Today, you’re the executive creative director at Seattle-based digital agency Smashing Ideas. How did you get started in digital design? When I needed to declare my major at Carnegie Mellon, I asked for a degree in “computer art”—using computers as tools to create physical and digital art and animation. The dean said that degree didn’t exist—this was a long time ago—but that she’d put it on my diploma and allow me to take computer science classes if I completed enough credits to graduate with a painting major. Then, after doing front-end development, production and project management for websites in the ’90s, I discovered information architecture while living in Chicago. Understanding and designing for end users was a vocational calling for me. It still is.
What excites you about generative design? What worries you about it? Like it or not, this is an exciting time to be alive. We are transitioning from human-computer interaction to human-computer cooperation to human-computer integration. It’s only a matter of time before generative or computational design software is available as tools for designers to use. Already, we see artificial intelligence (AI) software generating animation and paintings. Googling “AI human nude paintings” results in surreal images with oozing, melting flesh—I recommend that only as a marker of where AI is currently at. It’s easy to imagine software that can generate 10,000 layouts for apps, websites and software.
Looking back at the last 200 years of automation, we see that while certain jobs get displaced by technology, the overall number of jobs and the unemployment rate stay steady—i.e., workers get forced to shift to new jobs. So, as designers, we have to figure out how to harness these upcoming tools and shift to new roles, like being deft at defining design principles and other criteria in order to display the top 25 of the 10,000 layouts.
I agree with what Daniel H. Pink wrote in the book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future—the skills that will be valued are the ones computers and robots aren’t good at yet: design, story, symphony, empathy, play and meaning. Related skills, like collaboration, intuition and taste, will continue to be critical to innovation and designing meaningful products.
What questions do digital designers need to grapple with in order to move the industry forward? How do we use our design skills to help organizations change their cultures? I read that 50 percent of all S&P 500 companies won’t exist at all in ten years. Whether or not that’s true, it does speak to how enterprises are having difficulty adapting to new cultural norms, especially meeting the expectation that products be well designed.
How do we stop people from using dark patterns to manipulate and exploit users? It’s sickening to hear about people being duped by design and propaganda. We, as designers, have a moral obligation to provide beneficial products that enrich our users. Perhaps we need to dust off Ken Garland’s First Things First manifesto.
How do we continue to understand technology and business well enough to design effectively? Soon, designers will have to synthesize AI, machine learning, multi-input modes like gestural and voice, virtual and real spaces, and more into cohesive experiences. The amount of technology designers have to learn is swelling, so we need better and faster ways of learning.
How do we design to build trust between humans and computers? Technology is invading aspects of our lives and bodies more rapidly than many people are comfortable with. People will feel increasingly unable to understand or control the technology, which will raise anxiety and worry, especially in our current political and entertainment clime that feeds on fear. Increasingly, designers will have to figure out how to restore confidence in users that the products they use are safe, secure and controllable.
What lessons can design firms take away from America’s tech giants—Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft? We can argue that four of those five—Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google—are using design thinking as their business model. For instance, Amazon values “obsessing” over their customers, which maps directly to the “empathy” part of design thinking. It “defines” its projects with future press releases. And it’s constantly prototyping, testing and iterating with customers, to the extent that it’s comfortable releasing a mediocre initial version of a product, knowing that it’ll iterate the design based on customer feedback and behavior.
Design firms can use the big four to help their clients understand the advantages of using design thinking, the threat of not adopting design thinking—how long before the big four invade your industry?—and how to change work culture to adopt and sustain design thinking.
These four are not only threats to clients; they’re threats to design firms. In order to outweigh the larger salaries offered by these four and attract and retain kick-ass designers, design firms have to offer great growth and learning opportunities, culture, and job satisfaction.
What tips do you have for transforming design thinking from a buzzword into tangible actions? One key is weaving processes and rituals into the daily operational fabric of work culture. To get the flywheel spinning, individuals have to be scrappy and persistent. For instance, regularly—like once every six weeks—watching users and customers use your product in their natural habitats is invaluable to driving empathy into an organization. Taking prototypes to users is critical, too.
A more profound approach can be found in John Kotter’s book XLR8—establishing a dual-operating system within a company, where one system is the existing, established culture and the other is a smaller, faster design-thinking system. This enables the established system to benefit from the faster system without requiring a complete overhaul.
With all the technology that’s maturing now—augmented reality, the Internet of Things, voice input, gestural design, etc.—what’s the best newfangled experience you enjoyed recently? This may be surprising, but the rise of texting as the primary user interface makes me smile. The ability to change my investments, book an eye exam or order lunch to be delivered to me at noon—all by text—is sweet. Text user interfaces challenge designers to focus solely on a conversational experience that’s stripped away from any formal visual elements.
I think that a lot of the other technologies are still maturing and haven’t hit their stride yet. I’m very curious to see how blockchain will revolutionize the internet and how AI and machine learning will evolve and take hold in our collective conscious. Both AI and machine learning will create a huge need to design for trust between humans and machines.
Do you have any advice for a user experience designer who’s just starting out? First off, stop searching for blogs and books about designing. Design things instead. Fake apps, sites for nonprofits, software for neighbors, whatever. There’s no substitute for learning from experience.
Next, be prepared to tell the story of the thinking and decision making that went into a design. Carry me along the trials and tribulations of the project. As a hiring manager, I care about how someone thinks and works—not just the outcome.
And last but not least, recognize that we as designers have the fortune to remove frustration and help someone have a great day. Rejoice and make the most of our opportunity.