Six predictions that will change design as we know it

Dan Formosa

As companies and organizations around the world look for ways to solve a seemingly endless number of problems, we’re seeing unprecedented attention to design, and to designers, to provide solutions. Creative techniques in design thinking (as practiced by designers and people in other creative fields, science to art) are being adopted by people in fields that never previously considered design or creative thinking. At the basis of design thinking stands the idea of a user-centered approach – getting closer to the people who can benefit from the innovative solutions that will (hopefully) result.

Many factors are on the critical path to success, including the free flow of information within a company or organization, permission to “fail” (maybe better stated as “freedom to experiment”), an aim to deliver meaningful products and services to people, and the challenge of exceeding expectations as opposed to simply meeting them.

Since design is being accepted in expected and unexpected places alike, what’s next for the field of design itself? While a human-centered focus has been gaining popularity, the methods we have been using to get there are not new – they’ve been in place since the 1980s (and well before that by some designers.) By now designers worldwide know how to do it, while people outside the design profession are eagerly learning how to incorporate these techniques into their day-to-day activities.

So… is the field of design ready to enter it’s next stage? Here are 6 predictions about how design will change:

  1. In the future, designers will know things
  2. We’ll add metrics to design
  3. Advertising and marketing budgets will be diverted to design
  4. We’ll return to basics in understanding people – psychology and physical ergonomics
  5. Females will re-think the fields of design and engineering
  6. We’ll see an exponentially increasing demand for better design, worldwide

1. In the future, designers will know things


I had an interesting experience last week helping someone create a rather detailed plan for a large-scale start-up project. I won’t be too specific, but her goal was to establish a health-care brand focused on a product area long overdue for innovation. As we discussed staffing, she stated “we don’t just need designers, we need people who know things.”

Her statement may have been unintentionally insulting, but it may also accurately reflect the current state of design as practiced by many and reflected in college degree programs. Many degree programs concentrate on how to design something, covering techniques currently being used in the field. A typical design process starts with an information gathering and research phase. It’s followed by a concept phase, where the design team conjures up ideas, through sketching and (hopefully) modeling and experimentation. Refinement and development are next, with a finalization stage to follow, readying that product or service for launch.

School programs provide students with an understanding of how designers have been working, at least up to this point in time. That makes sense, in a way, if the goal of a school program is to set graduates up for employment in an existing design organization. Since many design groups are following the basic model of design, graduating students will more easily fit into available job slots.

On the other hand, there’s a problem. Design programs may be looking out the back window, preparing students for design’s past, not the future. The world of design is changing, as more and more responsibility is being offered to design teams with the hope of solving a myriad of problems and finding innovative solutions. While the topics currently being taught are valuable, those programs cast a mindset as to what a designer’s responsibility is about. In my experience that if someone is not taught a subject in school, they are likely to treat that topic as none-of-their-business once they are out of school, which is unfortunate.

The term “research” in design has always been used loosely often not describing new learning. The term is more casually used to describe activities that get the team members immersed in a topic, often catching up with what others may already know.

The research methods being taught in design, for instance are often techniques borrowed from marketing research. Design programs rarely follow a truer course of design research to include many human-related topics that look beyond marketing, such as courses covering basic principles in physics (which affects usability), statistics, biomechanics (how the body works), physiology, cognitive psychology, anthropology or sociology. These topics that can add to a true human-centered design approach, but are rarely addressed.

A process-based approach to design won’t be sustainable much longer. Future programs (and practices) will dive deeper into the power of design by taking a more knowledge-based approach – covering pertinent issues in sociology, psychology, biomechanics, behavior and related people-centric topics.

2. We’ll add metrics to design

Designers have traditionally avoided quantifying anything, relying instead on qualitative methods to both inspire and “back up” their design decisions.

Recommendations from designers often come down to personal opinions – some of which are better than others. Design efforts can be fruitless as other groups within the organization, especially those with numbers and budgets, are readily able to disagree, prove otherwise, or to at least react cautiously. Many times they do not react at all. Designers often complain with stories of frustration, ready to quit, seeming to have little power, nor a plan to change their fate.

Does design research stand a chance? Some designers who have been shot down in the past by marketing, manufacturing, engineering or R&D groups come away with an ill feeling about those encounters. And an underlying message that information is working against them, curtailing their creative efforts. Yet knowledge is power, and I have rarely come across a designer who doesn’t think his-or-her knowledge about design should override the counterpointing opinion of others.

Most other professions measure things. That’s how they have acquired or amassed their base of knowledge and credibility. Many of those techniques have emerged in just the last 100 or 150 years – science, medicine, engineering, economics and others. Prior to that was a lot of opinion-based guesswork. Without measures, design may be in the dark ages.

An unfortunate consequence of the design profession’s shunning of quantitative methods, or the incorporation of metrics into design, is that we as a profession just don’t know that much about design. For example, as a profession we know little about how design affects behavior. Or how to design products used by people in stressful situations. Or how males and females may instinctively approach a product differently. Or a slew of many other valuable design-related topics. Rarely are quantitative methods taught in design schools, yet virtually all aspects of the human experience lend themselves to some sort of metric.

The design profession has emphasized the process, not knowledge. Designers focused on how to design something, the step-by-step approach taken to create a new product. But two points on that: 1. That approach is now so well practiced worldwide that it has become a commodity, not a unique differentiator in design, and 2. That process was developed to optimize incremental improvements in a product, not to address innovation. (A related point – if we could truly innovate within a fixed time and budget by simply following a process, we’d all be rich.)

As a result the design profession doesn’t have the knowledge base we should have at this point in time, as you would find in many other professions. Or a solid ability to conceive and back up our most far-reaching recommendations. Quantifying design has two distinct advantages: First, it drives the design team to be much more confident and articulate about their recommendations. Second, it allows for more radical or innovative solutions. By following a system of checks and balances through the research and concept stages of a project, the design team can more confidently pursue a path of greater innovation/lower risk. Simply put, better design.

Next steps for design? With the current interest in innovation, and in view of its high-risk nature and a reluctance of companies to take the plunge, designers will be incorporating more quantitative methods in design, moving to a knowledge, or evidence-based approach.

3. Advertising and marketing budgets will be diverted to design

In the 1950s, the popularity of television meant that companies could now advertise nationwide, to show off their newest product in action. By the 1960s, and well into the 1970s and 80s, advertising was king. In most cases products had to simply look good; They didn’t have to be new-and- improved, they just had to look new-and-improved. Marketing groups began hiring designers for this purpose alone. A designer’s role was to focus on aesthetics. Usability and design research, were not terms that were often heard in practice.

Budgets for advertising and marketing were massive. Budgets for design were microscopic. We’re talking magnitudes apart. The power of advertising was based on the fact that messaging about a product or service was delivered from the top down. We were relying on a promise, hearing what those companies wanted to tell us. And they were good at persuasion. The numbers shown for the return on the investment was convincing enough to keep pouring money into advertising and marketing.

Today, branding is dead – or at least branding as we used to know it. Companies don’t own that messaging today; We own it. It’s therefore no surprise that we’re not listening to what companies tell us about their products or services; we have better sources – ourselves. Where an advertisement or marketing campaign is making a promise, we are reporting on the delivery of that promise. We’re advising each other, encouraging or discouraging a purchase. We’re reading and contributing to blogs, discussion groups, Amazon and other “bottom up” sources of information, because we’d rather hear about the real-world delivery of a promise than simply hear a company make that promise to us.

As a result companies will divert more and more of their advertising and marketing budgets to design. It’s a more authentic and trustworthy investment – especially because there are millions of “design police” in the world ready to post a glowingly favorable or scathing review. But another way is to realize that the design of the product or service is the advertising. As a result of this bottom-up messaging, there is no difference today between the brand promise and the product or service itself. The product or service is, in effect, the ad. And as designers become better at proving the benefits of what they do, the disparity in design versus advertising budgets will lessen.

4. We’ll return to basics in understanding people – psychology and physical ergonomics

In the early 1980s we believed that design research would make us more cognizant of fundamental human-centered topics like psychology and biomechanics – how well does the mind and body relate to the product or service being created. But where have all the psychologists and ergonomists gone? Little of either topic has become a part of design education programs or design research practice. The basis of design thinking is a human-centered approach. This would require, you would think, a basic understanding of humans. The way we think, or the way we move, is fundamental to making products and services that are easy to understand and use.

Both areas of study got a boost in the US during World War II. As fighter jets became faster, they were also becoming more difficult to fly. The Air Force enlisted cognitive psychologists and ergonomists to help. Visual displays and controls were studied and optimized. Glance times were reduced, information displays enhanced, and physical controls designed not to just be quick and easy to use – but also to be difficult to confuse with each other. Following WWII, many of the psychologists and ergonomists involved in the war effort turned to the private sector. Although we didn’t suddenly see an amazing improvement in usability of products at the time, it set the stage for a promise of better human understanding in design.

One reason is that, because designers were typically enlisted by marketing groups to help their products look good, making them easier to use was not in the brief – or in the background of designers at the time. Incorporation of human-centered concerns was often interpreted as an obstacle, in competition with the more simplistic goal of making products visually appealing. Design award programs and museum collections didn’t help – they defined “good design” based solely on aesthetics. Designers wanting to win an award therefore shunned basic usability issues for fear it would compromise their aesthetics as a result the products of the 1960s and 70s, even the design award winners, often serve today as abysmal examples of design.

A move by designers in the early 1980s to become more conscious of user-centered issues emerged in opposition to these then-current design practices. Certainly design has more meaning beyond simply convincing someone to buy a nice-looking but poorly designed product.

Designers started conducting their own research, and in most cases were following the roles of psychologists and ergonomists in understanding all aspects of the person-to-product relations, mind and body. That move seems to have waned. Again, with design projects being funded by marketing groups, not all point to the need for a basic understanding of the role of cognitive psychology and ergonomics in the outcome. And really, you wouldn’t expect marketing groups to do so – these topics live in the realm of design. But that said, under direction of marketing, much design research defaults to the portion that most closely resembles marketing research – interviews and opinion-taking. Design education follows suit, with few or no courses required in either psychology or ergonomics.

Today, technology is ubiquitous, being more and more invisibly integrated into our lives. At the same time demographics of the US, as well as many other parts of the world, portray a rapidly increasing and very active older population. Baby boomers in the US are not going to sit back and watch the world; they will continue to participate. While a good understanding of psychology and ergonomics was important before, they will become increasingly important in the future. Keep in mind that not only are older consumers into tech – they have been incorporating it into their lives for decades – this group also has tremendous spending power.

As more companies invest in design, and given the factors discussed, a better understanding of psychology and ergonomics is inevitable. Education programs need to focus on these basic principles of design, and designers need to embrace them – because it will be crucial to achieving design’s potential to continue to improve our lives.

5. Females will re-think the fields of design and engineering

Females are responsible for 80% of spending in the US. Their economic power worldwide dwarfs that of China and India combined. The biggest opportunity many companies have before them is to click with the female market. It’s a challenge however, for two reasons: 1. Females are difficult to understand – no joke, their thought processes when shopping are more complex (a.k.a. more sophisticated) than that of males. 2. The culture in which we create products, design and engineering, may not be optimal for truly including females in the process, or for addressing females as consumers.

The way we approach design is, in itself, a design. It can change – and may be overdue for a change.

The drop-out rate for females in both professions is high. With a equal number of males and females in design and engineering schools, the ratio of practicing professionals in these fields is closer to 80% male/20% female. In many cases, the drop-out rate is due to the fact that females don’t feel they fit in. There seems to be a sentiment of helplessness, with a feeling that the cultures within both professions are fixed and immovable.

Since the 1930s, the fields of design and engineering have been populated predominantly by males. As a result the methods by which we design things today emanated from the way males would design something. No law, however, states that our male-based way of approaching design is the only way to do it.

There appears to be less of an awareness that the culture can be re-invented. Given a blank slate, how would females approach the development of products and service, either from a engineering or a design point of view? In my personal conversations, when exposed to that thought, eyes light up. It doesn’t entail, I believe, a complete re-vamping of the system. However, there is enough opportunity for change that can have dramatic impact.

As startups continue to prosper and as small engineering and design firms continue to appear, it is likely that some will be run and re-invented by women. In doing so, they may have a dramatic effect on the way we approach engineering and design now – and with dramatically different results, far more conducive to the female point of view. Women will re-think the system.

6. We’ll see an exponentially increasing demand for better design, worldwide

Something interesting is happening in emerging markets around the world. One of the first purchases a family may make is a television, especially the case now that the cost of a flat-screen TV has plummeted. The next thing that happens is they see things on TV that they want; Not ads necessarily, but lifestyles. “Look, that kitchen has a microwave oven.”

Demand is not just occurring in emerging markets. We tend to accept a zillion things in our lives that have been with us so long that we never even question them. But as design finds its way into unexpected places, so does the idea that design should find its way into even more unexpected places. It’s to the credit of creative designers – even startups – who have surprised us by finding these opportunities to innovate. The bar is being raised, globally. Less acceptance of kitsch, more demand for quality. As people become exposed to good design, they expect it in more and more places – it sets the bar higher for everything.

I recently told this to a large consumer electronics company – an increasing number of their products are becoming internet-connected. Previously they considered their competitors to be other companies in their business. Not the case anymore. Their products are being judged against products in all categories.

Good design used to be the goal. Great design is now expected. Because if one company in your life can do it, why can’t the others? We’re about to see this phenomenon accelerate exponentially. While it seems great for the design profession, it also means the pressure is on to perform. The push for great design will necessitate a re-thinking of the investment companies place on design. It won’t be higher budgets for more of the same thing, it will mean higher budgets for proven performance in design, approaches that have yet to be mastered. For the design industry, it can mean disruption.