The world is changing, and at a rate never before experienced.
We are more or less aware of this every day: we live this metamorphosis in the way we buy things, the way we communicate, the way we eat, the way we travel and the way we work and in an extraordinary way, with an ability to adapt that is unique to the "human race", today's novelty becomes tomorrow's routine. And our children, digital natives, are able to navigate their way around a tablet at a very young age with the same casualness that they might pick a flower or drink a glass of milk.
Yet just think about how the world was even only 10 years ago and the astonishing difference between then and now becomes increasingly evident, almost tangible. Facebook was emerging as a mass phenomenon, but it was still ignored by most people. Instagram didn’t exist, it would only be created three years later. Buying online was something for the few and definitely a risky business for most of those few yet recently the New York Times trumpeted that Amazon had just bought Whole Food. The online buys the offline, the digital marries the physical and we don’t yet know what offspring will result from this union.
The global urban transport industry had not yet come into contact with Uber and AirBnb was unknown in the world of hospitality. BlackBerry started competing with iPhone but everyone knew that virtually nobody would get used to using touch screens and the mechanical keyboard would continue to rule the roost...or maybe not? The iPad had not come into existence and the thing that came closest to it was a tablet launched by Bill Gates with Microsoft which was very much like an iPad but despite that it failed miserably. Every car had a CD player, people started to buy individual songs and creating personalized playlists – compared to cassettes and buying LPs this was a real innovation!
Nowadays, the term "burning", which was brand new just ten years ago, sounds out-of-date and is barely understood by our children. Machines no longer have players, they are Wi-Fi connected to phones and instead of buying a music track you buy access to the music service with the result that the record labels are in a crisis, Spotify is flourishing, singers have more power and potential and music has become democratized.
Young people yesterday dreamed of a job for life, possibly in a major company: today's young people dream of starting their own major company.
We live in the era of start-ups.
Big multinationals and brands no longer compete with each other in a predictable and clearly defined scenario. Today, anyone with an innovative idea can gain relatively easy access to three variables often unavailable in the past. First of all, funding is within reach (think of sites like kickstarter.com or the proliferation and success of investment funds). Secondly, the cost of manufacturing has dropped exponentially. Finally, it is possible to create a communication ecosystem simply and effectively by leveraging social media so the traditional entry barriers of patents and production costs, distribution, scale and media buying crumble under the onslaught of new technologies that are leveling the world’s trading stage.
If you are reading this in the year in which it was written you will find yourself in the scenario depicted here: you see it and you live it in your everyday reality. If instead you are reading this only five years from now then probably the scenario described here will be that of an already distant past, many of the brands will have gone into orbit with exponential success, some will be gone, others will rise from their ashes and everything will have evolved and changed through the innovations that in years to come will change and change again the world we live in.
A few years ago designers were known for designing furniture, lamps, clothes, buildings and cars and more recently computers, tablets and phones. Today, in the era of start-ups and apps, they design interfaces, digital experiences and intelligent objects. They also design food, governments and virtual reality. Spotify, Uber, PepsiCo, Google, 3M, Facebook, Amazon and many other companies and brands from both the old and the new economies have established significant internal design teams of which only a fraction have a portfolio of objects in the traditional sense of the term, yet design is a fundamental competitive asset for each of them, sufficiently so to justify major investment in the sector.
In this global, hyper-connected, hyper-accelerated and hyper-competitive scenario, the biggest challenges are those related to the ability to be relevant to users and consumers, to be so on a global scale and to do it at the speed of light because everything is in constant accelerated motion.
Traditional models of marketing innovation or research and technological development are in crisis and this is a historic and unrepeatable opportunity for the world of design. The modern designer, who is now a 24/7 ethnographer, has the unique and exclusive ability to understand the needs and dreams of people and society both today and tomorrow, and then transform them into meaningful and significant solutions connecting business, technology and communication. The designer is thus also the composer who turns these solutions into poetry, amplifying their emotional and intellectual usability through a coherent, authentic and tangible narrative that shines out from every touch-point of the brand, from the moment of purchase to that of use, from the product to the packaging, retail to digital, from promotional event to operating instructions.
But to play this role in an authentic, important and sustainable way, our own community – from professionals to educational establishments and from the media to institutions – must evolve, develop and adapt. Design is emerging with increasingly overwhelming and overpowering force from the narrow boundaries of traditional sectors, and business communities, sometimes with great enthusiasm, sometimes with mistrust, are welcoming and integrating it. It is now up to us designers to understand how to accelerate this integration and stabilize this momentum.
The world of the most traditional and historically most celebrated area of design has based itself for years around the chimera of cultural inaccessibility (i.e. niche/conceptual production that was difficult to understand by the masses) and/ or economic inaccessibility (the world of luxury). Now instead more and more modern design is becoming democratized, finding expression in the most disparate sectors and then going on to overturn the more traditional ones by inventing accessible yet sophisticated and fashionable brands in fashion and furniture and in the hospitality and automobile sectors to name just a few.
Many designers have experienced and continue to experience this democratization with suspicion and sometimes with an attitude of cultural snobbery. However, an obvious vested commercial interest linked to the scale of opportunity is starting to change this attitude on a broad scale, creating new respect for the enormous challenge of looking for innovation in products with minimal costs, vastly reduced margins or world-wide volumes, with impacts and risks defined by figures that are hard enough just to write down. But this unique opportunity for the design community effectively transcends the merely business opportunity and raises the stakes to encompass much more noble horizons...
Everything around us has been designed by someone: we live in a world designed by designers. And as designers, it is through our products and services that we give the whole world moments of style, convenience, security, performance, joy, fun and passion which vary according to the category of merchandise in which we live and work. Such moments, lived as experiences, radiate throughout our lives and if added together could become the potentially component parts of a wider social contentment. If we as designers were all coherently united by the common dream of imagining solutions and projects that were more sustainable from an ecological, social, aesthetic and spiritual point of view, we could therefore really and effectively design a better world, a cleaner world, a happier world.
If we start thinking in this way, then our ability to penetrate more viable and potential markets (transversally of any category of geography and price) through our design sensitivity assumes not just the value of an interesting commercial and business opportunity but more significantly the ethical and moral value of the highest opportunity – and therefore responsibility – at a social level.
This new reality in which we now live, the world of social media, smart objects and the global market has given the design community an unexpected new stage and with it incredible potential. Let’s transform this unexpected windfall that modernity has presented us with into a new and splendid gift that we in turn can pass on to the rest of the world: let’s unite in this mission and product by product, brand by brand, experience after experience, let’s design a better, more beautiful and happier world for ourselves and for future generations.
(This text was originally written as intro for the book "ADI DESIGN INDEX 2017")