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Metamodern Design : Chapter 3 – The Current State of Design

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The current state of design exists within three separate functions.

To be human is to create.

I think the desire to create something deeply embedded within our DNA. Since the beginning of civilization, the discovery of fire and the invention of the wheel, humanity has been progressing into the unknown future of our existence with this primitive drive to explore, discover and create a world in which we envision the betterment of ourselves and those around us. Everything we experience in modern society has been a ripple effect of curiosity born out of the desire to create. To capture the essence of humanity. And in turn, resonate into the world we see today.

Design is a process by which we seek to solve challenges and discover solutions. Design is a broad term applied to many areas of the discipline and it’s ubiquitousness today transcends traditional and classical ideas of design. We see the impact of design on micro and macro levels applied throughout current times. And the design approach is applied across many efforts in many industries across the world. It is not something strictly applied to designers who are seen as artists, architects or the unique and expressive cohorts of our times. Design exists within everything as the touch of humanity since the beginning of human time.

Everything we create exists within a designed approach. The refinement of that approach over time has led us to consider new ways to create, ideate, test, prototype and build new things at lightning speed.

Design became homogenized by a new era of “designers” who wanted to fit into the world in which they aspired to be like. Grasping onto the lifestyles of digital designers, we witnessed an influx of designers who were driven merely by ego and social status and not by that brooding internal desire to create new worlds born out of curiosity and a call to create culture.

So we watch as design trends become cyclical. Old designs mimicked and used as leverage to further someones career. The validity of design as seen by clients revolves around social status and how many followers someone has over the breadth and depth of their work and experience.

The narrative of design has shifted. It is misunderstood. The value of design is seen by companies as a “must have” but they don’t really understand why. So they hire the most creative, eccentric, artistic person they can find who throws around the “designer” title.

The gap between business and design today misunderstands key concepts between their roles:

  1. Design is not art.
  2. Design is inherently integrated with business goals.
  3. Designers of today will not operate like the designers of tomorrow.
  4. Design processes of today will not be sustainable for design needs of the future.

Classical Design

Classical Designers emerged from the Industrial Revolution, creating physical objects we use in our daily lives or experience throughout the physical world. Examples are Eames chairs, concert posters, IKEA furniture, a Louis Vuitton purse, clothing, everyday items found in your kitchen. The approach is to build something new to serve a way of living or to build upon references of past objects and make improvements.

“Which pertains to the design of objects we use in the physical world” – John Maeda, Design in Tech Report

The Industrial Revolution brought on an entire movement of design – from steam powered engines, the lightbulb, electricity, power plants, manufacturing, and assembly lines.

Design Thinking

Design Thinking involves developing a framework(s) to understand a physical or digital challenge in the world and going utilizing tools and methods to uncover the challenges and create new solutions that can be tested, validated and iterated upon.

“Which pertains to how organizations learn how to collaborate and innovate using ideation methods” – John Maeda, Design in Tech Report

The first examples of design thinking emerged in the conception and creation of automobiles in the 60s and 70s.

The Evolution of Design in Enterprise by @libraiobabel outlines the “Good definition of design thinking” sourced below:

Birth of traditional design for large corporations / corporate identity+image and product styling

1950s: GM’s CEO makes the first executive position in design with Harley Earl elevated to VP.

1966: IBM Memo to IBM employees by CEO TJ Watson Jr. about the merging importance of design to the company

Birth of modern product design firms / from traditional design, to design of systems + services

1982: From 1982 Apple’s design language begins to form with Frog and Harmut Esslinger’s direction.

1991: David Kelley, Bill Moggridge, Mike Nutall join forces and change the course of design by co-founding IDEO

Birth of “Design Thinking” and design strategy / harnessing the creative problem solving skills of designers

2005: Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford starts. IDEO’s Jane Fulton Suri publishes Thoughtless Acts? and brings design research to the foreground.

2008-09: Roger L. Martin describes design thinking at the CEO level with P&G’s AG Laffley and his book on The Design of Business. (SAP and P&G were a few of the early executive adopters of Design Thinking.)

“Design Thinking” mainstreams as whole business strategy / re-contextualizing design, making B-Schools into D-Schools

2015-16: Phil Gilbert leads $100M bet to bring design back to IBM. Time Broen and Roger L. Martin open introductory issue for HBR on “The Evolution of Design Thinking.” Top 10 B-Schools all have student led design clubs.

2018: IBM Design open sources their Enterprise Design Thinking framework for all.

The Australian Government released a report on their studies of design in their country and stated this about design thinking:

“In the design profession and design education, research has focused on the forms of reasoning that underpin ‘design thinking’. Dorst (2011) introduced the term ‘frame creation’ to refer to the formulation of a novel standpoint from which a problematic situation can be tackled. Research on design thinking emphasises the lifecycle of design skills and practices within an organizational context. Dorst argues that while there are underlying principles to design thinking that can be taught, “experienced designers develop up their own processes that work across projects within a firm or professional practice”.”(IP Australia, “2014”)

Computational Design

Utilizing the computer to aid in creating design decisions, we see the rise of software and programs that aid in these decision making processes. From templates, layouts, automation, and artificial intelligence in the digital design space. What was once left to the intuition and feeling of the designer is now being combined with computational efforts to speed up the process and mitigate design errors.

“Which pertains to any kind of creative activity that involves processors, memory, sensors, actuators, and the network.” – John Maeda, Design in Tech Report

In the ArchDaily article “5 Ways Computational Design Will Change The Way You Work”, Michael Kilkelley describes computational design as the following:

“Computational design tools provide an easy way to harness the power of computation in a design process without having to learn how to write code. These tools let architects and designers create their own tools. Let’s face it, each project we work on is unique with its own challenges. There’s no one piece of software that can do everything we need it to. However, by creating our own tools, we can tailor our software to work for us.” (Kilkelley, “2016”)

Kilkelley then describes the top 5 ways computational design will impact our work under the following categories.

  • Explore multiple design options
  • Get under the hood and access your data
  • Automate repetitive tasks
  • Test what your design is REALLY doing
  • Think algorithmically


Within these three areas of design (Classical, Design Thinking and Computational), we strive to create solutions among global, culture, emerging technology and workplace challenges. Design is simultaneously met with the subjective bias of the designer whom utilizes the innate facts of the challenge to discover and build a solution.

Though, this may not always be the case.

We can define designers as fitting into one of 3 categories. When we say we are a “Designer” it is often followed up with defining one of these categories. “I design posters and album art for musicians” or “I design for digital platforms” or “I design business strategy for global corporations”. We define ourselves under one of three categories as if to segment our work.

However, I believe the future of design exists in a category beyond these three – and quite possibly merges all three of these together. As we progress into the future with automation, artificial intelligence, advanced technology, commoditization of creative fields and homogenized approaches to design solutions, I believe there is a 4th category that has yet to be defined and will emerge under an umbrella of culture, technology, design and creativity.

We cannot define this category in full until we recognize and define the role of the individual designer combined with the role of the individual designer related to the globalization of our work and also combined with the polarity of culture. All of this happening simultaneously to define a new breed of designer beyond the 3 traditionally defined categories.

(Later on in this book, I coin the term “Ex-Designer” as a possible new category for designers in the future.)

I have personally worked as a designer within all three of these categories. I’ve had the opportunity to focus on highly visible projects and clients across each category. I’ve won awards, contributed to some really great projects and met some amazing people along the way. The approach to design across each category has a sentiment that resonates familiarity. But, the approach to each category is different and within each requiring a different approach. The path to discovering creative solutions and ideas is also different. It takes courage, bravery and thick skin to venture and explore each of these categories of design. The willingness to struggle and realize how much you don’t know surfaces across each part.

Venturing into each area of design has helped me to become a better designer. As the landscape of design and the industry has changed dramatically over the past decade, exploring each category over the years has helped me to become an asset for my clients, to find connected solutions across possibilities and ideas.

The alternative is to stay in a single lane of design.

To be a strictly dedicated classical or traditional designer.

To only design UI / UX for digital.

To focus on developing strategies as a Design Manager for corporate teams.

I applaud those who can stick to a single path of design and adhere to it for decades. Building their own reputation as a “go-to” resource for a specific and nuanced need a client may have.

However, I find that this is limiting in certain aspects. First, you are at the whim of the client. You’re value is determined by the ebb-and-flow of the need a client may have. You have honed your skills and approach to a specific niche relying on a client to come along and hire you for exactly the look and feel you have to offer.

The second limitation is that your work may become obsolete, either in demand by the market, or by the shear progress of technology. You become a “dinosaur”.

My approach has been to diversify my Design skills and portfolio in a way that I can take on work from all three categories – and be successful in those projects. Beyond the look and feel, which comes at the creative direction. Beyond the execution – the business goals and desired outcomes are incredibly important. We live in a world where clients expect speed over perfection. I do not strive to be perfect. If I do, I will never give the client what they need in a timely fashion.

I’ve worked on projects with millions of dollars of budgets stretching over multiple years. Building, designing and revising until it’s “just perfect”. However, the real perfection comes from the ability to understand you are not the expert. You are only a vessel to put things into motion and create something that has not yet existed. Honing your skills around traditional foundations of design is important to make initial decisions and good choices, but at the end of the day you can create a perfect end result that falls flat with your audience. This is where design needs to continuously shift from the categories of output to the intentions of what design actually is – approach and process.

But before we can look at the approach and process, we need to not only understand this history of design, but have an outlook of where design is headed.


I’ve speculated on culture many times in my past. I find that understanding culture helps to understand how we will move forward. Where are the trends? Where are the intentions? Politically? Socially? Economically? If we can shuffle all of these aside and dig deeper to understand the core desires and needs of humanity, we can start to see that piling a bunch of new technology, ideas, platforms and apps into the market is not going to solve the needs of people.

Everything is a circle.

Culture moves in circular waves. In my younger years, postmodernism was a rebuttal to the corporate monoliths of the 80s and 90s. Industry and corporate greed was beginning to grow in the United States. The counter-reaction to this from the younger generations emerged a movement of 90’s grunge, rebellious culture around skateboarding, heavy metal, angsty baggy clothing and flannel. Those younger generations grew up to become the leaders, founders, executives, and workers of the currently existing companies. They may or may not have outgrown their younger ideals. If they didn’t, they found their way into creative endeavors – many creative directors, designers, marketers, advertisers founded agencies that would compliment this ideal and carry into the future. Today we see that this postmodernist ideal that was once a rebuttal to the status quo has now become the status quo. And so, the younger generations look at the current landscape of culture in the way the younger generation did in the 80s and 90s and they are looking for new ways to identify, find their place in the world and add to the conversation. We can trace this backwards again to the 60s hippie movement. Where the rebuttal was against the suburban “Leave It To Beaver” ideal Americana of the 50s. And the 1950s emerges out of the desire to live a quality of life beyond the long struggle of the Great Depression. And naturally the Great Depression was a cultural shift from reckless and irresponsible living of the Roaring Twenties.

Everything is a circle.

So, looking at this, we can see how generations emerge into being the drivers of culture and decisions. Their ideals formed in formative years and you either shed off the ideals and grow into someone else, or you use those ideals to propel yourself into a future version of you and your work.

Global impact of design.

Globally, design has become widely accessible through the digital medium. Access to software, digital tools, information and process has broken the barrier to entry from classical designers to forge ahead in new an innovative ways. This is both a blessing and curse. Design is utilized more now than ever as everyone has access to apps, tools and information on their mobile devices.

Design has been studied and systemized to drive commerce – from UX studies, best practices, templates, and sales funnels.

Globalization has seen the impact and benefits of design, whether society realizes it or not.

Design has influenced political movements. From the grassroots campaigns to raising more money than ever in history from the 2008 Obama presidential campaign (which I was a small part of). Design has provided a way for messaging and communication to reach specific and broad audiences while driving action in the form of assimilation, fund raising, protesting or providing a voice for those who generally go unheard. Design has drastically impacted politics within America and the the globe not just through the tools, but the effect and impact of those tools driving narratives, policy, cultural conversations and media attention.

Design has influenced the idea of our currency. The rise of cryptocurrency and BitCoin is a newly designed idea that seeks to solve a global challenge of monetary issues. The decentralization of currency is concept to socialize and create new power within the hierarchical structures of wealth within society.

Cultural impact of design.

Design is seen and felt culturally across many different facets. From the impact of consumer products, the rise of design in packaging has taken on new paradigms from the materials used, eco-conscious consumer products, the look and feel of the brand identity, colors and messaging to the way distribution for new products is designed within the business model.

Packaging design has been more prominent in trying to advance the technological side of packaging, the aerodynamics of design, to the minimalist approach as a call to nostalgia and the old days of craftsmanship and bespoke products.

Entertainment platforms are growing as a staple of our cultural influence. With the ability to watch and stream everything on demand, we find ourselves consuming more content than ever, exploring new ideas and gaining knowledge at lighting speed through platforms like Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, iTunes, podcasts, Spotify, Apple Music, Audible and an entire host of platforms designed to bring more content than we know what to do with in an immediately accessible format. These platforms did not exist within the general everyday lives of people 10 years ago. 20 years ago it was thought to be radical and high risk, while today we see the rise of entertainment studios fighting for survival, merging and crumbling because of these designed platforms that are changing how we consume media and ultimately how we perceive culture and our place within the world. All designed.

Political movements, beneath the surface, are designed. The intention, messaging, roadmap, policies, candidates and formats for narratives are all designed and disseminated across various platforms – digitally through documentaries, news outlets, emails, mobile apps, etc. All designed to inform, misinform, disseminate, activate or inspire us to form new beliefs or cement old beliefs. Politics are designed beyond the timelines we subscribe to them.

Social media has overtaken our lives. For better or worse. The design of these platforms have created an intention to connect, share and stay informed. However, we are starting to see the repercussions of these intentions as the leaders of these platforms do not have our best interests at heart compared to the desire for revenue, power and data.

We have a massive amount of access to information. There are no experts anymore because everyone is an expert. The ability to find and discover knowledge at our fingertips is both a blessing and curse.

Aesthetically we are bombarded more than ever with the impact of design. The efforts of visual design to market, promote, create lifestyle brands, utilize social media, capture attention, share, education and grow new ideas has never been greater.

Emerging technology impact of design.

The rapid speed of emerging tech forces design to move quickly, prototype, test, iterate and make improvements.

We are seeing a collective effort to design from different functions within a larger goal within artificial intelligence – both move rapidly to create and understand while being aware of the implications of the future impact this may have in our lives – yet we seem to be throwing our morals and judgements aside in pursuit of progress and innovation on this topic.

Autonomous vehicles are being developed and designed with the intention to create a better, safer and more efficient world where do not rely on the need of driving ourselves and operational of vehicles is not left to the impact of human error, but within the collective pursuit of a network of autonomous vehicles working seamlessly across roadways.

Battery powered cars, homes, buildings are being designed with the idea of taking digital approaches and classical approaches to design and merging them to create a more efficient, conscious, safer and energy efficient world through science, technology and design.

BitCoin and cryptocurrency is still in it’s infancy, but we cannot ignore the impact this emerging technology may or may not have on our future of currency, globalization and commerce. Solar and wind power is still emerging.

Facial recognition technology is intended to make our world safer and more secure, yet we give up our privacy and rights of our identity in new and emerging ways. The implications of this are still being debated.

Biometrics being captured to ensure efficient health care, safety and security.

Workplace impact of design.

Redesigning workplace environments to feel differently for productivity, safety, inclusiveness, equality are all designed. Amidst the recent COVID-19 outbreak, we are seeing a shift in workplace culture and design of our workday by working remotely, collaborating digitally, taking meeting via video conferencing. Hiring and assembling teams and projects through digital mediums.

Global workplaces are now possible from the design of platforms like Zoom, Google, Skype, Slack and the all traditional email.

As the COVID-19 virus emerges as a global pandemic (I am writing this from my home in quarantine right now), we see a shift in business to adapt to these new challenges. A spike in in video conferencing, email and messaging has become a norm as we have the tools to adapt to the current pandemic. The unforeseen future will reveal how dependent and important these tools will be in our future.

In addition to these tools, I am personally fascinated with the idea of other tools to help us in business. Tools around emotional well-being, personal growth, mental health and the psychology of how we can design, adapt and consider the future. It is up to us to decide – but the compass we use to decide should be inspected and articulated and considered. Our tools for connectivity have never been greater. We can socialize, do business and create global economies because of the design of technology in our lives. However, the emptiness, isolation and loneliness is more prominent in our personal lives. The future challenges exist at an existential level where we may experience empty depths within our own purpose and meaning related to our individual self, our local impact and our individual place in a connected globalized world.

Our current world is experiencing the design of platforms, software, and seeing or subconsciously experiencing the impact of design in our everyday lives from a global, cultural, technology or workplace setting. Design is intertwined within our lives and as we progress more into a technological driven globalized world, the importance of design becomes not about what can we envision and create, but SHOULD we envision and create particulate things. Who governs this? Who funds these efforts? Who determines the implications and outcomes? Is there morality within design? If nature is natural and chaotic and free from morals, and humans have applied morality to the building of our society, should design and future efforts acknowledge the moral implications of our work as it becomes more intertwined and engrained with everyday lives of humans across the planet?             

In my opinion, design has done a terrible job in it’s infancy of taking on the responsibility and efforts of self-regulating the implications of morality within our work. From the diminishing value of output, to the lack of barrier to entry within our industry, to the over saturation of using design to drive political and social agendas for the sake of survival, relevancy and progress.         

However, I question this deeply on many fronts. Whereas the current state of design is, in fact, in shambles. The creative agency model is broken, the drive for socialized design processes creates lackluster work, the lack of accountability has diminished our industry – all while the world needs responsible design met with thoughtful and considered approaches that are informed first by our approach to design itself, beyond and beneath the output. Yet, we see a flood of designers entering our field, those who do not have a background or experience in design taking our jobs or  businesses bypassing the importance of our work.

But this is to no fault of anyone but the designers who have existed in this digital space for the past 20+ years, myself included. My hope for these writings is to share thinking about the intention of design, the roadmap of our future and how designers of the future must approach our work if we 1. want to relevant 2. want to impact the world at greater levels 3. have a seat at the table of larger global initiatives beyond the conversation of industrialization, profits and capitalism.

Top 10 emerging trends to have the biggest impact on design

  1. AI and machine learning
  2. Augmented Reality
  3. Virtual Reality
  4. Behavior Tracking and modeling
  5. 3D printing
  6. Distributed teams and virtual workplace
  7. Democratization of design
  8. Crowdsourcing and open source
  9. Facial and voice recognition

Source: Design Census AIGA, 2019


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