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How Visual Designers Can Stay Relevant In A Post-Screen World

Yes, you'll have to learn to code. But that's only the start.

How Visual Designers Can Stay Relevant In A Post-Screen World

[Photo: Hero Images/Getty Images]

This morning, while struggling to manage a stubborn basset hound in one hand and a bag of his poop in the other, I attempted to play the new Green Day record on my iPhone. Pressing the headphone button, I uttered the words I thought I’d never say: "Siri: Play Green Day." In that moment I realized the prophecies of tech futurists had come true: Screens suck. A screen-less interaction experience is the way of the future. And then, on a more somber note: What will us visual designers do then?

Screens suck. Here’s why.

There is one main reason why the GUI sucks as an interaction pattern, and it’s not rocket science: People don't want to fumble around when they’re in a rush to do something or find their shit. The whole GUI concept relies on you having to actively navigate to your service, rather than the service being served to you automatically when you need it. It takes at least three taps to access a news website in your mobile browser. It takes five taps to order an Uber. This is simply too many. I’m not saying Siri is perfect (quite frankly, it is still deeply unreliable), but clicking through a GUI for day-to-day tasks is just archaic. Instead of five taps, what people want to do is simply say: "Order me an Uber to the office." Done.

The screen-less future is closer than you think

The idea of a post-screen world is nothing new. Siri has been around since 2011. Only in the past couple of years, though, has post-screen tech finally started to be adopted by the mainstream. Amazon Echo sales are exploding. The internet of things is no longer exclusively a nerd's fantasy and is starting to enter the homes of normal humans.

It’s not just screen-less tech that should have visual designers worried. Artificial intelligence such as anticipatory design— technology so smart, it gives you what you need even before ask for it—is becoming a mainstay in people’s homes. Nest switches on the heating because it knows you’ve left the office and will be home in 37 minutes. It doesn’t need you to instruct it. This seemingly futuristic tech isn’t at some distant point in the future—it can be purchased in a single click for under $250. The post-screen world is already here.

I know what you’re going to say: "Screens will always exist . . . yada, yada." And that is certainly true—we’ll always want to watch movies, look at photos, and probably use them for a million other things. But the role they place as the primary utility in our lives is set to change. Much like what happened to print (remember that weird paper thing with ink?), in the not-too-distant-future, the majority of daily tasks—ordering an Uber, making calls, sending emails  will not happen through a visible GUI, but rather through voice or touch (and in the further future, maybe even thought). It’s coming.

Where does visual design fit into a post-screen world?

Good question. Our industry must face the possibility that visual design, or at least visual design as we know it, may indeed not fit into this post-screen digital world. The days of the visual designer being the driving force in digital product innovation is most likely coming to an end.

What can designers do to stay relevant?

Where does all of this leave the digital visual designer in the future? In a whole pile of shit, unless people up-skill fast. Designers must act now, or be relegated to pixel-pushing—simply serving the engineers and product designers of this world.

These are three things visual designers need to keep in mind to stay relevant in the post-screen world:

1. Learn truly cross-disciplinary skill sets.
Every designer will need to be a true generalist. Already, the lines between UI, UX, and other disciplines are blurred beyond recognition. Designers will need to truly be fluent in technology, prototyping, physical product design, and, most of all, have a deep knowledge of human behavior. From user flows to prototyping tools to physical product design itself, the toolbox of tomorrow's visual designer will be a varied one. What good is Photoshop or Sketch if you’re designing for a product that requires the user to interact through voice (such as the Amazon Echo)?

2. Learn to code.
Designers have been let off easy so far on the topic of coding, but the day of reckoning is here. In a post-screen world, with little GUI to design for, digital designers who want to stay relevant will need to learn to code. This does not necessarily mean heavy-duty production-ready code, but rather the hands-on skills to prototype and understand the basis of the medium you are creating for. Digital is fundamentally built upon a foundation of code, and the more barriers you place between you and the raw medium you are creating for, the less you understand it, especially when the GUI is no longer present. If an eight-year-old can code like a pro, then the visual designer who creates interfaces for Fortune 500 companies should be able to also.

3. Solve real problems.
Often digital designers find themselves in the role of "beautifier of things." Websites like Dribbble glorify aesthetics and celebrate the most superficial aspect of a designer's skill set. In a post-screen world, in order to stay relevant, designers will have to think beyond beauty. They'll have to be really fucking smart problem solvers. Thinking about a real user need or problem, and then figuring out out the best way to solve it—be with or without a screen.

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