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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.