Design is always changing, and wider changes are often spearheaded by design itself. Now with tech and the creative industry increasingly aligning, we’re on the precipice of a truly momentous period in the history of design, something unprecedented that is difficult to predict and prepare for. The way we describe the future in stories is rarely accurate: the optimistic or pessimistic sci-fi narratives of the past saw hover-cars, holograms, and teleportation as everyday items in the 21st century, most significantly failing to predict the Internet and its manifold repercussions. Any predictions that we do make right now will be in vain because of technology’s rapid developments:the devices that will drive even control our lives in a decades time hasn’t been invented or envisioned yet.
With quickly evolving tools, tumultuous shifts in the economy, the relentless growth of the gig and freelance lifestyle, and global networks, the working landscape for young designers is a tremendously uncertain one. There’s no model to follow: The known and well-trodden career path of previous generations is overgrown. What will this mean for the bedroom illustrator creating 3-D characters after school, or for the young freelancer setting up camp in a new coffee shop every day as she travels the world looking for new solutions, or for the promising UX grad poised for a career at a global branding agency?
It’s an uncertain time for design, but in its difficulty and complexity, it is an inspiring and crucial one: Those with the skills will help decide the way that innovations in tech not only look but function, too, and influence our daily lives.
Although we can’t predict the future, we can speak to those with experience who think about what’s in store. We asked each participant to give us their advice: What does their future of design look like? What will it do to the very idea of design. And how can we prepare for it?
Aesthetics will fall by the wayside as humanitarian considerations become of upmost importance.
“We are designers, but we are citizens first, and so we should use our skills to promote and envisage the society that we, as citizens, most want to be a part of. The most relevant questions we’re facing right now have to do with sustainability and the promotion of global equality and fairness. Designers should think about how their skills can be used for social good. When working for a client, for example, they can encourage ‘redesigns’ of the organization of the business so that it’s more sustainable and aware of its social, ecological, and political responsibilities. To give a product an eye-catching, cool surface is of course important, but it’ll be only 10 percent of the job.”
— Erwin K. Bauer, Designer and Founder, Buero Bauer, Vienna
Design will be for ears and not eyes.
“Voice-controlled tech will mean that there’s less of a need for interface design. Light and sound designers will find themselves with new roles, as will copywriters, and UX designers will need to define innovative user flows. Graphic designers and illustrators shouldn’t be scared, though: We’ll need character designs for digital assistants, first AR, then hopefully holographic ones. They’ll guide us through our calendars or do digital errands, like liking our boss’s Facebook posts.”
— Laszlito Kovacs, Creative Director, WeTransfer, Amsterdam
A broad skill set will be an imperative for getting noticed.
“There’s no longer such a thing as a typical design or branding job. Gone are the days when one simple or trademarked process could be used across multiple, similar client projects. Now, every single project that crosses our path brings new challenges with it. At the beginning of a job we’re often unable to fathom what the final deliverables will even look like as the landscape shifts around us throughout the design process. We’re always getting our heads around designing for the latest technology, methodology, application, media, or format. It’s a fascinating time to be a designer. There will always be space for experts, for those who specialize in the things they are really, really good at, but for others there is the need to diversify. With the democratization of design, ‘every man and his dog’ has a belief in their own design ability. To combat this, designers need to have an array of skills and talents they can draw upon, a range that makes them both fascinating individuals and truly impressive creatives.”
— Katie Taylor, Executive Creative, Director, Brand Union, Berlin
The rise of the independent practitioner will continue rejecting, countering, and perhaps even threatening the traditional agency model.
“Individual practitioners and independent studios have been building and emerging steadily for many years now. We practice within that space; one could define this as a ‘new design industry’ or a ‘counter-design industry.’ The way we work is becoming more sustainable on an economic level; the individual practitioner is becoming a larger part of the cultural landscape and is working on large-scale projects with a significant scope–through conversation and synergy rather than service-based structures. It changes something when you counter the preconceived notion of ‘design industry.’
From our perspective, this space will steadily continue to grow. Entrepreneurialism is key to this kind of independence, whether that’s through designing and selling tools, pieces of code, typefaces, or by forming publishing platforms. We have to train young designers to understand what they are about to emerge into: The independent space is often thought as ‘counterculture,’ but it’s not anymore and we should take advantage of that. Education will be important not just for clarifying this change, but helping students develop new skills that will be useful to exploit it.”
— Rory McGrath, Cofounder, OK-RM, London
Context will be key.
“Working as an illustrator paired with the fact I have a never-ending stream of visuals in front of me is both inspiring and mind-numbing. It’s important to understand the history of where images come from and how they came to be, rather than just mimicking superficial trends. It’s also important to give credit when it’s due. The most original and successful image makers will be the ones who acknowledge and appreciate the tools utilized to share work, but they will also look beyond what’s on the screen for inspiration.”
— Ping Zhu, Illustrator, New York City
Logo design of the future? There will be no such thing.
“A logo is a clunky piece of communication, unable to adapt to changing environments. It’s absurd to teach logo design to future generations when the world is in constant motion and communication is utterly context-related. It’s like a market crier shouting the same message over and over again instead of listening to customers and adapting to what they say. Don’t get me wrong; we still need logos, but it’s nonsense to start the design process by drawing a static one. The logo is just one image generated by the entire visual system. If we learn how to develop flexible visual systems, the application of the visual identity will be most efficient and effective.”
— Martin Lorenz, Creative Director, Two Points, Hamburg, Germany
The most celebrated brands will use design as a tool to drive positive change.
“We have seen a huge shift in consumer expectations of brands in recent years: They are more skeptical of traditional powers like governments and politicians, and are looking at businesses to be the drivers of positive change. This means that it won’t matter if you can design the most beautiful logo or craft the most intricate typography; it will only matter if you can design to strategically unleash and express a brand’s core truth in a way that connects with consumers on a deeper level. You’ll need to showcase that a brand stands for something more than selling its product. One day designers and marketers will be one and the same–after all, they say the MFA is the new MBA.”
— Julie Peters, Strategy Director, Pearlfisher, New York City
We won’t tell stories; we’ll live them.
“Attention is our most valuable commodity in a fast-paced, digitally noisy world. This is where VR will come in. With 360-video storytelling, you get some level of immersion, but it’s limited, as a user can’t interact with the environment. Story-living, on the other hand, applies to a VRE where ‘presence’–the real magic of VR–is at its most powerful. Within a VRE, you’re fully immersed and the viewer is completely attentive. Unlike traditional film-making where the director has complete control over what the audience gets to see, VR allows viewers to make their own decisions about what they focus on in the scene.
This is a potential problem that no one quite has the answer to yet: How do you keep the level of freedom and interaction that VR allows the viewer while making sure they don’t miss any of the key elements of your piece? There are several options open to the director to ensure the audience’s attention can be focused when necessary: lighting and sound cues, changing the focal point of an object or character on-screen, Even verbal/action cues can be a powerful tool.”
— Sol Rogers, CEO and Founder, Rewind St. Albans, U.K.
Drop your pencils, scrap your notepads, and install your 3-D modeling tools: Innovation in illustration will exist in not two but three dimensions.
“3-D tools are cheap or free for now, and the technical skills of 3-D modeling are becoming a standard part of the designer/illustrator tool kit, not just a lucrative specialization. Traditionally, a lot of 3-D design has looked the same: sleek, realistic, and inspired by trends in industrial design. Given the fact that creatives are becoming more versed in the technical skills for 3-D work, we’ll start to see more and more artists using 3-D modeling not just for mock-up but for artistic expression. There still aren’t that many 3-D illustrators relative to the entire field of illustration, and so there are huge, wide-open areas of the landscape that any illustrator could claim as their own. 3-D illustration might be on the edge of a huge explosion in terms of the variety of styles and points of view that will be explored. It’s a good time to get in on it.”
— Julian Glander, Illustrator, New York City
Whittle a brush, set up an inkwell, and then take a trip to the library: Those with a deep-rooted knowledge of a craft will be the ones whose work truly endures.
“The world of lettering has, once and for all, been struck by the importance of the hand. This is of course a response to the perfectionism of the computer; graphic design, and type design, achieved a digital sleekness and mathematical precision over the last two decades that a hand never could. ‘Handmade design’ (or that which noticeably was created by a hand-drawn process, or that evidently was made by hand before the piece was digitalized) was not the preferred option for most graphic designers at the end of the 20th century. Nowadays, though, the ‘handmade’ can be spotted everywhere, from printed media to an app interface, and in a world of increasing digitalization, that’s not going to go away anytime soon.
Type design is no exception to the newfound love of the handmade, and of course the ‘trendy’ handmade look of letters was quickly capitalized on by the market. “Responding to a renewed interest in the handmade, the industry created digital versions of hand-drawn processes. With an affordable price tag, this has of course drawn in a huge amount of independent designers and young studios: a turning point for “handmade design,” and one of the reasons that it could become commercially popular and widespread. But because of its popularity, the relevance of the quality of letterforms is being forgotten: In the pursuit of that shaky stroke or that messy baseline that imitates handwriting, the art of calligraphy falls by the wayside. Popularization–and increase in demand—in this case is to the detriment of quality. Only those who chase perfection in their designs and make technology serve their process will be the ones whose work humbly and effortlessly stand outs and is remembered.”
— Yani Arabena and Guille Vizzari, Calligraphers, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Adapt, adopt, experiment: A broad skill set will not only get you noticed, it’ll be imperative for success.
“We’ve noticed in recent years that brands need to keep churning out content in order to engage with their targeted audiences, and that they’re far more focused on digital campaigns as a result. This gives us, as designers, room to experiment with different kinds of execution techniques, to try things out, and to be more playful. The downside is that we churn out content so fast to the detriment of quality, and there’s often significant downscaling when it comes to budget. As a result, it’s unsurprising that we’re seeing more hybrid designers: If you have less of a budget, it’s perhaps better if you can illustrate instead of having to hire an additional hand. Gone are the days where a designer would just be doing one specific role. Our advice for the future is that an illustrator or designer should be able to adapt; they should be able to learn new tools and skills to survive the ever-changing landscape of the industry.”
—Fizah Rahim and Rezaliando, Motion Designers, Machine East, Singapore
The most well-known illustrators will be the ones sketching from their beds.
“The resources to create digital artwork have become totally accessible by all, which has seen digital, online communities grow massively, especially 3-D, in the past five years that I’ve been working within the industry. In addition to this accessibility, the nature of sharing work online (namely Instagram) has become such a phenomenon that bedroom artists are being born, and it provides the opportunity and chance for just about anyone to be noticed. The downside to this is that an already saturated industry becomes even more saturated, and imagery becomes watered down. Emerging illustrators and designers are halfway between being in the best and the worst time to start out. Social media has become the ultimate platform to be seen and heard, but the true test is trying to shine out from the masses amongst the melting pot of digital imagery.”
— Rose Pilkington, 3-D illustrator, London
The sharpest web designs will be the ones bursting bubbles.
“We are the first generation to live with the iPhone, and the impact of that little machine on our lives is fundamental. It’s similar to how people were dealing with drugs in the ’60s or ’70s: It’s an exciting, chaotic time, and social conventions still need to be learned. Most people access the web and go straight to Facebook, Google, or another big tech company. The promise of global cultural exchange that the web first espoused has ended up a false one; instead it’s self-indulgent and blinding. Our favorite web designs in the future will be the ones revealing the dangerous patterns, bringing back the old optimism, and making people smile.”
— Luna Maurer and Roel Wouters, IxD Designers and Founders, Studio Moniker, Amsterdam
Madeleine Morley is a design and architecture writer based in Berlin. She studied English literature at Cambridge University and went on to complete an MA in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She has written for Creative Review, AIGA, Monotype, magCulture, AnOther, and The Guardian among others.