11 Scenarios of the Future of Experience Design

Julian Scaff

As a discipline, experience design is in its infancy. It is an interdisciplinary field operating with young technologies that are in flux. But experience design is also robust, built on the foundations of the scientific method of forming a hypothesis and conducting experiments to test that hypothesis. It is a field of design based inherently in research, user testing, and iterative refinements utilizing empirical data. The underlying methodologies of experience design work, and it seems clear the it will continue to grow and evolve. So what will experience design look like a decade or so from now?

First off, in this article I will not attempt to predict the future. To do so would be a fool’s errand. Specific predictions of the future are almost always inaccurate, and later seem at best quaint and anachronistic. Think of past predictions that by the 21st century we would all be driving flying cars and served by robots. The main problem with predicting the future is that progress is rarely linear. At certain points in history, progress takes a left turn, disruptions push us in a different direction, causing an unexpected leap forward or a devastating setback. Projecting current trends doesn’t take into account unexpected disruptions, or the fact that humans are unpredictable and sometimes (maybe often) irrational.

We cannot predict the future, but we can invent it. So instead of predictions, I will sketch some possible future scenarios. I have tried, in my research, to consider not only trends in the fields of design and technology, but also trends in politics and sociology, environmental and materials sciences, transportation, medicine, textiles, etc. The world is inherently interconnected, and so the future of any discipline and industry will be profoundly affected by a variety of influencers. Engaging in medium to long term scenario sketching is not just a fun exercise, but an important tool for designers and organizations. Scenarios enable us to envision wider possibilities, embrace uncertainty as a part of strategic planning, and think in terms of interconnected systems. For both designers and organizations, it allows us to get out in front of possible trends, to be proactive rather than reactive. Thus it’s a vital tool for innovation.

Scenario 1: Immersive Computing

Ubiquitous computing (the “internet of things”) will collide with mobile computing and AI. We will be immersed in data, not just from our phones but from our clothes, buildings, vehicles, etc. Inexpensive embedded chips and sensors will allow access to data from almost any urban environment. Already, the definition of a “phone” has inherently changed from a purely voice telephony system to a hand-held computer and wireless data node. With embedded chips and sensors, the concept of the data node will extend to the most mundane objects, from coffee makers to the walls of homes and offices.

Increasingly, UX designers will be designing environments and not just screens. For instance, kitchen appliances like stoves, ovens and refrigerators will be touch screens, allowing people to search for recipes based on the food items they have, send shopping lists to their phones, and set cooking times automatically. Software embedded in the kitchen will help people eat healthier and cut down on food waste. UX designers will design not just the screens, but the entire kitchen experience.

Scenario 2: Sensables, Not Wearables

Wearable tech like smart watches and fitness bands are a niche transitionary technology. Embedded chips and sensors will be everywhere, including our own bodies. Small, removable adhesive chips will be attached to our arms or torsos to sync our bodies to the cloud. Stick-on sensors will allow professional sports teams to monitor and track their athletes during training and during games.

We will be able to swallow capsules packed with sensors to wirelessly transmit information about vital signs, internal health, colonoscopies, etc. Instead of a trip to the doctor, just swallow a MedCapsule and a full medical examination report is wirelessly sent to your health provider.

UX designers will be designing how we interact with these technologies, how we access and use the data, and how these devices work within our data-rich immersive computing lives. Some of those experiences will be screen-based but many will be physical experiences.

Scenario 3: FashionTech

Nanotechnology and material science, combined with embedded computing, will cause a convergence between the fashion and tech industries. Smart fabrics will convert kinetic energy to low voltage electricity, so that just the act of walking around will automatically charge any devices (such as smart phones) that we have in our pockets. Nanotech fabrics will be able to adjust their breathability and insulation value to adapt to ambient temperature. Environmental filtration built into our clothing will protect us from pollution.

As our clothing syncs and integrates with our tech device ecosystem, UX designers will work as fashion designers. Increasingly high tech clothing will be an integral part of both our digital and physical experiences.

Scenario 4: Transportation As Digital Device

We will interact with our cars, public transit, and other modes of transportation through software. In this way, our cars and public transit will be more like digital devices than mechanical devices. A car will be more like a smart phone.

UX designers and software engineers will have major roles in transportation design. The technology for self-driving cars is almost ready now, and will be safer than most human drivers. As adoption rates for self-driving cars increases, car accidents will become a rarity. But for people to trust such technology, UX designers will have to figure out how to humanize the user experience, as several of my students (Brian Colby, Kat Wong and Jeff Fan) grappled with in a project on Tesla’s new autopilot system.

Scenario 5: The End of the GUI (as we know it)

The Graphical User Interface or GUI (pronounced “gooey”), the concept of interacting with computers using visual indicators rather than lines of code, has its roots in the work of Douglas Engelbart at the Stanford Research Institute and Alan Kay at Xerox PARC in the early 1970s. Since the mid-1980s the GUI and computer mouse have been the primary interface for personal computers. That era will come to an end.

The GUI will be replaced by Intuitive User Interfaces, combinations of touch, gesture, and voice commands. The computer mouse will be relegated to museums. Responsive design, the term we now use to mean screen-based website designs that change automatically dependent upon the user’s screen size and resolution (for example from desktop to mobile phone), will come to mean responsive interaction design across both digital and physical mediums. UX designers will design how we will interact with the same data through touch, gesture, and voice command, on different screen sizes as well as with mundane objects. How you do a Google search on your phone will be different than how you do it with your microwave oven.

Another revolution in human-computer interface stems from advancements in brain research. The NUI or Neural User Interface will allow us to control devices and interact with data directly with our brains. Already there are rudimentary prototypes that allow a person to move a mouse cursor with just their brain. UX designers will design how NUIs will work and where we will use them, across both digital and physical experiences.

Scenario 6: Sailing in a Sea of Data

Due to its inefficiency, email as we know it will die.

We are already overwhelmed by our access to enormous amounts of information. Continuing in this vein of constant data immersion would be paralyzing. To avoid drowning in information, we will have personal software avatars that will filter that data for us. Our software avatars will live in the cloud and not be bound to any physical device. They will learn our habits, have simulated personalities, and predict what information we want and when.

These software avatars will be designed by UX designers. Most will be “off the shelf,” pre-designed with particular personalities and abilities. But some people will choose to hire a UX designer to custom design their avatar, similar to hiring an interior designer to custom design their home.

Scenario 7: The Evolution of Artificial Intelligence

The avatars in the previous scenario will not be truly self-aware AIs with reason and imagination. The path towards artificial human-level intelligence will take longer than we think and will be a gradual process.

Computer scientists will need the help of brain researchers, social scientists, and UX designers to design a truly self-aware AI.

But we will have to decide if we want to create such an AI, as numerous dystopian scenarios in science fiction explore. There are risks involved. An AI could become more powerful than us, and it may not like us. But a super intelligence may also be of great benefit, solving enormous problems for us and advancing science faster than humans can.

Scenario 8: We Will Run Out of Resources (and not just oil)

Most people don’t realize the extent to which our advanced electronics rely upon rare earth metals that are far scarcer than gold. There are extremely limited amounts of materials like tellurium, lithium, platinum and neodymium in the world. Put very simply, there is not enough of these resources for everyone in the world to own a smart phone.

Take lithium, for example. Lithium is needed for the batteries in smart phones, portable computers, and electric cars. If you just look at the auto industry, it would require 42 megatons of lithium to replace every current fossil-fuel based car in the world with an electric car. It is estimated that there is only 27 megatons of extractable lithium in the world (source: tyler.blogware.com/lithium_shortage.pdf). So we are far short, not even accounting for electronic devices such as smart phones and portable computers.

An alternative battery for cars is the hydrogen fuel cell, but this requires platinum or palladium, which are also rare earth metals in short supply.

While there may be a technological fix that has yet to be invented, the more likely scenario is that cars will become a rarity and we will have to rely far more on public transportation such as solar powered light rail, while bullet trains will replace most air travel.

In the future we will mine resources not from holes dug in the earth, but from the garbage dumps of the 20th and early 21st century. UX designers will have to take into account the availability of resources, particularly recycled resources, when doing product design.

Scenario 9: The End of Hardware

We will still need hardware such as chips and sensors and devices, of course, to run our computing and networking systems. What I mean in the title of this scenario is that hardware will cease to be a fashion and trend based product, it will cease to be a consumer item. The tech industry cannot continue on the old paradigm of rapid obsolescence. Today devices such as smart phones are designed to only last 12 to 18 months before they become obsolete, both in terms of functionality as well as style, and there simply are not enough rare metals in the world for this model to continue. Therefore devices will have to be generic and long lasting. Physical devices will only be access nodes to the cloud, not fashion accessories as they are now.

Instead, new innovative and trendy design will be in the form of cloud-based software, not physical devices. I already mentioned designer AI avatars in Scenario 6, and it will be softwares like these that are the eagerly anticipated fashion-tech products of the future.

UX design will be not just about creating user friendly experiences, but about trend-setting.

Scenario 10: UCD + C2C

User Centered Design will have to integrate Cradle-to-Cradle (C2C) design principles. Pioneered by the firm McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, C2C is also called regenerative design, the concept that human-made products should be designed within a whole system that is waste-free and efficient.

Since physical devices will have to have far greater longevity, they will have to be modular and recyclable. UX designers will design entire product lifespans, not just how a device is used by its first user but by subsequent users, how its parts will be recycled, and how those materials or parts will be reused in the future.

Scenario 11: UX Design Will Replace Product Design

In a broader sense, these disciplines will merge. There will be more specialization within the field of UX design, but the fundamental principles of UX design (particularly as it integrates with environmental and regenerative design) will be seen as a far more effective paradigm for designing everyday objects.

As such, UX designers will have to adopt new skills, such as 3D software design tools and 3D printers that continue to drop in price and improve in sophistication. Future 3D printers will not only use plant-based bioplastics but will be able to recycle old 3D printings that can be fed back into the printer where the materials will be melted down and reused.

The leading designers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries were in the fields of architecture, industrial design and graphic design. Designers like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid (architects), Dieter Rams and Jonathan Ive (industrial designers), and Stefan Sagmeister and Paula Scher (graphic designers) are iconic examples.

The Jonathan Ive of the 21st century will be a UX designer.

Epilogue

To reiterate the point, the above scenarios are sketches of possibilities, not predictions of the future. In all cases, the seeds of these possibilities are already planted and starting to grow. We already know of many of the technological wonders on the horizon, as well as the environmental and sociological perils. I am reminded of a quote by the cyberpunk novelist William Gibson, who said “The future is already here—it’s just unevenly distributed.”† The seeds of many possible futures, both positive and negative, are already here, and while we cannot predict the future, we can invent it.

This article is based on a talk I gave at the Smashing Conference Jam Session at General Assembly in Santa Monica, California on April 27, 2015.

William Gibson is reported to have first said this in an interview on Fresh Air, NPR (31 August 1993). He repeated it, prefacing it with “As I’ve said many times…” in “The Science in Science Fiction” on Talk of the Nation, NPR (30 November 1999, Timecode 11:55).

UX Design Thinking for Transmedia

“You cannot create experience. You must undergo it.” -Albert Camus

Before launching into the topic of this article, it’s necessary to lay out very clear definitions of what exactly UX and Transmedia are, as these terms get misused far too frequently.

UX is short for User Experience. Broadly speaking UX design is a process for designing positive interactions between people (users) and products (often software or websites) and/or other people. Taking a user-centric approach and drawing upon the disciplines of visual design, psychology, and human-computer interaction (HCI) research, UX aims to design not just the visuals and interface, but the entire user experience. While UX is most often applied to software and website design, UX designers are also designing physical experiences like in-store shopping experiences, airport lounges, classrooms for schools, museum and art exhibitions, etc.

Defiance is a transmedia tv show and computer game by the Scify Channel.

Defiance is a transmedia tv show and computer game by the Scify Channel.

Transmedia storytelling is an approach of developing characters and delivering narratives across multiple mediums using both analog and digital technologies. These can include but are not limited to books, electronic books, films, tv shows, computer games, webisodes, and social media narratives. The transmedia experience for the spectator is to experience and explore a single storyline and character or group of characters unfold across multiple mediums. A prime example is the 2013 transmedia project Defiance, a tv series on the Scify network and computer game. Character development and plot lines flow fluidly back and forth between the tv episodes and the computer game. One is not derived from the other, but rather the story line and characters are unfolding on both, meaning that the tv series and game are equal parts in the Defiance transmedia ecosystem.

This is the future of entertainment media, the result of the trend of convergence between media in the first decade of the 21st century, driven by many factors including decreasing costs of CGI graphics for films and tv, the explosion of smart phones as primary tools for media consumption, and the electronic gaming industry surpassing the film/tv industry in revenue and popularity. As I outlined in an earlier article, we have moved past the decade of convergence and are now in a decade focused on synergies, and this is particularly the case with transmedia and UX design.

Transmedia opens the door to new kinds of storytelling, and new possibilities for creative expression for authors and media makers. But unlike a book, movie or tv series, software-based narratives such as websites, apps and electronic games need not only compelling stories and characters but also compelling interfaces and user experiences. Transmedia makers need to know good UX design.

To begin let’s consider some of the fundamental elements of UX design and how they apply to Transmedia storytelling.

The first and most important is that UX design is an iterative rather than linear process. There are different ways to describe and illustrate the iterative process, but here is a simplified version. First designers do research and brainstorm during a learning stage of the process; second they build prototypes during a building stage of the process; and third they test usability and effectiveness during a measuring stage of the process. The process then repeats, as ineffective ideas are jettisoned and the project moves closer and closer to a “finished” state with more and more refined iterations.

The iterative design methodology is based on a cyclic process of research, prototyping, testing. Refining the design each time the process is repeated results in improved functionality and effectiveness of the design.

The iterative design methodology is based on a cyclic process of research, prototyping, testing. Refining the design each time the process is repeated results in improved functionality and effectiveness of the design.

This iterative process and rapid prototyping model can also be effective with transmedia design, where story and character development is often collaborative, and the possibilities of how to develop narrative and character across different mediums requires input from writers and media makers with diverse ranges of expertise.

The often collaborative, cross-media writing for transmedia has parallels to information architecture in UX design. Writing and editing a story and developing characters, figuring out to best tell the narrative on which mediums, is similar to the process of organizing information and designing simple user interfaces. Again, this is an iterative process, and using a UX design approach to writing narratives in transmedia can lead to better, more effective storytelling by constantly taking a user-centric mindset. What elements of the story are best told via video, electronic game, social media, etc? Rather than thinking of this as screenwriting, it can be thought of as narrative design.

The production and testing phase of the UX design process is inherently interdisciplinary, requiring art direction and graphic design, software coding and database administration, and often user testing and metrics analysis, all the while maintaining a user-centric focus. Transmedia, too, would benefit from this approach. Film and tv production is already inherently interdisciplinary, which is why filmmaking is such an inherently collaborative art form. But add in the transmedia integration of games, apps and networked media and there are not just multiple disciplines working together but multiple industries, representing a conceptual merging of Hollywood with Silicon Valley. Transmedia projects would greatly benefit from the UX approach of user-centric design, and design-thinking as part of the creative process. Films tend to be produced, whereas software is designed. It’s time to merge these two sets of thinking, to approach film and tv production as well as software design from both filmmaker’s and designer’s perspectives. With a transmedia product, the moving picture part of the project isn’t separate from the other digital media parts. The Scify channel’s Defiance isn’t a tv show plus a game, it’s a transmedia ecosystem.

Transmedia is compelling because it immerses the audience in the story and characters. Rather than being limited to one tv episode per week, viewers can immerse themselves in their favorite stories and engage with its characters any time they like. Rather than being passive spectators, they are active, involved users of transmedia stories. The user-centric, iterative approach of UX design is tailor made for this new paradigm of entertainment media. To be successful, transmedia projects need great UX design.

Glitchography: the Aesthetics of Panoramic Malfunction

“It’s the glitches and twists, I thought, that make this universe unique and compelling. Without flaws, there would be no depth, no substance.” ~A.M. Jenkins, Reposessed

glitch_4web1

These panoramic glitchographs are created entirely in-camera, some by circuit-bending the panoramic stitching software in a digital point-and-shoot camera, and some by moving a mobile phone camera in a very particular motion. Move the camera too slowly and the panorama stitching works correctly; too quickly and it doesn’t work at all. By making more than 500 of these images over the past two years I have honed a particular technique to achieve the desired effect.

Julian_Scaff-web1

These images are not manipulated in any way. They appear here exactly as they come out of the camera. The images reflect both an aesthetic of digital failure–of software glitches–as well as a snapshot of a very particular technology at a very particular point in history. The next generation of digital cameras may indeed “fix” this glitch by speeding up processing power and software stiching, rendering this technique more difficult if not impossible to achieve. Like the Super-8 and Pixelvision cameras it will become an anachronism.

Julian_Scaff-web3

The specificity of the medium of the Glitchograph is distinct to the software embedded in the camera. Unlike an aberration of the lens or a mechanical malfunction of a shutter mechanism, the beauty of digital malfunction is solely in the ones and zeros of the firmware, and reflects the fractured digital world where physical failure is replaced by virtual failure.

Julian_Scaff-web2

This will be the subject of my next book, titled “Glitchography: the Aesthetics of Panoramic Malfunction” due out in 2015.

The Myth of Youth in Design Innovation

“It takes a long time to become young.” ~Pablo Picasso

Diana Balmori, landscape and urban designer, still innovating at the age of 81.

Diana Balmori, landscape and urban designer, still innovating at the age of 81.

There is a brutal culture of ageism in the tech sector and Silicon Valley, and this ageism that worships youth above all else spills over into the design sector as well. When tech giants such as Mark Zuckerberg declare that “Young people are just smarter” people take it as truth carved in stone. It must be true. After all, look at all the tech billionaires in their twenties.

Yet empirical evidence, common sense and personal experience tell me this is a fallacy. Jonathan Ive and Steve Jobs did some of their best work when they were over the age of 40, and Ive is still one of the best designers on the planet at the age of 47. Burt Rutan was 41 years old when he designed and launched the Voyager, the first aircraft to fly around the world without stopping, and he was 62 when he launched SpaceShipOne, the first private space plane.

The following is the top ten list of FastCoDesign Magazine’s “Most Creative People in Business of 2013”:

  1. Nate Silver, sports and political elections number-cruncher and big data innovator – 36 years old.
  2. Dong-Hoon Chang, Executive Vice President and Head of Design Strategy for Samsung – 52 years old.
  3. Hilary Mason, data scientist and hacker – 32 years old.
  4. Leslie Bradshaw, entrepreneur and social scientist – 32 years old.
  5. Diana Balmori, landscape and urban designer – 81 years old.
  6. Kirthiga Reddy, Director of FaceBook India – 40 years old.
  7. Daniel Graf, Director of Google Maps for Mobile – 40 years old.
  8. Max Levchin, computer scientist and founder of PayPal – 38 years old.
  9. Jill Applebaum, Creative Director at JWT – 43 years old.
  10. Megan Sheehan, Art Director at JWT – I couldn’t find her age, but based on her experience and accomplishments I’m guessing she’s in her early 30’s.

The youngest on the list are 32 years old and the oldest is 81. And unless I’m off about Megan Sheehan (who is a terrific designer, check out her work here: http://megansheehan.info/), there’s not a single person in their 20’s.

In my personal experience I didn’t start to do my most innovative work until I was in my mid-30’s. A combination of experience, perspective, and a deeper understanding of the conditions that foster innovation made me a more innovative designer and thinker.

And this is why the conditions of innovation, and building a balanced team, are more important than youth. I hit my stride in my mid-30’s for a confluence of reasons. First was that after a decade working as a designer at the cutting edge of dot com startups, I moved to Europe and enrolled in an MFA program in Art. Suddenly my time and my mental space were set free to experiment, but at the same time I had far more experience, knowledge and technical ability than most graduate students that I could apply to my work. On top of that, I had thrown myself into a completely different culture, started learning a new language and looking at the world from a different perspective, all conditions conducive to sideways thinking. Upon completing my MFA, I immediately started working as a professor at a university. Teaching students about design and media innovation taught me new perspectives, and being in academia further freed me to experiment, to do research, and continue to work as a consultant in industry. After several years I was appointed head of my department and charged with rebuilding the department and driving student enrollment, and I took the same approach to team building that I had taken as a Creative Director. I ran my academic department like I would a creative agency, creating conditions that encouraged my faculty to innovate with their curriculum and mentoring students to become innovative media makers.

The conditions for innovation rely on several factors, and here I’m adapting ideas in part from the management guru Peter Drucker, as well as from my own experience as a designer, leader and teacher. The first is that innovation is work that requires knowledge, ingenuity, risk-taking, and sideways thinking. In organizations this means building teams with complimentary strengths, respecting both the sideways thinking and risk taking of youth with the knowledge and expertise of experience, and rewarding experimentation, even when it fails. The second is to cultivate an acceptable level of chaos as space for ideation, balanced against order for getting work done. Brilliant ideas rarely happen when you’re staring at your computer screen, but on the flip side work doesn’t get done when you’re playing ping-pong with your coworkers. And a third factor is an inherent acceptance of change. Peter Drucker calls innovation “an effect of economy and society” (check out Drucker’s book Innovation and Entrepreneurship) that at it’s core changes people’s behaviors and/or conceptual paradigms. It’s surprising how many organizations say they want innovation, but are change averse. You can’t have one without the other.

Benjamin F. Jones, a professor at Kellogg School of Management, did a study last year on age and innovation. He found that the average age that inventors and Nobel Prize winners make their greatest achievements is 39. This is because innovation usually doesn’t come out of left field with no foundation. Innovation is built from an iterative process, learning from past mistakes, building on successes, and then drawing unexpected connections. This takes time, hard work, risk taking, experience, and knowledge. In organizations, this means it takes teams constructed of people with complimentary diversities.

UX Design and Social Entrepreneurship

“The human-centered focus, and the rigor and creativity required to maintain that focus over the entire course of the work, sets design thinking apart from other methods of problem solving.” ~Sarah A. Soule

Design thinking has been adapted as an effective methodology not only for product design and business models but also for social entrepreneurship. Design thinking for social good, a methodology utilized in product design, involves the designer engaging with social and environmental issues from the perspective of the individual people directly affected by the problems that the designers are trying to address. Solutions are brainstormed directly from the “users” perspective (the users being the affected people), rapid prototyping allows for empirical field testing, and solutions are synthesized. With social entrepreneurship the solution may be a product, but it may also be a new paradigm of behaviors or ways of doing things. User-Experience (UX) Design thinking provides a model for expanding design thinking to broader behavioral and social aspects in order to tackle increasingly complex and interconnected social-political-environmental challenges.

A solar cooker made from easily obtainable recycled trash materials. Appropriate design and technology that addresses a wide range of social and environmental problems.

A solar cooker made from easily obtainable recycled trash materials. Appropriate design and technology that addresses a wide range of social and environmental problems.

An example of this is a project that a non-profit organization I work with engaged in a project of social entrepreneurship in Nepal. They wanted to engage with a number of problems that turned out to be interrelated, including overpopulation, deforestation, access to education particularly for girls, and access to clean water. By traveling to Nepal, talking to local people and community leaders and spending time living amongst normal people, who designers would call their “typical users”. The project they decided on was a design for a solar cooker made from local trash including cardboard boxes, aluminum foil or tin, old glass window panes, etc. They taught women and girls how to make the solar cookers themselves and how to cook with them. The primary use of the solar cookers was for boiling and sterilizing water, thereby removing the need for collecting firewood, which contributes to deforestation. Due to the scarcity of wood, girls would spend hours every day collecting wood. The solar cookers freed up time for the girls to instead attend to their school studies. Girls who receive a basic education tend to have smaller families, be more economically prosperous, and ensure that their children also receive an education.

UX design thinking was critical to tying together all these different threads, in designing not just a product but a new way of doing, teaching and thinking about interconnected social and environmental challenges. Design thinking, often described as utilizing the designer’s creative methodologies to connect the needs of people with what is technologically feasible, becomes a greatly expanded concept when the “UX” is added in front of it. Although UX design historically grew out of the techno-centric field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), it now extends to all aspects of a person’s interaction within a given system, encompassing interface, graphics, physical interaction, as well as social, political and environmental systems. Engaging effectively with the complex challenges that social entrepreneurship attempts to take on requires UX design thinking.

Creative Leadership for Innovation and Agility

“Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties.” -Erich Fromm

Peter Hayes, Director of the Visual Arts Network South Africa, and Julian Scaff, creative professional and ux expert, discuss building creative cultures at a conference in sustainability in Brussels, Belgium.

Julian Scaff, creative and ux expert, and Peter Hayes, Director of the Visual Arts Network in South Africa, at a creative meeting in Brussels, Belgium.

The field of design is undergoing a period of rapid change, with disciplines broadening and overlapping and designers taking a more active role in leadership and innovation. There are more designers serving as executive of companies than at any time in history, and the reason why is because innovation and creative thinking are keys to the success of companies. Studies by the Boston Consulting Group, amongst others, show that companies that ranked as more innovative enjoy significantly higher rates of success and higher profits than companies that are not. Innovation is key to success. Companies such as Pepsico, Sony Music Entertainment and Burberry have a Chief Creative Officer, and the company J. Crew has two presidents: Libby Wadle, president of J. Crew Brand, and Jenna Lyons, president and executive creative director.

Designers have been professionally trained in the creative process, the process through which the designer finds solutions to communicate ideas and solve the creative challenges of a particular project or endeavor. Increasingly designers are not simply serving clients, but driving new ideas, new products, new services, and new paradigms. The designer-as-leader is an innovation expert. But for a designer to be an effective leader, she must learn several key skills and concepts.

Good Leadership is Good Design

When it comes to leading people, let’s throw out the word “management”.  Management is for projects, for assets, for time lines. Good leadership is about pulling (not pushing) everyone on your team towards a common goal, and trusting each of them to do what they do best.  Trust is key. To convince your followers of a vision you must first convince yourself. Convince and inspire yourself, and you can convince and inspire others. Communicate to the team, collectively and individually, what the vision and goals are and how you’re going to achieve them.  Listen, ask for and welcome input, and respect everyone’s contributions. Being a good leader is like being in a good relationship: trust and communication are key. And being a good leader is like being a good designer. You’re designing a creative culture.

Embrace a Balance of Chaos and Reward Failure

How many times have you had a brilliant idea sitting at your desk staring at a blank document? How about in a coffee shop? At a botanical garden? Laying on a sofa listening to music? Chaining your team members to their desks, demanding precise schedules and forcing people to work the way you work is a creativity and innovation killer. Embrace a bit of chaos and distraction in the office. Things like a foosball game, a lounge with music, a garden, etc. aren’t distractions from work, they’re potential drivers of creativity and boosters of productivity.  But balance is key: too much chaos and nobody gets their work done; too little, and ideas don’t flourish and people burn out.

Having a crazy new idea that doesn’t work isn’t a failure, it’s a stepping stone to success. A recent article on BBC News outlined how the Google X Labs, the company’s experimental innovation laboratory, encourages and rewards it’s employees for trying new ideas, no matter how crazy. Google expects a 99% failure rate.  This might seem steep, but without trying out all those “failed” ideas, Google never would have innovated new products such as Google Maps, Translate, and Google Glass. In a culture where people are afraid to fail because they’ll look stupid or be penalized for having a “bad idea”, few people will take risks needed for creative breakthroughs. Encourage the members of your team to pitch and try out crazy new ideas, big ideas, and applaud them when these ideas fail.

Create an Agile Culture

Agile Management and Scrum Method are big buzzwords in the field of management and leadership right now, and for good reason. The world is changing rapidly, and being too slow kills creativity and innovation. Agile management is an iterative form of project management wherein small teams deliver results in stages, building the project up rapidly in modular stages. Larger, more complex projects may be broken up into parts and distributed to smaller teams, each rapidly prototyping, testing, and delivering their modular portion of the project. Scrum Method takes Agile Management further by embracing the notion that not all problems can be fully defined from the start, allowing for project requirements to evolve and change based on empirical results during the development and testing phases of the project. I won’t get into all the details of Agile and Scrum, but some of the key things are how meetings are conducted: projects begin with a Sprint Planning Meeting that may last no longer than 8 hours to detail and plan the entire project; daily Scrum meetings update all team members on progress and are limited to 15 minutes; project cycles are typically 7-30 days, and if a project is much bigger than that, it is broken town into 7 to 30 day modules. These limitations keep things moving quickly and minimize miscommunication.

This seems a bit chaotic, and it is. That bit of chaos empowers members of your team to rapidly try out new ideas and respond to change strategically. If you have a brilliant brainstorm and nobody listens, or the idea gets bogged down in committee meetings, or it takes too long to bring it to fruition because of burdensome bureaucratic processes, it not only kills the idea but it dampens the spirit of the person who had the idea, discouraging them from having more ideas in the future.

An agile culture is a culture that embraces change, delivers projects rapidly, and continuously appraises and improves upon ideas based on new empirical information that emerges during the lifecycle of the project. Teams that can go from brainstorm to prototype in less than 30 days will not only be more creative and innovative, but inspirational.

The End of Hardware

The devil of rapid hardware obsolescence.

The devil of rapid hardware obsolescence.

“Nothing is so hideous as an obsolete fashion.”
– Stendhal

The first decade of the 2000s saw the shift from desktop computing to hand-held mobile computing, and from wired internet to WiFi. This revolution was driven primarily by advances in hardware. The BlackBerry was the first successful product in the hand-held market, but the iPhone and Android platforms are the products that really changed the whole computing and internet landscape. Still today, more attention is to paid to what new iteration of the iPhone, iPad or Samsung Galaxy will be released than to new releases of the operating systems. For a company to be innovative, there is still a perception that you need a piece of new hardware. This will not continue to be there case, and it can’t. At a certain point, and it will not be too far in the future, Moore’s Law (which states that the number of transistors on a circuit doubles approximately every two years) will run into the same inhibitions that we will all run into: a planet of diminishing resources.

One of the categories of resources that is already showing signs of hindering technology development is the scarcity of rare metals. Tellurium, used to make advanced electronic components, is three times more scarce than gold. The list of rare metals in your smart phone, including lithium, platinum, and neodymium goes on and on, and overall roughly 97% of all rare earth metals come from China. These materials are difficult to extract, and there isn’t very much of them. That’s why they’re rare.

Another resource we’re running out of is oil, or more broadly fossil fuels. While it’s true that we can extract more of it from harder to get sources such as tar sands and the arctic sea bed, and there are large deposits of natural gas in Qatar and coal deposits in the US and Australia, there are two really big problems. First is that we’re in the era of peak oil, meaning sometime this decade (some experts say we’ve already passed it, some say not quite yet) world oil production will start to decline and will never go back up again, because we’re running out of it. The second problem is that our overconsumption of fossil fuels is quite literally killing us, via pollution to a lesser degree but to a really greater degree by causing global climate disruption. Hurricanes and typhoons are increasing in frequency and strength, summer heat waves are hotter and more frequent, winter storms are colder and more ferocious, some areas of the world are experiencing more flooding while others are experiencing more drought, and sea levels are starting to rise because the ice caps are melting. Climate disruption, from a scientific standpoint, is not a matter of opinion or debate, it’s happening right now.

Moore’s Law, and in general an industry where innovation is tied to planned rapid obsolescence such that every one to two years we are expected to throw away our old hardware devices and buy new ones, is unsustainable. Recycling old electronics is important, but even that is energy intensive and is only less unsustainable.

Theodore Twombly sits at his monitor, in a future where there are no devices, only the digital cloud. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment.

Theodore Twombly sits at his monitor, in a future where there are no devices, only interface points to the digital cloud. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment.

I recently watched the Spike Jonze film Her, in which a lonely man who lives in the not-too-distant future develops a romantic relationship with his new artificially intelligent operating system. If you’re a designer, you should see this film. It’s exquisitely designed and in so many ways is a plausible extrapolation of how many social and technological trends today may evolve in the future. One of the things I found most prescient in this film’s vision of the future was how little everyone was focused on their hardware. Computers were just white picture frame screens. Little folding pocket folios with a built-in camera, and a wireless earpiece, kept you connected with your digital life all the time. There were no keyboards or mice. Interaction with computers was mainly through voice recognition, and a little bit through gestures made on any surface in front of your screen, similar to the gestures we use now for our iPhones or Android Phones. The only devices visible in the film weren’t really devices, they were only connection and interface points. There were no computers or smart phones. Everything was in the digital cloud.

This is where innovation in the future will happen. It’s where it will half to happen. As designers we can’t stop it, and in fact we have a certain moral obligation to drive it, to drive innovation away from the wasteful cycle of almost disposable handheld hardware towards cloud based operating systems and apps. The next revolutionary device won’t be a device at all, it’ll be a concept in the cloud that changes the way we interact with it. The designers and companies who can crack the cycle of instantly obsolete, energy and resource intense devices, and make the physical device itself obsolete, will be at the forefront of the next revolution.

Information for parts of this article came from “Where To Find Rare Earth Elements” by Dr. Ainissa Ramirez on PBS’s Nova Next: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/physics/rare-earth-elements-in-cell-phones/