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
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.
Head of Design,
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
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.
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.
Executive Creative Director,
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.
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
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!
Product Design Manager,
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
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