There's plenty of advice out there about how to land a great design job today—but what about 10 or even 15 years from now? Design is changing as fast as technology—and the UX, visual, and industrial designers of today may find themselves out of a job tomorrow. Designers will have to adapt with the times.
Co.Design spoke to 16 design leaders and thinkers at firms like Frog, Artefact, Teague, Argodesign, Huge, and more to find out what designers should focus on today to land the dream job of tomorrow. Of course, none of these experts can see into the future—by 2030, maybe all design jobs will be done by AI-powered robots. Still, their wealth of knowledge and experience are the closest thing we've got to a crystal ball.
It doesn't matter where or what you study. Just go. This might seem head-slappingly obvious—except that, for some people, it isn't. No design leader Co.Design spoke with advocated dropping out of college. Design has always drawn on a range of subjects, from art to literature to science—and that will be true 15 years down the line. A traditional liberal arts education will not become obsolete.
As for where you attend college, Dave Miller, a recruiter at Artefact, put together a short list of American schools from which he always sees standout recruits. While by no means exhaustive, it provides a good sense of the schools that are training for the design challenges of the future:
- University of Washington
- California College of Arts
- Art Center
- University of Cincinnati
- Carnegie Mellon University
- College of Creative Studies (CCS)
- Rhode Island School of Design
- Western Washington University
- School of Visual Arts
- Parsons School of Design
For most jobs, of course, it doesn't matter where you go to school. "At the end of the day, it’s the quality of the work in your portfolio that gets you hired, not the school you go to," Miller says.
And you don't need to study design, either. Harry West, the CEO of the global design consultancy Frog, says that the people at the top of the organization come from a variety of backgrounds. Some went to law school, others studied biology, design, and engineering. He believes that you don't need an undergraduate design degree to be a designer. Without an undergraduate design degree, you can always build up your portfolio in a master's program.
Get experience working with it now. Advances in artificial intelligence are changing how people interact with the world, from how we drive to how we listen to music. These are massive design challenges.
"If I’m designing an online system, that system is not going to be static," West says. "That system is going to be changing continually as the engine learns more about the customer. That system will be using AI and algorithms to optimize its performance. If the designer wants to play a bigger role in the design of intelligent system, he or she needs to understand how to use data, how to use AI in the creation of these systems."
The stakes are high. After all, design is part of what stands between AI that treats people with decency and AI that's horrible and racist—just look at what happened with Microsoft's chatbot Tay.
As technology morphs, and contemporary roles like UX designer or visual designer give way to roles like voice UX designer or AI designer, designers who have multiple skill sets will be better equipped to take on new responsibilities while remaining flexible in a team setting.
There will always be a place for a designer who's really, really good at just one thing, but it's much better if you are also skilled in (or at least passionate about) other areas, says Eric Lawrence, creative director at Teague. And they don't have to be exclusive to design. "Designers who combine their design expertise with formal education in business, the humanities, computer science, or biology will have an extra edge," says Doreen Lorenzo, director of integrated design at UT Austin. "Businesses are moving fast and employers need students who can work in multidisciplinary environments with ease."
Understanding business basics is a vital skill for designers in the future, especially as more companies start to use design as a competitive edge.
"If a company can’t make money out of an idea, that idea is probably not going to happen," says West, the CEO of Frog. "Finding a way to create something that serves a consumer or customer and makes it so clients can make money, that’s a crucial understanding for the designer to have."
That's because design is becoming more and more of a strategic business discipline, according to Emilia Palaveeva, chief marketing officer at Artefact. "Designers will need to be able to work ever more closely with other teams," she says. "So some basic understanding of business modeling, organization, and project management, even marketing, will help you be a successful part of the team."
Lawrence, creative director at Teague, advises that interns try and learn about the real-world constraints that designers face instead of only trying to build up a portfolio. He recommends that interns talk to people on the business side of the operation to get a better sense of how business decisions change the scope of projects.
Many design leaders emphasized the need for designers to study psychology and sociology. That's because there is a growing need for designers to think about the interactions between people and objects, especially when objects start talking back.
"We’ve long studied how a person ‘uses’ an object but typically only thinking of that object as a passive object to be acted upon," says Mark Rolston, cofounder and chief creative officer of Argodesign. "But technology is allowing us to animate objects, making them sometimes even conversant. And that creates implications that go beyond design scenarios that would traditionally be centered around concepts like 'use' and more into uncharted areas such as 'talking with' or 'asking.'"
Rolston says that even though interactions with objects like the Amazon Echo are still technically mechanical, they feel more social. Understanding psychology and sociology and how people interact will help designers create these kinds of social interactions between people and machines. "We're not here yet," he says. "This is still the purvey of a few scientists and engineers at the very edge of AI. Soon enough it will need to become an everyday design skill to enable these technologies to prosper and propagate."
For those who are already out of school, Rolston has a few books he recommends that are beginning to nod toward the psychological aspect of interaction design:
- Design Is How It Works by Jay Green
- Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini
- Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely
- Hidden in Plain Sight by Jan Chipchase
Studying pyschology and sociology will also be important for designers focused on social change, says Masuma Henry, executive director at Artefact. "Because designing for social change means designing human behavior vs. designing products, designers will need to be adept at understanding behavioral science, which explores how human actions affect relationships and decision making," she says.
This is a controversial issue, but the design leaders Co.Design spoke to were generally in favor of designers learning to code. With the rise of data and AI, designers should ideally have the skills to design algorithms themselves—or at least have the language to both understand and use that technology to solve problems.
"Being able to not only design a product but also bring it to life in the form of a functional prototype will increase your value to a team or organization," says Gavin Kelly, the cofounder and joint CEO of Artefact. "Understanding the fundamentals of writing code also enables you to engage in a different type of conversation with the product team and have a better sense of time estimates and feasibility. The designer doesn’t need to be able to architect back ends or integration plans, but rather the front end where the product and the user intersect."
West agrees. "Already in some of our studios many of our designers are hybrids between visual designers and computer scientists. They create in code," he says. "That’s going to become increasingly important."
That said, not everyone is cut out for it. Lawrence, creative director at Teague, says he's tried to learn how to code many times, but it's never stuck with him. "Coding is a new technology and art form that’s creeping into our toolkit," he says, "but understanding what works best for you is more important than learning every new tool."
You might be an interaction designer who codes and can whip up a product sketch on a whim, but if you can't effectively communicate your ideas to colleagues and clients, you're not an effective designer. Great communication will become even more crucial as design problems grow more advanced.
"When you’re designing a bigger system, if you think that the quality of your design alone is going to win the day, you may be disappointed," says West. "Often it’s just as much about your ability to build relationships with other people, your ability to negotiate trade-offs, so you can explain why the idea that you're recommending supports the client's need better."
Palaveeva, CMO at Artefact, agrees. "You would need to be able to not only come up with a brilliant design, but you need to sell it to your clients by building a compelling argument, with a rationale that is relevant to them, in a language that they understand," she says. "Empathy should be applied not only to the design process, but the communication process as well."