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The future of design: what will it look like in 500 years?

It’s easy to imagine what the world might look like in ten or even fifty years time, but what will New Zealand’s biggest sectors look like in 500 years’ time? Thanks to our friends at Tech Futures Lab, we went out to some of New Zealand’s most inspiring business leaders and asked them to imagine a far, far away future. Here’s Springload’s Bron Thomson on the future of design.

Five hundred years is a long time. About 20 generations. Given the amount of change that occurs in just one generation, that’s a LOT of change. How might the design industry have evolved in that time?

If it’s true that our human brains haven’t changed much since we were cave-people, then perhaps we can assume that some of the deeply rooted parts of our brain won’t change that much over the next 500 years. Ie, that our emotional brain will still be able to hijack our rational brain with fight or flight responses, and that the social behaviours we have as a species will still be driven by those basic needs that Maslow proposed in the 1940s.

Let’s also assume that technology continues to change at the exponential rate that it has been, and that new developments will be built on the shoulders of those before them – ie that the rate of change keeps increasing. In 500 years, 20 generations, of technological progress, it’s not completely unlikely that we could have moved to a different planet, or that we could be communicating with each other through direct mind to mind connections rather than with words or gestures. We’ll almost certainly be able to travel using personal flying transportation of some sort, food will be 3d printable in our own homes, and our very binary model of gender will be a quaint concept from the past. It’s likely that money won’t be needed to drive our economy, and that we won’t need to work in a job. Our reasons for being could be completely different.

It’s also highly likely that we’ll be living a lot longer, so overpopulation will be a major issue. Although potentially the impacts of climate change end up being a great ‘reset’ for humanity, culling our population to almost a tenth of its current size. We’re starting to outgrow our current ‘petri dish’ – ie the planet Earth.

Humans are very good at solving problems, removing challenges, and making things easier for ourselves. The problem is, we’re making things so easy that ‘hard work’ (whether physical or mental) is being actively designed out of our society. Our food gets delivered to us, gadgets get made for us, and we can buy anything and everything without lifting a finger. Transport is created and optimised so that we don’t have to move our bodies at all. We don’t really even need to think for ourselves anymore, we just wait for our smart phones to tell us what to believe through the social media bubbles that many of us live in.

So how will the design industry change in a stimulant-filled, high-tech, post-gender, gadget-filled, 3d printed world with flying cars and no real need to work in order to feed or clothe ourselves?

This is where we come back to our primitive brains. Humans love delight. They love beauty. It’s deeply wired into us. There have been numerous studies that have shown that our brains are drawn to certain proportions more than others, that our brains release ‘feel good’ chemicals when we see something beautiful and those chemicals actually help us solve problems and navigate complexity. So no matter what the current fashion is, or the latest design trend, there will still be a connection with our desire to see beauty around us.

Because good design can literally drive us to make choices and decisions, it also comes with great power and responsibility. If you combine it with digital marketing and technology that is literally attached to (or even embedded within) our own bodies, then there’s a scary line between individual agency and being puppets at the helm of our tech masters. Already we know that the likes of Facebook and the bubbles of communication we live in can disrupt democracy – we’ve seen the effects of this first hand. The subconscious bias within each of us is a product of everything we see outside ourselves, and so the more we see the negative effects on our societies from external design and communication, the more that the ethics of our creations need to be scrutinised.

Design is not just about beauty, it’s about function. A good designer knows this. Good design moves us. It influences our actions, our choices, our thoughts, and continues to bed down subconscious bias that drives other aspects of our behaviour.

Mainstream commentary is only just starting to surface the impacts that these design decisions have on our individual brains, and as a result, on our societies as a whole. Big tech companies spend vast amounts of time and money continually testing their products to see what fonts, colours, images and words will drive more engagement, more likes, more sales, and more ad spend. All the while, millions of humans spending hours of their time with their eyes and fingers glued to their screens are unwittingly participating in this mass product testing. This period of relative innocence will be looked back on in the future as perhaps one of the biggest experiments on humans that we’ve ever seen.

Given that we’re only now waking up to the implications of this mass manipulation, how will we start to police it in the future? How do we hold the designers who are creating these apps that are taking up all our time and attention to account? How do we ensure that they are making responsible design decisions given that they have the ability to influence the thoughts and behaviour of millions of people? Where do we need to draw the line between designing products that are attractive and desirable, and those that influence and manipulate us? Never before have the decisions of such a small group of people—designers and technologists—had the ability to impact so many. Technology is amplifying the design and communications industries, so how do we ensure that there are ethical boundaries for design in the future?

Using clever design techniques we can make content seem more believable. Add tech wizardry to this and the fake AI generated videos that sit within the fake news suddenly looks more professional, more engaging, and consequently more trustworthy. Imagine using design techniques to make people believe something completely false, and then imagine amplifying it through viral techniques so that the minds of  millions of people are swayed in the direction of anti-social behaviour? Unfortunately we don’t have to ‘imagine’ this at all, because it’s happening now. And because content that is designed well is more believable, we’re all susceptible to false information. 

Ethical design will become more and more of a focus. It’s hard to imagine what part of the evolution curve it will be in 500 years, but I hope that it’s considered a core part of our industry, and not just something that is talked about at the fringes. We all understand the benefits of user testing, but soon it will be ethical testing that is the norm. There will be ways 

of safeguarding content using source verification technology, and our children will be taught from a young age the risks of believing what they see. 

Our 500 year future world will be rich, wild, colourful, immersive and augmented, so we will need ways to differentiate between what is make-believe and what is real. This will need both a tech solution as well as a human one. There will need to be independent regulating bodies that hold big companies and ‘mass influencers’ to account to ensure we’re all fully aware of fact vs fiction.

We will then be truly free to enjoy great design knowing full-well which direction it is trying to pull us in. We can enjoy it with our eyes open, and our minds ready to be challenged and stimulated in a way that only great design can do.

About the writer

Bron Thomson is the founder and CEO of Springload, a leading digital design company in Wellington which works with purpose-driven organisations such as Kiwibank, Radio New Zealand and the New Zealand Red Cross to achieve results. Thomson graduated from Victoria University with a maths and science degree, which explains her love of marrying design with tech.

About Tech Futures Lab

Are you looking to be more intentional about your life, career and impact on the world in the context of massive technological, organisational, social and environmental change? The Postgraduate Certificate in Human Potential for the Digital Economy, new from Tech Futures Lab, is designed to help you do exactly that. Registrations now open for our February 2020 intake. Find out more at its website or call +64 (9) 522 2858.​

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