7 Designers on Forward-Thinking Design

I couldn’t think of a better way to wrap up this short series on what it means to be a forward-thinking designer than to hear from practicing designers themselves. Here are just a few of them with their thoughts on forward-thinking design, the skills designers need that they may not have learned in school, and the future of their practice. 

The rest of the series:

David Sherwin, principal designer at frog

Forward-Thinking Design

When I studied design in college, there was a strong focus on the fundamentals of design as a communication tool. We studied the history of typography and the psychology of how we “read” art. We learned how to work individually to craft visual design solutions to confined design problems, such as creating a logo, a poster, or laying out a publication. This was decent training for the kind of work I initially did at design studios, but it became apparent even in the late ’90s that those skills were only a facet of what would be necessary to fulfill projects that were interactive in nature.

Since then, I feel like my skill set has inverted. Part of my task as a leader of teams, as well as a teacher of design at California College of the Arts, has been to encourage craft as part of a much broader, more holistic set of thinking and collaboration skills. Now that I’ve been working in the field of user experience design, much of my time is spent collaborating with teams to make sense of highly complex problems, where we have to explore people’s needs and a client’s business goals at a deep level to assert what should be designed.

At the same time, the speed of change in technology forces us to understand how the substrate we’re designing for evolves on a yearly, if not monthly basis. We have to track to this constant change, and embrace it. Otherwise, we just fall behind.

Skills Designers Need

Mary Paynter Sherwin, my wife, says: “You only get to be a forward-leaning designer by first being upright.” That means, you have to nail the basics before you get to peer further into the future. Otherwise, you won’t be able to execute on your vision. School is a great place to gain those foundational skills. But it takes your own initiative to know how to move beyond the foundation into focusing on more innovative design products and outcomes.

Also, the scale of our projects have become larger and more ambitious in nature, which requires deep long-term collaboration on design teams and with clients. Executing against these kinds of projects is hard to teach—you have to live through them a few times to get a sense of your strengths and weaknesses. And if you don’t have those foundational skills, you won’t be able to pull those long-form projects off.

The Future

If I’ve done my job well, in 10 years I’ll have promoted the tools that designers use to clients and communities worldwide in a manner that they can adopt our posture and mindset. In the past, we’ve created an exclusive language and set of tools to craft design solutions. As the tools and methods we use as designers continue to democratize, we need to be better shepherds in guiding others towards most effectively redesigning their world.

Able Parris, senior designer at Big Spaceship

Forward-Thinking Design

Designers today must think beyond the headline of a poster or the homepage of a website. We used to only design for a few different resolutions of a desktop environment, but now there’s a growing number of devices with unique dimensions and resolutions, and the scenarios in which our work is being viewed are endless. We’re designing for use cases we cannot predict for people who have little time. Much of what is designed now literally cannot not be seen, but is experienced.

Skills Designers Need

Students are being taught how to design logos that look just as good small and in one color as they do full-color on the side of a building, but I’m not sure they’re being taught how to design content-heavy websites for both desktop and small screen. Interaction design is a complex mix of UX, IA and unique use cases, and it would help designers to be exposed to these things in school.

The Future

I have no idea, and that’s what excites me about this field! 

Maura McDonald, Principal at MC Designs 

Forward-Thinking Design

What first comes to mind is the ability to easily embrace technology and understand its impact on design. Design and communication technology has changed more in the past 15 years than the previous 75, and the rules are constantly changing. Designers have to be open to change and not be afraid to leave their comfort zones, because that’s when some of the best work happens.

Skills Designers Need

Communication and project management are important. Not that designers have to own those roles but they must understand how their input feeds into the process and manage their responsibility for the deliverable accordingly. Other management skills like requirements gathering, audience analysis and vendor management are key to being successful.

The Future

In the past year we’ve seen the iPad create a whole new device to design for. I see more mobile and wireless access to websites, ads, content and other materials. Video will also be more the preferred medium with elements of personalization.

Patrick McNeil, creator of Design Meltdown 

I think “forward thinking” is really more like thinking for yourself. It seems that the web community falls into three categories: 1. the people who are content to use dated techniques and styles, 2. those trying to adapt to the latest patterns or approaches, but ultimately they are always playing catch-up, 3. those who use the current approaches, but are always thinking about how to morph it, adapt it, challenge it and ultimately do even better things. This is how the industry grows, people stop accepting things for what they are and find new ways to solve problems (both old and new). Forward thinking to me really means having the confidence to see through anxiety of keeping up and truly looking for fresh ideas.

Nick Disabato, product designer and publisher

Forward-Thinking Design

Designers often get pigeonholed into a specific style or approach: they work on one project, and that begets similar projects in the future. So there’s always the risk that you end up becoming branded as the designer who solves a specific kind of problem, in a specific kind of way. Once that ceases to be trendy or interesting, you’re not going to be in a good place if you aren’t examining your own work, and why you work the way that you work. Curious designers fare better in the long term.

Also, I’ve noticed that quite a few people don’t branch out very much. People who spend their whole time reading blogs won’t learn much beyond design’s most trendy aspects. Blogs are great, but you should also go to your library and read art books on various stylistic movements over the centuries. Or curate a folder of inspirational things locally, and go back and revisit it from time to time. Either way, take curation into your own hands; nobody else is going to do it for you.

Skills Designers Need

By far, the most important thing is the people skills needed to work with clients and other team members. I was completely blindsided by this when I entered the working world, and made some very public and unpleasant mistakes as a result. I was also unprepared for the speed that was needed to execute and iterate on an idea. If you aren’t generating many different potential solutions, you’re probably going to end up running down the wrong path, and you’ll end up creating a well-polished idea that ends up sucking. Kill your darlings in the name of a better product.

The Future

I work mostly in UX, so at least in the short term I’m seeing a lot more mobile and responsive projects coming down the line. They’re fantastic to work on. Extrapolating that, I would expect to work for products on all sorts of different devices, in an increasingly wider range of contexts. We’ve only had iPhone-caliber smartphones for about five years now, so I don’t think we’ve seen anything yet.

Tom Armitage, game designer at Hide & Seek

Forward-Thinking Design

As a designer or technologist, it’s about seeing the opportunities in mediums and materials. And so the really important thing is to consider what those mediums and materials are. Because they’re not just “paper” and “screens.” For starters, those two definitions alone are far too vague—there are so many kinds of paper, so many kinds of screens. But there are so many other materials—including what my former colleagues at BERG called immaterials, like radio, time, light, data—that it is possible to design with.

And so a forward-thinking designer/technologist is looking not only for new things to design, but new things to design with. Just look at Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and James King’s E. Chromi—a project that engineered bacteria to secrete pigments, which could then be used in other bioengineering projects. It’s very much a design project, about the affordances of bacteria and what having color on demand enables. It just happens to be in a medium—bioengineering—that one might not have previously considered.

It also means looking back a bit—considering things that may seem old but might still have things to offer. BERG’s “trough of disillusionment,” for instance. That trough is where cheap, readily-available and/or unexpected materials lie, and it’s ripe for picking over. Just because something’s old hat doesn’t mean it’s got nothing to offer. Which is a long-winded way of saying: aggressively consider all the things you could design with and within.

Skills Designers Need

(I don’t have a design degree, so this is a bit of a dangerous question for me. I do have good friends who have both taught and studied design, so I’ll do my best not to annoy them.) What design school appears to teach is method and process, and that’s always going to be useful—it’s just a case of applying it to new things. So while you might have examined all manner of materials at design school—print, web, screens, electronics, fabric—there will always be new ones to explore, and the trick will be hunting those new fields down and applying that learning and understanding skills to those fields.

That involves a degree of getting your hands dirty: To work with a material, you really need to have felt it. This is not always easy, but it’s important to know for yourself what’s possible: not blindly trusting imagination, or documentation, or concept videos. Your work with a material may be crude, but that crudeness might be why you come to new conclusions. Having explored a material enough to be able to know its grain, its affordances, you’re then able to know what questions you would ask an expert. Design often culminates in collaboration, and making those collaborations effective is important.

The Future

Remember the trough of disillusionment: what will be there by 2022? Computer vision might well be there, or perhaps well past the trough, into commonplace; 3D printing might finally be cheap, accurate and dull enough to be in there; but what else—desktop biohacking? Smart contact-lenses? Personal drones? No idea. All fun things to toy with, though…

Jesse Friedman, director of web development at Neal Advertising

Forward-Thinking Design

It’s more about how you can use the tools you have in different ways than inventing new ones. As designers and developers, we’ll always be limited by whatever tools we’re using—browsers, bandwidth, plugins, computers. But look at someone like Ethan Marcotte, who pioneered responsive web design. He took fluid layouts and combined them with media queries—two things that existed for a while—in a way that revolutionized the way we design sites now.

Skills Designers Need

You may not learn this in school, but you would if you were in my classroom. I always try to teach my web students how important it is to “learn how to learn.” I have a few years to teach these students as much as possible, but it’s not enough time. In our industry, most of their education is going to happen outside the classroom. Even now I spend hours every week, reading, attending webinars, looking up facts and more. You have to be in a constant state of receptiveness and openness.

The Future

It’s hard to say, but I think hardware is going to dictate that for us. It’s estimated that by 2015 a majority of internet traffic is going to be through a mobile device, and that’s just three years away. In 10 years I imagine we’ll have holographic displays, glasses with screens and windshield monitors in cars (these are all taken from movies). The one constant is that more and more is going to be done on the internet and imagine eventually computers will fail to run unless they are “connected.”

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