The greatest design challenge of all time
18 September 2020 — Doing good design isn't enough anymore. We need to look at the bigger picture if we aim to redesign the world.
“65% of children entering school today will eventually work in job types that do not currently exist.”
(World Economic Forum, 2016, chapter 1)
Nowadays emojis are a universal visual language and only a few of us remember dingbats anymore. This term indicates a Unicode block of characters devoted to decorative elements and pictograms. Among the most widespread dingbat fonts in the early days of digital typesetting was FF Dingbats, a collection of over 800 monochromatic symbols ranging from arrows and geometric shapes, to common objects and human figures.
Originally designed in 1993, it has been updated in 2009 as FF Dingbats 2.0. Between the two versions, some glyphs were radically changed: an e-mail replaces the envelope, an iPod replaces the audiocassette and there’s a laptop instead of a typewriter. In the booklet published for the launch, the designer recounts a typical day of his work in 1993 and 2009, highlighting the changes both in small gestures and big themes (Erler & Skibbe, 2009).
As an example, we can try and reflect on the enormous changes that have happened to the daily practice of a graphic designer in the past 20 years. Until 2000, the material quality of printing films, the proverbial scent of paper, graphite and ink made the experience of graphic works much more concrete. The physical burden of sketches, presentation tables, models and work tools was still perceptible in the studios. Today, a large part of this design material has been progressively digitized and made intangible within our laptops.
Imagining the typical working day of a designer in 2030 therefore proves to be a particularly complicated exercise: with technological acceleration and societal changes, in just 10 years our job will make use of radically new techniques and take place in abstruse areas for today’s observer.
However, we can already see some signals in specific fields emerging on the horizon. These indications could prove promising for designers who want to expand their skills in the next ten years, with a curious and pioneering spirit.
What are the main areas for designers to express their creative talents and problem-solving skills? What will be the most requested roles and job descriptions in the coming years?
Experiences in virtual environments (VR), augmented (AR) or mixed (MR) are still in their infancy. They’re crude and limited in scope and sensory depth, and they require cumbersome equipment that renders them impractical. It is plausible that in the coming years this concept of expanded reality (Cross Reality or XR), will be further refined thanks to technological mediation, generating increasingly immersive and convincing experiences. According to Ray Kurzweil’s predictions, the maximum likelihood will be obtained by 2030 thanks to nanobots implanted in our neural system: “If we want to enter virtual reality, they suppress all of the inputs coming from our actual senses and replace them with the signals that would be appropriate for the virtual environment.” (Kurzweil, 2008, p.310)
Whether this forecast is optimistic or not, it is clear that someone will be in charge of designing these complex environments, not only from a visual, graphic, architectural point of view, but considering the totality of human perceptive experience. That could mean simulating whole worlds to explore (even changing the laws of physics at will), or seamlessly integrating additional levels of information and stimuli to the “real reality”. Anyhow, it will likely prove to be one of the main sectors in which game designers, architects, interior designers and interaction designers will be required.
Designing significant and natural interactions with technology is already a massive endeavour today. The next frontier will be the human body itself. Technological tools, once made of bulky machinery, are getting closer and closer to our bodies: wearable devices, miniaturized medical implants, subcutaneous chips (nowadays the domain of biohackers). In a not too distant future, we will witness a literal fusion of technological devices with our biological bodies. This is going to happen in a less invasive way and with increasingly sophisticated cognitive, motor and sensory tasks. This will help us not only to repair damaged functions, but also to enhance them, completing our transformation into actual cyborgs.
There will therefore be a need for designers who embrace the transhumanist philosophy and its overcoming of humanity’s biological limits thanks to technological help. They shall be able to leave behind the predominantly visual/tactile modes that have characterized our relationship with digital technology in the last 50 years. Future interaction designers are going to imagine a new ergonomics and apply it to the communication/feedback between bio-electronic systems and the central nervous system, as well as innovative multisensory interfaces for control and regulation of prostheses and synthetic organs. In these tasks — shared with bioengineers, neuroscientists and doctors — a designer’s human-centered approach will facilitate the introduction and acceptance of the most advanced techniques.
Cross reality evolution, paired with AI development, will open new opportunities in designing sims, digital characters created for specific tasks. They may be designed from scratch, such as bots and virtual influencers (i.e. Lil Miquela) who already live and act among us: it will be necessary to calibrate their values, personality and attitude in line with their deep motivations of existence (their reason why). Or they may be avatars of public figures, semi-autonomous emanations with increasingly sophisticated personalities and fields of action (Samuel L. Jackson’s voice lent to Alexa is a prime example). Celebrities will have to defend themselves from pirated copies of themselves (deepfakes), but they’ll be able to take advantage of their automated avatars to appear more frequently in public (in fact, obtaining the gift of ubiquity) and earn followers, consent, money: a musical star will be able to hold simultaneous concerts around the globe directing a swarm of robotic models, physically present in every venue and indistinguishable from the original one. The intelligent avatar of a long-dead VIP will be “resurrected” to participate and interact in real time during celebratory events (as already happened with the holograms of Michael Jackson, Tupac, etc.).
Brand designers, PR experts, Character designers and screenwriters will take care of designing the intangible aspects and the strategy of sims and avatars. 3D modelers, anatomists and robotic engineers will collaborate to give a credible shape to these new digital people.
Over time, the same capabilities could also extend to the mainstream public, giving everyone the opportunity to have their own digital twin (not necessarily equipped with a bodily shape). Thanks to it, we will be able to simulate real situations in advance and inform our future choices. According to Berditchevskaia et al. (2019), the first examples of digital twins will enter the mass market as early as 2020.
In 2015, a group of creatives from McCann agency in Tokyo designed an AI to act as creative director and trained it with thousands of successful Japanese TV commercials. AI-CD ß was meant to participate in a creative contest against a human team, led by Mitsuru Kuramoto. The challenge was to ideate a TV campaign for a chewing gum brand. Both commercials were broadcast and public response decreed human victory (54% vs 46% preference). Going beyond sensationalism, we are far from creative equality between humans and AI: even in AI-CD ß’s commercials the bulk of the work had been done by human advertisers. AI’s job was limited to coming up with a single indication: “convey ‘wild’ with a song in an urban tone, leaving an image of refreshment with a feeling of liberation” (Doland, 2016). Its poor subordinates were then responsible for transforming this enigmatic sentence in a 30-second adv.
However, it is plausible that AI expansion to the aesthetic and creative sphere (the very same trend anticipating low-level designosaurs’ extinction) will soon allow agencies and studios to form teams of cybernetic art directors, visual design bots (LaBarre, 2016) and artificial copywriters, as they are going to operate faster and cheaper than human counterparts.
Someone will be required to teach AI how to direct their creative choices, how to harmonize commercial needs with consumers’ needs, how to decide with human taste in mind. Education and control over creative machines (at least of their first generation) will be handled by a professional figure, what Matias Duarte calls a Cybernetic Director, with a broad aesthetic, sociological and psychological culture, capable of orchestrating machine operations effectively from concept to execution.
Since 2012, the FutureBrand Country Brand Index measures “the strength of perception of countries around the world in the same way we study consumer or corporate brands.” (FutureBrand, 2019) Until a few years ago, geographic branding’s goal was simply touristic. Today, with increasing economic competition and social mobility, countries and large cities are fighting each other to attract investments, talents and political power. The construction and governance of its own brand (strong, unique, recognizable) become essential factors for the prosperity of a country, region, city, even of a neighborhood.
The interventions of future designers in this field will no longer be limited to the creation of visual identity systems, promotional campaigns or urban furniture. Service designers and UX designers will be increasingly confronted with the tasks of dealing with civic and social issues, facilitating relations between administration, citizens and economic stakeholders. They shall therefore devise new urban planning models and include co-creation and rapid prototyping techniques in territorial innovation processes.
The example of Gainesville, Florida is still pioneering — and probably also a sort of publicity stunt. With the declared goal of becoming the most citizen-friendly city in the USA (Budds, 2016), the local administration (helped by IDEO design studio) began to apply the principles of human-centered design to civic government in 2015. Among the concrete results of this collective effort, there are a city platform for emergency management and the establishment of the Department of Doing, a one-stop shop for citizens who want to start their own business, instead of having to bounce between offices of three distinct departments to obtain information and authorizations.
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