Where Will Design Take Us Next?

Ryan Nehring

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Predicting the future is a unique proposition. If your predictions come true, you’re a prescient forward-thinker with rare insight. If you get it wrong, so what—no one else can predict the future either.

With this win-win framework now established for me, I think the future of design does bear honest consideration. We stand at the cusp of a multitude of new modalities in human-machine interaction, and as designers, we will shape the nature of those interactions and define the successes and failures of these new systems.

That’s a lot of responsibility.

Rather than indulge in the potential existential anxiety that could inspire, we should see this for what it is: an incredible opportunity. Each new technology brings with it entirely new potentialities in how we design for it. Things we’ve always wanted to do may become possible, or even better, we may find ourselves inspired to do things we’ve never considered.

Let’s examine a couple of forthcoming technologies and consider the design opportunities they provide as they mature. Some of this will be wildly speculative, but some of these technologies are already seeing innovative design solutions, even in their infancy, that warrant mention.

We stand at the cusp of a multitude of new modalities in human-machine interaction, and as designers, we will shape the nature of those interactions and define the successes and failures of these new systems.

Virtual reality

So, we might as well start with the 800-pound design gorilla in the room. Virtual reality is here, and it’s maturing fast. Right now, it exists primarily as a gaming platform, but that’s a very narrow scope of its possibilities. Interestingly, we are already seeing many of the complaints about VR centering around design challenges.

If you spend any time reading reviews, you’ll see one of the main points of contention and comparison between systems has to do with the hub interfaces and menus. It doesn’t seem like anyone has cracked the case yet on how best to handle these types of interactions in VR. Menus are difficult to read and navigate, and the density of information doesn’t seem to translate well to the experience. That’s pretty astounding. Menus are such a basic design element, and the fact they’re difficult to get right in VR illustrates how sometimes even the basics have to be reinvented to suit a new application.

Using menus as an example, we can begin to envision how designing application user interfaces for productivity software in VR will be very different than for the desktop or web. We’ll have to learn how to use spatial elements to present information and choices in a way that’s organic to a new interaction paradigm.

What does this look like? Maybe it means a much larger menu text presented on a 360-degree menu bar. It could mean you look over your shoulder to find your preferences menu and to your right to find your toolbar. Or perhaps instead we consider something more akin to a “wizard” interface where top-level menu choices carry you to limited sub-menu choices in one pop-up container floated in front of you.

What’s exciting about VR from a design perspective is that although we may have to reinvent many design solutions, the sheer magnitude of space available for us to do so is staggering.

Augmented reality

Augmented reality often gets lumped in with VR, but its design restrictions and possibilities are dramatically different. Where VR opens up an entirely new and definable space to work in, AR demands that you design in a way that enhances without impeding our perception of the actual world around us. In many ways, it’s potentially the most unique and difficult design challenge out there.

However, when done well, AR design has already shown incredibly beneficial applications. Industrial uses for maintenance technicians in the field have radically changed the way complex systems like chemical plant piping, HVAC, and electrical systems undergo troubleshooting and upgrading.

Even more impressively, AR is helping out in the medical field, giving doctors and surgeons information mid-procedure and enhancing their efficacy.

The consumer use cases still present a multitude of design challenges, however. Designers will have to discover how best to present information about the world around a user in a way that exceeds the natural five senses evolution has honed for millennia, without hindering them at the same time.

This will likely hinge on “here-and-gone” interaction, like fly-outs and pop-ups that appear at opportune times and disappear the moment they’re no longer needed. Eye-tracking for gesture control to trigger or dismiss these bits of information could be integral as well in finding a way to let consumers interact with these systems, without walking around waving their hands like they’re casting a spell.


WebAssembly is perhaps the least known or understood item on this list, and since it has more to do with programming languages, it may even seem out of place.

WebAssembly is a brand new way of coding for the web, compiling high-level languages like C++ into binary and making them usable on the web. This is a massive change compared to the run-time compilation of JavaScript.

By allowing developers to write compiled code that runs in the browser, you open the door to having full-feature applications like Adobe Photoshop run online, without sacrifices. You can get a glimpse of what’s possible by visiting proof-of-concept sites like Magnum.

WebAssembly will give designers the sheer speed to do things with web interfaces we’ve never been able to do before. True compiled application-level speed, available in the browser, will be a game-changer for designers used to dealing with extremely limited resources.

Where the web has always been almost exclusively a two-dimensional domain, the speed WebAssembly gives us will make three-dimensional interfaces possible. What could 3D for the web look like?

Well, Bruno Simon has done an amazing job building an example using just JavaScript over at his website. Depending on your connection speed and/or computer hardware, Simon’s site might run great, or it might be really slow and laggy. Web Assembly could offer the speed to make vastly more complex versions run like a native application installed to your computer.

For the gamers reading this, think of the difference between Super Mario Bros. on the NES Class Edition and Super Mario 64 on the Nintendo 64. The potential is staggering for creative construction.

Beyond interfaces, we’ll have the power to build richer user interactions that can help our users find information and use the tools we build into our websites and web applications.

Internet of things

Internet of things is something I suspect few designers spend much time thinking about. Many examples of this tech are embedded systems with no screen to speak of. They also seem to land on the hardware end of the spectrum, so they’re easily overlooked.

As the internet of things continues to grow in size, however, the world will look for design solutions to manage them. These could range from dashboards that handle monitoring, all the way up to interactive web apps that deploy firmware updates, turn functionality on and off, or even troubleshoot the conflicts inevitably caused by having so many devices on a home network.

For many users, having to interface with devices indirectly in this way will be daunting, so great design choices will be necessary to make them feel empowered.

Examining the possible future of design can be intimidating. Evolving technologies will bring new and unexpected problems we as designers will have to solve and negotiate.

Rather than fearing these new challenges, consider the ways they open up our access to developing original and innovative solutions. They present chances to tackle old problems in new ways we never thought possible and give us entirely new design dilemmas to sink our teeth into.

We stand at the threshold of a truly unique time for design, and that should excite all of us.

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