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Will tomorrow's world still need designers?

Posted by: Helen Walters on March 8, 2008

Hello from Austin. I’m here too… Just arrived, ready to take part in a panel discussion on Sunday afternoon at South by Southwest Interactive (post Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote). The title of the panel is pretty provocative: “Will tomorrow’s world still need designers?” — and my fellow panelists include Frog Design’s David Merkoski, Jump Associates’ Alonzo Canada, with the whole thing being moderated by Johanna Blakley, Deputy Director at the USC Norman Lear Center.

I am both somewhat excited and fearful that the discussion will take us all over the place, but many of the issues are key to the design industry — not to mention the world as a whole. Johanna posted about the panel on her own blog, and she’s worth quoting here… more of her thoughts after the jump.

“Much has been made of the consequences of democratizing design. Already, the designer’s responsibility has shifted from creating objects and experiences to creating the conditions for innovation — putting into the hands of the masses the tools to make their own designs. However, the threat to the livelihood of designers may well go beyond packs of online amateurs,” she writes.

"Futurist Ray Kurzweil has predicted that $1,000 worth of computation in the 2020s will be 1,000 times more powerful than the human brain. The result? By 2020, greatly extended human longevity (and a cure for the common cold, thank God); by 2030, nanobots that can repair our bodies on the fly; by 2040, machine back-ups of human memories. In the same time frame, we’ll spend less time in front of computers and more time inside of them, working and playing in virtual worlds.

And what comes along with all this amazing progress? A fear that we won’t be able to stay ahead of the game. As countless movies and sci-fi stories have told us, the terrorists could use this technology against us or the powerful computers that we’ve created could take over. While some critics have claimed that this is basically ‘the Rapture for nerds,’ Kurzweil — whose fan club includes Bill Gates, Marvin Minsky, and folks at the National Institute of Health — expects that by 2045, non-biological intelligence will be one billion times more powerful than all human intelligence today. Stanford’s Paul Saffo has asked, will this super intelligence treat us like pets or like food?

This presents an obvious quandary to designers, who may be regarded as the agents of our salvation or our destruction when ‘the Singularity’ (or the nerdocalypse) arrives. As Mary Shelley so brilliantly depicted in Frankenstein, playing God can have tremendous costs. If we’re the first species to take over our own evolution, will designers live like Gods or be chronically unemployed?”

I've already got tons of questions to ask both Johanna and the panel. If you've got any -- or, indeed, any general comments, let me know.

Reader Comments

Michael Cain

March 8, 2008 4:56 PM

I would agree with a lot that you have to say. Unfettered development of technology, coupled with our free-market "make it if it sells" culture will ultimately be our demise. Look at video games, for instance. Some children exhibit addict behavior when it comes to video games (BTW, childhood obesity is now an epidemic?! Really?!). Having personal experience with both Nintendo and cocaine, I can tell you that they both feed into the same escapist/instant-gratification desire so many of us have been conditioned to have.

Designers, actors, musicians, artists, manufacturers- we are all looking at technology usurping our livelihoods (if it hasn't already happened). Hope you like Sales...'cause with a Master's degree in Music that's what I do.

J A Ginsburg

March 9, 2008 11:08 AM

Will designers be needed in the future? Is there really any doubt?

Maybe it's my Chicago roots showing but good design makes a difference, whether it's plan for a city ("Make nolittle plans...they have no magic to stir men's blood"- Burnham), a building ("Form follows function" - Louis Sullivan, "Less is more" - Mies van der Rohe) or a bathroom (see Hodding Carter's "Flushed: How Plumbing Saved Civilization"). It can be as simple as putting wheels on a suitcase, or as earth-in-the-balance as designing a better ballot ("No hanging chads!")

H'mmmm, actually, bad design makes a difference, too...

It's wonderful that more people are able to do more of their own design. I am personally a huge fan of Apple's iWeb and Pages programs. But that's only a part of an ever expanding design pie. The more people understand and are able to think in design terms -- develop a sort of "design literacy" -- the better.

Forms and formats change. Needs don't. Food. Shelter. Clothing. Communication. Entertainment. From cave wall to website, sundial to Rolex, flint knife to exacto blade to "cut & paste," it's all about theme and variations.

So set those designers at ease! They may not be designing as much letterhead for the Kinko's set, but they'll be busy....



p.s. When I was in Florence, I stopped by the History of Science Museum, a tourist-overlooked treasure right next to the Uffizi. The telescopes on display were all decked in gorgeous Florentine paper. Of course the optics were wonderful. But the attention to every detail
-- now that gets you a Renaissance!

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