What’s Next for Design?

Question of the Week #08

This question comes from Nick Navarro. He asks a simple question: “What’s the next wave of San Francisco design?”

That’s a pretty tall order, as far a questions go. I’m not sure I can answer it (can anyone?), but here are a few observations. This is not a comprehensive timeline, but a collection of anecdotes designed to help illustrate a point:

In 1998 we did some print ads for a new company called PayPal. They were part of the great tech bubble of the day — brimming with confidence and certain their new product would change the Internet (and consequently, the world). They asked if we’d consider doing some of the work in exchange for stock. We declined. After all — who wants to buy things online? Amazon and eBay were in their infancy and PayPal’s digital escrow service just didn’t seem to fill a gap that needed filling. PayPal of course is now ubiquitous, owned by eBay, and worth more than double than it was then.

With 10,000,000+ users, PayPal has institutionalized online payments and lowered the barrier-to-entry for untold numbers of small business ventures. Small business websites are more than a third of our business today.

I started practicing design near the beginning of what would later be known as the dot com bubble. From roughly 1995–2000 internet-based companies flourished and futurists started talking about a concept called “the long boom.” The theory was that — despite 100 years of history to the contrary — the stock market would break its pattern of achieving peaks and valleys on a roughly 10-year cycle and continue to grow without limitation. Many of these companies became grossly overvalued and spent freely to try to attract as many new customers/users as possible — even if it meant doing it at a loss. You could buy $200 golf clubs for $1 (with free shipping), have a courier deliver anything you wanted to your home within 30 minutes, or partake in a host of other online conveniences. Dotcoms paid attractive salaries (one friend of mine made a good six-figure salary as a CFO — It was his first job), built indulgent headquarters, threw lavish parties and spent wildly on advertising. Most of this was funded by investment capital (both private equity and public investment) despite the fact that these companies had never turned a profit. Boo.com burned through $188 million in just six months, then filed for bankruptcy.

Designers like me entered this bubble thinking it was the norm (or at least the new norm). We didn’t have to think too critically about the sustainability of our work. The idea of long-term economic viability or environmental cost were not the same concerns as they are for designers today. It was a highly skewed reality and all around us very smart people were telling us it would go on forever. Forever.


The vision of the long boom proved shorter than the prognosticators thought. Between 2000-2001 the NASDAQ lost 78% of its ‘value’ and has never fully recovered.

About the same time as the dot com crash, some friends of mine who had been running a blog called Typophile launched a new design firm called Punchcut. They were multidisciplinary — working on a range of identity, print and interactive projects, but with a passion for the nascent world of mobile UI. By 2004 they decided to focus exclusively on design for mobile. I thought they were crazy. Keep in mind that this is what mobile devices looked like in 2004:

The iPhone wouldn’t be released for three more years. If you wanted to add a game or a plugin to your Treo or Palm you bought a CD and installed it from your computer.

Punchcut saw opportunity where most others did not. Today, 30 million new apps are downloaded to smartphones every day. Apple alone has sold more than 10 billion apps.

In 2003, the California College of Arts and Crafts dropped the word ‘craft’ from its name, claiming that the idea of craft is implicit within the concept of art and design. The decision came on the heels of a similar decision by the Museum of Craft and Design. These decisions were probably more economic than philosophical; ‘art’ and ‘design’ attract more applicants/visitors than ‘craft.’  Four years later, a revived interest in craft prompted the relaunch of the eponymous magazine, and today the debate over the importance of craft to the practice of design is as hot as ever — witness Paula Scher’s recent posts (and the ensuing outpouring of support) about the new direction of AIGA.

When Facebook opened to the public in 2006 it was hard to understand why the world needed another MySpace of Friendster. Today it has 800 million users, makes $1 billion in profit annually, and is cruising toward a post-IPO valuation of $100 billion. As with the app market, it has created entire new industries in design, engineering, strategy and consulting.

Apple released a widely-ridiculed product for which many analysts insisted there was no market. They called it the iPad. Today, 80% of the Fortune 500 use iPads in their day-to-day operations and tablet devices have changed the way we design for the web.

Today designers practice in an ecosystem of values and technology defined in part by the institutions and platforms above (amongst many, many others). We are in the midst of a new internet boom fueled by companies like Facebook, Twitter, Zynga, etc. as well as established players like Google and Amazon. Every bubble has its own rules and its own tally of winners and losers. Unlike the bubble of the 1990s, companies today are defined by their scale and their ability to show a profit. This suggests that they will not fail in the same way that companies failed during the dot com bust, but it does not suggest that they won’t fail.

In thinking about the future, it may be helpful to remember that fifteen years ago Apple was weeks away from filing for bankruptcy. Five years before that there was no commercial internet. Today Apple is the second most valuable company in the world, has more cash than the US Treasury, and is probably the most often cited case-study for how a companies succeed on the backs of design. As for the internet, it seems to have caught on.

Ten years ago we couldn’t imagine an internet without Netscape or AOL. Six years ago only students were on Facebook. Five years ago nobody owned an iPhone.

Anyone who tells you what the world of technology or business will look like in 5, 6, or 10 years from now is taking their best guess.

It’s reasonable to assume that corporations will continue to wield the balance of power in this country and that one way or another you will work for them. It’s also reasonable to assume that technology will continue to be a major influence on business. New technologies will give rise to new companies, new systems of communication and distribution, and define new economic models. These evolving realities will require designers’ skills to evolve as well. The most visionary and least risk-averse among us will ride the front of the wave the way Punchcut did. Most of us will simply adapt and respond. Some us us will not.

But that’s only a part of the picture. Designers and citizens bring their own values and interests to the table as well. Currently we seem to be very interested in design for social innovation, sustainability, design entrepreneurism, and ‘design thinking.’ It’s reasonable to assume that these too shall pass.

As Allan Kay said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”