Left Behind in the Future of Design

The “What’s next?” is what we chase after everyday. We scour the information feeds for growing trends or to see what everybody is talking about. Because if everybody is talking about it, we need to know what it is. Everyday there’s something new about CSS, design tricks, typefaces, technology, and so on. There are aggregators that are made to specifically show the top trending items being socially spread. Personally I love the latest gadgets. I can’t get enough of them. Sometimes though, I sit back and wonder how I can keep up with all of it.

It’s almost maddening to figure out what to concentrate on sometimes. I also question if I know enough of the right information. No one was really thinking (or had to) about designing for the iPad or the design specs brought by the Retina display for the iPhone 4 less than a year ago. Now months later it’s all over the place. That’s how fast things change.

“Another part of the other reason that I feel the need to at least familiarize myself with mobile design and development is that I don’t want to get left behind. I honestly have no idea where the industry is going, but when change comes (and it will come), I don’t want to be like one of those 80′s hair bands who failed to adapt and fell by the wayside.” – Matt Ward1 (of Echo Enduring)

No one wants to be left behind. Is it even possible to keep up?

Building a Graveyard

What we’re really talking about here is change. That’s how our industry became what it is today. The Web rebelled against so many things. I wouldn’t have the voice that I have today with this blog, were it not for the Web. Old media would still be delivering us every piece of information. The way of our new world is to skyrocket to success overnight. Forget all the old methods of writing up a business plan and struggling for years. Change is good because it’s the lifeblood of the Web. Is it really all good though?

As quickly as we talk about the next big thing, we forget about the last big thing. Anyone remember MySpace? Me neither. Everyone is talking about Blu-ray, and I’m still building a DVD collection. They say Blu-ray is supposed to better though right? So I guess that means we have to upgrade. The problem is when we blindly buy into the hype and all these must have gadgets and signup for the new thing, we end up building a graveyard; rather than improving things for ourselves long term.

We call old media a slowly dying dinosaur, yet the majority of the information we consume and spread through new media veins like Twitter are from those old media sources.2 And honestly, how many new startups have figured out how to monetize their digital products compared to the old businesses that grow steadily. So, will I still be left in the digital dust for talking like this about change?

The problem is that instead of being rational about change we succumb to this fear of being left behind that lets change drive us rather than us driving it.

Convergence and Divergence

Convergence is the idea that we can combine multiple pieces of technology into one. Technologies by nature seem to diverge though.3 We have a DVR, a DVD player, a television, etc. We could say that at one point we were converging with the standards and building a unified Web where pages looked close to the same no matter which tool we accessed it with. Now we are headed toward a divergence though, where the Web is shattering into what some dub as the “Splinternet”.4

Many of the old media information sources are building gates, also known as: Time to pay for content. The iPad and iPhone are the kings of the experience and have a great thing going. However if you don’t own those and access the Web in other ways, like a desktop, you can see things that those two devices can’t. Facebook is a huge community hidden behind a login. Google can’t search and access what they are buzzing about. All these pieces are the Web, but we can’t easily see it at once, and we need specific applications or devices to access the fragments.

Our Not So Different Future

In a previous article (The Creativity Trigger) I talked about the non-linear path that our world takes to building technology or points of innovation. It’s individuals (and small groups) with their own agendas and motivations that propel us forward. We build off of each other, rather than working toward a big picture of what the future will be for things like design. This means that drastic change in the world of design might likely come from someplace outside of design itself.

I think we could consider something like the iPad as something that came out of left field and has us rethinking how we design for the web and upsetting technologies like Flash. However, this also falls into the cool, new, must have category too. There might be other companies that are able to build off of what Apple has done and create something much better that will upset the design continuum again.

Author Scott Berkun talks about change and its affect (or non-affect) on user interface. He claims that most of the future UIs will be boring because it is so hard to get the masses to relearn basic things like a new keyboard (DVORAK vs. QWERTY). The bar for interfaces is low, as in most times companies just don’t want them to suck. Consider something as simple as the different types of plugs and voltages (50 different ones) across the world and we find there is little ability for long term convergence in our world.5

The Designer of Tomorrow

I remember going to a job fair many years back and talking to employers at several Web firms who expected the designers to be able to code. In fact, the design piece was not that important to them. That message was strong enough that I walked up to the FBI booth there and started seriously thinking I had been left behind and should think about doing something else. At that moment switching my career focus to design felt like a career killing move.

I of course didn’t sway from design. I continued down the path that I felt was best for me. I didn’t have any idea that I would end up doing the type of work that I do today because the Web was no where near as sophisticated as it is today. Companies evolved and design is now seen as something more valuable than it was before.

Design is diverging like technology since that is where the current demand is. We will be forced to make more choices and focus on even more specific things to design for as technology and the Web splinter.

Sure, we all love what’s next. We get bored easily and always seek something better. It’s important not to get so caught up in the what’s next world and remember the current world where people are still struggling with their microwaves and logging into ReadWriteWeb thinking it’s Facebook.6 Sometimes it’s scary to see things through the user’s eyes. Not that they are all idiots or something, they just don’t live in the what’s next world like we do.

The thing about design that doesn’t change is what makes design more valuable every time something new comes along: People. We design for human beings and that doesn’t change. The fundamentals of design are something we can always come back to and learn more about. I haven’t learned everything about design and never will. That’s my what’s next.

1) Reinventing Yourself as a Designer: Will it be necessary – Echo Enduring
2) Transparency: Where the Stuff on the Internet Comes From – Good Magazine
3) Designing Outside the Box – G4 TV
4) The Web Is Turning Into The ‘Splinternet’ – Forbes
5) The future of UI will be boring – Scott Berkun
6) These are your users… read and be horrified – UX Magazine