In my last blog entry, I wrote about why designers should become more conversant in the nitty gritty of technology. I’d like to take a step forward and be more direct. I believe we must take a leadership role within the tech industry, not just for the good of our careers or companies, not even so we can create great solutions that will make peoples’ lives better, but because design needs to be at the forefront of the tech revolution; the survival of the human race in the twenty-first century may literally depend on it.

Design for the Network and the Internet of Things

A year ago, I went for a run with the brilliant designer and industry leader, Matthew Milan. He made a comment to several colleagues the night before about human-centered design quite possibly having an expiration date. I asked Matthew to expand on the statement because the thought had never really occurred to me. As we ran, Matthew gave me a primer on what he and his team at Normative call “Design for the Network”. Essentially, as technology becomes more fundamental to human life and more intertwined with a web of connected systems, we have to design for more than just the human user. Systems on our planet today are becoming so complex they’ve come to resemble something more organic than digital. They’re a new user group we must cater to if we want our solutions to be effective. We can’t afford to focus solely on humans; we must think of the wider network that humans are immersed in. Add to that the fact that we’re increasingly surrounded by network-connected physical objects that have their own set of wants and needs. As Samuel Bowles is fond of saying, the future of our industry exists at the intersection of atoms and bits. In a world where the most important objects in our lives are internet-connected, we can’t afford to continue to reside purely in the digital world. As algorithms and machine learning make these objects increasingly intelligent and essential to daily life, simple web sites and exclusively “soft” solutions are going to become a very niche market. Not diving in and becoming conversant in these emerging technologies is an incredibly risky move.

Technology on Steroids

Technology today is moving at breakneck speed. @jjg tweeted the other day about a fascinating article on artificial intelligence by Tim Urban. As a researcher and student of history, what jumped out at me were Urban’s observations about technological advancement and its exponential proliferation at the beginning of the 21st Century. As humans, we tend to be backward facing. We intuitively think that human history will continue to advance as it has in the past. When we think of technology, we look back 30 years, see how far we’ve come, and expect to continue to advance at the same pace indefinitely. And in times past, this held mostly true. Urban utilizes the example of a person from the year 1500 plopped down in the same place 250 years in the future. There would certainly be things that had changed in the interim. The advances in astronomy and theoretical physics alone would be fascinating, but that person would still recognize the way the world works. There would still be horse-drawn carriages, lamp light, etc. However, Urban argues, if you took an individual from 1750 and dropped them into our day, the change would be so great, that person might actually die from the shock of it all. How could we explain to them that the person they were speaking to was on the other side of the ocean just a few hours prior? Or that they could speak to someone on the other side of the planet through a backlit pane of glass? And then try explaining that we landed men on the moon and a crew of human beings was currently orbiting the planet in a space station.

The advance of technology in the 21st century isn’t growing slowly or steadily. We are most likely at the beginning of a hockey stick-shaped growth curve that may never stop. It’s like technology is on super-charged steroids. In the midst of that growth, do we, as designers need to be immersed in technology more than ever before? Should we be concerned that this accelerated growth will lead us to make some very bad choices? If we aren’t technical now or at least beginning down that road, how will we contribute toward a future we want to see?

Header image from Matthew DiVito

< Read the previous post in this series

Read the next post in this series >