Defining and sculpting interactions between man and technology

Jonathan Follett on the future of design and designers.

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Editor’s note: we’re running a series of five excerpts from our forthcoming book Designing for Emerging Technologies, a compilation of works by industry experts in areas of user experience design related to genomics, robotics, the Internet of Things, and the Industrial Internet of Things.

In this excerpt, author — and editor of Designing for Emerging TechnologiesJonathan Follett addresses designer’s roles as new technologies begin to blur the boundaries between design and engineering for software, hardware, and biotech.


Jonathan Follett

Author and editor Jonathan Follett, principal at Involution Studios.

Technology extends our grasp, making it possible for us to achieve our goals rapidly and efficiently; but it also places its own set of demands upon us. The fields of industrial design, graphic design, and software user experience design have all evolved in response to these demands — a need for a human way to relate to and interact with our new tools. Graphic design makes information depicted in printed media clear, understandable, and beautiful; industrial design makes products elegant, usable, and humane; and user experience design makes the interaction with our digital tools and services efficient and even pleasurable.

The future of design is to envision humanity’s relationship to technology and each other — whether we’re struggling with fear and loathing in reaction to genetically altered foods, the moral issues of changing a child’s traits to suit a parent’s preferences, the ethics guiding battlefield robots, or the societal implications of a 150-year extended lifetime. Now, more than ever, designers have the opportunity to help define the parameters of and sculpt the interactions between man and technology.

The evolution of these fields will create opportunities for influencing humanity’s progress as a species; making the tumult and disruption of the Information Revolution look like a minor blip by comparison. While the miracles of our Information Age are many, the technologies of computers, the Internet, and mobile devices primarily serve to accelerate human communication, collaboration, and commerce. Without dismissing their importance, we observe that many existing models of interaction have merely moved from the physical to the digital realm — becoming cheaper, faster and, perhaps, better in the process. E-mail replaces the post, e-commerce replaces the brick-and-mortar store, and so on. Conversely, we can see, especially in the technologies of robotics and genomics, the potential for tremendous change, disruption on a wide scale, and the re-making of our current order in substantial fashion.

Designers have only just begun to think about the implications of emerging technologies for the human condition. We must prepare for the transformation of our field of practice — moving from design as facilitation, shaping the interface and workflow, to design as the arbiter, driving the creation of the technology itself and applying our understanding of interaction, form, information, and artistry to new areas.

To balance those asking, “How can this be done?” we must ask, “Why should we do this, to what end, and for whose benefit?” We must move from being passive receptors of new technology to active participants in its formation. As design thinkers and practitioners, we’re called to serve as a bridge between technology and humanity, to be explorers and actively seek out new opportunities in areas that are not yet obvious. We’re on the eve of some of the most significant technological changes to ever grace our world, and whether these changes serve everyone or just a few will be up to us.

In the coming years, as the boundaries between design and engineering for software, hardware, and biotech continue to blur, those who began their professional lives as industrial designers, computer engineers, user experience practitioners, and scientists will find that the trajectory of their careers takes them into uncharted territory. Like the farmers who moved to the cities to participate in the birth of the Industrial Revolution, we can’t imagine all of the outcomes of our work. But if history is any indicator, the convergence of these technologies will be greater than the sum of their parts. If we are prepared to take on such challenges, then we only have to ask: “What stands in the way?”


If you are interested in the collision of hardware and software, and other aspects of the convergence of physical and digital worlds, subscribe to the free Solid Newsletter.

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