To see what will be beautiful in the future, look to the past.
That’s the advice some design experts shared recently when we asked them about the future of design, usability and visual experiences. Many everyday devices we’ve used for generations are beautiful, they say, because of their adherence to age-old simplicity and solid strategy, which is why they’ll remain useful for years.
Dan Roam, a design consultant who dubs himself a “visual thinker for business,” says the most beautifully designed thing in his life has existed for decades: a Sharpie.
“It’s future-proof,” Roam says. “That’s not true about a lot of technologically enabled pens out there. What would happen if we added digital bells and whistles to the pen to make it smarter?”
Not much so far, he argues.
A few companies that have fused the indispensable pen with gee-whiz tech have not improved upon the simplicity of putting pen to paper and communicating ideas through sketches.
“Just bolting technology onto an existing, effective tool doesn’t mean you’re going to get anything great,” says Roam, who wrote the bestseller “The Back of the Napkin” and has helped clients like Google, Boeing, Wells Fargo and the U.S. Navy solve complex visual problems.
But, Roam cautions, that doesn’t mean designers shouldn’t be thinking about the future, what’s next in user experience, why design translates to revenue and how designers can improve our lives.
“The big challenge for designers and UX professionals today is to find the simplicity that lives on the other side of complexity,” he says. Focusing on simplicity will be integral because “everything is complex, and everyone is overwhelmed with information and data today.”
And it’s only getting worse. The hurdles for designers will be parsing the data, unraveling the complexity and presenting customers and companies with simple and elegant solutions.
‘You cannot not communicate’
Designers must stop copycatting and understand what users need, Hans von Sichart says.
Von Sichart, a design expert at GE who has also worked as a UX designer at Apple and Cisco, says he’s hopeful the industry’s future is truly based on improving usability. It sounds simple, but he fears too much design today is a “re-dressing” of others’ work and a regurgitation of trends.
It’ll also be vital to keep understanding that designing means communicating, von Sichart says. He’s reminded of a useful aphorism: “You cannot not communicate.”
In other words: Everything we do every day is presenting information, whether we realize it or not.
“You’re always communicating, even if you’re doing it badly,” von Sichart says. “Even if you build a house without an architect, you still make architectural decisions. And if you build interactive products without designers, you still make design decisions. You just make them subconsciously or you make bad decisions, or you make random decisions.”
He believes the design community must become increasingly collaborative to create the wonderful user experience solitary artists are incapable of designing.
“I don’t like competitive sports,” he says. “I think the binary result of how people score in soccer, for example, is completely ridiculous because you miss all the elegance. It’s just not about scoring goals. But a friendly competition that is inspiring and where somebody tries to top the latest idea, I think that is very helpful.”
‘Design needs to have strategy behind it’
Jen Byyny wonders when we’ll experience a world akin to “Minority Report.”
“It seems like it’s coming. But is it 10 years away? Is it 20 years away?” Byyny, a senior UX designer at Yahoo, asks in reference to the 2002 sci-fi film that was flush with futuristic interfaces and tools.
In the meantime, the expectations for design standards will continue to rise — even from the most general consumer.
“It’s interesting to think about 10 years from now if you think about 10 years ago. 2014 sounded so far away in 2004,” Byyny says. “There’s this vision of design being seamless but the standards being very high. I think they’ve gotten higher in these 10 years. More of our lives are more designed than they were 10 years ago. That trajectory will continue.”
And vanished are the days when the design of a device or browsing experience needed to be merely utilitarian or pragmatic. It now must be beautiful, too. For some consumers, for instance, the iPhone is less about call quality or processor speed than it is about its looks and gestures.
The key is a well-engineered project strategy. That process — designers working closely with product directors, account managers and backend developers — will push the industry toward a brighter future. But Byyny says there’s still too much disorganization and a lack of standardization, even at large companies.
“Projecting forward, design needs to have strategy behind it. It needs to think through the whole experience and not just the task at hand. It goes beyond a module on a page, it goes beyond a page on a website and it goes beyond a website,” Byyny says. Good design needs to integrate the consumer’s experience with the experience of the brand.
“We’ve come so far in 10 years,” she says, “but there’s still so much more that can be done.”
What’s beautiful in your life?
Read what Roam, von Sichart and Byyny say are the essential and beautiful designs in their lives:
It’s a big, fat Sharpie. To me, a Sharpie — not the little skinny one, not the tiny ones, but any one of the round, warhead-looking Sharpies — they’re the perfect tool. They write upside-down, they write on anything and they write instantly. I’m the back-of-a-napkin guy — pull out a pen and starting drawing as you talk to help clarify what you’re thinking. The Sharpie is the absolute perfect tool for that. It doesn’t matter what you have to write on, your Sharpie has got you.
One that I love is called the Super Sharpie. If you want the killer app, the killer tool, the thing of beauty — the Super Sharpie. It looks exactly like the original, but it’s twice as big.
Hans von Sichart:
I have a Mercedes Benz built before 1988 — before the [Berlin] Wall came down. I have three. I bought them all here. My wife drives a wagon from ‘88. I have a diesel from ‘79 and an eight-cylinder from 1977. They are very ergonomic. They are easy to use. They have a different feel on the road. The suspension and everything is thought through by people who knew how to engineer cars. It’s just a completely different experience to a new car. The way the interior is made is much better than newer cars. I could talk about this forever.
Most of the things at the store Design Within Reach. We’ve made some purchases from there. When I’m in my backyard, I look at our patio furniture, which are Adirondack chairs. They’re plastic and they’re all from recycled materials. You can leave them outside when it’s zero degrees. You don’t have to shovel the snow off them. You say, “Gosh, these look nice. They feel good. They’re simple.” I don’t have to pack them away. Having them doesn’t complicate my life. It makes a part of my home more enjoyable.