By Rod Roodenburg
So we have this ‘friend’ on a popular dating site, and he drives us all a little nuts. It wasn’t so much the perpetual profile tinkering and tweaking, or the Facebook updates. More the texting and posing and more texting. I’m not judging—whatever works I guess. It did for him. He’s no longer single. Point is, it all started online, on screen, and now it’s all very real (hopefully for the long run).
Websites and apps aren’t just digital destinations in and of themselves, they are increasingly extensions of physical space. The dating game these days brings into sharp focus how digital devices, and by extension design, increasingly influence how we experience, navigate and interpret the physical world. We consult our GPS every day to get to work, and now our smartphones can interact with our magazines while placing virtual furniture in our homes in real time before we decide to make a purchase. I wish we had that app years ago—now we can’t get rid of our damn couch.
My kids seem to be perpetually plugged into their online games. Does that make me a bad parent or is this the new reality for an emerging generation of homo sapiens that feel more connected to a virtual environment than to ‘reality’? It is a question numerous science-fiction writers and psychologists have grappled with over the past 50 years.
From a design perspective (does any other really matter?), we have had a tremendous impact on user experiences, from business and entertainment to medical and life at home. No matter where you look, there’s a screen, or “an app for that.” The question is, how much longer will GUI designers have an impact?As graphic and interactive designers in the biz before the inception of web design, our firm has been affected by the demise or hobbling of numerous related graphic industries. We have been fortunate in embracing new incarnations of replacement technologies and the emergence of entirely new forms of visual communication. In some instances we lament the passing of traditional forms like hot metal type and the appreciation of truly fine paper. Yet, a new generation of entrepreneurs is being made possible by the evolution of online commerce and commoditization of web design, and the ironic twist is that many new and young creatives with ‘traditional’ bents—from professional designers and artists to hobbyists—are being enabled to ply a living from the very digital screens that a decade ago seemed destined to relegate handcraft to history. Digital design has served to inspire, connect and provide collaboration tools for a population craving a more physical and humanistic relationship, which I think is a positive step made possible through the democratization of technology.
Paradoxically, many digital designers are now concerned about the future, and how technology will impact their livelihoods and the profession in general. The fact is we have the ongoing potential to create more meaningful experiences if we can get beyond the surface and harness digital design in deeper ways that affect the physical world. It is a matter of worrying less about the delivery of our work, and focusing more on the message, the content and our responsibility in managing it. From film to animation and books to blogs, how people are watching media has become less important than what they are watching. Movies made for the big screen are watched with equal interest by kids on their iPhones, and on the theatre screen they interact with games and quizzes before the show starts.
While the method and format of interaction evolves, what is more intriguing to me (and aggravating when unwanted) is our transition to a push-based model of content consumption. In theory, good information will be provided to you without request. In reality, it can feel like spam. Perhaps things may improve over time as algorithms are improved and data is more localized. But I still have reservations about an overly curated digital lifestyle. Call me old-fashioned, but part of being human and being creative includes our unpredictable nature and desire for discovery. By limiting our choices to our predilections we are less likely to have the broad experiences that lead to innovative thinking.
We are in a multi-platform, multi-media and multi-dimensional world. To this extent, making the leap from screen to Zero UI (check it out at fjordnet.com)—where design expands beyond sight and turns its attention to other senses as our lives become more entrenched in the internet of things—is an increasing reality in our environment, from the spaces we inhabit to the things we wear. Zero UI is not really all that new (“clap on/clap off” ring a bell?) or even that accurate a description, but it’s an interesting way to bring attention to an issue where design is becoming less and less about just the screen and its visual interface. Loving the Nest thermostat for its elegant design and utilitarian features? These and many more devices are emerging because we crave more simplicity and connectivity to our surroundings.
Not only that, but the devices themselves are becoming more interconnected. Smart home technology, with fridges that tell you when you are running low on milk, is not exactly ubiquitous yet, but the fact that these kinds of products are being mass produced is a wake-up call to realize that data is being passively collected. And these products and data sets are talking to each other. How that kind of information is going to be used, in what way it shapes our purchasing tendencies and where we go to shop, live, work and play, is something to consider as a designer.
We hope that technology can make our lives more convenient and more productive. It’s a promise we have been hearing since the start of the industrial revolution. In some ways this has become true, but many would argue that the world seems more complex and out of balance than ever. What role does design have in this? Designers are no longer simply form-givers but rather shapers of data. The information we now have at our disposal can be more insidious and is further reaching than ever before through the digital products and environments we create. Most professional designers have some understanding that our design choices have both positive and negative societal and environmental impacts. Furthermore, if you want to be relevant, you are no longer simply a graphic, communication or digital designer—that semantic argument is long dead. Designers now are shaping every experience in our lives, and with that opportunity comes significant responsibility. •
Rod Roodenburg is partner, head of civic engagement, and creative director at Ion Brand Design in Vancouver.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of Designedge Canada magazine.