Every year, John Maeda releases a report called Design in Tech. It’s a nearly 100 slide, 30,000-foot view of the design industry as seen through a technology lens. In the report, Maeda, now the global head of computational design and inclusion at Automattic, teases the Big Ideas that he, from his perch as Silicon Valley’s design evangelist, views as important for the year to come.
This year’s report focuses primarily on artificial intelligence and the rise of the computational designer, who, in Maeda’s view, is a distinctly different species from a “classical designer” (read: a traditional graphic designer concerned with form and content) or “design thinking designer” (read: a designer who works in business). We talked to Maeda about some of the findings from his report, and asked the big question: in a time of constant technological evolution, what does all of it mean for graphic designers? Especially for those who don’t code? Here are the major takeaways.
First: Accept That Things are Changing
One of Maeda’s most interesting slides lays out an intense statistic: 88% of designers surveyed believe that in 5-10 years AI will begin to reach the skill level of human designers when it comes to certain visual design tasks. Before you freak out, Maeda’s statistic isn’t saying AI will be better than human graphic designers at everything, but a significant number of people believe computers will eventually absorb some of their marketable skill set.
Maeda says the first step to future-proofing is acceptance of the future. The shift happening now is echoed by past movements where designers were hesitant to embrace change. During the industrial revolution, the Arts and Crafts Movement sprang up to counter the rise of machines and the loss of traditional craftsmanship. Later, during the early years of desktop publishing, a similar breed of pro-craft sentiment became commonplace with many designers ignoring the shift and doubling down on analog means of production. “Paul Rand said, ‘Over my dead body,’” Maeda recalls.
Others, like Susan Kare and the type designers at Emigre, embraced the idea that new tools could make their lives easier and their work more interesting, and they’re now credited with being the early leaders on modern typography and UX design. We’re in a similar moment now, says Maeda, and designers have a choice: “You can think of AI as something that will take away your job, or you can think of AI as something that will improve your livelihood,” he says. “You can pray that it’s not going to get better, but it’s going to get better.”
Next: Be Open to Learning New Skills
No one expects every designer to become perfectly proficient in coding and designing artificial intelligence. These specialized fields are specialized for a reason—they take a damn long time to master. Even without hard coding skills, Maeda says a curiosity about new technology is enough to push a designer’s work forward. “I believe in the new world, it’s just good to know what AI is and how it works,” he says. “That way you can see what it can and can’t do.”
In the 2017 AIGA Design Census, designers outlined the top 10 emerging trends for designers. In the top three? AI and machine learning, augmented reality, and virtual reality. It’s not a huge surprise that the census, which was conducted in part with Google Design, focused on computational trends, but it’s still a telling sign that designers are thinking about how to prepare for a more technological future. It’s important to note that preparing doesn’t necessarily mean going back to school. It’s not a matter of being an expert in a new technology; it’s a matter of being conversant. “The designers who are really curious and are experimenting with this will be advantaged,” Maeda says.
Finally: Embrace the Ambiguity
Perhaps misleadingly, Maeda divides designers into three categories: Classical, the hard-nosed graphic designers; Design Thinking, the systems-led designers working across big companies and consultancies; and Computational, the designers who use computational tools to make their work. Often, these design methodologies are pitted against one another, with one category of designer poking conference-friendly holes in the other’s process. Maeda says there’s some value in the segmentation. “I’m a big believer in diversity of thinking,” he says. “I would never want the pure classical designers to go away, the pure design thinkers to go away, or the pure computational designers to go away. In the absence of expertise, everything becomes grey.”
Definitions are, by and large, more useful for people talking about design than the designers themselves. The truth is, some designers fit just one category, but many are a hybrid of two or even all three. It’s possible to be both computationally and aesthetically minded and sell your product like a businessperson. That ambiguous line between design definitions is where most designers will reside in the future, and it’s where some of the most interesting work is bound to occur.