Designers and Machines

Last week, during our sacred daily field article review, my colleagues and I stumbled upon this very interesting and provoking piece by Travis Gertz, where he shares his concerns about the future of designing for the web.

From an increased pressure in working environments, to the risk of machines taking over the role of designers, he analyses new issues arisen in the modern digital design practice. How we approach design, collaboration and the content we design for is what he thinks we should be changing to overcome those issues.

Explaining more in detail what he intends to say would be useful at this point, but I encourage you to go through Travis’ thoughts to get a first hand feeling of his words and to better understand some other thoughts I’d like to add up to those here. My attempt will be to look into the issues he underlines in a different, perhaps more balanced manner.
I believe the considerations he makes could represent a good staring point towards a more informed and self-aware approach to our practice and provide crucial insights about emerging debates.

Clearly, he’s right

This is what my guts suggested me as soon as I quickly scanned the
well-curated page the piece is written on. Yes, the field of design is a chaotic one these days, a lot of professionals with different shades of greys of expertise are having their say and yes, design and business are increasingly overlapping as products and services turn to the digital side. Not lastly, I do agree with a certain strength that product pages are looking all the same and it’s deadly boring. As soon as I finished reading I was impressed, maybe pleased and even felt some kind of relief.

Wait, maybe he’s not

“Someone took enough courage to say it all”, I said to myself, and that’s what I certainly give back credit to him for. While still enjoying retro tastes of the gut’s glory, good ol’ Freud’s super-ego comes in, and I take some time to make some more considered evaluations.

I agree with the author that all the beautiful knowledge and culture about typography and visual design that formed around print is suffering of some translation problem into the new digital life. Same goes for that care for content in the design process he talks to us about. What I think is not stated properly is “why” this is happening. Not an easy task though, I’ll try my best to outline some hypothesis.

Sameness and serialization

Product pages are boring and all the same, absolutely, but I think that’s neither a matter of structure, nor an issue related to some kind of
copy-culture that developed specifically among people designing product pages since the last Airbnb redesign or the adoption of metrics
and analytics online.

Lettering da Torino

At a very high level, in the field of visual design, since the very beginning, you may note the same kinds of communication tend to have pretty identical structures, as they respond to pretty much the same needs, adopting similar languages and solutions. I might come as far as to say that’s a thing that belongs to design more in general, that happens to be more evident when it comes to products, not only digital ones. Think of cars, smartphones, trash bins, websites. Whether handcrafted or not.

Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent II Diptychon, 2001

I’m not sure magazines, not even beautiful niche handcrafted fanzines you find at designers gatherings, can be excluded by a view of this sort. Then, finally, what’s sure is that something finely crafted will stand out from the background, such as the work Francesco Franchi –who Gertz quotes– has done for the news, but I think that has little to do with the machines or the techniques involved in creating it.

A more interesting point here might be to understand how much collaborating with an amazing client –like Il Sole 24 Ore would be for many of us– plays a role in creating an outstanding quality work.

Enabling quality

Just like every designer dealing with the web, digital content and products,
I encounter and contribute to that plethora of same looking full-with business-proud web pages described above. Perhaps what makes our guts shake about those is not the sameness of their look, but the poorness and silliness they too often convey.

I believe design by itself, in a moment where its tools are highly accessible and its grammar is increasingly mature and universally understood, carries less value by itself than it did before. For the same reasons, more people are enabled to “go live” with their ideas with less effort. In a context like this more mediocrity will inevitably be there to reach our attention. This includes a storm of not-so-great MVP product pages.. but that’s what MVPs are for, isn’t it?

On the other hand, one thing’s sure: good design and good content or business ideas will continue to stand out anyway. The inherent power of design has not changed that much: what one can do as a designer is to choose -or struggle until he can afford it– to enable quality content and ideas to reach out to people. That’s how I think you can create engagement and humanness with your work, that is by making engaging ideas or content find their own voice.

Then, to do so, I agree that your personal or office culture and practice should not be missing an important heritage coming from the environment of design and content creation that formed in the age of print.

Cool, right? But what if you just weren’t there at that time? That’s another relevant question I think, especially if that’s not the case for you.

Holy print

Sadly, I believe Frank Chimero – also quoted in the article– deserves the nickname of “unicorn” today far more than, say, a designer-developer does. That’s not just due to the fact that his experience as a designer includes print, but because he’s one of the very few among print designers I know about who decided to passionately investigate the reality of this new digital medium. In his thoughtful reflections he separates very clearly the medium from the practice, and the practice from himself as a person. This is how in my opinion he makes a huge jump forward and achieves two important goals: informing the practice of design today and shedding light on its future.

Type designers, graphic designers and other people coming from print
–with some more exceptions other than Chimero– perhaps just stopped at the stage of welcoming the new possibilities offered by using a computer to craft print work. Instead, they could make some effort by going a little further, contaminating themselves more with others with different backgrounds, and bringing their highly precious contribute to the conversation. Together with Lorenz Seeger from Edenspiekermann,
I encourage them to embrace change positively. That could make a lot more than if we all just start designing product websites as if they all were glossies, to put it simply.

One might point out why shouldn’t it be a post-dribbble-era young gun to make a first move showing up with some sincere interest. Here I’d say the chicken clearly comes before the egg: bringing the holy heritage of print into digital design is possibly directly connected with the education of millennials designers or, more generally speaking, the ones who
weren’t there to hear the so lovely squeaky sound of a 56k connection.

The threat of machines

Since Gutenberg and before, machines and tools have always been there,
it’s only what a single man can do that changed dramatically, so maybe that’s also why today the so-called unicorn professionals are so relevant.

The Grid, Squarespace, or any other evolution of content publishing platforms will not steal our work, such as WordPress didn’t put us on the street but created new jobs instead. Hours spent discussing with clients about their business, ideas and content will not disappear from our schedule. On the contrary I bet they’ll gain value.

Story mapping session with a client @Moze

There is no way you can delegate everything to algorithms somebody else created, as they will always at most fit an average. Except from Terminator. A different kind of threat I see is the case where we allow technologies we use to become the whole point of our work, so when they evolve we get lost and make the old ones a totem we keep sticking around to. Focusing on machines we risk losing the big picture about the meaning of what we do,
as we’re able to only describe “how” we do it, and that’s just not enough.

Call to action here

So let’s just keep the conversation alive, our eyes wide open.
I am curious to collect other thoughts on these topics, to enrich my view with yours. I say thanks to Travis for going towards this direction
and I ask to you and to myself:

how we will we prove we can make it work with machines?

Note: I will not face here the problem of the “platformization” of content, of me writing this words here on Medium. Of National Geographic and The New Yorker turning to Facebook Instant Articles, of how Amazon sells books.
I think that’s a broader topic that doesn’t –only– belong to what we have discussed so far and deserves a proper examination.