Design is the key to expansion of media

To mark the first of a regular multimedia section, Steve Bowbrick explains why designers are best placed to lead the digital revolution – semantics notwithstanding. Steve Bowbrick is chairman of Webmedia Group.

A handful of phrases are used interchangeably to describe the new communications and technology industries. Let’s look at them. First, “new media”. It’s intriguing that the qualifier “new” works in the absence of novelty. We may find ourselves calling it new media long after it’s old or dead – like New Wave or New Labour. It’s not descriptive and we should scrap it.

Second, “digital media”. This must have seemed pretty whizzy once, but it’s the most useless descriptor of all. All media will soon be digital – this is a banal fact of contemporary business. Digital media is cheaper to produce and distribute and pretty soon analogue media will seem quaint – like carbon paper or The Royal Command Performance.

Third, “interactive media”. Better, but still not good enough. Lots of contemporary media is interactive and pretty soon, non-interactive media – movies that don’t branch at your command, newspaper stories that don’t link you to a discussion forum, microwaves that don’t talk to you – will seem oddly muted. However, interactivity is not enough on its own.

Better than all of them is “networked media”. Networks connect businesses with the strange economic abstractions called network externalities, connect individuals to form powerful communities and connect ideas to form new businesses and concepts. Connectedness is the key novelty of our era and networks the defining form for business and culture in the next. The issues we’ll be looking at in the next months all flow from the network.

We access media – it’s our job

William Gibson, who invented cyberspace, believes we’re beginning to realise that accessing media is what we do now. It’s not an incidental pursuit any more, it’s the defining activity of millennial folk – like prayer or hunting or smelting copper in other times.

In a world where media consumption has become a foundation task, the creation of media becomes a foundation industry – some economists argue we should add media to the big three classical economic sectors: agriculture, industry and services. Media is, by definition, designed – this means more designers. We’re entering a design renaissance.

We are all connected together

Designers, like the rest of us, are getting linked together by communications technology. Networks of people are generally more powerful than isolated individuals. Networks create new models of collaboration and control. In networks, power is diffuse (Microsoft notwithstanding) and openness is the norm.

Networks imply the dissolution of the formal structures of work – the firm, the job, the craft, the hierarchy – and their replacement by fluid forms – portfolio careers, virtual corporations. Many designers already inhabit this space – the space of the freelance knowledge worker.

Ideas are tradeable currency

Danny Quah, a professor at the London School of Economics, calls the new networked economies “weightless”. In a weightless economy, information, in all its forms, is the chief currency. Economies, in Quah’s model, tend towards dematerialisation as we rush away from the world of concrete things into an evanescent world of ideas.

Britain is further down the path to weightlessness than most economies – 25 per cent of our exports are already ideas, against a 10 per cent average for Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries. Designers are, of course, in the ideas business. New ways of creating, collaborating and learning, new ways of exchanging and trading ideas will alter the business out of recognition.

Regis McKenna, hi-tech marketing guru, calls it real time: customers want it now. Everything speeds up – delivery is overnight, not next week; product life-cycles are nine months, not three years; customer service is right now, not by return of post; you can watch the big movie now, not tomorrow night at nine.

The switch to real time accelerates work rate, collapses the cycle of adoption and review and makes a nonsense of project management. There’s greater emphasis on automation in production and distribution and, by contrast, on intuition and spontaneity in creation. Time becomes the key measure of value.

We are all strategists now

Nobody knows what’s going on. Robert Allen, when he was chairman of AT&T, said: “I used to know where my business would be in ten years, where my revenue would come from, who my competitors would be – now I have no idea.” Networked media robbed him of certainty. Consolidation and globalisation threaten oblivion for many firms. Value is flowing from established sectors to strange new ones at an unprecedented rate. Uncertainty is booming. Strategists are at a premium.

Designers are well placed to deliver strategy, especially in the world of ideas – they are creative thinkers who understand communications and like to challenge orthodoxy. Design consultants are mutating into strategy consultants all around us. This is also, of course, a reflection of uncertainty in design. If the Internet threatens to topple your biggest client what will it do to you? Strategy creation becomes a strategy in its own right. Welcome to Strategyland.

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