceptional as engineers did not translate into the skills that became the pillars of the supporting design disciplines. To have something that was both appropriately powerful and designed to maximum usability, usefulness, and desirability, it took more people and skills. Yet as challenging as these things so recently seemed, they are child’s play compared to what is coming tomorrow. The question now is this: how do we anticipate and get ahead of this instead of spending the next decade thrashing around, missing opportunities, and making unnecessarily bad things?

There are two fundamental issues regarding the design of emerging technologies: the convergence of disparate technologies, and the increasing scientific and engineering complexity required to work with each of those technologies.

Famously, creation at Apple Inc. after the return of Steve Jobs in 1997 had been largely credited to Jobs or Jonathan Ive. Jobs was the hero of the masses, the visionary who saw the right confluence of technologies and market opportunity to make the iPod a phenomenon and follow that up with an entire decade of meaningful innovation. Jobs is thought of as an entrepreneur given the market success of Apple Inc., but he was more rightly an inventor in the ilk of Thomas Edison, if not a designer. Jobs excelled at not just looking across various technologies and identifying sweet spots, but tying those into the needs and desires of people. Jonathan Ive, a trained industrial designer, is more deeply knowledgeable in the materials science and engineering relative to actually having those products get made. The getting it done, the fit-and-finish, the vision-to-reality: these are the contributions of Ive. Together, Jobs and Ive made Apple the preeminent business case of the 2000s. And they did it by inventing, innovating, and making better stuff.

As we look to the future, there are two important things to note about the partnership that existed between Jobs and Ive.

First are the very different skills they brought to the table. Whereas dividing the labor into vision and execution is perhaps an oversimplification and not doing justice to the totality of either of their contributions, creation in emerging technologies will generally require similar bifurcation. It will be uncommon that any one individual has the broad crosstechnology vision and insight into markets and cultures to imagine the correct future solutions on one hand, while also having the deep scientific and engineering knowledge to wrangle the vision into reality on the other. As such, their partnership serves as a guide for what next-generation creation — from A to Z — looks like.

Second is that people filling these same roles in the future will need to have dramatically more knowledge and experience than Jobs and Ive did. Although Jobs and Ive had knowledge of related fields such as computer hardware, software, and materials science, the exceptional advances of the future will require knowledge and experience that bring together diverse fields that are less initially synergistic or immediately obvious. Even though Jobs and Ive were able to author a world of portable music players, incrementally better computers, and exceptional handheld computing devices, it is unlikely that they — given their particular training and experiences — could have brought us the killer products that will arise from an understanding of the genome, synthetic biology, and handheld computers.

Whereas great design in the past was typically credited to a single vision — what is now often derisively referred to as “genius design” — we are in the midst of a decade-long trend toward highly specialized design teams that might or might not have strong, visionary leadership. These are your typical “UX teams,” those that banded together within the cult of “human-centered design” and now continue to practice similar approaches while changing their self-description to better conform to the dogma of the day. This shift superficially seems to be the result of the increased complexity that software forces design to deal with. This is an easy myth to ascribe to, and one that is further comforting thanks to the so-called scientific approaches offered by metrics-based processes such as usability testing. However, in reality this shift is an issue of scale: there are so few strong, talented creative leaders that to get decent software done, larger teams of narrow talent were required.

This is certainly a fine solution to get around the lack of qualified talent, but in the process, we’ve lost sight of the reality that vision-driven design is both more efficient and ultimately effective than the assembly-line approach employed by most large organizations. The paradox, though, is that increasingly fewer people will be capable of delivering such leadership as the complexity of emerging technologies compounds. The suboptimal process of today, although not deserving of its role as the idealized structure for design and user experience, has provided models that will serve the new world well.

I mentioned earlier that engineers used to design software user interfaces without the involvement of any designers. Get ready for more of that. Designers today lack deep knowledge and experience in the foundational scientific fields behind currently emerging technologies and, in most cases, even lack broad knowledge from which to apply a Jobsian vision to a good opportunity.

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