Designers have a role to play in technology

While technology has given us a wealth of new products, designers are needed to improve usability and presentation, says Clive Grinyer

Clive Grinyer

At Victoria Station, a passenger walking along the concourse is invited to look up by a sign on the floor. They see above them a large display of themselves and watch as an angel falls next to them. The angel walks around them and teases them. Regardless of the lack of a real angel around them, passengers reach out, trying to hug and touch this virtual angel.

It is a harmless and entertaining publicity stunt for a cheeky brand of deodorant, of course, but also, I believe, a fascinating insight into the impact technology is about to have on our concept of space and how we interact with our surrounding environment.

Technology has had a huge impact on the activities of designers. The digital design disciplines covering Web, mobile and tablet applications, gaming, film and social media have altered the skill set and activities of designers.

Technology has also transformed our ability to communicate to others the vision of new objects, spaces and interactions. We know what Olympic locations will look like, we can travel inside stadiums and perceive what the experience is likely to be like in a virtual world. We can step inside the virtual car, marvel at the internal workings of the virtual vacuum cleaner, experience future brand experiences and simulate flying a plane or buying a Tube ticket without the necessity of building the real thing. We can then watch as a 3D printer brings impossible-to-build shapes and complex forms right in front of us.

This is all great stuff, and very impressive. But the impact of technology on design is about to become far more profound.

Like the angel, an avalanche of technology is falling around us. The nature of money, identity and access to real-time information is transforming. Our phone will be our money, replacing our credit cards, tickets and passports. Our location will be tracked, and shared with all those with whom we wish to share it, and some we don’t. We will not just see a three-year-old picture of what a place used to look like, we will see live video of our home, or of the rainforest coming down or the chicken that’s laying our eggs. And we will watch as fashions are draped over us via magic mirrors and we ask our friends via social media which look suits us best.

Almost everything we pass through and interact with will become more connected, informative and complicated

As a result of this avalanche, almost everything we pass through and interact with will become more connected, informative and complicated. The things designers design will change, connect with others, pass data between them and transform their meaning.

It’s a world of ’mash up’, open platforms allowing combinations of technology to create new applications. You won’t have a static digital display anymore if it doesn’t scroll when you touch it like an iPhone and display personal relevant information, it won’t be a display.

But are designers ready for this change? The palette of retail design is spatial flow, hard surfaces, materials and colour. But technology allows us to communicate, personalise and inspire through displays. When shelves are virtual you can see what you want. Place a vase in front of the display and see the perfect room-setting that goes with it. Choose your handbag and see the dress to wear it with. Find out what people like you think of the TV you might buy, not just on your mobile, but displayed at the shelf or on a screen.

Products will change their meaning and behaviour when next to another product. Spaces where avatars or real people appear next to you will walk you through choices or help you with problems. Technology will add a dimension to what we can do and how we interact with spaces and things.

The problem with technology is that it gets designed by people who are great at technology, but not great at the emotional presentation, configuration and empathetic, people-centric processes that designers are good at. The results are clunky, unattractive and unusable.

There is a risk that fabulous technology ideas will fail if designers don’t get involved. There is a greater risk that design will be irrelevant if it doesn’t embrace and start to drive these new technology opportunities to ensure they work well and create both customer and business value.

But design needs to start now and understand the impact of the impending technology revolution in retail design, product design and all points in-between. We need to make sure that we are not held back by traditional physical notions of what design is.

As we approach the Olympic year, there is every possibility that such a high-profile event will be a fantastic showcase for design, but it will also be the most interactive and technology led experience of the games. From the experience of those who visit the events to those not physically there, nationally and internationally, from the stadium to the Olympic torch, I hope we will begin to see the next generation of integration of technology and design in a meaningful and beautiful way.

Clive Grinyer is director of customer experience at Cisco

A brief look at the use of digital wallets

  • Google will be turning its Android smartphones into digital wallets by introducing a mobile payments platform
  • Payment is taken directly from the owner’s account when the phone is passed in front of a reader
  • Mobile phone payments have already been in use in Japan for three years
  • Samsung and Visa confirmed that they will be facilitating mobile payments on smartphones during the summer Olympics in London next year
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