Since 2015, John Maeda has been visiting the SXSW to present his Design in Tech Report. His aim is to analyze which technological challenges are waiting for the design industry in the near future, and also today even. This year’s report had some interesting overlap with our own work, so we would like to briefly discuss it here. It was one of our personal highlights of this year’s SXSW!
Computational designers and meaningful results
As a designer and computer scientist John Maeda has been trying to connect the two worlds of technology and design for some time now. (Frankly, they do belong together.) As the Head of Design and Inclusion at Automattic – the company is known for its blogging software WordPress – he started thinking early on about how the two could be linked more closely. As one of the first designers, he was involved in programming and questioned design as a discipline: Where does it start? Does it even stop anywhere?
Maeda believes that designers should look more closely at technology. According to his line of thinking, designers should move away from visual design (which will soon be done by artificial intelligences anyway) and become what he calls “computational designers”. These are designers who bring business, technology and design together in order to create new solutions for complex problems. According to him, design isn’t “just” about aesthetics, but also about market relevance and what he calls “meaningful results”.
Maeda’s call to action is definitely necessary today, but it also is a double-edged sword. It goes without saying that, as a designer, you need to be well-versed in the goings-on of the tech-industry and even do some deep-dives in certain areas. And the same goes for many other areas of expertise that are touching industries waiting for innovation.
However, at a certain point, some things become a question of practicability. Dealing with the subject of code will add even more breadth to an already broad profession. Since there are hundreds of programming languages – new ones are added constantly – the question is forced upon us whether doing a deep-dive into this specific area would be achievable at all. (Because, you know, there is also work to be done besides furthering ones education.)
Artificial Intelligence in the Design Industry
Now, should you still decide to make yourself into a computational designer you will have a lot of work to do over the coming years. Of course you know about the multitude of technological innovations that we are dealing with right now. Maeda actually showed a list of the top ten emerging trends. And one of them seems to be especially important, namely artificial intelligence and machine learning. It was not only the number one on this list, but also closely related to many other topics on it.
For the design industry this will lead to lasting changes. The capabilities of AI are bringing us new tools. Many tasks can be automated and we can now visualize patterns in big data in a way that makes them comprehensible for humans. (Maeda mentioned the example of IBM’s Many Eyes project in this context. Many similar services are now available for free on the internet.) The report cited a statistic that said 88 percent of all designers believe that it will be another five years before most visual design jobs are replaced by AI. Whether websites, machines, fashion or furniture: computers can now design much more than “just” pictures.
Short overview on IBM’s Many Eyes project
Maeda’s message in this regard: Designers need to take an in-depth look at this new technology and embrace working with it by shaping it’s capabilities using their professional design experience. This way, they can help innovation move away from an approach that focuses on technology alone to achieve “meaningful results”, i.e. results meaningful for humans and society.
“Design isn’t just about beauty; it’s about market relevance and meaningful results.” John Maeda, Design in Tech Report 2018
Meaningful results = meaningful innovation?
One important thing Maeda concluded is that the jobs of designers will not disappear because of automation. But they will change. And this is something we view in a similar light. What automation will do is take away certain aspects of our workload and give us more time to invest in other tasks. The question is now whether we should go down Maeda’s proposed route and become computational designers. Maybe some of us actually should. For example, they could learn several programming languages and deal with how to design for and with AI – or even how to design algorithms!
But that’s just one option of many more, and you could also go down a slightly different route. For example, we believe that truly meaningful innovation takes place at the center of three dimensions: technology, business and the human context. This is important, because the human context, i.e. the world and space humans inhabit and where they make use of products, as well as their actual wishes (as opposed to short-term needs) – this context is actually marginalized in the innovation projects of many companies. Instead, there is a strong focus on the business and technology dimensions, and a computational designer might be it the risk of contributing to this dilemma.
We have already dealt with this topic using the example of UX design: Truly valuable innovations do not arise if we focus primarily on technology (and business). That is precisely why we run the risk of restricting ourselves. We focus on satisfying needs (this simply works so well with AI!) and forget to ask important strategic questions. Think, for example, of Facebook’s business model – and the role its users play in it. Is that really sustainable? And is it truly meaningful innovation?
We believe it is the job of designers today to bring all three dimensions together: Business, Technology and Human Context equally. This creates sustainable innovation that benefits everyone involved. This should be at the core of designers’ expertise – and through automation, we actually do have time to deal with this challenge today. And, last but not least, to achieve this we also have to take a close look at the technologies we deal with. Maeda definitely has a point there.
Some Links on the Design in Tech Report 2018
If you want to know more, here are a few links to Maeda’s talk of this year. In addition to the topic of technology, on which we have focused here, it included some other interesting aspects. For example, we have completely omitted the topic of “Inclusive Design”. (We think it would deserve its own blog post.) If you want to read up on that, a look at Maeda’s presentation is absolutely worthwhile!
Design in Tech Report 2018, full presentation
John Maeda’s notes on the report
John Maeda on YouTube
Tech Analyst Ken Yeung on Inclusive Design
Co.Design on human skills in an AI-dominated world