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Metamodern Design : Chapter 4 – Uncertainty About the Future of Design

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As design tools have grown in access, there exists uncertainty about the future role of the Designer. From Classical Design, Computational Design and Design Thinking, we envision a future where design leads, but the current leaders of industries do not see the value of design in the same regard. However, we can point to a few notes about the impact of design related to business, brands and commerce – though the data may not be as precise as desired, because design is a subjective output from objective thinking – hopefully. Most notably, The McKinsey Design Index does a good job of drawing correlation – but I am skeptical to their cherry-picking.

Whereas, Classical Design was born out of the view of a singular impression, computational design moves quickly with the intention to iterate and revise and design thinking is seen as a “must have” and not a specific practice within an organization. The lack of ROI or objective measurements leads those who do not design to see it as magic or unknown. They see the value of design from brands like Apple, Disney, or Tesla, and believe that if they create something aesthetically beautiful, it will sell and people will love it. However, this is flawed. Example – Microsoft Zoom was a well designed audio player that went obsolete.) The value of design exists beyond the aesthetic. Steve Jobs understood this. Apple understood this. Not all Designers understand this. Design is not about singular beauty, it is the ability to see beyond aesthetic, form and function and tap into the design of how we communicate our values and beliefs that are given life into our design.

In a 2018 Design in Tech Report open survey, 1219 samples from designers weighed in on the stereotypes designers experience in the modern work environment. The top stereotypes that non-designers believe to be true about designers is “Designers make it pretty”, “Designers can’t lead teams”, “Designers don’t understand business”, and “Designers only care about how it looks”. (Maeda, “2018”). These stereotypes exist across agencies, in-house teams and startups across a wide spectrum of industries.

The design industry believes that socializing design, the process, and the work is enough of a belief system that should hopefully instill some mutated notion of values and beliefs within the product itself, yet it lacks the evangelistic notion that propelled Apple into a new stratosphere through capturing the beliefs about people and instilling them into the products. Design today is trying to do the inverse of this and then we wonder why 8 out of 10 startups fail. It’s because the flaws of the design is not in the product, but the DNA that exists within the intention of that product in the first place.

There will never be another Steve Jobs. But what Steve Jobs understood is that humanity needed something greater than themselves. He actualized this belief through his products, his brand, his messaging, his existence.

Design exists in a place currently that is an attractive medium for those who desire to create. We exist within this unknown space. Where technology has given way to tools and resources and our best kept secrets. We are competing on price and a “race to the bottom”. And simultaneously, we find it difficult to articulate the value of our work beyond ROI to business leaders and why they should pay us more for our work. It becomes a downtrodden place to live. But, I think there may be some answers in all of this.

Design is both subjective in execution and built in discovering facts to create new solutions. The problem currently exists in a world where the extreme differences in ideology points to the dismissal of facts if they do not align with an underlying individual or cultural bias. Therefore, the execution of the design becomes inherently bias in a way that may seem like it’s doing good for the world, but it is ultimately contributing to the deterioration of the fabric of society.

For example, if we continue to silence, censor or ban the opinions of those whom we do not agree on a designed digital platform built on the values of freedom of speech, open source and self expression, what good is the effort of design if it has rooted itself within a political bias of subjective feelings versus freedom of speech in which it was designed does not agree with? Does this constitute silencing? This inherently changes the value of design. It diminishes the truth within design for the sake of pandering to bias narratives at the expense of going back on the values in which the pursuit of the design effort initially began.

Looking at you Twitter and Facebook.

The truth has slowly vanished from the design community. Truth being absolute rooted in fact to create and build a better future.

A bias truth without a foundation creates a fictional narrative and design direction that is not sustainable.

We witness this very unraveling at the polarity of extreme narratives being used through social media and network news. These narratives are designed not within facts, but within an underlying bias. The problem is that this approach to design creates a precedent that is not sustainable and diminishes the efforts and value of design in which it should be built upon discovery of facts, information and truth to solve challenges. If problems rise from a pursuit of truth within a design, then we must seek to discover a wider range of facts – or admit that we didn’t uncover the truth to solve the challenge.

Globally, design faces many obstacles.

As our global world and connectivity increases, we adapt to new ways of doing business. Hiring remotely a collective group of designers from other countries who have garnered their skills from access to tools allows business owners and organizations to hire designers for a fraction of the cost.

The commoditization of design has diminished the value and price at which we were once hired for, only to have business owners and investors look elsewhere for cheaper work because the access to design and tools have become widely accessible.

We have seen the global effect of design create a diminishing return on opportunities and the ability to hire designer’s at the cheapest costs. New design platforms exist to hire designers as a commodity, versus the value that we intrinsically bring with our work and experience. If hiring strictly on past portfolio is the only metric, designers wouldn’t need to sell themselves continuously beyond their past performance. But we do, and that translates to the potential client bidding on the notion of “how cheap can you do this for us?”.

We find ourselves competing globally against other designers across multiple continents for a design job that requires deep thinking, experience and a nuanced approach to discover and design the best possible solution. Yet, business owners want what they want and they will gladly pay a fraction of the price many times over until they find a designer who will meet their every need and request.

This globalization has created opportunity to connect globally, but we are experiencing a greater sense of depression and loneliness through these digital channels. Compounded on top of the diminishing industry within design, this creates future uncertainty about the impact and relevance of design as a place of leadership, influence and impact.

Compounded on top of the design industry and perception of our value, as humans, we face uncertainty related to global economics, politics, distribution of goods and services, natural disasters, pandemics, outbreaks, climate change impact, corporate and global economical power structures, technology implemented at mass scale (via commerce and physical checkout systems), biometrics, data privacy, 3d printing, direct to consumer models, and the downfall of brick and mortar business.

All of these examples are shifting dramatically, unknown, or pose a risk to stability.

Culturally, design now fast follows current trends – via the invention of a “new” app that competes with already existing apps in a dominated market space, aesthetically mimicking the look of brand identity or marketing campaigns in entertainment, consumer goods or services. Smaller startups are chasing influential brands for identity, marketing, design and visual. We see a constant remix and recycling of ideas as a means to compete or try to be different at the cost of informing design decisions from other successful companies.

There is a clash within society between modern and postmodern ideals. Where the hierarchy of structure is being dismantled from cultural narratives of western civilization for the pursuit of equality beyond opportunity. The design of society that created the modern world is being destroyed with no clear direction of what happens after the destruction. Meanwhile, those who choose to preserve the old-world design models in society are harboring the power and control as a survival mechanism. These ideals have driven a wedge within business and design. Whereas the majority of the design culture embraces the postmodernist ideals, yet takes a paycheck (happily) from the business owners who have built a structure, system and model from the industrialized ideals of the Modernist’s world. And the designers (in the majority) stand upon the ideals of postmodernism in an empty virtue of disrupting culture while accepting payment from the ideals in which they so profoundly despise.

We see extreme political activism happening. A polarizing political system that permeates culture at every turn. The narrative threads are woven into the subtle pieces of design, messaging, articles and business from those who instill these beliefs covertly or subconsciously. Designers must pick a side and stand for something greater than their work to implore meaning and purpose – so design chooses politics… because it’s easy.

Politically driven narratives subtly infused within the (sub)conscious efforts of designers inform the approach and intention behind the brand, identity, visual look and feel to create equity beyond equality of opportunity.

Narcissism via social media.

The prominence of social media in our world has created a self-centered and narcissistic worldview. We do things in order to share, to be admired, to gain followers, to capture likes, to hold attention. The narcissism is the desire to be like a celebrity, or pursue fame and relevancy as the access to social media is open to everyone. And this creates a platform in which the structural ideals are left to human instinct and it has brought out the worst of ourselves. We post to share, but deep down we desire to be loved, admired and revered. We post on others to bring them down, or lift them up in hopes that others will shape their views and opinions accordingly. The destruction of the social fabric of society has been left up to the reckless approach of social media – designed without any intention other than to socialize a platform of connection and accessibility.

With this consecutiveness, we gather insights into others lives and subconsciously create a social hierarchy (actualized by followers and likes) within a platform built and supported by those who seek to dismantle the structures and hierarchies by way of postmodernism. Do you see the hypocrisy within this?

So we have an intention of design, and industry of design led by those who value design, but not for the approach and intention that was greatly exemplified by the designers who built Rome, or considered the Egyptian pyramids, or built high-rises of New York City, or led Henry Ford to build an automobile, or the Wright Brothers to continuously and tireless pursue the idea of flight.

The fabrics of those societies where much different, and I would suggest that their morality and design was for the betterment of man, not for the destruction of culture and society. When the early Steve Jobs or Bill Gates set out to disrupt the computer industry, they saw it as an opportunity to create an amazing world by way of computers and connectivity. The IBM and Xerox’s of the world were dominated by stale corporate business leaders who lacked vision with the power of computing. Jobs and Gates saw an opportunity.

Today, those tools are now being used as a means of cultural influence and driving narrative – whereas the platforms that exist, and are designed, are created with the intention to disrupt, not to improve our lives, but to dismantle.

How can I say this with such certainty?

Because these companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms are incredibly aware of their impact and influence – there is more negative than positive examples in the world, and instead of course correcting and evaluating their deeper values of their existence, they continue to push forward at the expense of the user, data and revenue. They do not have our best intentions at heart. Maybe they did at one time, but the very thing that the value systems of those who work at these companies profess to speak out against, is the same thing fueling their operation and company vision. Money – at the cost of your well being. So they sell you on yourself. You are the product. And the more you can buy into your own narcissism, the more addicted you become to their platform. And the more addicted you are to their platform, the more money they make from you both as a product and a consumer.

Fast following trends, chasing influential brands, remixing and recycling ideas, clash of modern and postmodern ideals, extreme political activism, narcissism via social media, misunderstandings of branding, misunderstanding of design, streaming platforms and entertainment, brands are taking a political and social position, celebrities and entertainers are being a voice of global change, politicians are focused on being celebrity personas.

Will AI replace design? Will data and automation replace design? Will access to new and free design tools continue to diminish our work and role? Will emerging tech replace us? Will emerging tech create an even lower barrier to entry for anyone to design? How will viruses and pandemics effect our work in the future? How will corporate culture change? How can design effect and impact depression and mental health? Do we have the proper tools for working remote? How long will it take to naturalize the digital workplace and work-from-home?  

The future will be impacted by direct to consumer, social media, biometrics, data privacy, streaming platforms, cloud computing, startups, tech companies, and facial recognition.

Design does not have a prominent seat at the executive level.

Design has struggled to be validated or quantified with its impact beyond the execution of the work.

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