Dirk Knemeyer

Design Futures

Originally published atLukeW

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 (DK): 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 (LW): 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.

Bob Baxley (BB): 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 (JL): 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.

BB: While I appreciate and respect your points Jim, I stand by my original assertion that none of us can accurately predict what’s going to happen even five years from now. The fact of the matter is that we’re living smack dab in the middle of not only the largest but perhaps the only truly global revolution to have occurred since the dawn of civilization. Literally every nation, every culture, and every individual on the face of the Earth is effected by the globalization of trade, the unprecedented pressure on the planet’s natural resources, the unfettered expansion of Capitalism, the rise of extremism, and a myriad of other forces. Any one of these forces alone would introduce a virtually unprecedented level of variability and unpredictability into forecasts of the future: add them together and all bets are off.

I realize that sounds a bit to the Left of extremist but I hold to the point that the potential impact of these forces cannot be accurately predicted or over-emphasized.

With all that said however, it’s equally true that it’s impossible to know exactly when any of these forces may reach sufficient mass to cause a large-scale disruption of current models and therefore, many companies, industries, and technologies will continue to evolve in a reasonably predictable manner. All things being equal, it’s a pretty safe bet that networks will get broader, processors will get faster, RAM will get cheaper, and hard drives will get bigger. What’s less clear — significantly less clear — is how all this technology will be put to use.

For example, you write, “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…” How can you draw that line between behavior in other cultures and future adoption in this one? There are dozens of technologies, services, and behaviors that have failed to jump such cultural lines. What’s the evidence for believing that mobile technologies are necessarily going to spread from one culture to another?

Personally I don’t see Americans adopting mobile services with quite the gusto of Europeans or Japanese anymore than I see Americans getting as rabid about World Cup Soccer as the rest of the world but that’s a different question and a different debate.

My point is simply that there is an unusually high number of large-scale variables in play right now and as such, the predictability of future technology adoption is extremely low. Not to repeat myself, but to repeat myself: in times of change, the most rationale course is a relentless focus on learning, adaptation, and creativity.

DK: I want to circle back to the direction Luke and Bob were heading on this thread, which I think gets to the heart of the core issue: despite the local conversations on design futures often taking on an “us vs. them” focus, being part of a successful future demands we begin to erase these polarities. People need to focus on the bigger picture and embrace the seismic change that is in process, rather than wring their hands about it.

I know that everyone in our group (myself included) is very bullish on a generalist approach, which is again coming through in this conversation. But I want to temper that a little bit for the sake of presenting a more nuanced picture. Certainly, the design leadership space that we talk a lot about will increasingly require very broad, generalized knowledge and expertise. That is just a given, since the complexity, integration and interoperability of products is only going to increase. But the truth is that not everyone wants – or is able – to be a big picture generalist. And while our conversations tend to elucidate that path ad nauseum, the flip side is there are also going to be jobs for expert specialists, perhaps more so in the future than ever before. Let me give you an example of this in practice:

In the early days of professional web design, we saw a center of gravity form around “webmasters,” jack-of-all-trade professionals who often handled everything related to developing and managing a website: from design to writing to programming. But as the web became more mature and complex it became evermore apparent that these “generalists” were inadequate to the job before them: the importance and sophistication of the web got to the point where it demanded different, specialized participants. Thus the role of things like usability testing and information architecture came to the fore, and a diffusion of the “webmaster” or “web designer” ideals in particular began to fade away. As a result we had a few years or more of highly localized specialization, with design teams often laboring along with an outrageous diversity of what I would characterize as overly specialized participants. That is beginning to even out now, and the people with the greatest value are those that synthesize multiple tactical disciplines into one designer. As time goes by the breadth of this synthesis will only need to increase and, unlike the webmasters of old who had knowledge about many things but wildly varying degrees of skill in each of them, the digital product design professionals of tomorrow will need to achieve excellence that crosses multiple domains that only recently were still being treated as separate, siloed roles. This becomes less a model of generalist success and more a model of highly experienced and skilled designers who aggregate various skill sets into a complementary and finely-honed set of tools.

Similarly, Bob’s point of there always being room at the top is a good one. And the craftsmen (and women!) who are exceptional at more niche (but necessary) skills such as illustration will always have opportunities, so long as they are bullish about honing their craft and pushing their level of performance. Of course that sort of dedication to constant personal development applies to all of us.

Finally I want to put a strong mention in for the importance of user research as a first-person skill that everyone related to digital product development (not just design) will need in the future. For all of the problems with the whole user-centered design movement and methodology, what arose from that trend that is dead nuts on the mark is the imperative for everyone involved in both creation and decision making to truly understand – in a very real-world and first person way – how the products we create relate to the behaviors and lifestyles of real people. While there will always be a place for user research as a specialization, that knowledge and skill needs to become an integrated part of what each of us are doing. It is going to take some time for the general rank-and-file to evolve away from relying on blunt second-person tools like personas and research reports, but the sooner we’re able to successfully evolve, the more equipped we will be to succeed in the future. And that generalization doesn’t even get into the rapidly increasing importance of cross-cultural and local factors, which again multiply the complexity of understanding users.

JL: I think Bob and are talking about two different things. He spoke of the difficulty, if not outright impossibility of prediction, and I’d agree with that. But that’s not really what I was trying to describe. I was speaking to the idea of forecasting, which in my definition, is much more about identifying and mapping a future cone of possibilities and likely interrelationships. I describe it as a cone, since the further out one forecasts, the wider or more complex the area of interrelationships and dependencies become. While five years out is definitely a stretch, I think there are clearly some extrapolations that can be reasonably made and acted upon.

In talking about the necessity and value of forecasting, I wanted to steer clear of true, but misleading, absurd, or philosophical terms (i.e.: we literally don’t know whether or not some freak catastrophe or disruptions might befall us, rendering all bets off). And I’m also not talking about making specific predictions about particular configurations or embodiments of usage. But we can indeed examine data from past and current usage models, and compare trends of usage in different countries and cultures. My work over the past few years in the mobile communication field has exposed me to the studies and data of user populations in Europe, Asia, and here in the U.S., and there are definitely patterns of convergence. Particularly in media such as music, and the prevalence of Instant Messaging and texting, and the similarities among different countries and cultures are greater as one looks at younger age groups. I’m fond of William Gibson’s quote, that “the future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed.”

As I see it, the trick to effective wayfinding for the next generation of mobile devices is not initially about being able to design specific applications, as much as making certain that the platforms, systems, and infrastructures are designed to have a combination of interrelated capabilities from which a wide variety of novel applications and adaptive solutions can emerge. Metaphorically, you’re not trying to create a specific type of plant, but rather preparing a fertile soil from which many different types of plants can emerge and grow. I know I continually return to farming metaphors, but that’s the culture I was born into and how I still look at the world and approach my work.

Another “green” metaphor, if you’ll excuse the bad pun, is the green of a golf course. I’d like to introduce the metaphor of “driving” and “putting” as both being valuable aspects of innovation and design. The first is necessary to drive far from current feature-bloated or tired models and make bold innovative leaps. Driving is crucial to establish new fields from which specific embodiments can emerge, and I maintain that the evidence and record does not support that user research and usability testing and the kinds of models and procedures we hear propounded most often are all that successful in making fast, bold, and successful drives forward. They tend to get bogged down in introspection, endless study, and risk aversion. But seeing these skills and processes more as “putting,” puts them in a more accurate perspective. These approaches are most successful at getting the ball from somewhere on the green into the cup. I maintain that “putting” encompasses the activities, theories, and practices of the majority of designers and usability professionals, and are crucial to zeroing in on specific target usages and refine specific interactional models. But both are absolutely necessary, and both need to be acknowledged.

As a designer whose work involves designing successful next generation products in fields where there aren’t too many adjacent models to examine, I’m not expecting to shoot a hole-in-one, but very much need to get the ball onto the green and as near the hole as possible. I believe with enough skill and experience (driving form and practice time on the driving range), and an adequate awareness of current trends and usage models (knowlege of the hole’s terrain and current wind conditions), and a willingness to take a bold and decisive swing, a good designer can consistently get the ball onto the green.

It’s at *this point* (when the ball is on the green) that I believe usability testing and iterative refinement (putting skills) get the ball into the cup. The reason I like this metaphor is that it helps to illuminate where I think the current usability and interaction design field is underperforming. To me, it’s as though 99% of the dialog and teaching in the UX world is about “putting,” as if we can get all the way from the tee to the hole by taking short, calculated, and research-validated putts. In our field there’s almost no dialog at all about “driving,” or leaps of innovation, and some pundits go as far as claiming that it’s not possible at all! But it is possible, and it’s yet another skill that can be mastered with practice and experience.

I find it a bit curious that Dirk so quickly feels the need to point out that not everyone can be a wide generalist, or (to extend that slightly) be a “driver.” That strikes me as a bit of a “blame the victim” way to state things (not that I necessarily see us generalists or drivers as “victims,” but we’re definitely a miniscule minority). I’m not aware of any armies of generalist voices in danger of drowning out those of the specialists. It seems to be exactly the opposite to me! The four of us are among a small (but hopefully growing) minority of designers speaking to the issues of generalist integration and the need for experienced designers to be in higher and more empowered positions where we can make greater innovative leaps.

In terms of “Design Futures,” I maintain that our field could acknowledge the importance of “driving” much more than it currently does. I’d consider an acknowledgement that it even exists to be a step forward from where the dialog in our field remains mired today.

LW: Before I expand on some of the ideas you guys have proposed, let me try to sum up the answers we’ve provided to Dirk’s original question: “How will the next generation of digital product designers find success in increasingly global economy?”

* Luke: Embrace new opportunities. Lower barriers to entry in nearly all disciplines enable more real world experience and cross cultural engagement.

* Bob: Do great work. Envision, articulate, and build the best products, experiences, and services imaginable.

* Jim: Identify and take advantage of large-scale trends. An understanding of the underlying technologies and potential usage patterns can enable one to fairly accurately forecast what’s next.

* Dirk: Real-world and first person research. Whether generalist or specialist, designers need to understand how the products we create relate to the behaviors and lifestyles of real people.

If I haven’t put words in anyone’s mouth, I think we have a pretty good list that represents our unique perspectives. Despite some overlaps, it’s interesting to see how our experiences and domains (Web, mobile, business) gave us a pretty diverse set of answers.

Now on to the other points that were raised…

Global Competition

Bob, I don’t think the changing global economy issue is about competition between “designers coming from emerging economies” and those in the “developed world”. The competition comes from global market forces. Companies everywhere in the world compete on price, differentiation (brand & design), and innovation. As technology and business continue to flatten our world the dynamics of what used to be primarily a national economy (albeit with steadily increasing exports/imports) gradually becomes a global economy. Now, I’m not an economist so I don’t have a nuanced perspective on what changes that entails. But I do know that in my work, localization and international competition play an increasingly important role. So for me, that’s the crux of the issue: how does this “large-scale trend” -to use Jim’s terminology- effect the role of and opportunities available to the designers working today and in future?

The Specialist/Generalist Cycle

Dirk brought up a compelling example of how new technologies seem to initiate a cycle of generalist (in Dirk’s example -Webmasters) to multiple specialists to “highly experienced and skilled” professionals “who aggregate various skill sets into a complementary and finely-honed set of tools.” Since we often talk about the roles of generalists vs. specialists – what do others think about this cycle? Does it reappear in other disciplines? Is there any evidence that shows embracing a new technology at the generalist stage provides a better path to becoming an experienced professional? Does coming in during the specialist phase offer the same opportunities? For me this has a lot of relevance when talking about Design Futures as we all know lots of new technology is on its way.


We began this discussion with a reference to outsourcing and since we are talking about Design Futures, I thought it might be interesting to explore the up and coming process of crowdsourcing which was well summarized by Wired magazine:

“Remember outsourcing? Sending jobs to India and China is so 2003. The new pool of cheap labor: everyday people using their spare cycles to create content, solve problems, even do corporate R & D.”

Dirk mentioned that “craftsmen who are exceptional at skills such as illustration will always have opportunities”. But crowdsourcing but be a disruptive force to that model. Consider the example cited in the Wired article of a professional photographer having a potential client opt to use istockphoto instead of his services:

“iStockphoto, which grew out of a free image-sharing exchange used by a group of graphic designers, had undercut Harmel by more than 99 percent. How? By creating a marketplace for the work of amateur photographers – homemakers, students, engineers, dancers. For Harmel, the harsh economics lesson was clear: The product Harmel offers is no longer scarce. Professional-grade cameras now cost less than $1,000. With a computer and a copy of Photoshop, even entry-level enthusiasts can create photographs rivaling those by professionals like Harmel. Add the Internet and powerful search technology, and sharing these images with the world becomes simple.”

Now we could argue that user-generated systems mostly produce work inferior to seasoned professionals and many have. But the fact remains that crowdsourced solutions can have a very real impact on the future of design and designers.

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