9 of the World’s Leading Designers Talk About What Matters Now

Design is in flux. Where its practitioners were once expected to produce chairs, lamps, logos and letterheads, today their work is often less visible. Increasingly, design is concerned with interactions and experiences—it’s about software and the vast systems that power it. We asked nine top designers to talk about their craft and what it means today. Here’s what they said.

A World of Invisible Solutions

Robert Brunner                                                                    Beats Studio Headphones

Robert Brunner Cofounder, Ammunition                                                Beats Studio headphones

There seems to be a difference between how most people perceive design and what designers really do. Why? People don’t realize that their entire lives are shaped by a designer’s work—from their home to their car to their office to nearly every object they use. We’re deeply affected by the things other people have created, which outlines the importance of what designers do. But most people don’t think this way. They assume things plopped out of a factory somewhere. By contrast, designers must see more deeply. The most valuable lesson they can learn is to keep their eyes open.

Gentry Underwood                                                                    Mailbox email app

Gentry Underwood Head of Design, Dropbox                                    Mailbox email app

What’s one overlooked or underappreciated way in which design affects our lives? Great design often disappears, leaving the user with no more than a simple and intuitive experience. This “invisible” design is all around us—in those airports where we have no trouble finding our flight, when we know just where to stand when waiting for a table, or when we thoughtlessly switch out the lights in a hotel room we’ve never been in before. It’s only when we can’t do common actions like these—when we fuss and fiddle and find ourselves lost—that the opportunity for design becomes apparent.

Building Experiences and Interactions, Not Artifacts

Jack Schulze                                                                    Berg Little Printer

Jack Schulze Cofounder, Berg                                                                Berg Little Printer

How is the current moment in design different from those before? When I was studying graphic design in the late ’90s, there was a dream that as a designer, if you were good enough, you might create an archetype for the age—the sorts of things you see in Mad Men, artifacts and images that characterize an era. But when I graduated, it became abundantly clear that when people looked back on the decade to come, they would not be looking at record covers or chairs. It was going to be glowing rectangles and software. People would remember the aesthetics and noises of operating systems, the first time they pinch-zoomed something, the aesthetics of Google Maps, the Nokia ringtone, and Candy Crush Saga.
Kim Colin                                                              Herman Miller Locale desk

Kim Colin Cofounder, Industrial Facility                                  Herman Miller Locale desk

How has the role of the designer changed since you first started? The discipline has entered popular culture in funny ways recently—some of which we should celebrate and some we should be wary of. But this hasn’t changed the fact that there is still no consensus about the role of our work. Are you a stylist? Do you serve brands? Do you make things? Did you invent that technology? Are you a philosopher? Can you fix a TV? I’ve been asked all of these! We continue to ask, what is design? And this is a healthy question to ask and to keep asking. Design is a collaborative effort between designers, manufacturers, distributors, and consumers. Raising questions propels us toward better things.
Jonas Damon                                                                          Areaware iPhone radio dock

Jonas Damon Executive Creative Director, Frog                   Areaware iPhone radio dock

How have the problems you work on changed in recent years? Designers have had to become hybrids. In the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, the industrial designer’s role was clear: Create a physical object. Now I have to understand the technology that drives it, the physical components, the sensors, the ecosystem. I need to understand how a person will interact with it—whether that’s on the object itself or a smartphone app. I need to understand how it fits in with the brand. High design was once much more exclusive. Now it has trickled down and touches so much. Because of that, the designer has to be far more aware of society—and much more sensitive to it.

Natasha Jen                                                          Identity system for OfficeUS

Natasha Jen Partner, Pentagram                                       Identity system for OfficeUS

Technology is not only changing how we design, but also the types of things we design. How has this affected your work? Obviously, technology has been shaping every design discipline. It creates new needs and desires on an unimaginable scale. It also establishes new criteria for evaluating how design works. For example, graphic design is an indispensable part of all digital interfaces—so it has never been scrutinized so closely for performance. It’s an amazing time to be a designer: There’s so much terrain that’s yet to be discovered. There’s so much yet to be tested and so much yet to be improved. It’s fascinating to think how design now will be viewed in 20, 50, or 100 years.

From Books to Service to Algorithms

Bethany Koby                                                                          TWSU plant-monitoring kit

Bethany Koby CEO and Cofounder,Technology Will Save Us    TWSU plant-monitoring kit

Describe a case where thoughtful design has an impact beyond just producing a prettier object. I have become increasingly excited about service design. When a service experience has really been thought through, it can make a lasting impression on someone’s life. My example is having a child here in the UK, under the care of the National Health Services. It was incredible. Someone designed this experience with empathy and creativity. Not only did I have both digital and printed records of my doctor’s visits along my nine-month journey, but I also had access to classes, a midwife, and automatic reminders about doctor’s appointments and my son’s development milestones. And all of this was for free!
Mia Blume                                                                        Pinterest's guided search

Mia Blume Product Design Manager, Pinterest                   Pinterest’s guided search

What everyday object or product do you find especially well designed, and why? I love the design of books. Not ebooks, real books. Books represent one of our oldest utilities and communication tools. Their design—from the structure to the art of the page—has been developed over centuries to relay information and stories. Every aspect is designed for function and production, yet books remain a nuanced craft, from the binding to the serifs on a page. Even today, our digital versions seek to imitate the structure, workmanship, and emotional connection of a well-honed volume.

Alexis Lloyd                                                                 NYT R&D'S smart kitchen

Alexis Lloyd Creative Director, New York Times R+D Lab      NYT R&D’S smart kitchen

What big problem keeps you up at night? We’re seeing new relationships emerging between people and technology. Algorithms influence an ever-increasing number of facets of our lives: the media we consume, what our health insurance knows about our physical condition, whether we’re approved for loans or hired for jobs, and whom we may date or marry. But we don’t have much agency in those interactions. These “smart” systems are black boxes, eschewing transparency in favor of simplicity. But when we can’t interrogate a system, that disenfranchises us. Designers now must facilitate interactions that balance ease of use with transparency.

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