Design: Everything has changed. And nothing.

I used to be involved in award shows quite a bit, both as an entrant and as a jury member. This April I’m going to be sitting as a jury foreman at the D&ADs. It got me thinking: What’s changed over the past couple of decades that will influence what constitutes great digital design? At first, I thought pretty much everything. That what I’ll value this year will be different than what I valued a decade or two ago. But as I thought about it, I realized it won’t be different, because nothing has changed about what makes great design.

In the mid-90s and early 2000s the type of work we were cranking out was coarse — rife with constraints that pushed ideas and executions into a place where we were usually just connecting dots and delivering information. Basic technology and slow internet connections meant that a good experience was a simple, easy and direct one. We were doing an amazing job when we were able to simply present someone with the information they were looking for, in a manner that was more efficient than driving to a store or picking up the telephone.

What made for a great experience 20 years ago, still makes for a great experience today. Yes, we have more powerful tools and devices that now reside in the pockets of our savvy selves, but the fundamentals of what makes a great experience today are exactly as they’ve always been — with one difference: With all the capabilities at our disposal, we must now show restraint.

Today, the restraint we require to design great experiences is more challenging to work with than the constraints we had to work within 20 years ago.

In other words, the difficulties we faced through constraints in the earliest days of digital design are gone; in their place are near limitless capabilities in processing power, bandwidth, tools, technology and customer sophistication. Back then, we tried to design the best experiences to work in tiny spaces, like banners ads or 640 x 480 Web sites. We delivered them over modems to computers running Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer 5. We used Web safe colors and system fonts.

Today, we can do anything. We create experiences that blur the lines between our digital and physical worlds so much that they are one and the same. We design devices that don’t yet exist to deliver our products, services or messages. We know our customers better than we could have ever imagined. We really know who they are. We know who their friends are, what photos they just took, where they have been, where they are currently, where they’ll be in the future, and a million other data points.

With all the advances we’ve seen in the last 20 years, what makes for great experiences — for great design — hasn’t changed at all. It still boils down to solving real problems, for real people, in a snapshot of time.

We look for big problems, we conceive of big ideas and then execute the hell out of them, just like before. We still balance constraints, but use more restraint than ever as we wade through the vast, complex and powerful ecosystem. We strive to protect our ideas against the desire to over-design and over-engineer our solutions.

So just like always, regardless of the tools, resources and technologies that are available, I’m looking forward to handing out Pencils to work that’s solving real problems in beautifully simple ways, same as always.


Me, on Twitter.