Over the past decade, an explosion of digital design tools and apps has made design more accessible than ever. Now anyone can build a website on Squarespace, Wix, Webflow, or Cargo and easily populate a pre-designed template with stock imagery and illustrations. Everyone can create a logo with Squarespace’s logo generator, then extend it to presentations, social media assets, and a slew of ephemera using Canva.
They can prototype via Figma, Sketch, Invision, Origami, Framer, Principle, and Balsamiq; facilitate brainstorms with Figjam, Miro, and Mural; and share notes in Notion or record a walkthrough on Loom. As a result, designers no longer need to shell out $52.99 a month for a computer-constipating Creative Cloud subscription, or wearily wade from app to app trying to determine the right order of keystrokes required to export a rasterized .png. The future is here.
But all this bears the question: If everyone can be a designer, what does that mean for design? Those who recall designers’ reactions to the Squarespace Logo launch (circa 2014) know that this is a fraught topic. We’ve reached a tipping point: As more and more traditional design tasks become automated, the role of the designer must shift. Beyond adding a slew of new software fluencies to their resumes, the coming era will require that designers take on new, expanded roles – ones that go well beyond what we’ve traditionally filed under the umbrella of design.
* * *
Of course, what it means to be a designer has long been a moving target. As technology has evolved, the definition of design has expanded — from applying a visual gloss to charting product strategy. That, in turn, has led to increased role specification and segmentation for practitioners. Search any job board and you’ll find listings for creative designers, graphic designers, product designers, brand designers, content designers, experience designers, digital designers, game designers, print designers, and, of course, UI/UX designers.
The optimist’s take is that this surge of niche design roles is indicative of the industry’s maturation and solidified value. For years, designers pleaded for a seat at the table, finally pulled up a chair, and some even went off and built companies of their own — creating “design-first” startups like Airbnb, Etsy, Kickstarter, and Instagram. (For a quick click down memory lane, take a look at John Maeda’s Design in Tech report.) Now we have Chief Design Officers and McKinsey-made interactive web experiences, all advocating for the business value of design.
Counterintuitively, perhaps, this is good news. The shift toward automated design software — and the proliferation of the everyman designer — forces us to re-examine where and when a designer is needed and more concretely articulate what that value looks like. It propels our practice away from being an indescribable creative talent and toward a verifiable set of skills and proficiencies. And it democratizes knowledge, both diversifying our field and demystifying it.
Technology still needs experienced designers, now more than ever: design that considers the end user and their needs and that advocates for helpful, ethical solutions to complex problems. This work requires a conscious, thoughtful application of empathy, strategy, communication, and management of the technology itself, all through a lens of creativity. These skills, which cannot be automated, are the ones designers will need to lean into in the future:
Designer as systems architect
As organizations, product complexity, and new feature launches have accelerated, so has the difficulty of maintaining cohesion and consistency. Digital designers need to adopt a systems mindset, finding ways to build scalable solutions to product problems. They need to address the myriad needs of diverse user bases while still upholding standards for brand, usability, and accessibility. Simultaneously, they must find ways to communicate those decisions to any number of contributors, internal and external, within that ecosystem.
Design systems are one solution to scale. Made up of a shared set of guidelines and often supplemented by a library of reusable components, these systems have radically changed how teams build digital products over the last decade, including Apple’s HIG, Google’s Material Design, IBM’s Carbon, and Shopify’s Polaris. (Disclosure: I work on Google’s Material Design team.)
Design systems offer teams a way of standardizing design decisions and improving coherence across a product, while also saving time by avoiding duplicative work and making it easy for teams to quickly source and find ready-made solutions to design problems.
Components and palettes are some of the building blocks of these systems, and can be easily distributed and updated across an organization through software. Design tokens take that codification a step further, quite literally encoding style information like color and fonts, and populating those values across a product’s design files.
Documented decisions around, say, button width or type size can streamline the design process and allow engineering partners to independently solve design problems as they arise. When those same systems are vetted against web accessibility standards, they ensure that all designs are accessible. (As an industry, however, we still have a long way to go in creating truly accessible experiences.)
Part of this means relinquishing some control. Take Figma’s recently shipped branching feature. With it, anyone using that system can submit changes to a component and commit it back. Pending upstream approval, the change may be merged back into the original system and propagated across all designs that use that component, a process similar to how engineers fork and merge in GitHub. Time will tell if this approach is as useful for design workflows as well, but it points toward a trend of democratization and new contribution models.
Designer as product manager
Design doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Designers partner closely with engineers, researchers, product managers, and other stakeholders to bring work to fruition. More recently, the rise of remote work among so-called knowledge workers has fueled a desperate need for more effective cross-functional collaboration.
Software has scrambled to fill that void, with aforementioned apps offering browser-based brainstorming and smoothing handoffs between design and development. Designers are needed to further bridge these gaps. One pathway is by improving trust and communication through better transparency in the design process. Designers need to lower the walls around their work and invite others in earlier, rather than waiting to share a polish-finish file. As Figma reports, that’s already happening: the first collaborator now views a Figma file an average of 10 days after creation, down from 19 in 2019.
Just as design represents user needs, business and cost cannot be ignored (alas!), so it’s up to designers to drive alignment. Stepping into the role of facilitator, a designer might create the spaces and conversations where these often competing needs are discussed, prioritized, and reflected across various workstreams.
We can finally lay to rest the question: Should designers code? That quandary was always less about coding ability and more about the push for designers to understand development constraints and build convincing prototypes to illustrate interactions and ideas. Software enables both with tools that reflect those limitations, improve handoffs between designers and developers, and offer code-free prototyping. Perhaps now the question is: Should designers be product managers?
Designer as user advocate
Caught in the balance between product, business, and user needs, designers should uplift the latter. The end user, typically not in the room when a product is being developed, lacks representation; it’s the duty of the designer to advocate on their behalf.
Those needs are extensive, encompassing everything from accessibility and core product goals to data privacy. Designers with deep product knowledge and an approach rooted in empathy are well-positioned to untangle and prioritize the vying interests of the business, product, and user. Making a choice about whether to keep the user scrolling ad nauseum within, say, a popular photo-sharing app, may meet product goals around engagement or business goals around ad revenue, but fall short on a sticky user goal around mental health and well-being.
To speak to those needs, designers often push for research and testing to gauge how a product meets or misses user needs, hold interviews and focus groups with target demographics, and assess how users interact with the product. This means challenging biases and disavowing notions of “edge cases” — particularly when it comes to marginalized communities and environments worthy of investment. And it means upholding an ethical bar — one that, at minimum, reduces unintended harm and, at best, actively works to meaningfully improve the lives of people interacting with the product.
Above all, user-focused design means repeatedly asking why — why this, why now, why this way. It’s a large responsibility that arguably shouldn’t be automated.
Software that enables designers to spend less time entrenched in minor aesthetic decisions and technical implementation also allows them to assume larger responsibilities within product teams. At its best, automation liberates designers to solve real problems for the users they represent. While the standardization of design decisions may feel restrictive to a designer accustomed to creative freedom, it can also expand the definition of design to address a wider breadth of human needs.
* * *
The case for heterogeneity
At the dawn of digital design in the 1990s, everything was new. Like a toddler trying to develop a sense of personal style, webmakers experimented with cascading buttons, fantastical glitter gifs, scrolling marquees, and trailing cursors. (And it was great.) As the field matured, many of those techniques faded into the hallowed halls of internet history, while others, like the hamburger menu, rose to the forefront, becoming user interface canon.
These days, designers largely observe industry best practices to build approachable products. Many of these practices are codified into design systems and easy to implement, making straightforward, well-designed — albeit simply designed — sites and apps ubiquitous. It’s a natural evolution: as teams optimize for the best way to solve problems, be it accessibility or usability, they arrive at similar outcomes. In designing the best for the most, the result has been a systemization of design, one that makes finding a hamburger menu or settings tab in an app a nearly instinctual exercise.
With this standardization, however, we’ve seen a critique of homogenous design. To quote Figma designer Molly Mielke’s earlier post: “As technology advances, software will increasingly be chosen not just for how well it addresses its use case, but how it conveys its personality, similar to how we choose our clothes.” Shouldn’t our devices account for that?
It may seem counterintuitive that scalable design systems are key to enabling more expressive, personal experiences, but such systems are creating new opportunities for individualization. One recent example is Municipal Golf, a project in which users can mint a golf ball NFT generated from a design system (consisting of a color scheme and graphics elements) that are systematically arranged to create consistent, yet unique images. CryptoPunks are similar — while not truly personalized, the characters are individualized at scale through a design system.
Just as tokens relay values across a system, they can be coded to rely on specific inputs, such as the colors of an individual’s phone background. Google’s latest update to its Material Design system takes advantage of this with Material You, a set of features that personalize devices based on individual preferences. Using dynamic color, a photo someone uploads as their background can provide color inputs that are then systematically reflected across the device’s interface — say, changing the UI to various blue, yellow, and orange hues in response to Edvard Munch’s Scream — all while maintaining color contrast accessibility standards.
The future of design is personal
Despite an ever-expanding list of job requirements and decreasing autonomy when it comes to designing digital experiences, it’s a great time to be a designer in tech. (I know, I can’t believe I’m saying it either. You would think the hours spent staring into this damn browser window would have broken me down by now.) And yet, I can’t help but feel a glimmer of optimism. It’s exciting.
Designers today are uniquely equipped to shape the future of technology — and have endless tools at their disposal with which to do it. They have accountability, credibility, and critical parts to play in deciding what that future looks like.
Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, the software that empowers anyone to become a designer elevates our practice as a whole. As the design field becomes functionally more approachable, it creates additional entry points for new voices.
The next phase of design will push all designers to uplevel their craft beyond the templatized or automated. It will push designers to create more thoughtful experiences to solve problems at scale, collaborate across traditional organizational boundaries, and advocate for the people using these products. And it will be deeply, incredibly personal.