A person moves through the world holding an object. The object, knowing where the person is coming from and going to, guides them through spaces. The object speaks to the spaces. The spaces, anticipating what the person is seeking, provide to fulfill those needs. Spaces speak with other objects, which then react to the presence and needs of the person. Things open and close around them, move about and create other objects to fulfill needs. The person almost floats through those spaces, through the world, interacting with things, being serviced by things, speaking and listening to things.
This scene is almost a reality today and we realise more of it everyday. We live in an increasingly complex world with a high number of connections between people, things and a multitude of those combinations. While natural systems have always been interconnected and complex, artificial systems are also now increasingly so and it is only the beginning. All these artificial things are designed in some way or another and technology today, is playing an outsized role in shaping the future of these designed things.
Design has always been about creating human experiences and creating the conditions for authentic and sustainable human experiences in this technologically-driven world requires working with people rather than for people. So while in the past design operated in relative isolation, that cannot be the case anymore. Working in such conditions requires a broad understanding of the complex contexts and systems, and therefore skills relating to planning, facilitation and research take on more significant roles. Things are now part of ecosystems and designing things without consideration for the ecosystems they affect and interact with, is a failure in designing.
Technology is continuously offering new tools and materials to work with and as we use this new, it redefines our ways of working and in effect what we design and how we design. It affects not only how we ‘make sense’ but also what we mean by ‘making sense’. Kenya Hara, one of the minds behind the design philosophy of the brand Muji, says it quite succinctly, “the designer’s role has changed in recent years from one of creating beautiful forms or clear identification for brands to one where the designer himself visualizes the possibilities of an industry.” Designers then, while visualising ‘the possibilities of an industry’ are designing the future of the world.
Interaction design operates at the boundary of humans and digital things. With pervasive digitalisation, this boundary is blurring and creating new contexts and meanings. Interaction designers now have the responsibility of making sense of this continuously evolving digitally mediated world, fragmenting / merging / morphing user groups and obsessively monitored value propositions. The design outcomes of interaction design are increasingly on interconnected platforms, where a design choice causing a small change in one part of the system can lead to ripples throughout larger systems that are physical, psychological, social, cultural, technological, and economic in their effects. Designers then need to try and be aware of these emerging systems and design for that emergence. They need to be systems thinkers that identify leverage points for design interventions and then think of their designs as parts of the evolving ecosystems, ever changing and with the capacity to recover from damages.
Design therefore needs to happen through collaborative, trans-disciplinary teams involving not just designers and technologists but instead co-creating with people from many other domains of science, business, social sciences, politics, art, culture and society. The future of interaction design therefore depends on the success of such collaborations and the skills of designers in being able to enable and facilitate such collaborations. So while the expectations from designers in the commercial world may be to create material value for existing and new businesses, their real objective should be to enable imagination and eventually materialise new kinds of values into new kinds of systems that better help people transition towards preferable futures.
Seeking ideas for the future, or as Jim Dator in his basic paradigm of futures research refers to as the ‘images of the future’ (in people’s minds today), is turning out to be an explicit task for designers. It is these images that have the potential to help explore what the preferable futures might be and only then might we be able to figure out how to achieve them. It is no wonder then, that interaction design academicians and practitioners have specifically been on the forefront of popularising a ‘futures thinking’ mindset through different spheres and calling them, among others, “design fiction”, “critical design”, “speculative design”, “experiential futures”. These fields of design provide us with tools and methodologies for thinking, collaborating and creating ideas about the future and consciously but iteratively experimenting with those imagined futures, critiquing them, modifying them and improving them towards preferable outcomes.
The role of design in fast changing scenarios is then not to be abrupt but instead slow and structured. So while the creation of great products might be an immediate requirement, the long term goal should remain to help educate about the possibilities of the industries the designers work in. Hara refers to this philosophy as ‘education of desire’ where design through its slow and purposeful work allows people to learn more about themselves and the society they live in.
Collective future and designIn rapidly changing scenarios with new tools, methods and contexts, it might be wise to remember the foundations a discipline is built upon. Going back to the basics and digging into the essentials of design, Uday Gajender helpfully offers a strategic framework of thought which could help us define a future we want, responsibly and meaningfully. He suggests thinking in terms of Conversations, Engagements and Embodiments while thinking about designing and employing design tools and methods. Further on, balancing these by considering designing as a rhetorical act of argumentation, keeping in mind the essence of empathy for the audience (pathos), logical understanding of the output (logos) and a judicious aesthetic sense of character of the audience and their social conditions (ethos). Applying this style of forethought towards the four forces of interaction (domains of impact, tech marvels, business creation and existential value) leads to powerful innovation and improving the human condition. At the intersection of these lie opportunities and possibilities for the future we want. Purposeful thought and action towards explicit goals is where one should direct one’s attention.
To occupy this space and lead us into the future requires shifts in many aspects of the design practice. Some of these are highlighted in the table above.
Victor Margolin believes, “As an art of conception and planning, design occupies a strategic position between the sphere of dispositional ethics and the sphere of social change. This is its power.” He argues, “Design is the activity that generates plans, projects, and products. It produces tangible results that can serve as demonstrations of, or arguments for, how we might live”.
Design is the process of envisioning and creating our collective future of human, societal, ecosystem and planetary health. This requires a trans-disciplinary effort, which has the potential to catalyse our transformation towards a sustainable human civilisation.
Annetta, Suzy. (n.a.). Q&A with Kenya Hara. Design Anthology Mag.
Dator, Jim. (2002). Advancing futures : futures studies in higher education. Praeger.
Davis, Meredith. (2019). Introduction to Design Futures. AIGA Design Futures.
Dubberly, Hugh & Pangaro, Paul. (2019). Making Sense in the Data Economy. AIGA Design Futures.
Gajendar, Uday. (2016). Notes on “The Future of Interaction Design” - Musings of a Silicon Valley Designer. Medium.
Margolin, Victor. (2002). The Politics of the Artificial: Essays on Design and Design Studies. The University of Chicago Press.
Tonkinwise, Cameron. (2014). Transition Design as Postindustrial Interaction Design? Medium.
Voros, Joseph. (2015). On examining Preposterous! Futures. The Voroscope.
Wahl, Daniel Christian. (2006). Design for Human and Planetary Health: A Holistic/Integral Approach to Complexity and Sustainability. University of Dundee (PhD. Thesis).