Reflecting on changes…

Whenever I look back over the past 10 years or so and think of the changes that have occurred in the design industry, it’s always interesting to wonder how we could have predicted some of them, ask where are we going and what is going to happen in the future.

It’s not so much the need to know what is going to happen next, but rather an understanding of the process of change and how certain factors end up taking such a controlling influence on the industry.

In recent times, though the changes have been coming thick and fast. There are new disruptive technologies such as 3D printing and communications technologies that have shaped the way and the speed at which we work to name just a couple.

Clients expectations have also changed, where a sketch or 2D drawing used to suffice, a photorealistic visualisation or animation is now almost expected. The need to see the end result, midway along the journey is becoming a necessity. Timelines and speed to market is compressed putting more pressure on designers and toolmakers to compress it further. Pressure to run processes concurrently is one of the quick-fix methods often touted to shave off extra time in the race to a deadline, though this comes with its own dangers.

At the risk of sounding a luddite, I’m not sure that we as designers should always be pushing the pace of these ‘wheels of progress’, or at least be impartial to the direction in which they are taking us. An awareness of the bigger picture, even if we can’t control it will at least offer some solace that we are not part of an all powerful machine churning away ever faster, but there is perhaps some influence we can exert, albeit in a small way on its direction.

Technology and client pressure is not the full story though. The way companies use designers and freelancers has also evolved somewhat too. This may be driven primarily by economic factors and the effects of technology but the closer you look at the interconnection of the forces shaping our design industry, you can see how these components are intrinsically linked. There are feedback loops which amplify the effects of changes both in the way we do things and in the external factors outside our industry which shape its growth.

Programs such as e-drawings etc. have gone from being an interesting way of showing clients in a remote location a 3D model of their project, without specialist software or knowledge to being an essential part of ‘collaborative’ product development which has broken the geographical barrier, spreading the catchment area for us designers. A client does not need to be based nearby when we can view the same model and even skype each other to discuss progress in a virtual meeting. This means less face-to-face meetings, shorter timescales and faster time to market with a bigger potential client base too!

Reaching out to find new clients has changed too. Viral marketing, Twitter, blogs etc. have meant that even a lone freelancer can shout loud enough to be noticed by hundreds or even thousands and this new empowerment means they can even influence change in a way not possible before. Sharing of information in blogs, social media and even through placement opportunities has made us less guarded about protecting our secrets and it could even be said to have spawned a new ethic of socialism in the industry.

The mechanism which we are part of is not that new however. Edward Lorenz, pioneer of the butterfly effect springs to mind with a metaphor for how this works – (Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas) basically small changes within a system can affect the long term outcome of a bigger picture.

This is the basis of the chaos theory which is woven into the basic laws of physics. No matter how well we know the laws of how a system operates, it can still behave unpredictably. Though we may feel passengers at the mercy of socio-economic factors within our industry, the hope comes from a new socialism whereby we can influence the commercial environment by our own actions both as individuals and en-mass. The tools and social networks are facilitators for this effect.

The shaping and organisation of new directions within the industry is being influenced not only by economics and the commercial environment but more now than ever, from within. I think this is becoming a theme which will become increasingly apparent in our industry.

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