This week on The Digital Life, we discuss the creative jobs of the future with special guest, Daniel Harvey, Head of Product Design and Brand at The Dots. With current technology trends in mind, from AI to robotics, and their effects on design practice and ethics, we look forward a decade and speculate how a variety of the jobs of today—software engineer, UX designer, digital composer, and onward—will change, and correspondingly what the job titles and needs within that time frame might look like.
Jon: Welcome to episode 261 of The Digital Life. A show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.
Dirk: Greetings listeners.
Jon: Our special guest on the show today is returning friend Daniel Harvey, who is head of product design and brand at The Dots which is a professional network for no collar professionals. Dan, welcome back.
Dan: Great to be back.
Jon: For our podcast this week we’re going to chat about the jobs of the future for creative folks. Let’s start with digging a little bit into the current state of interaction design, UX, and creative jobs generally. There are a number of both technology trends and design trends that are converging in interesting ways that sort of set the stage for what we think future jobs might look like. Dan, why don’t you tell us a little bit about what you’ve been thinking about lately both in terms of design and technology trends that will be affecting our future jobs.
Dan: Sure, happy to. I think from my mind when people sort of ask me about where creative jobs are potentially going in the future, or when people like me are asked that generally, we tend to think this … we tend to have this weird myopic thing where we think our own fields are a little bit more stable than neighboring fields.
Dirk: That’s true.
Dan: I don’t necessarily think that that’s ego or even a false sense of security, although it might be those things in some cases. I think it’s that changes happen incrementally and they get internalized quickly. I think when you guys asked me to think about this, I decided to try to look at my own field critically and think about a few factors that are driving change already that could have more momentum as time goes on. I think first and foremost … Oh, sorry. Go ahead Jon.
Jon: Yeah, I’m totally guilty of that, not thinking that things are going to change. Even though that’s all I think about is technology and how that can affect us. I rarely think, “Oh what should I be thinking about next?” I’m completely guilty of that.
Dan: Yeah. It’s like I said, I think we just tackle it as it comes and so we don’t always see the change for what it is as it’s happening but I think when we think about our own tribe, interaction designers, UX designers, Jon Medek calls this computational designers, whatever you want to call it, I think we’ve got a few natural tendencies that have already helped us deal with career changes and I think they’ll only continue to help us. I think first and foremost we’re sort of perpetually curious, we’re always on the look out for new skills, new tools, new approaches and I think if there’s any connective tissue that ties us all together, if there’s anything that’s always [inaudible 00:03:31] creative superpower as a tribe, I think that’s it.
Dan: I think our work has always sort of tended towards abstraction. If traditional design is about look and what we’ve done is largely about the feeling, I think that means we’re always asking why and I think that means we’re often providing direction to other designers and people that we work with and I think that will be employed in the future. I also think that we gravitate towards systems. Obviously, details are important and we care about them but we’re always looking at things in bigger contexts so we’re predicated on caring about cohesion rather than simple consistency and I think that’s the kind of thing that will help in the future as well.
Dan: I think we’re strategic by design. I think we’ve always understood even when it was nascent profession, we’ve always understood that our success in selling it into businesses is the success of the business and I think that means that we’ve always tried to solve problems for people, we’ve always tried to create opportunities for brands and we’ve always cared about driving results for business and I think that’s why as companies have gone all in on design thinking, you’ve started to see more and more of us rise to the sea suite and have the Nirvana seat at the table thing that we’ve always had an obsession about.
Dan: I think we’re just ambitious and our roles have always been changing a lot and I think that you can just look at the way titles have changed over time from UX to product design to service design and everything in between and I think we’re always on the lookout for what’s next and how we can better position ourselves.
Dirk: Dan, the early pioneers in the field, people like ourselves who have been around since the dot com or certainly the web 2.0 and earlier time period, in my experience most of us are not trained designers. It’s almost more likely to find a liberal arts degree than a design degree. Now, by contrast there’s been a huge explosion in UX training recently and the training I would almost call more technical than anything else for lack of a better word. It’s not … I was trained as a thinker in undergraduate and graduate school and more recent training for folks is more task based in nature as opposed to thinking based and I have some concerns about how that’s going to translate for these younger or newer to the field folks as we move into a world of smart wear and automation. I’m interested in your thoughts on that topic.
Dan: I think you’re bang on and to my mind, that’s why whenever I see policy makers talk about STEM and going all in on engineering and technology degrees they’re fucking up the job market of the future. We need more-
Dan: Preach brother. We need more arts, we need more liberal arts, not less because that’s the critical thinking, creative direction, those are going to be the ways that we future proof ourselves down the road and I think we absolutely need more of that not less.
Jon: Yeah, I think both of those comments resonate with me especially Dirk, the liberal arts influencing how early design for the internet, how that approach happened and the critical thinking required and then the tactical nature of a lot of design training now which is just whatever X corporation wants you to crank out, you can be the extension of the computer, right? You’re the human who makes the computer do what it needs to do. That’s dangerous in my opinion. Daniel, there are a number of tech trends that I know you’ve been thinking about. Could you dig into those a little bit and your perspective on how they might shape our future jobs?
Dan: Sure. I think there are two big ones really and this is something that Dirk and I spoke a lot about when we were in Norway together last September with other lunatics and rogues and designer types and really I think at a high level it’s that ethics scandals are fucking running amok in the tech world today. From dark UX tarnishing our reputation as a community, the ongoing regulation that’s happening in Europe and Canada and influencing in policy makers in the US. I think those are all big, big factors. I don’t think we’ve had our Hiroshima moment yet where when the atom bomb happened, that caused physics professionals to really sit back and think about what they were doing.
Dan: It caused Science [inaudible 00:09:24] to do the same despite all these scandals from Tesla to Uber to Facebook, we just haven’t had that moment yet, we haven’t had our petard hoisted thoroughly and that will happen-
Dirk: Dan, do you have a hypothesis of what that might be like? Some likely manifestations of that? That would be really interesting if you do.
Dan: You know what? Privacy is still too ephemeral. That’s not going to be the vector around it. I think it will be … the Hiroshima example is telling because I think it’s going to take real harm at scale for us to really be taken aback enough to really deal with the philosophical ramifications of what we did. Yourself? What do you think?
Dirk: I don’t have a hypothesis of that moment will be. The things that have happened in the past seem to go down the path through times when like the Ukrainian power system has been hijacked as an example. It feels like it will be something down that path where it’s almost at the national level of country versus country in ways direct or not but I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it specifically so I don’t have a compelling suggestion on that one.
Dan: Yeah, Jon are you having any thought to that?
Jon: I worry that we’re missing these moments as they happen. We’ve talked about in the past just things like Tesla’s automated cars or the recent Facebook scandal or as Dirk mentioned the Ukrainian power grid, I think we’re probably not reflecting enough on these problems as they are happening right underneath our noses and if there is a Hiroshima moment that’s coming, I’m afraid we’re going to miss it for all of the distraction that is just endemic to the information overload/news cycle that we’re living in. Self-reflection, whether it’s as a society or as an industry, I think we’re losing that and we’re being drawn into this world of, “Hey, what’s the next buzzy news item?” I don’t know. I worry that we’re too distracted to realize when it’s happening.
Dan: I don’t think you’re wrong. Then I think the other sort of big categorical thing that’s happening that is clearly the elephant in the room that’s probably brought us all together is that AI is obviously going to change our ways of working and how we define our professional values from sophisticated algorithms are going to affect creative workers in similar ways that robots and automation have affected manufacturing. I think Dirk talked about this before but what automation and algorithms are good at is contending with repetitive tasks. I think everything we were just saying about task oriented education, that’s not going to help us down the road because those are the things that are going to get automated first and foremost.
Dan: We’ve got to start thinking more about creativity as curation and I think those two things are going to become increasingly synonymous with each other and I think that will play out in a lot of different ways whether that’s designers having a role in supplying better training data or better visualizing the structure our algorithms or creating interfaces for AI. I think we’re going to have a role improving those strategic outcomes and I think that’s going to cause designers to themselves change AI. I think right now AI is almost exclusively the domain of engineers and that’s led to a lot of fucking shitty bias that we’re going to have to be called in to help fix I think.
Jon: Yeah, I totally agree with that Dan. With those themes underlying the current state of UX plus technology, let’s say, let’s dig into a little bit what we think some future jobs may be. Dan, why don’t we start with you and then proceed around the virtual table with some of our other ideas.
Dan: I love virtual tables. I think the first thing following on from what we were just talking about, I think we’re going to see an evolution in the role of people that are practitioners of data visualization, I think they’ll start to further specialize and whether they take on roles of AI visualizer or algorithm designer or whatever it’s going to be called, I think they’re going to be roles for designers to help clarify and shine a light on what is effectively a big black box right now and I think that’s going to happen because of legislation, I think it’s going to happen because of consumer protection concerns, I think it’s going to be driven by corporate social responsibility, a want from some companies and brands to differentiate themselves from their competitors.
Dan: I think exposing the inner workings of how AI actually works is something that engineering has failed at today and I think finding ways to make that understandable and not necessarily palatable but making it clearer even if it just scratches the surface and [inaudible 00:16:12] guess work, I think that’s going to be critical in the future and I think the designers that take on that role will up skill themselves in Data Science and I think they’re going to get paid a shit load of fucking money.
Jon: I’m very interested in that. I don’t know if I can up skill to Data Science but that certainly fascinates me. Dirk, what are-
Dirk: Dan, make the data visualizer a little bit more concrete for me because you mentioned that currently, it’s more general purpose, it’s more broad and the idea is there will be more specifics. What is broad or what is the data visualizer today and then when you talk about the specific applications that they might have later, what more concretely is that as well just to really put this in a light?
Dan: Yeah. Well, I think in some respects there’s definitely a group of the visual designers that have historically specialized in data visualization. Your Edward Tufte’s of the world, Manuel Lima, a good friend of mine from back in my agency days and people that have really excelled at taking public information and making it more clear so Tufte and some of the work that he’s done with NASA, the challenger explosion and things like that I think where the specialization will happen for those people is that to really take that … to have that same sort of impact and to bring that same level of clarity to AI, they’re going to have to think far more rigorously about data and have a greater shared vernacular with engineers. I think that will be part of it.
Dirk: I see.
Jon: Dirk, what’s your take on a possible future design job?
Dirk: For me, the one that I think about a lot is much more broad than Dan’s example and it’s really the shift from design to creative direction and to make that more concrete, there’s … I’ll talk about the evolution over the years. When I started out back in the late ’90s, if we were going to for example make an icon for a logo or a website or something, the first thing we would do is we’d a meeting and we would talk about it, we’d brain storm it. Okay, we need an icon for invention. What could that be? You spend an hour in a meeting, people talking about it, you go away and bill up a lot of hours trying to figure out what should the shape for an icon be?
Dirk: Today, if you want to do an icon, to figure out the shape of an icon, you go to Google and Google ‘invention icon’ and you’ll get a bagillion examples and within seconds you can identify these one or two are the most prevalent so are probably the shapes that we should use and you can review different styles. You can see those icons implemented in lots of different ways and so you can not only pick a shape, a thing, you can even have a style associated with it, a way of showing it and in the earlier model, you would’ve had that meeting, more time, make a decision, yada, yada, yada and then making it from hand in a style that was custom and unique to that moment and made from scratch.
Dirk: Now today, the whole process from I need an icon for invention and a designer fabricating an icon for invention is under an hour. It’s remarkable as opposed to double digit hours from an agency billing perspective, it’s going 20 years ago now. In the future, the model will be one where you, the creative director will put into the machine the characteristics you want. Not only that it’s an icon for invention but it should be a certain style within a certain style guide of the company that you’re working for or if you’re having to come up with your own different words, different associations and then the machine will spit out a bunch of icons that are guided by the data you put in custom to yourself that the computer has made in instantaneously in real time and you’ll also be plucking one out right there.
Dirk: You’ll take minutes and it’s not only it takes minutes instead of an hour but you’re getting something that’s high quality, highly custom and all done by the machine and your job is making sure the machine is ‘programmed properly’ and then having the good taste, the good sense either yourself or if you’re making a more of a team thing of picking the right thing out. To me, it’s a good concrete example at a very granular level of how the creation stuff is going to be going away. The machines will be doing the creation in large quantity. Our job is just going to be making sure that they’re doing it right and then making smart choices around which of the exemplars the machine creates that we want to implement.
Jon: Yeah. In that example, you’re elevated from whatever design position into as you said creative direction. You’re effectively a studio head and your studio is comprised of AI in that example and that’s really interesting because it does shorten the path if that is your ambition to lead a design studio in that manner. That does shorten the path to that position and in fact makes that the basic entry point for designers because that other type of work, that technical work which maybe is getting overemphasized right now and could go away.
Dirk: Dan, do you think that vision is too aggressive or are you seeing that specific manifestation coming as well?
Dan: Well, I think it’s interesting. The last time we spoke, I think I that mentioned an instance where … in one of our Asian neighbors, there was a company that basically employed an algorithm as a creative director and gave a brief to that creative director that AI, as well as a human creative director and his teams and then they basically took the work that was done for both and put them in front of a large audience and put them in front of executives that they were responsible for the brief. The execs loved … if memory serves, the execs loved the one that came from the AI but the more robust audiences preferred the one that came from the human creative director. It’s happening. In fits and starts, this stuff is already happening.
Jon: Alright. I’m going to jump in with one of my jobs of the future. I think there’s going to be a need for a designer type role as a forensic designer and what I mean by that is somebody who can unmask the fakery that will no doubt explode as it becomes a lot easier to, I don’t know, map people’s faces to video, to simulate voices so it sounds like somebody said something they didn’t. We already know it’s easy to doctor photographs and to change documents and all too easy to manipulate people using all kinds of news items be they text or be they fake events or what have you. I think there’s going to be a design position that actually works to deconstruct and reveal what these elements are, what these dark patterns are.
Jon: In fact, we probably already have that need and are just blissfully unaware of it.
Dirk: Jon, what would this designer do? That’s interesting because that would like something maybe a machine would be brought to bear to root out those things.
Jon: Yeah. I was basing this thought on the way forensic investigators will look at specific aspects of photographs to see if they were doctored and I realized also just in the process of my career just looking at certain sensitive documents and realizing, “Hey, I know how you can go in and change these things.” Other folks at time were completely unaware that, “Yes, you can go and change the files in this manner.” Just having that knowledge whether it’s sort of practically applied later or whether it’s a matter of saying, “Hey, we need to scrub or go through all these files and look for these specific kinds of repetition in photographs that would be insignias of false or doctored photographs.”
Jon: Someone who has knowledge of basically bad acting in design whether it’s knowledge of dark UX, whether it’s knowledge of document manipulation. The flip side of … or what that fellow in Catch me if you can, right? It could be an example. He was a fraudster who pulled off all these amazing cons and then flipped his role and became a security consultant later. That’s what I was picturing as I notice these dark UX patterns become more prevalent and unfortunately people just not being aware of them in the same way that a designer is because we know you don’t have to be sent down that particular pattern which is going to make you give up all of your email addresses just because you want to sign up for a social network, right?
Jon: We know that when we’re looking at it. My parents or Joe public may not. Dan?
Dan: I think the other thing that you’re touching on is rooted in some of the really troubling things that we’ve seen AI already have a hand in helping to produce. From deep fakes, the pasting celebrity faces onto porn figures to Adobe of all companies creating a tool which is basically what you were describing with people saying something that they didn’t were based on a few snippets of someone’s voice with a new tool from Adobe, you’ll be able to get them to say whatever you type into the program essentially and I think you’re right.
Dan: I think within a sort of digital manipulation, people that are in the know about how stuff gets produced will be able to help ferret that out and I think Dirk is also right in that there will be aspects of that that will itself be a batch process via repetitive task that the people responsible for this kind of design forensics will have to use AI tools to help with. Using AI to catch AI as it were. Using propagandists to fight propagandists.
Jon: Right. Dan, I think we have time for one more job of the future. I know you had a pretty good list. Could you enlighten us as to another one of your potential future jobs for creatives?
Dan: Sure. I think one of the things that we see often in very large companies is that when they really care about an issue, they will add a niche role to the sea suite to show that they care. In the same way that some companies have roles like chief diversity officers or chief privacy officers. I think in the near future we may very well see the emergence of a chief ethics officer and it’s a little bit of what you were saying. I think it will be their job, their main role will be to imagine what our friend Dan Han calls negative externalities which as you said earlier is basically bad actors gaming the system and I think it will be this person’s job to imagine those negative scenarios and help say to the CEO and the rest of the company, “No, don’t do this or do this in a different way.”
Dan: I think in some respects those guys will basically become scape goats when bad actors do have their way with systems and with products and I think as a result, they’ll basically get paid hazard pay or combat pay because of that fragility.
Jon: Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to the digitalife.com, that’s just one L in the digitalife and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everyone so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked.
Jon: You can find the digital life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM and Google Play and if you’d like to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @JonFollett. That’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T and of course the whole show is brought to you by GoInvo, a studio designing the future of health care and emerging technology which you can check out at goinvo.com, that’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?
Dan: You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer, that’s D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. Dan, it’s been wonderful having you on the show again. How can listeners get in touch with you?
Jon: I’m DanCHarvey on Twitter and that’s probably the quickest way to get a hold of me.
Dan: Excellent. That’s it for episode 261 of the Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.