Moving Backwards

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With the large amount of expertise and years of experience I have in design (not), I have formulated a simple theory: everything is a cycle. Ok, yes I know it’s not ground-breaking. It’s not even door-breaking, but it’s a very simple subtle sneaky truth that we only choose to notice in hindsight. The cliche “history repeats itself” has taken a hold in war history as much as the technology trends that we see today.

For some reason i have seen a variety of different articles that seem to predict our current gadgets and gizmos. From the Simpsons predicting our gadgets to looking back at Apple’s designs from the 80’s and realizing that all of it came to fruition, it seems like we should have looked to the past to innovate for the future.

We’ve gone from gradient to flat icons in UI design, from tablets to wearables in product and industrial design and now Google has implemented material design, which is simply applying a consistency across devices and services (which arguably Apple has done from the very beginning… or not, depending on how you look at it). We’ve “skeuomorp-hized” everything from files and folders to device names and how we go about “downloading” something. What used to be called “web surfing” is simply searching “apps” and functioning within individual modules within a smartphone. Facebook’s changes to its profile have simply been rearrangements within an already existing grid system. So how do we break out of this cycle? Is there even a way to break out of it?

There is a large section of design focused just to futuring work. There is theory and research done to figure out what current trends are and where they are taking us for the future. Many companies, such as Microsoft and Corningware, have even released futuring videos with their own vision of what the future should look like and what they want to build. There is a lot of talk of innovation labs popping up in many large corporate companies, incorporating design thinking into preexisting processes.

And as we talk about futuring work, it doesn’t come without thinking about service design. A recent New York Times article sums it up very well:

“CrimsonSpark, like so many new-guard inventions that are wildly and briefly popular (What Would I Say, an app that analyzes your Facebook history to create a new status, comes to mind), wasn’t doing anything technically profound. In fact, it was technically regressive. Six years after Thefacebook was founded in a Harvard dorm, CrimsonSpark returned to the early days of poking. The central concept, though, was alluring: It connected people who wanted to sleep together. Likewise, many of the hottest web start-ups are not novel, at least not in the sense that Apple’s Macintosh or Intel’s 4004 microprocessor were. The arc of tech parallels the arc from manufacturing to services. The Macintosh and the microprocessor were manufactured products. Some of the most celebrated innovations in technology have been manufactured products — the router, the graphics card, the floppy disk — while advances like IBM’s “business solutions” are viewed as little more than customer support. But things are changing. Technology as service is being interpreted in more and more creative ways: Companies like Uber and Airbnb, while properly classified as interfaces and marketplaces, are really providing the most elevated service of all — that of doing it ourselves.”

As I spent this past semester working on a studio project for Microsoft (with professors continually trying to push us to think 7 to 20 years ahead), I continually came across projects that made it seem like all of our research was for nothing; for example: Sixth Sense project. While our final product was an interesting take on bringing together education and creativity in a “world of a billion sensors”, in retrospect, it seems like we were repeating the past.

So what is the start and end of the design process if we’re constantly repeating the past, but still continually researching it? Maybe there is no straight forward answer, but that’s the point right? “It’s always wise to look ahead, but difficult to look further than you can see” (Winston Churchill).

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