Design

Insight

Pt. 1: Our Future in the Intangible

Symon Oliver

Pt 1: Our Future in the Intangible

Embracing commoditization in the new era of design

I presented this last January at DesignTO 2020: A future without work. It has been exciting to see how the world has evolved since Jan 2020—with COVID expediting some of the changes I had not expected to see for at least another 3 years. In this first part, I set the stage with a brief personal history of design and begin to articulate how design, production, technology, and business are rapidly evolving.

This presentation originated from two conversations: one around this fear that AI is going to take our jobs; and the other regarding the value of design thinking. In this talk I suggest that design has always been ripe for commoditization, and how technology has sped up the process. And, if that’s the case, what is the new role of design in delivering quantifiable value in the near and long term?

This story begins much earlier, but for now, here is some brief context about who I am. I’m the Design Director at Tennis; meaning that I oversee our design process from start to finish. This is a diverse role that requires technical expertise as much as a good handle on design methodologies.

I founded Tennis 5 years ago with my business partner and CEO Marcello Gortana. This was after we started and sold our first business — an adventure surf travel company.

Tennis is a design consulting company. We deliver foundational, frictionless, and engaging customer experiences; so that great companies continue rising to the top and making their impact in the world.

Since starting Tennis the industry has evolved at a rapid pace — with technology being the main driver of this evolution. Design has had to keep up with these advances, and it has evolved to help us imagine new tools and frameworks to solve today’s biggest challenges. The impact of design thinking has had a tremendous positive impact on the businesses that value design. Design has been the mediator between humans and technology — without HCI, UX, UI, we would still be interacting with computers by typing cryptic commands into the black screen.

Design thinking was around long before Tennis, but when we started Tennis it was fairly niche. Accenture had just acquired Fjord, and Deloitte had just acquired Doblin.

My story begins even earlier. Back in 2006, the early days of University. The domain of Graphic Design more or less looked like this: typography, editorial, packaging, interaction, motion, branding, way-finding. No iPhone, Google Chrome was not a thing, Facebook was all university students — and your parents hadn’t heard of it. It seems crazy, but that was not all that long ago.

After years of university, becoming an IDEO fanboy, working in human-computer interaction (HCI) labs, and eventually starting a business in design consulting, my view of design looked very different from where I started.

By the time Tennis was founded, Design for me had become a broad set of multidisciplinary tools spanning industrial design, graphic design, technology, and business. My breadth of knowledge expanded to encompass things like strategic foresight, innovation, service design, product design, business, design research, and human factors.

Fast forward to 2020 and you will note a lot of exciting and highly disruptive ideas and technologies emerging.

Design is all of this stuff

What does this have to do with design? Is all of this stuff important to design? I would say it is. Or at least I think it should be. Technology, business, production, all come together to form our holistic design practice at Tennis. It’s a culture of innovation that we have been nurturing since we started. This tripartite has been changing rapidly since we started. Let’s walk through some of the biggest signals that we are paying attention to.

Design

There are three key signals we have been observing in the domain of design, these are tools, education, and systems.

The world of emerging design tools has been exciting to watch. There are new players that go beyond Adobe, and they offer promising new workflows. Figma is one tool that we have even migrated to in recent years. It is an end-to-end tool that speeds up workflows from architecture to development hand-off.

Tools: And then there are tools like UIzard  (Wizard)— which offers a glimpse into the future of design production. It’s an app that uses neural networks and computer vision to convert a poorly drawn wireframe sketch into a fully designed and styled high-fidelity prototype.

Education: Design education has become more accessible. Traditional design skills can now be easily acquired without a degree, or diploma and even service design and UX are becoming more accessible through organizations like Brainstation and The Bridge School.

Systems: Design systems such as Google’s Material Design have enabled designers to think less about UI details, and more about the big picture. Couple this with the homogenization of design aesthetics, due to platforms like Dribbble and you have the emergence of a monoculture of design. It also tunes the expectations of designers based on a limited pool, and people only post what is going to do well.

Summary: To summarize the key point here; good UX and UI will no longer be a differentiator, it will be expected. In order to deliver on this, production will evolve to be repeatable, scalable, and maintainable.

Production

When I say production, I mean execution. Not necessarily the strategic work that goes into design.

Non-traditional workers: This means contingent, consultant, contractual, part-time, freelance and/or virtual workers; think Upwork, Fiverr, Toptal, Uber etc. This is most commonly referred to as the Gig Economy. It’s growing, and to some, it’s a growing concern. In 2017 55 million people in the U.S. were “gig workers” accounting for approximately 34% of the U.S. workforce. The Gig Economy was projected to increase to 43% in 2020.

Emerging Economies: The Internet has made work more accessible to many, and this goes for anyone in an emerging economy. The use of gig work platforms has grown by more than 30% in emerging economies. This has enabled businesses and individuals to offshore design to find the cheapest services. previously, this was exploited by large multinational corporations with the resources to set up manufacturing elsewhere.

Summary: Global networks of production and the newly afforded ease of execution from new tools will mean a race-to-the-bottom for pricing.

Technology

Technology is basically a moving target that our industry adapts on a quarter to quarter basis. That said, there are two things I’ve picked out that are exciting or terrifying depending on who you are.

Low Code/No Code: This refers to platforms like Squarespace, Wix, and Webflow, MS Power Apps but it also encompasses tools like Zapier and IFTTT which allow you to chain together services with APIs and triggers. For the most part, it’s getting easier and easier to build MVPs. This is changing who does the work, and how long it takes on the development side of the work as well. A global survey of developers found that 23% reported using low-code in 2018, and another 22% had planned to do so within a year. This migration to No Code is likely catalyzed by a developer shortage in the US, where one million development jobs are expected to remain unfilled by 2020 in the US alone. With this shift in how the work is done, it will become easier to make things, and therefore more people will become makers.

Nearshore: Columbia and Argentina are growing as technology producers. The World Trade Organization identified Argentina as the world’s eighth-largest exporter of computer services. Miami is even pushing to become a global start-up hub — mainly due to its demographics, and proximity to Latin America.

Summary: The ease of creating technology for those with little to no expertise will increase, while nearshoring will drive development costs down.

Business

Customer Experience is the new hot term right now. Although it’s been around for a long while, its popularity has surged as of late because CX is seeing a renaissance with digital services.

The bar for consumer or customer experience (CX) is constantly being raised, with outcomes always measured by what’s considered the latest benchmark — essentially the best becomes normalized and expectations follow. Customer expectations have also naturally evolved, and good CX is now not a differentiator, it’s just expected.

In Canada, there is also a huge push for innovation. The Canadian government launched a $1.26 billion Strategic Innovation Fund available to all sectors designed to encourage growth, development and commercialization of products and services.

This boom in technology has created urgency across the board, and it’s forced a shift to what John Maeda calls “timeliness over timelessness”. This may be why lean and agile methodologies are being rapidly adopted within organizations — sometimes to a fault.


“The temple of design does not rule this century.”
— John Maeda.


I would agree; technology will rule the next century, not design. There are very specific, and somewhat technical reasons why this is most likely the case.

I  will continue this article in part 2 where I cover the impact of technology, and how the philosophy of Ford and Toyota has permeated the field of design.