Friday, November 14, 2014

A Future For Designers — Expanded and Annotated

We all know that we need to innovate. But which of the different classes of innovation should we expend our best efforts on? That choice effects the kind of futures we shall build. What novel roles could designers play within those futures? If it is not going to be what we expect or desire, what can we designers do to future-proof our careers?

That was the description of my presentation to yesterday’s Defuse Dublin event. I had to condense my message dramatically to fit into the five-minute Petcha-Kucha format. I hope that posting this comprehensive version here along with source material links will prove useful to all those interested in this topic.

I am interested in what it will mean to practice as a graphic designer in future. Not in the far-flung future; but within the span of our own career horizons. It is too easy to think about what is happening in graphic design this month, or what is coming up in the next quarter. Sometimes it is worth taking a longer-term view. Thinking about what changes lie ahead for the design sector; for the overall role of graphic designers; and in the professional activities of individual designers in five, ten or twenty years time. While acknowledging that such futurology contains elements of guesswork, we can extrapolate from existing trends. The workplace of the future will look different to that of today, and most likely entirely different to that of just a decade ago.

So, what trends are potentially coming down the line that are work thinking about? Automation is not a topic we discuss much within the design sector. In a real sense many aspects of knowledge work and creative work can eventually be automated. This is the prospect facing all white collar careers in all economies. Watch the fascinating documentary ‘Humans Need Not Apply’. Its key messages are:
  • That automation does not need to be perfect — it just needs to be better than most of us, most of the time.
  • That automation is not bad — it is simply inevitable.
I will accept that film is somewhat apocalyptic. But, if we can get past immediately dismissing it as being of little relevance to the creative economy, it does offer us much to think about. It is not only taxi drivers who need to be concerned in the face of automation. We graphic designers are not protected in some unique creative sector bubble.

Walter The Wobot ©2014 Rebellion.
Over the last thirty years technology has disrupted and depreciated the roles artworkers and typesetters in the design sector. Throughout the nineties many of those people’s careers migrated to being aspects of graphic designer’s job descriptions. Now it  looks possible that many of those design tasks will migrate further on to various forms of automated algorithmic technology.

A lot of my day-to-day activities involve writing and designing corporate identity systems. Essentially that is creating design languages and visual grammars for organisations. This establishes a coherent framework for other graphic designers to create within.

Corporate identity manuals are transitioning from nouns to verbs. They began as hefty physical publications and evolved through PDFs to become online resources. Soon they will become APIs.

One can think about corporate identities as high-level pattern languages with many iteration potentials. Unfortunately for some, quite a lot of everyday graphic design work is based on understanding, manipulating and re-purposing of such pattern languages.

Africa books montage by Simon Stevens.
What would be involved in designing another cover for a new book about Africa? Or perhaps creating the icon for a new To-Do app? If we believe that these – and many similar graphic design tasks – cannot ultimately be automated to a greater or lesser degree, then it is likely that we are fooling ourselves.

Such graphic design automation will begin with the design of relatively structured and formulaic materials. It will not begin by automating high level ‘creativity’ per-se. That said, rather than being science-fiction, or the white-paper aspirations of professional futurists, this is already possible.

At a simple level, consider the fascinating service: ‘Paper-Later’. This merges a read-it-later-style bookmarking app with the automatic layout of personal, customised, physical newspapers, printed and posted to you. Do these newspapers have a rudimentary and limited design layout? Yes, of course they do. But remember this is how disruption starts: at the simplest, almost trivial, level. Which is easily dismissed by the incumbents.

It is likely that the relationship of post-human algorithmic design to the accepted Canon Of Significant Graphic Design will be as the musical output of Pop-Idol is to, say, The Beatles. But, in many situations, it will provide the minimal viable solution. Design elitists may wail and gnash their teeth and rend their garments, but the pattern of disruption has been well mapped-out for all industries at this stage. It seems improbable that graphic design would prove to be the exception.

It is notable that IBM’s Watson has already proven its prowess at answering natural language questions. It won the US game show ‘Jeopardy’ and already supports medical professionals in making treatment options for their patients. So automation can already win game shows, compose music and write news articles. But are many of the human skills supporting advanced Design-Thinking too complex for any artificial intelligence software to handle?

We designers pride ourselves upon being creative thinkers who imagine novel solutions for a living. So it should not be a stretch for us to imagine creative algorithms which could design as well as the average designer today. Now, I am no AI research scientist. But for tonight, I have sketched out this quick wire-frame of a rudimentary ‘Design-O-Matic’ algorithm in my notebook.

I am an early-adopter and an anti-Luddite. So I am not discussing automation as a negative phenomenon, more as an inevitability. The correct response to the ‘Lump Of Labour’ fallacy has always been that new innovations open up new roles and free people from less skilled tasks to pursue higher callings. Yet, many experts are concerned that things may not pan out that way, this time around.

Read more: Lump of Labor: Certainly a Red Herring, Albert Wenger, 2014.

So, bearing all of that in mind, we need to ask ourselves: how many graphic designers will actually be needed in the future? And what kind of careers will they have?

The premise underpinning the related future theory of the ‘Gig-Economy’ is that all knowledge workers or members of the creative classes who do succeed in retaining a career shall have no choice but to operate as On-Demand, Super-Specialised, Free Agents serving the tiniest niches within a frictionless, Internet-enabled, global economy.

The most unnerving aspect of that future scenario is that only a small percent of the global population will be smart enough for the level of careers remaining. Ergo, only an equally small percent of the designer population will be smart enough for the remaining creative jobs. Will there be one-percent who provide the novel design solutions which provide the stimulus material for the other ninety-nine percent?

In such a scenario, the critical question then is whether the design-related jobs which are displaced by technology can be replaced at the same rate by those Gig Economy careers? (And how long before someone brainstorms a working business model for the Uber for Graphic Designers? Or even one for brand consultants!)

Learn more: Exponent podcast, Ben Thompson and James Allworth, weekly .
Read more: Airbnb CEO Spells Out The End Game For The Sharing Economy, Venture Beat, 2014.

In our personal response to all such speculative futures we can choose to be fatalistic, or to be excited and inspired. For many graphic designers our future is going to have to be less focussed on design-craft skills. If automation will not displace those jobs in the near-term, then it could be off-shoring, or the ongoing democratisation of design via smarter tools. All those forces are already acting on the graphic design sector.

But it is not all bad news.

Paradoxically, at a time when some designer’s careers will face their greatest challenge, there is also a potential upside for others. There is a parallel narrative of new opportunities for those designers who are prepared to reinvent and reorientate themselves with new mindsets, and in new roles. It remains an open question what proportion of graphic designers will have the appropriate levels and forms of creativity required to succeed within these new economic landscapes.

Read more: It is OK to Worry about Work, Albert Wenger, August 2014.

Illustration by 
One of the traditional career trajectories for designers has been to devote less time to their graphic design craft skills and more to developing their soft skills in consultancy and client advisory roles. Those trust-based roles should prove less amenable to automation in the medium-term. The disciplines of Service Design, Experience Design and Design-Thinking are examples of horizontal activities that broaden the scope of designer’s activities and roles.

Within the graphic design sector the practice of entrepreneurship has traditionally been limited to setting-up design studios. Most those have been lifestyle businesses and SMEs, and rarely economically significant enterprises of scale. Of course, starting such service agencies is entrepreneurial. But what about the designer’s role being neither that of a service-agent nor an advisor? What about designers taking on more of a true leadership role as drivers of innovation?

Wired magazine claimed that fifty percent of startup founders have engineering backgrounds with only six percent have design backgrounds. Most graphic designers have a maker’s focus on building their expertise in their craft. Or at least that is where they tend to start from in their careers. The personality-type of an entrepreneur is characterised as not being expert at any single discipline — except leadership. They have to be ‘good enough’ at many different disciplines and know when to delegate. Yet, both entrepreneurs and designers have skills in iterating and problem solving.

It is striking that 60% of Fortune-500 CEOs cite ‘creativity’ as the most important quality of leadership today. To me that suggests that we graphic designers need to broaden our conception of success. About one-third of today’s Fortune-500 CEOs have engineering backgrounds, rather than pure business backgrounds. What if, in future, one-third of such CEOs had design backgrounds?

Read more: The Economist Special Report: Technology Is Not WorkingOctober 2014

We can observe that — as the value in many products and services migrates upwards to the experience level — design-thinking skills are now deemed critical, valued, and sought-after. In recent years the international business and technology media have started reporting more frequently on the value that designers now bring in setting the agenda and leading organisations.

This narrative is that designers are amongst those best placed to capitalise in the future economy by focussing more on creative thinking and problem solving.
“Over the next few decades demand in the top layer of the labour market may well centre on individuals with high abstract reasoning, creative, and interpersonal skills that are beyond most workers, including graduates.” 
Read more: Silicon Valley's New Secret Weapon: Designers Who Found Startups, Fast Company, 2012.
Read more: The Interface Layer: Where Design Commoditizes Tech, Scott Belsky, 2014.
Read more: Why VC Firms Are Snapping Up Designers, Fast Company, 2014. 

The role of the ‘Designer-Founder’ is a notable new career path. This is someone who uses her design-thinking mindset and problem-solving methods to build businesses that are far more ambitious than service agencies. The challenges within the problem-spaces that many startups are starting to explore now benefit dramatically from experienced design-thinking. The time is right. The opportunity is now and the need is there. No-one is arguing that designer-founders are better than founders with technical or business backgrounds. Rather they complement each other.

Read more: Advice for Designers Who Want to Be Founders, Eoghan McCabe, 2013.

A relevant question to ask is what proportion of graphic designers do have these kinds of leadership aspirations? The answer is now more than has ever been the case before.

That said, it now seems probable that an ambitious cohort within the graphic design sector will decide it is economically most advantageous to abandon the artisan career path or the professional-service career path and step up to the founder career path. Indeed, there are already historical precedents for this type of industry-wide phase-change, most notably in Engineering.

So it is informative to note that incubators only for design-founders are appearing in the US, along with some dedicated venture capital funds such as ‘DesignerFund’. Initiatives like the experimental designer school ‘30-Weeks’ are pioneering the approach of equipping designers with the skills needed to start enterprises, after years of trying to teach startups about design.

We should ask ourselves what potential there is for similar initiatives here in Ireland?

Read more: 30 Weeks: An Experimental New Design School, Backed By Google, Fast Company, June 2014.
Read more: Google Funds a Design School That Works Like a Tech Incubator, Wired, June 2014.

Airbnb’s  Brian Chesky & Joe Gebbia, Pinterest’s Ben Silbermann & Evan Sharpe, Path’s Dave Morin, and Tumblr’s David Karp. 
Looking internationally, there are already examples of high-profile, market-disrupting companies whose founders have design backgrounds. I am sure you are all familiar with Air-BnB, Pinterest, Path, and Tumblr.

No-one argues that Designer-Founders are better than founders with technical or business backgrounds. Rather, that they complement each other.

Some VCs even claim that the core of start-ups has evolved from an ‘Engineer plus Hustler’ partnership. The new ideal is a trio of Engineer plus Designer plus Hustler.

I think it will be interesting to observe how different the priorities of organisations led with a design mindset will be in comparison with those led by a Technical mindset. Perhaps Designer-Founders will envisage and build a different kind of future to complement the visions of technology founders?

Intercom’s Eoghan McCabe & Des Traynor, SeeSearch’s Hilary Kenna, Thoughtbox’s Cristina Luminea, and Drop’s Zachary Davison, Ben Harris, Jonny McCauley & Jack Phelan.
While that trio startup model is now unexceptional on the US West Coast, Designer-Founders are still only a niche here in Ireland. But we are seeing some home-grown Irish startups with designers taking on key roles in their founding teams. While many of these are just out of incubator stage, there are certainly a few we can learn from.

Read more: Find Your Niche And Put Focus On Design, The Irish Times, November 2014.

How is the Irish third-level graphic design education sector grappling with these ideas and economic imperatives? The colleges will have a key role to play in encouraging and transmitting the entrepreneurial aspects of design thinking to the graphic designers of tomorrow. Have they started planning for these futures? Their critical challenge will be that colleges need to foster such entrepreneurial mindsets while they have been configured to graduate graphic designers with an agent mindset.

Ten years ago I attended a talk by Professor Christopher Frayling. He praised what he thought was the under-rated calling of being an “everyday graphic design tradesman”. He argued that educators need to realise and accept that not every student is going to be an iconoclast, a paradigm-changer or a design visionary. He argued educators should be content to train some people to be competent journeymen designers. I do not believe that is a viable strategy any more if we face a combination of automation and a Gig-Economy marketplace.

Obviously third-level design departments cannot just flick a switch and turn on some entrepreneurial acumen within their students. But there is little value in preparing their students for careers that may not exist when they graduate. I spoke with some of the design departments about this. While I found them aware of aspects of these challenges. The slow pace of institutional reaction times and the challenges in evolving their approaches frustrated some of those educators.

So, the future of graphic design work may be far more different than we expect. This third kind of career path will not suit all graphic designers. But, ultimately I think many of us are going to have to realign our mindsets from serving as agents or trusted advisors and step-up to acting as instigators.

The issue then becomes: how do we best prepare ourselves to operate in that capacity?

Read more: What It Takes To Be A Lead Designer At A Top Startup, Designerfund, 2014.
Read more: Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, by Seth Godin.

Quote from Merlin Mann, episode one of Roderick On The Line.
All this tells me that if you are a graphic designer, you need to work actively on keeping yourself relevant. Ask yourself:
  • What aspects of your work might simply just *go away* in the next five years?
  • Then identify what new areas of expertise you need to start building today.
  • Focus intensely on how you add unique value that cannot be readily replicated.
You need to design the arc of your own career.

Read more: The End of Design As We Know It, Dan Saffer, September 2014. (That post has a lot of crossover with my presentation. I had drafted most of this essay in August and September, before that post was published, but you can imagine how I felt when I read it!)

So, who will be the potential founders, leaders and innovators within our design community in Ireland? Perhaps it is you? Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow. But at some possible point in your future career. So do not close the door to that possibility.

No one is going to choose you. Choose yourself.

I think it is important to note that this essay is not intended as an incitement to jumping aboard some happy-clappy ‘Wantrepreneur’ bandwagon. This is not a call to all graphic designers to abandon their craft skills and just release their inner Jobs/Musk/Bezos/Zuckerberg. Obviously, the third career path discussed will not suit all graphic designers. My point is about recognising that there just are not going to be the same amount of artisan or service-agent design roles required in future. So staying active and relevant within the graphic design field may need a broader mindset and a willingness to apply the core abilities of the Design-Thinker to a new set of opportunities.

Presentation Video 
IxDA have now posted videos of all of yesterday’s presentations on YouTube. So here is the live version of my talk.

Writing an article like this does not happen in a vacuum. I road-tested some of my ideas, and investigated the background with some knowledgeable people. So my thanks to Valerie Haslam, John O’Connor, Barry Sheehan, Hilary Kenna, Jill Barry, Amy Neale, Conor Clarke, David Smyth, and Shirley Casey for their contributions.