Unflattening Design and the Metaverse
Using Design to build the future
Good Morning! ☀️
It’s a great Monday in Amsterdam and I’m ready to get back into the work week. I’ve had a long weekend to think, which means an abstract, free flowing, and reflective post 🖊️
Let’s get into it 👨🏻💻
I’ve had a long running joke that as designers, the only thing we actually design is right angles (squares and rectangles). This satirical viewpoint was based off the fact that over the last two decades, we have flattened what it means to be a designer.
Historically Design, often called Product Design, was about the connection between humans and products - how we use them, their context, their form, and the emotion they could provide. With the digital revolution, and within digital contexts, the term Designer was slowly narrowed to really be thought of a “two-dimensional screen based designer”. Now with the emergence of new forms of user interfaces, we have to expand how we think of design.
When x.ai is thinking of writing the script for their intelligent assistant, or Amazon is designing voice skills for Alexa, do they think they need designers? I’m sure they think they need “design”, but is the design community as we know it who they call on? I’m doubtful - I certainly wouldn’t.
However I know we can change that.
I say, let’s un-flatten design
Much of this post was inspired by the prominent Hong Kong protester, and his book Unfree Speech. Towards the end of the book, he talked about the 5th Estate.A term also used by Mark Zuckerberg in his talk at Georgetown University on individual freedoms and elevating individual voices.
He discusses that when the three (3) branches of Government fail - Executive, Judicial, and Legislative - and the press, known as the 4th Estate, is compromised by the Government, then all that’s left is the 5th Estate - the people. And it’s their job to unify and revolt to keep the Government in check. This is what social media has helped to enabled - organising dissent and protest.
Sometimes I hear individuals use the summary of “Facebook is Evil” or “Twitter is a dumpster fire” - and sometimes I’ve even been guilty of the latter. And while they certainly have leveraged business practices or behavioural techniques that are questionable, they offer ways of completely refactoring society in positive ways.
Those who live in the US or Europe can often say such overly simplistic things precisely because we live in free countries without repressive Governments where our usage is sharing our latest cat pictures or what we had for lunch. Not using them to unify, bond, and band together to fight oppression or tyranny.
How does all of this connect to unflattening design?
It goes back to this quote from Edward Wilson.
The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.
As designers, we must pull ourselves from screens and the idea that digital product design is only about the interactions that happens on the screen. Digital product design is about the reshaping of the world as we know it. We need to start having discussions regarding larger problems. Societal problems, climate change, policy, personal data, Government tracking, migration, and more 📃
It starts here, with us - what better time than now? ⏱️
No one is going to hand us permission to reshape policy, explore moderation of false information, or how technology is used. We have to bring ourselves into the conversation. We have to level ourselves up and show that design - true design - starts with looking at our world, and everything around us, with a view of how the products, technology, and interplay between individuals and the objects they use should overall become a net-positive for society.
We have to show as designers, our skills are literally what the WEF is expressing the world will need in terms of top skills by 2025.
Analytical Thinking and Innovation
Adaptive Learning and Learning Strategies
Complex Problem Solving
Critical Thinking and Analysis
We must reposition design - to be thought of as a strategic arm of business that represents the vastly underrepresented user lens - for good, not only for profit. We can have a Utopia for Realists, but not without significant work to improve ourselves first.
But the Metaverse? 🔮
In University we had a class on Building Virtual Worlds. This was in 1997, and severely limited. But now, 20+ years later, Roblox, Second Life, Fortnite and many more are truly building immersive virtual worlds.
Almost 5 years ago, Zuckerberg laid our a vision for Building Global Communities. With COVID, we are reaching a place where physical location isn’t nearly as important as where you live on the internet.
From Eric Torenberg.
Andreessen Horowitz recently ran a survey across their 250+ companies asking how they’re going to operate post-covid, and here’s what they learned: 90% of organizations will continue to hire remote employees and be remote in some form. And these are companies that were started pre-COVID. The vast majority of companies that are created after COVID will be remote only.
Professionally speaking, where you live physically may no longer be more important than where you live digitally. The people who you engage with on Twitter, or on group chats, or in online communities might influence your career more than your longitude & latitude.
The next 10-20 years will most likely reshape everything we know about how we work, build communities, form friendships, and perhaps most important, how Governments work. Previously the world worked by drawing borders. Culture, identity, and nationalism were based on geographic regions. Now, individuals can shape their identity in any way they desire based on how they build their online communities and connections. We have access to more information and viewpoints that ever before, and we can understand more cultures than we ever could in previous lives.
The metaverse, or culmination of multiple virtual worlds, will change how we live, work, develop relationships, and are governed.
These are the design challenges, and wicked problems, we should be looking to unpack and engage.
Are we facing a Ready Player One world of Corporations controlling our worlds and movements?
Or a world where our identities are erased and homogenised?
What role might a Government play in private virtual worlds? Will public parks and spaces exist in virtual worlds?
Similar to the splintering of the internet, will the metaverse be controlled by Governments who wish to extend geographic control to virtual worlds?
There is no shortage of massive Think Tank style questions on how the future is being built.
In summary, technology is reshaping our world, and how we use technology as a working part of society is being decided every day.
As designers, we are the ones who speak for the users in building these new worlds. We should be their advocates. We can select if we want to assist in building a future for benefit, or for control. Let’s start simply, shake off the shackles of the narrow idea that Design is for screens - Design is for crafting the future.
I am aware there will always be a need for specialisation. I can advocate that design as a discipline can mean both big thinkers that base work around critical thinking, complex problem solving, and adaptive learning, and it can mean specialists who work on voice, or AR, or policy.
Let’s first start to understand the difference and increase our vocabulary of problems we can solve. Let’s unflatten design, and rebalance our future ⚖️
Thank you for reading and exploring topics with me.
Until next time!