Ten Design Takeaways from SXSW 2018

“The era of the lone genius is over – we need designers that can co-create” –  Joni Saylor, IBM Design Practice

Classical design paradigms were shattered across Austin this week at SXSW interactive. What’s taking their place? The potential—and necessity—to create more human-centered, inclusive models of design thinking across markets and sectors. For designers, this is exciting news.

Framing the topic of design in tech, John Maeda laid out three types of design: classical design, which focuses on a right answer and fixed product; design thinking, a process that focuses on stakeholders and takes an iterative approach; and computational design, a data-driven, collaborative approach that crafts personalized design for millions of people in real time (this approach is still in the process of formation).

After attending more than 24 sessions in four days at SXSW Interactive, I offer the following ten design takeaways, all of which are strategies for designing collaboratively. They can be applied to designing new systems for business, addressing the root of client challenges or creating products, places and technologies that serve the greater good. Education and healthcare are two sectors that seem particularly ripe for disruption and in need of design integration.

1. Reality Is Shifting

Whether it’s virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) or mixed reality (MR), emerging technologies are morphing, expanding and embedding themselves in everything from retail and construction to healthcare and education. Oh, and holograms are a reality now!

“[AR and VR] obscure time, place and cost” – Tomá Beczak, FacebookIQ.

2. Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning Are Transforming Work

Artificial Intelligence (AI) already has a hand in most of our day-to-day routines – from Google navigation to Netflix suggestions.  In the coming years, AI promises to make many pieces of life easier, automating processes that once required hours of work. But in doing so, it will change the way we work and it will impact which skills are valued in the workplace. Nell Watson and panel predicted that jobs in the future will need to focus on areas where machines are weak – creativity, learning quickly on the job, inclusive human-centered thinking and integrating diverse perspectives to create unique solutions. Designers, this is news we can use! For all those looking to use AI tools in their design, Yann Caloghiris from Imagination outlined these five steps –  choose repetitive tasks, define objectives, partner openly, empower team, share results!

3. Diversity & Inclusivity Reap New Opportunities

Our design and technology tools are only as good as the information that went into making them. Bias against minorities and women due to a lack of representation in creating technological inventions has proven to be one of the great hurdles for businesses aiming to be responsible to all stakeholders. If you believe the wise words of Melinda Gates, companies that can serve diverse markets will find unlimited opportunity. We don’t have to look far to see examples of blockbuster success for diverse, inclusive enterprises; films like Black Panther and start-ups like Stitch Fix have realized spectacular financial and popular success. What this means for designers is that when we engage users, we must ask ourselves: “Who am I NOT seeing at this table?” We should think beyond traditional audiences and end-users by thinking about how to invite excluded or unrepresented people to engage and participate.

“Look around the room and ask who is not there that will be using [your product/place/design] and invite them!” – Stephanie Habif

4. Go Where the People Are

For designers, a human-centered approach is no longer optional.  To address real-world challenges, we must engage directly with the people we are designing for. Companies including IBM, Tesla, Ford, Accenture and Google have found that observing people in their native environments – either with technology or humans – realizes critical design intelligence. Recently, this approach contributed to the successful launch of The University of Texas’s new Dell Med School and their Design Institute for Health.

5. Design for Good

Millennials and the GenZ’s behind them are demanding a life and work with purpose… and let’s face it, it feels good to do good! The companies that embody this spirit will have more access to talent, social capital and clients. Google/Alphabet has already tapped into this market with Sidewalk Labs, an investment in living labs that aim to create more equitable cities – and Toronto is their first test site.

‘Learning how ignorant we are as privileged people is a useful daily exercise” – John Maeda

6. Create a Shared Language

To navigate more inclusive design processes at global scales, we are going to need a shared language. For some, this language is visual design, from Instagram to visual data science. According to a presentation by Amy Balliett, visuals can get to the brain 60,000 times faster than any other form of communication and 91 percent of people prefer visual stories over all others.

Shared frameworks across a team or organization can also unite design process, which can then be applied across projects. In their session, David Ngo and colleagues emphasized the importance not of choosing the precise “right” framework, but rather, in adopting a well-tested framework and then tailoring it to your organization and work.

7. Transcend Boundaries

Whether it is the boundaries between disciplines, generations or geographies, edges continue to blur.  The people, organizations and teams that transcend traditional boundaries will reap rewards. Innovations unfold at intersections and companies like Google and IBM have invested heavily in teams with embedded designers that integrate design thinking around products, processes and people. This embeddedness is what allows these companies to evolve rapidly, serving diverse needs and clients. The idea of transcending occupational boundaries is captured by the term “multipational,” a word coined by pharmacist, lawyer, MBA and leading author Erin Albert.

“Creativity is a team sport” – Walter Issacson

8. Measure Intent & Outcomes Every Time

Without clearly defined goals that serve stakeholders, design is doomed to fail; and without measuring impacts, design lacks accountability. As our devices are getting smarter, so too must our design processes evolve. Companies that are not already defining measurable aims before beginning design, nor assessing outcomes following, are behind the curve.

“We have to fight the natural tendencies to fall in love with our interventions. We need to fall in love with our problems” –  Matt Wallaert, Clover’s chief behavioral officer

9. Fail Fast to Innovate Further

Across presentation topics, speakers and institutions welcomed and anticipated failure as a central part of what it means to experiment and innovate. This means that many organizations now embrace iterative improvement as opposed to perfect solutions. This ties closely to the idea of the living business presented by Tanarra Schneider of Fjord, which posits that companies are living organisms that must evolve with their people.

“You have to be willing to take the risks the challenges deserve” – Michael Dell

10. Blockchain My Heart

While the world seems to be waking up to the potential for cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, many others in tech are looking at how blockchain technology can serve sectors beyond finance. The composition of blockchain technology makes it inherently difficult to corrupt or tamper with, which when applied to problems like the security of medical information or our trust in the news we are reading, could have great implications for improving the reliability, safety and trustworthiness of the vast amounts of data we now create.