Forget pixels, make people your craft

To understand where digital design might go in the next 20 years, I have been looking back in time. I believe some aspects of design will become commoditised. But some skills will remain sought after: our people skills.

Commoditisation of craft, lessons from the industrial revolution

To learn about the future, let’s look back.

Product design is currently a craft-oriented role. Let’s look at a similar role that become hugely commoditised over the past 30 years: furniture making.

In the 1950s, it was commonplace to teach woodwork in British schools, now there is barely any taught at all. Industrialised methods meant new, more convenient, versatile materials could be made (plywood, MDF and chipboard become big in 1960s).

Once an easily repeatable, consistent sheet material could be produced, it meant that forms could be created quickly and repeatably. Furniture could be mass produced.

With industrialisation, craft skills in the latter 20th century became less important, a sharp decline in demand followed and the commoditisation of cheap products emerged.

Ikea had rapid growth in 1970s. One of the first to bring mass produced furniture to the masses.

Craft as a luxury

The craft of furniture making and cabinet making still survives, but it is on a comparitively small scale. Largely limited to bespoke craftmanship of individual pieces for wealthy customers — it has become a niche, luxury trade.

The craftsmen I know (I am one too, as a hobbyist) still love their craft, but begrudgingly are forced to rely on power tools and machines to work quicker and increase profit margins.

The crafts-people I know are also exhausted, because the work is physically demanding. Because craft is manual labour they cannot leave their work, the work doesn’t do itself, and so they are held captive by their work.

I believe the same will become true for digital designers unless our craft shifts.

In 2020, digital design is still remarkably labour intensive

It still amazes me how in 2020, UI design is still a manual process–literally moving objects on a screen by hand–it is a very labour intensive job.

Increasingly, to remain productive, UI Designers have started to rely on ‘power tools’ (i.e. plugins, component libraries) in order to make productivity gains. Some new features like auto-layout are the power tools of product design. This is the first shift towards mass production.

The second sign of the shift: new, consistent, repeatable materials. Design systems are now a mainstay in product design—this wasn’t the case 5 years ago.

Business people don’t want designers

In my experience, companies don’t really like designers that much. Design costs money and good design isn’t fast enough.

Why is it that in 2021 Design still either reports into the Product or Marketing team in many companies? It’s because we are valued for craft (production skills) and not leadership skills (influence).

Also, many designers love to indulge in craft, but don’t understand business. And in many businesses, we are not brought into the business conversation. This is a vicious cycle.

Designers who focus obsessively with pixels and cannot think about the bigger picture are the ones I commonly hear product managers complaining about. “How indulgent!”, they say.

As designers, we must not be tempted to spend too much time on craft, as much as we enjoy it. We need to make ourselves more indispensible in other ways.

Focus on desirability

As designers, we know that when there is user pain involved and it is costing money, there is an opportunity to create a new improved system.

Over time, the greatest threat to UI Designers will be that this role will become semi-automated and then later fully automated. It is obvious when you look at what is happening in generative design in architecture, or AI generated sound and graphics.

In the future, Design will become just a single step where you configure some parameters, press a button and watch things build. I am very certain of that.

When it comes to design elements like page layout or colour palettes, we already see that tools that will generate variants for us. Adobe Kuler was launched 10 years ago.

Creative direction is hard to automate, and this will be harder to commoditise. This ‘meta’ work is how we protect our profession.

A resolution to the automation problem

The more I look at how digital design is maturing, the more I realise the future of design truly rests with people. The skills of customer research, collaboration and communication are more important than ever.

As a craftsperson, time is your most valuable resource. Time is capital. Try not to be tied down by your craft.

My advice is to get ‘good enough’ at your craft, then automate your workflow as much as possible to gain extra capacity. Then spend that capital with your colleagues, users and stakeholders. Developing your people skills will give your career extra longevity.

I have seen many really great designers who have not grown because they never came out from behind the screen and made people their craft. I worry that these are the kinds of designers that will not adapt quickly enough to new world of product design.

Designers are at currently at their peak of influence, demand is high–but things can change quickly

I have met quite a few designers who are entering the profession, and they are typically starting in UI design. It’s great to see, but I wonder how long this peak period will last.

Moore’s law (above) states that there is a chasm to cross before a concept can become mainstream. You must break through from the ‘enthusiastic early adopters’ and make an idea mainstream. It appears to me we are beyond the chasm, the year the chasm was breached might be 3–5 years behind us.

Let’s see how long before the profession as we know it tails off and a new discipline emerges.

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User Experience & Service Designer at Skyscanner • Excuse my spelling, I’m British. 🇬🇧

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Peter Berrecloth

Peter Berrecloth

User Experience & Service Designer at Skyscanner • Excuse my spelling, I’m British. 🇬🇧

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