Designing solids and liquids. From the tangible to the intangible. From atoms to bits*
Design has always been intrinsically linked to technological developments, and since the speed of which those developments are happening has increased recently, the discipline is changing dramatically.
Before, It used to be about giving shape to solids, and the designer’s role was mainly to make sure that the shapes fulfilled a physical function, and could be easily mass-produced.
Nowadays the wide spread use of mass manufacturing, helped by the facility for global trading, have generated a high saturation of products, and transformed design in a key element of product differentiation. Focused in winning the war between brands, which occur on a daily basis on the shops shelves, design has at times failed to fulfill people real needs.
There has been also from the beginning a constant tendency in design towards dematerialization, as less material means less cost in production, transportation and storage. Thinner and lighter are often words associated with innovation, and an equivalent of progress. As such they are often used as part of the advertisement bait used by brands to sell us things that we don’t always really need.
That obsession with the thinness and lighter correspond well with our desires and aspirations as humans and former nomads. Being able to move around carrying our most precious tools is as valuable now as it was for our ancestors the Homo sapiens.
Enabled once more by technical developments such as the microprocessor and in consequence the computer, dematerialization has pushed most of our objects towards miniaturization.
With in the realm of consumer electronics, convergence has become a buzzword, which every brand trying to pack as many features as possible in the smallest and thinner of the devices.
The complexity ensued from that condensation of functions into a small packages has been resolved by the use of complex interfaces that for the first time ever in history don’t feel like interfaces, but just like an invisible extension of the physical properties of objects.
What it is even more interesting is that objects can now finally show human-like behaviors as hardware and software work seamlessly. From now on, it seems that we won’t need to pay attention to the interface anymore, in the same way that when meeting someone for the first time we don’t pay attention to our hand (the interface) but just to the handshake (the action).
With software taking now as much importance as hardware in our lives, there is a change in perspective from an object centric approach, to the design of relations between things (systems / networks / platforms).
Software also allows integrating change into objects, even once they are in the hands of users, something that in hardware would be very costly to do.
As objects become more reactive and scan their surroundings gathering data for us, they will take a more active role in our lives, and as consequence we will become also more and more dependent on them.
Designer’s realm and scope has expanded beyond the solid and we now need to understand fluid situations and behaviors to satisfy people’s needs and create a holistic experience. It is more about mapping situations and identifying areas to improve, that just coming up with new shapes.
We of course still need to make objects with enough care as to be able to create emotional links with their users. The only way to be sustainable is to make precious things that people feel proud of owning and don’t want to throw away.
Design is quickly shifting from the design of just solids, to the design of both the solid and liquid characteristics of and object as a unique entity.
For design to be relevant and meaningful, designers need to learn how to navigate between those two areas.
This new challenge brings with it a sea of new opportunities waiting to be seized.
*Oscar Díaz: Designer