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Future Web Design Skills

This post is a version of a lecture given by Sam to his third year design students at University of Worcester. The question is “What skills and knowledge might future designers be expected to know”. And as a web designer Sam’s focus was of course on digital and the web. As you will see he thinks “the web” is likely to be out of browser more than not, and that some old technologies will become prime time…

Designers of the Future 

A lecture from Sam Collett October 2020, University of Worcester Art House

We are skipping, for now, any mention of the coding, hosting, framework and more leaps that are happening all of the time, and which make life as a web creator so exciting.

But before we look to the future, we need to have a very quick tour of the past…

 

The future begins with the past

This rather wonderful summing up of web design through the ages, (or since the early 1990’s) compares the way that websites are designed and constructed may be mapped to the emergent stages in architecture. It’s a good way to see the evolution of web design, though the dates are vague.

1. Neolithic: Simple, limited structures

Therefore in the early days we had simple browsers which had limited colours, fonts and a lack of images. Websites were functional, with web design being in its infancy.

2. Classical: Order and proportion, with some embellishment

Images, colour and font choices start to appear, allowing expression of design. Print is the followed example. 

3. Romanesque: Thicker forms and rounder edges

We are starting to get some beauty into the picture, as browsers and computers become more powerful.

4. Gothic: Ornate and mesmerising

Just as flying buttresses allowed space, light and height, underlying technology – both hardware and browser software – allow for more intricate designs. You could see the rise of Flash, with design for designs sake being part of this.

5. Renaissance: Clean, logical, and precise

Clean and beautiful but with occasional flourishes.

6. Baroque: Twisting all the rules

Design goes nuts!

7. Neoclassical: Hearkening back to the past

Design reasserts itself and gets more sensible again.

8. Postmodern: Where we are going there are no rules.

Today, as in architecture,  we see so many styles and pretty much no rules. The world is the designer’s oyster!

Artificial intelligence (AI) will and has already disrupted designers’ worlds

 

A.I. is a huge can of worms to open at the start, but both machine learning (AI with a capital A and I) and algorithms (AI with small letters) are not only here to stay, and take over, but they have already been chipping away at our design world.

A simple example of this is automatic A/B testing whereby design experiments are enacted without human interaction. Even if we are not using these techniques themselves, we designers and web developers can use the results. For example button styles, positions and ideal landing page layouts can all be gleaned from previous experiments.

A more impressive example are photographic automatic healing tools, for example in the latest Adobe Photoshop, or face and logo generation. These tools make designers’ jobs easier and faster. But as with all time saving technology they ebb away at our skills.

Like a visual version of the Turing Test, we are very near, if not already in, the age when websites, logos and photos can be generated by AI, and are unrecognisable as non-human.

IoT will demand that designers rethink their world

The Internet of Things, on the face of it, is something that current web designers are perhaps protected from. But as web browsers become anything but, we will have to up our game and think about marketing campaigns, brand strategy and more across ever more devices.

If you are thinking this is a bit far-fetched, cast your mind back to before the advent of the smart phone – a little over a decade ago. At this point we had to create designs for multiple browsers for desktop screens, most of which were similar sizes. We designers are now expected to make our websites work across multiple devices – desktop browser, tablet, mobiles of all sizes and even smart watches. 

But there is more, for the IoT will also mean that we have many more data inputs to deal with. Again, think about the new Apple Watch and the rather excessive health data it saves – mostly to Apple. When your IoT fridge is able to order milk, because it has run out, it is a small step not only to getting more healthy milk as your cholesterol is high, but also to tell your watch to make you go for an extra mile on your run. Then marketing teams will pick up on this data and try and sell you new running shoes, and organic milk.

The future of design and strategy will more and more rely on new devices.

New navigation will lead from new technology

 

The image to the left shows a real rader-led interface. So called haptic interfaces, based on touch and movement. Mass adoption of this has been one of Sam’s predictions for many years. However the fact that radar led haptic navigation is not yet with us means that despite the big players experimenting with it, reliability has been a major problem. So these have not yet made it into production.

Any prediction of future interfaces always mentions Tom Cruise’s screen interfaces found in Minority Report. I would argue we already have a major shift in the way we navigate. We are used to flicking and swiping on all of our devices. Nowhere is this more brutal on the Tinder interface – where some poor chap’s hopes and dreams are shattered in an instant by a simple swipe.

Personal responsive design will become data & device driven

 

We are very used to responsive web design whereby your web page adapts to the size of your device. We often don’t notice that our whole web experience is already also led by us.

For example for any Google search the results that you see will be different to what I see. And if you get on a train to a new city you may see different results once more. Who we are, our browsing history, where we are, the time of day, what we think, all makes up what the machine that is Google feeds us. We are well used to this phenomena on eCommerce sites like Amazon – if you like this then you will love this. But we usually fail to recognise how much these powerful data sets know about us.

Consider also maps, our perception of which has hugely changed over the last decade. Gone are the days when you pick up your Atlas and search for where you are, and where you want to go to. Now we expect all maps to have us at the centre.

So where do us designers come into this? The more we expect ourselves to be at the centre of things, and the more data we have to furnish this view, the better we will become at putting the viewer at the heart of highly adaptive interfaces. Responsive in multiple dimensions.

The rise of voice user interface (VUI) and accessibility

 

Voice interfaces are of course here already, and to the younger generation a major way to navigate information (and homework). As Alexa, Siri and the like become ever more powerful and lifelike we will rely on them ever more. Voice has also enabled a whole set of our community – the sight impaired – to access services on equal terms.

But there are also more fundamental changes that Google voice search in particular brings. Voice search doesn’t mess around with paginated search results. Instead it is the top answer or nothing. And more and more Google and the top result is defined by Google’s own whims in terms of Web Stories, Schema, AMP etc.

Accessibily has always a been a word that makes designers shudder. But the truth is there are no excuses for having sites that on some level don’t adhere to accessibility standards. With the rise of search and web conformity means a greater legal framework that seems to have been forgotten. Perhaps it might be a moral framework that happens instead, whereby our clients and their users demand higher standards of accessibility.

The question is what does audio mean for designers? If there is no visual representation of information then are we not locked out of this picture? The short answer is yes, but the more nuanced one is that voice needs to be one of our arsenals of knowledge when it comes to navigation. Like IoT its important to know when this medium should be used properly.

 

Does the maturing of augmented reality (AR) & virtual reality (VR) need 3D design?

 

I am willing to wager every prediction from the last 15 years has had AR and VR as part of its future predictions. For these technologies are old. For example, Orbital’s mid-nineties album Snivilisation (One of Sam’s top 10 Album choices) features God in a VR headset on the back cover.

Why then should they appear in this listing? AR and VR are being pushed both by technology and by some industry heavy hitters. Facebook and Google are reportedly pushing VR in particular with regards to ads. Right now it is annoying sitting through a 15 second advert to get to your video. But imagine sitting through a 15 second fully immersive 3D experience instead. Chances are you might forget to watch that video after all.

Unlike previously we are also seeing gains in hardware. For some time we have had AR tied to Google Maps. But the latest phones with their arrays of multiple cameras are in many ways built for 3D and by extension AR.

Again we designers need to be clued up much more that we are today on 3D, AR, and VR. In many ways this may mean Game Art skills are merged with Graphics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conclusion

The inescapable conclusion is that the role of the web designer and strategist will be changing, but it has always been so. As ever more powerful AI design tools and clever site builders come online,  we will see the bottom rung of web design jobs and roles disappearing. This will be confounded by AB testing and data that means there will only one design answer to a problem. As a tiny example, ten years ago there were a multitude of home button icon designs. Now without me even showing it, you are seeing a little house with a door in the middle and an angular roof. This is nothing like the house you live in, but it has become ubiquitous.

Everyone will still need a website, but for the majority of small sites it may need a human designer. A bit like the early days of the web technologists will be in charge.

And designers will be expected to think ever more creatively, in other mediums, and in many ways with tighter rules around accessibility.

A friend of mine from University set up business as a print designer in 1997 when we left. Bar the maturity of PDF for sending files around, the technology he uses to produce designs has not changed that much. Printing technology has, just not the way to create the artwork – once you learn it you do not have to relearn.

Web is different. Every five years or so you have to relearn. Lots. And some of these relearnings are quite major, for we web folk have to adapt with the technology. React.js and rapid rest web apps are the latest mind-bending things to learn. Both are entirely unlike our previous way of developing applications. But before this there was html5, new browser tech, actionscript, jQuery, Divi, Angular… the list just goes on.