I view design as a broad field of practice and theory where designers are responsible for intuiting social, cultural, economic, and technological change; then adapting design tools, processes and methods to harness, steer and leverage those changes for the betterment of humanity. When designers improve people’s lives they create opportunities for business to thrive and grow. Everyone wins.
Periodically these changes come in big waves, I call them inflection points. The changes force design to employ new disciplines and processes, integrate them into existing design practice, and ultimately return once more to an efficient, high-functioning equilibrium. Sometimes this results in completely new practices such as: industrial design, man-machine interface design, information design, human-computer interaction design, user experience design, service design, and so on.
We experienced one of those inflection points in the 1990s. The internet brought exciting possibilities. Moore’s Law meant increasing processor speed and reduced size. Many believed the future of business would be online. We used terms like eBussiness and eCommerce to describe a world where bricks and mortar businesses ceased to exist. There was a mad rush to launch the next big dotcom startup. Investors were fighting to fund these new ventures. Every business had to get online and fast. It was in response to this inflection point that I cofounded the first User Experience firm, HannaHodge User Experience Architects.
I knew design needed to evolve if we were to harness the rapid changes in technology, business, work, and life for the good of people. So we set out to make those changes at HannaHodge. We introduced qualitative research methods borrowed from social sciences alongside traditional cognitive psychology-based methods. We brought disciplines like library sciences into the fold as we developed information architecture and content strategy. We employed artists, comedians and storytellers. We assembled multidisciplinary teams (see Magic of Teams) and hired people who were naturally empathic human-centered designers. We engaged users in our processes from start to finish and designed for their wants and needs functionally and aesthetically. For a while we became bloated and slow, then slimmed down and increased our speed and efficiency. We, like everyone else, eventually experienced the dotcom crash, but for sure we permanently changed design and for the better!
Even as we were evolving design in the 1990s I was thinking about what the next big inflection point might be. To be clear, we saw the more obvious social challenges. Things like war, pollution, poverty, hunger, diminishing natural resources and the like. I am not in any way denying their importance. But what intrigued me were the enormous challenges we didn’t yet see or understand.
At the time, I was reading and revisiting authors like Gibson, Kurzweil, Huxley, Orwell, Clarke, and Asimov among others. Always the visual thinker, I began to sketch out my thoughts and eventually it became clear to me; the next big challenge was about Authenticity. Privacy, Security and ultimately Trust were the huge challenges we designers would face next. I obviously didn’t have it completely right, including the timing, but I was close. My general thesis was correct.
Fast forward a bunch of years and we’re here. The next inflection point is upon us. Computing speed continues to increase. Everything and everyone is, or is soon to be, connected and instantly accessible on a global network. Artificial intelligence will meet and exceed human intelligence in our lifetimes. Social media and news platforms are omnipresent, instant and global. Speech recognition and synthesis, real-time VR and 3D rendering, even weaponized drones and autonomous vehicles, are no longer science fiction.
With these advancements come great possibilities and opportunities to improve human life. Safe transportation. Virtual trips anywhere in the world. Real-time language translation. Machines to do manual labor. Instant global exposure of corrupt actors. These are just a few of the obvious possibilities.
With these possibilities come great threats like we’ve never seen before. The potential breakdown in authenticity and trust and the myriad privacy and security concerns that come with it are not yet entirely clear. Basic assumptions we’ve made in the past will come into question. Am I safe? Is someone in my home? Virtually? Physically? What role does my data play in defining me? Is that voice a I’m listening to or the video I see real? Is it generated by a computer? Am I teleconferencing with a doctor or a machine. Where is the person I’m speaking to? Did my vote get counted in that election? Is the president a real person? Who or what is controlling my car?
I believe we are entering one of the most exciting and challenging times in the history of design. The speed of change continues to accelerate, increasing opportunities and possibilities to do good. Meanwhile understanding the impact and implications of these changes on people’s lives is becoming more difficult. Our work is cut out for us. We must embrace new disciplines, take on new roles and step outside our comfort zones as designers. I’m truly excited to roll up my sleeves and take on this next phase of work.