As a creative professional I try to keep loose tabs on how design and creativity are evolving. These past several months have given me a lot to think about. While we've just begun to witness the heralded uptick, and concerns still linger over a double dip recessionit's fair to say the rate of economic deceleration we've all been riding these past 18 months seems to be slowing. And throughout it all, while "Innovation" may have been famously interrupted, design hasn't been. It has kept evolving.
Heading into the recession, two longstanding waves of change were already driving toward disruptive convergence. The first, technology, is already so familiar we generally fail to appreciate just how deeply and profoundly it impacts design. The second, sustainability, while admittedly still a long way from being genuinely understood by design, is just as tirelessly undermining old ways and conventions for 'doing'. The economic crisis added a third wave to this mix; one which more immediately demanded our attention. With the arrival of economic urgency, these three forces combined to create a veritable perfect storm, precisely the kick in the pants design needed to move beyond the 'innovation' rut into which it had fallen. Don't misread me here, innovation and innovation processes are importantbut heading into the down turn, innovation had become a poorly defined term thrown about casually and without consideration. Today, technology, sustainability and a renewed interest in results are conspiring to do more to reinvent Design than any set of factors has in the past twenty years. But what will it mean for Design?
Any design process operating within today's frugal landscape and endeavoring to produce great work, tends toward three common characteristics: economy, expediency and focus; financial crisis or not, great design criteria for which to strive at any time.
Fast Cheap and Good?
It's an old design maxim that you can achieve any two of these criteria but never all three. While Cheap and Fast are admittedly not a prescription for GREAT, technology and globalization have brought about changes that undermine the once rock-steady certainty of this assertion. In his September Wired article "The Good Enough Revolution," Robert Capps explored how the democratization of technology and the proliferation of cheap quality goods is re-scripting our collective understanding of 'GOOD'. Capp's article is an interesting read, and while you can argue the dangers and temptations of its central thesis: a world awash in abundant 'Good Enough' services and products, the fact remains that technology has significantly altered most playing fields. In today's marketplace there is little room for the truly bad, a lot of merely good, and persistently precious-little great.
Against this evolving landscape and informed by the lessons of the last several months, I'd like to submit that we reevaluate 'fast, cheap and good', suspending disbelief long enough to imagine a design process where fast and cheaper might not only deliver the good, but might just as readily deliver the great. A process where economic and material frugality exerts such persistent pressure that efficiency and expediency become fundamental factors in any design undertakinginforming not only the business of design but also the method of design itself. It's a potentially controversial position, but it doesn't need to be. Design, after all, has long championed the merits of simplicity and elegance derived from economy; for the future practice of design, these qualities may just be dramatically less elective.
Three trends/Three tools
Any design process operating within today's frugal landscape and endeavoring to produce great work tends toward three common characteristics: economy, expediency and focus; financial crisis or not, great design criteria for which to strive at any time. Hard nosed and decidedly unsympathetic, these criteria gut the inefficient, derail the unfocused and disrupt organizations without regard to size or reputation. The legacy of the great recession for design, as for business itself, may well be the necessity of using leaner procedures and practices to arrive at similar if not outright superior results. It's a radical demand but one rich with opportunity since it favors the small and nimble over the large and inflexible. For design and the creative three trend tools position themselves as potential allies in this new landscape: 1. Copy/Paste Creativity, 2. Ubiquitous High-Fidelity, and 3. Links and Linkatures.
1. COPY/PASTE CREATIVITY
The first of these trend tools, Copy/Paste Creativity, impacts design along two avenues: how we get things done and how we create. For reasons of practical necessity, commercial design long ago annexed copy/paste into its process, but to understand copy/paste exclusively as a coping aid is to overlook its broader influence on contemporary design and creativity. It's no surprise that the present day business climate has brought about an intense re-focusing on productivity. Across design, reduced workforces have been tasked with delivering 'more' under tighter time lines and smaller budgets. In response, successful teams are seeking out and formulating new strategies for success. Along the way teams are turning more and more not just to the time-savings of plug-ins and scripts, but with growing frequency, toward a new class of copy/paste toolsones that transform it from a defensive tool to a powerful design aid. Whether in the form of visualization tools like Grasshopper and Morphogenesis or in the guise of management tools like Base Camp and Xobni, Design is responding to the economic crisis with characteristic resourcefulness, setting the stage for a leaner, more efficient discipline in the recovery.
Today, encouraged by economic uncertainty and informed by Hack/DIY culture, a new sensibility is taking shape within design. One where designing and re-use become reconciled, and where editing and incorporation are no less important than creating and authoring.
Beyond improvements in efficiency and increased productivity, Copy/Paste Creativity is impacting design on another, more fundamental level: how we think. For years we've become accustomed to the sampling of beats within music, the recycled character of popular culture, and the self-referential nature of mainstream design. Today, encouraged by economic uncertainty and informed by Hack/DIY culture, a new sensibility is taking shape within design. One where designing and re-use become reconciled, and where editing and incorporation are no less important than creating and authoring. It's an enlightened position and one that easily aligns itself with some of the greater innovation and ecological challenges facing us. Why should every 'thing' be new? Every 'solution' built from scratch? They needn't be, especially in a world where raw materials and natural resources strain under increased global demand. Within this new landscape, the Mash-Up emerges as a powerful concept for the future of design and design thinking. Creativity and innovation have always accompanied the co-mingling of ideas. The Mash-Up, by casting new interpretations on existing ideas, presents itself as a fresh and contemporary tool for driving future innovation. What is ZipCar if not the mash up of Netflix and car rental services? What is Twitter if not the spontaneity of SMS attached to the reach of email? Unlike the old 'innovation space', where a few key players defined the field, a new more transformative one is taking shapeone where wide participation in creativity and a broader reach of design thinking unite to move innovation past the tipping point.
Mash-Ups: Mark Wentzle's Fat Eames a commentary on our times as well as our common design legacy.
Mash-Ups: Truck FarmIan Cheney and Curt Ellis' CSA on wheels. A curious second life for an '86 Dodge Ram.
2. UBIQUITOUS HIGH-FIDELITY
A second trend tool driving change within design has been the surge in what might best be called Ubiquitous High-Fidelity. Fueled by cheaper PCs, faster chip sets and lower cost memory, accuracy and visual realism (once goals in their own right) have devolved into conventional hallmarks of the design process. Seen in this light, tools like Google's SketchUp, low cost render packages like Cheetah 3D, and online catalogs like Creative Crash and 3D Warehouse become predictable features of a marketplace where accuracy and realism no longer exist as commercial differentiators. With the widespread availability of these tools, smaller teams of creatives are finding themselves able to press the limitations of design on a dime with surprising results. Federico Alvarez' recent four minute feature, Ataque de Panico which depicts a robot invasion of Montevideo, Uruguay, was made for roughly $300 and garnered its creator a $30 million deal with Sam Raimi's Ghost House Pictures. Is this the new normal? Of course not, but that it can and frequently does happen, should place us all on notice: new tools are enabling a 'leaner' creativity and along the way, a new kind of process is emerging. One that elevates the okay, threatens the merely good and changes the nature of 'best'.
Coop Himmelb(l)au meets Google's SketchUp. Tim Danaher's, visualization of Coop Himmelb(l)au's Falkestrasse modeled in SketchUp and rendered in Cheetah3D.
But Ubiquitous High-Fidelity doesn't just heighten our attempts to replicate the visual world; it allows us to model the dynamics of the world itself. From product forums, to sector specific blogs and aggregator sites, designers have long used the web to inform themselves, establish preliminary insights, and track emerging trends. But in a global context where cell phones are omnipresent and social media sites encourage us to self-report even the most mundane of actions, a new resource of infinite detail is taking form: the cloud. Each day millions of us interact with it, leaving a collection of facts and fingerprints ranging from subjective opinion to the objective time stamp. Increasingly that data is being tapped to inform the work of sociologists and statisticians as they attempt to build a better, more accurate, understanding of human behavior. Confronted with so much ready information, the web has exploded with sites and services that capitalize on its newfound pervasiveness: sites like Daytum and TwitGraph indulge our fixation for graphing and trending our own behaviors, GoogleTrends harnesses our search patterns to provide insights into our preoccupations, and iPhone apps like Track Your Happiness encourage us to record our emotional state for the purported benefit of science. Everywhere we are being mapped, analyzed and recorded, and we the lab rats are doing the recording.
Flickr-Ethnographics: Flickr's annotated image library offers ready user observations at no cost. Not enough detail to build your product strategy on, but enough to direct you toward some initial talking points.
Matt Killingsworth's Track Your Happiness. Allows users to systematically track their happiness and find out what factors influence their mood.
The implication for Design and product development is massive. In the face of so much cheap detail, the practice of design will inevitably change, developing new tools to work with it and new practices that leverage it. Focus groups and consumer interviews, whether local or global, become easier to organize and execute. Self-organizing tribes of loyal and dissatisfied consumers, become easier to mine for opportunity and to explore for product improvements. Consumer Scenarios and Product Testing become faster to deploy and quicker to harness...and all of this happens not just with greater speed and efficiency, but also at radically reduced cost.
3. LINKS AND LINKATURES
The last of these trend tools focuses squarely on the mechanism that delivers this unprecedented efficiency: the system of links and linkatures that is the web. It's fashionable today to place exaggerated faith in the value of social-media, the 'linked economy', and the general power of networkstruth is that networks, while efficient, can also be poor at differentiating between 'popularity' and value. But there is reason for optimism because while the web does indulge popularity without purpose, it also rewards pockets of inspired functionality.
Consider the successes of Arduino. By now the business model behind the Arduino is legend, but it's worth remembering that Arduino's success has its origins in a clearly defined value proposition: an open sourced platform for prototyping electronics. What the founders of Arduino did supremely well was to anticipate the power of community and to understand how participation in community might enhance their core offering. With time the value and importance of Arduino grew as more and more people discovered applications for it, developed uses for itand in turnfed demand for it. Each new usage and inquiry created a 'link' that led back to the device and increased its value within the developer community.
The power of community: Arduino's single-board microcontroller helped create a movement by delivering on one well-focused proposition; community took care of the rest.
The lesson for creative teams is significant: know what you do best and link to the rest. Your business is the distinct value you bring to an ever more intricate mix of users, fabricators and needs. The true design challenges of our age reside within a sea of competing factors requiring solutions that reconcile local and individual needs with regional and global concerns. Comprehending it all, and maintaining the organizational structure to address it, is increasingly beyond the means of all but a handful of organizations. By uniting a pronounced elevation in capability with the passionate focus of individual groups, links (and the network of linkatures it creates) offer Design an offensive stance against professional consolidation. The ecosystem of ability and need that linkatures permit safeguards Design allowing it to connect more broadly and more cost effectively than ever before, ensuring that new ideas and new players have the support and resources they need to compete.
Some may fear that the need for efficiency and economy will drive Design into deeper specialization, further fragmenting the discipline and diminishing the importance of creativityit won't. Design has never lent itself to linear cause and effect behavior.
For Design, the net result of the recession has been an overdue period of self-reflection. Prior to the crash, Design was in danger of becoming an undertaking absorbed in its own ingenuity. Encouraged by an optimism fueled by easy credit, Design spent much of its newfound cultural cache on a widening array of ever more ambitious and disjointed activities. The crash interrupted that trajectory and replaced it with a new one; one where Design carries forward its characteristic optimism against a backdrop of increasing pragmatism. In this landscape creative organizations contend against growing global competition, limited financial and material resources and a heightened sense of professional expectation. Does this mean that design is destined to become a more calculated and prescriptive endeavor, one in which pure creativity is driven to the margins of the profession? No, but it does suggest that deeper more comprehensive investigations, once the domain of an elite tier of practitioners, will become the new normal as technology, opportunity and marketplace forces coalesce to demand new levels of rigor and accountability.
Some may fear that the need for efficiency and economy will drive Design into deeper specialization, further fragmenting the discipline and diminishing the importance of creativityit won't. Design has never lent itself to linear cause and effect behavior. To succeed in the post crash marketplace, design organizations will need to become fundamentally more agile, both in their thinking and in their structure. To marshal the range of skills necessary to compete, organizations will be required to experiment more, to work across disciplines in earnest and in general demonstrate a largess of thinking that is the cornerstone of creativity itself. Coming out of the downturn design stands ready to jump forward a track or two in its evolution. Armed with tools and strategies stress tested throughout the downturn, the notion of Fast Cheap Fantastic put forth here conspires to empower the creative, level the playing field and democratically disrupt the profession. Fast Cheap & Fantastic isn't a concession to market forces; it's a creative resistance to them. One, which like creativity itself, turns challenge into opportunity. What could be more Design driven than that?
Tadeo Toulis is Creative Director of the Product Studio at Teague in Seattle Washington. Prior to joining Teague, Toulis worked at Lunar Design, Motorola's Advanced Concepts Group and Samsung's LA LAB. Toulis was also a founding member of designRAW a San Francisco based design collective.