12 Questions on the Future of Design
As part of Kickstarter’s Design Month festivities, we made a list of clever thinkers and interesting friends in the design world and sent them a short, open-ended survey about the past, present, and future of their fields. From product designers to architects to idea-maker Tim O’Reilly, we heard from some pretty insightful folks. Dig in to hear about wearables hype, David Bowie, the influence of Jony Ive, and Seattle’s crowning glory.
What do you do, make, or design?
Dong-Ping Wong (Family): Buildings, mostly.
Tim O’Reilly: I make books, conferences, and big ideas that help organize communities of practice — ideas like “open source,” “Web 2.0,” “makers,” or “open government” (“government as platform”).
Colin Raney (Formlabs): We design/make 3D printers.
Matthew Waldman: I created NOOKA Inc. to bring the revolution of interface design to fashion and objects. That said, I’m best known for my timepieces that express the ideas of universal global language.
Emily Fischer (Haptic Lab): Physical projects and textiles that explore haptics — the body’s sense of touch.
Eric J. Winston (SFDS): Fabrication and design.
Hidden (John van den Nieuwenhuizen & Vitor Santa Maria): We design poetically simple audio projects.
Justin Nagelberg (Parallelogram): I design objects that try and explore form and function in new, unexpected, and ideally more interesting or useful ways.
Marco Perry: Pensa is a consulting firm that works with startups and Fortune 500 firms for just about any consumer project. We spun off another company that makes the D.I.Wire, the first desktop CNC wire bender.
Scott Thrift (The Present): I’m an artist and I produce work on time.
What three key works or ideas set the stage for what you’re doing now?
Fischer: Euclid’s Elements, Buckminster Fuller, and the development of e-commerce.
Danzico: Orson Welles’s “The War of the Worlds,” Robert Moses’s development of New York City public space and parks, and Tim Berners-Lee’s implementation of “http.”
Raney: The internet allowed people to connect and converse. Blogging/publishing software allowed people to exchange ideas and designs. And the RepRap project made massive strides to bring 3D printing to the masses.
Hidden: Naturally Apple is always a big influence, though we feel that they, like us, were also influenced by the incredible Japanese designer Naoto Fukusawa. He has an amazing ability to blend minimalism with a beautiful, poetic story that always ties a product story together in a beautiful way.
O’Reilly: In my philosophic foundations, I have been influenced by Lao Tzu, particularly in the Witter Bynner translation, for a philosophy of life; and by Wallace Stevens, for a sense of the interplay between underlying reality and the richness we make of it with our ideas, and the notion that creative persuasion is central to the construction of reality. (This idea is beautifully expressed in the recent book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Hariri.)
Desbiens: fahz finds its most obvious precedent in the Synsoplevede Figurer (“Visual Figures”) of the Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin. This classic exploration of figure-ground relationships has been important in the work of many artists and designers, including Greg Payce. My fundamental interest in the fahz project is to explore the opportunities and challenges inherent to mass customization as described by Alvin Toffler and others.
Nagelberg: Star Trek, Tokyo, and geometry.
Hidden: Buddhism and consciousness. To really do good design, it’s incredibly important to leave your ego at the door. You can really tell whether a design has been done to stand on its own or to inflate the designer’s ego.
Perry: Any inventor is an inspiration — Da Vinci, Edison, Tesla, Ford, Jobs and Woz, I wanted to be like all of them.
Hidden: Globalisation. When we started out in design, we never had the chance to interact on a daily basis with people in other cultures. Now we have the ability to design for people no matter where they are. We have backers from as far away as Kazakhstan. We really could never have thought our designs would stretch all over the world like they have.
What’s the most under-appreciated idea in design right now?
Fischer: The ITER fusion project.
Raney: I still think Design Thinking is pretty under-appreciated. (It’s extremely overhyped, but a deep practice is under-appreciated.)
Winston: Proof of concept.
Hidden: Simplicity. Designers have felt the need to put huge amounts of technology in products that may not necessarily need it.
Waldman: Branding. The power of a well-articulated brand. Narrative is essential for creating an emotional connection with the consumer. It seems only Apple, NOOKA, and fashion companies really “get” this these days.
O’Reilly: The notion that the next frontier in technology-influenced design is the redesign of workflows in the real world. I have been talking a lot about Uber as an Internet of Things case study in this context. So many people think IoT is about devices, when in fact it’s all about how new sensors and the data they produce will allow us to rethink the way things are done. As Aaron Levie of Box.net said, “Uber is a lesson in designing for how the world should work, rather than simply for how it works now.”
Grase: Trackable everyday objects. I’m so tired of losing my things non-stop. I wish to have a system to see where have I placed what and where the hell is my phone again.
Wong: Anything that helps improve the environment.
Nagelberg: The use of alternative materials and processes in consumer products. I feel that material science and manufacturing methods are progressing at light speed, and we have more and more environmentally safe and interesting materials to select from, yet we still end up using the same old materials and processes because they are cheap and easy. This usually ends up leaving us reliant upon manual labor and with less environmentally friendly material. This is not to say that progress is not being made on that front, but at the same time, since the marketplace is so competitive, making a move to newer options comes at a cost not many can afford.
Desbiens: I think there’s a huge amount of unexplored territory in the area of digital/analog design hybridization. I’ve seen a lot of strong work that is entirely hand crafted with a renewed appreciation for traditional craft. I’ve also seen a lot of projects that never seem to leave the computer. The idea that you could use digital design techniques to examine the latent opportunities and unexplored potential of traditional ways of making is really exciting to me.
Thrift: Solar power.
Danzico: Google Docs.
What idea is most overhyped?
Waldman: Fitness trackers.
Fischer: 3d printing.
Grase: Drones and 3d printers. I have seen enough. ☺
Raney: Apps. They’re relatively easy to make/distribute. So there’s just a lot of crap and far too much distraction. The idea is important, but it’s too overhyped.
Wong: “Digital Design.”
Winston: Technology. Which I love, but there are too many iPhone this and that’s out there.
Nagelberg: Tech specs. Definitely tech specs. In the end, user experience reigns supreme, never tech specs. I remember when the iPhone came out — I was living in Tokyo, and my flip phone had a better camera, was faster, had streaming television, infrared, and an integrated IC payment system. Yet despite the iPhone’s lacking in all of those departments, it was a far superior product because of its incredible user experience.
Perry: Everyone wants to be just like Apple when they don’t have the ability or capital to do so. They need to be like Apple was in the 80s, which was risky and not as profitable or growth-centered as the MS model.
What recent tool do you think has had the biggest impact on how your field works and what you create?
Winston: My CNC router.
Fischer: Opensource data.
Waldman: The internet has made finding and collaborating with talent super easy! Also the 3D printer has really shortened development cycles for physical products.
Nagelberg: Without a doubt, the greatest tool to impact my industry has been quick, affordable 3D printing. It has made a huge difference in the turnover and success of product design. It really is remarkable to be able to throw together a 3D model and to then have it physically sitting in front of you right after. Especially when you are trying to fine-tune proportions or manufacture a shape that would otherwise be time-consuming to create.
Perry: Digital fabrication is making design of hardware accessible and democratized for everyone, as digital publishing did in the 80s and 90s for everyone with graphic design ideals.
Raney: Image capture that can mimic physical objects. It removes the necessity to use modeling software. Still crude, but improving.
Hidden: Web apps. The ability to run our company from anywhere in the world. Our core business model would not be possible just a few years ago.
O’Reilly: One of my current passions is the improvement of government services and workflows via technology. Github is a huge tool for helping innovation to spread. And frankly, Github is also super important in areas like publishing. We have a new Github-based tool environment that allows us to do collaborative book development and publishing.
Desbiens: It’s not really a recent tool, but rediscovery of text-based computer coding has had a huge impact on my design work and on that of many of my contemporaries. After a few decades of incremental growth in the complexity of design software, it can be liberating to step back and think about how all that geometry is actually being created.
Grase: Might sound cheesy but yes — crowdfunding is a tool that has changed our lives.
Who’s the most important person in your field right now?
Fischer: Neri Oxman.
Raney: Paola Antonelli.
Hidden: Jony Ive and the Apple Design Team.
Grase: Nils’ [Chudy, of Chudy & Grase] answer would be Jonathan Ive! For me it is a bit more difficult…
Bapu: Jony Ive. He’s reimagined everyday computing products into forms that are truly both art and technology.
Nagelberg: Although I would say that Apple had been at the forefront this past decade, I feel that in the past few years it has shifted towards Elon Musk, because of his fearlessness at taking risks and rolling out new inventions and designs that are so important to the evolution of our planet into an era of sustainability and environmental stability. He understood the need to make environmentally safe solutions that are priced within reason and are actually viable answers to present problems. There have been many great electric cars, for example, but he understood that in order to replace the combustion engine, he needed to make the electric car just as, if not more, attractive to the majority of consumers.
Desbiens: Achim Menges. His work at the Institute for Computational Design at Universität Stuttgart is notable for the depth of inquiry. He doesn’t just explore computation or materials. He interrogates the area where the two come together.
O’Reilly: I would have to be biased and choose my wife, Jennifer Pahlka, the founder of Code for America. She is at the center of so much that has happened in this field, both in her role at CfA and also in her role at the White House, where she was the Deputy CTO for Government Innovation, and the person who did the most to create the new United States Digital Service.
What’s the most important design to come out of your field in the past 10 years?
Waldman: Hands-down, the iPhone.
Nagelberg: Without a doubt the iPhone. Now that we’ve come this far it’s hard to imagine society even functioning before the smartphone.
Hidden: Undoubtedly the iPhone. While its technology is incredible, it is really what they were able to take away and simplify from the design of a cell phone that made it so incredible.
Fischer: Commercial drones. Drones in general — important, but terrifying.
Wong: The Seattle Central Library. That might have been more than 10 years ago.
Desbiens: I really appreciate a pavilion called Hygroscope by the Stuttgart ICD. I like the way it utilizes the computational potential embedded in a natural material — wood.
Bapu: Bang & Olufsen’s BeoPlay A9. In their own words, they’ve built “acoustic art.”
What’s the biggest challenge, problem, or question your field needs to tackle right now?
Fischer: Sustainable energy.
Winston: Sustainability and re-purposing to the highest design standards.
Nagelberg: Sustainable, environmentally safe products for the masses. Designers and manufacturers have to be the ones to make environmentally safe decisions for the sake of society. We could, in theory, rely on the consumer to do research on the variety of materials and make the right choice for the sake of the planet. But in reality we are producing hundreds of thousands of units, while they are only purchasing one. For that reason, we as designers are making the major environmental impact.
Wong: How to make architecture that improves the environment, rather than degrades it — how to stop buildings from putting out 40% of all carbon emissions.
Grase: Technology translated in sensitive and meaningful design. There are so many amazing tech innovations coming out every day, but how many of them do we really need, when our environment is being polluted with the same product in a hundred different versions?
Waldman: Funding is a huge problem. VCs only fund what their friends are funding and there is a huge myth of the USA being an easy place to get funding. There is classism, ageism, sexism, and racism in funding that is beyond ridiculous, and these problems extend to crowdfunding as well.
Danzico: The changing definitions and boundaries of privacy.
Hidden: Distribution. There are some incredible products out there that people do not know about because big box stores continue to only stock the status quo based on price or brand.
Perry: With the democratization of design, anyone can make stuff, and not for the masses, but for a small group. In the past, companies could only make products that appealed to 100,000 people or more in order to have a viable business. Now you can make for one or more, which is closer to the days of craftsmen and guilds. With that as a business model, what will happen to companies and designers?
Bapu: Education. We need to educate consumers on why they should pay more for higher-quality goods. Arnold Horween Jr. of Horween Leather in Chicago said it best: “You will buy the best you can afford if you can understand the difference.”
What piece of pop culture has the most interesting notion of what the future might look and feel like, design-wise?
Desbiens: Star Wars.
Wong: David Bowie generally.
Thrift: The new Whitney Museum.
Danzico: Spike Jonze’s Her.
Nagelberg: I just saw the film Ex Machina, and I really, really liked their idea of what a future house might look like. I love how the home in the film blends the beauty of the natural landscape into the architecture of the home environment while also integrating lots of new technology. I also really liked the vision of the future in the movie Her. I think the thing that stood out for me about that film was how naturally the technology blended into the lifestyles of the characters. … Also the fashion was really cool!
Fischer: Citizen Four.
Waldman: Most recently, the film Ex Machina was very spot on and presented a future sexiness that was strangely aspirational. As for sound, the independent artist EMIKA makes some awesome sounds that keep me in my future-mode.
Bapu: Minority Report.
Grase: Pop culture scares me.
Ten years from now, will design in your field look and feel more like the natural world, or more artificial? More complex and ornate, or more spare and minimal?
Waldman: This is a great question, because it will actually be both! I believe that there will be a huge revolution in material science that will increase the efficiency of recycling to near 90% post-consumer waste. This will bring on a new futurist version of rococo. At the same time, with real luxury moving towards experience and wearable tech eventually evolving into body modification, we will have and need fewer things. Things will bring new meaning to “minimalism” and also a new look and feel. Both directions are super exciting to me as a designer.
Grase: Artificially built reality. The absolute Matrix. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything bad, as long as we get to wear black leather pants, long coats, and sunglasses indoors.
Nagelberg: Ideally it will be able to encompass more complex and ornate designs while still remaining natural and beautiful. I feel like the trend is towards a more simple, minimal, and refined form but with rich function or content. I really hope we continue to move in this direction because I quite like that combination.
Desbiens: My hope is that design and architecture begin to look and feel more effortless, regardless of the level of complexity embodied in the designed artifact.
Thrift: Ten years from now, the only trend will be that every imaginable style is available — all trends are in.
Fischer: The biggest change will be in pervasive computing: technology will be become smaller and more embedded in our objects and everyday lives.
Danzico: Design as such will be difficult to discern, as it will increasingly vanish into the background.
What new thing do you wish technology could do in order to open up the potential of your work?
Winston: I sometimes wish technology would slow down so we could start using our hands and brains in the shop, not on a computer.
Fischer: Greater distribution in the developing world.
Waldman: Battery technology is stuck in the 19th century and this has to change. Piezoelectronics and other forms of kinetic, solar, chemical, and ambient energy harvesting must become mainstream and miniaturized to bring on the next revolution in wearable technology.
Thrift: I’d like to produce solar-powered timepieces, but the lack of efficiency in contemporary panels is still a limiting factor. It would be great to be able to print color onto solar panels.
Bapu: Wireless charging. No wires = cleaner design. You can place your objects anywhere, instead of near an outlet.
Raney: Faster printers, more intuitive modeling software.
Hidden: We would love if 3D printing could truly replicate the manufacturing process and truly replicate current material properties. Right now 3D printing is quite far away from being used as a mass production system.
Wong: I really want that instant food-making thing in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Other than that, teleportation. Also Star Trek, I guess. Maybe my Answer #9 should be Star Trek, too.
Nagelberg: Automate unnecessary tasks and manual labor. We are on the verge of this, and, ironically, there seems to be a good deal of resistance from society. If it were up to me, I would love to have manual labor jobs like manufacturing, transportation, farming, or sales completely automated. This is often misunderstood as machines taking jobs, but really what it would be doing is allowing more people to work in fields that are more important to the future of our society, like engineering, programming, or science. Also, I am pretty sick of driving in Los Angeles traffic!
What one word would sum up your predictions for where design in your field is headed next?
Grase: Human-centered. Human-centered design that adjusts to the needs of the user before he knows what his needs are.
Perry: Design by everyone for the few vs. design by the few for everyone.
Don’t worry if you missed Kickstarter’s Design Month — you’ve got as much time as you want to explore everything that happened. Some highlights:
- MoMA’s Paola Antonelli stopped by for a conversation with our CEO, Yancey Strickler, and helped curate our Happening page with some of her favorite links.
- MIITO’s Jasmina Grase did the same, right here.
- We looked at typography, architecture and place, and how to recreate a lost sculpture from photographs.
- And we compared how the future described in old issues of Popular Mechanics stacks up against what we see today.