Discussing developments of design in the digital age – while in the midst of an ongoing digital revolution – might fall under the category of poor timing. It’s not a new matter that invites exciting debate, nor is it a period in history that we can look back on and draw conclusions from. On the other hand, this may be the most ideal time for a discussion that will shape the revolution we wish to create, as we direct the profession of design and community of design to where we want them to be.
Discussing the topic of design in the digital age was the purpose of Wix Playground Presents: It’s Nice That, an evening of talks hosted at the Wix Playground in NYC. In collaboration with the UK-based design publication, It’s Nice That, the event invited designers and creatives to hear from four innovators, and exchange ideas over beer and pretzels.
The evening started with a talk by self-taught illustrator and animator, Nicole Ginelli, who took the audience through her professional journey of bringing music to life, having worked as an Interactive Designer for Pitchfork and created numerous works for MTV, Vice and others. Nicole premiered her new music video for UK-based band Seahawks’ track, Eyes of the Moon, a project that required her to go through hours of Cinema 4D and After Effects tutorials. “Jumping into a project without knowing what you’re doing,” she explained, “can really play for my benefit.”
Ekene Ijeoma – artist, designer and founder of Poetic Justice at MIT Media Lab – was the next speaker to go on stage. As an artist who shines a light on social issues with the utmost delicacy and sensitivity, Ekene started by asking guests to look at the person next to them and say: “I see you, I acknowledge you, I value you.” To complete this candid moment, he had a simple request: “Now hug.”
Moving on from that, he presented Deconstructed Anthems, a series of ongoing music performances and sound-reactive light installations in which a self-playing piano and music ensemble deconstructed the Star-Spangled Banner on repeat, removing notes at the rate of mass incarceration until finally ending in silence. The project was premiered during the 2017 Day for Night Festival in Texas and required Ekene to write a program that removes each note at the correct rate.
Up next was artist, researcher and educator, Zach Lieberman, sharing his career journey and poetic approach to code, a practice that led him to being the co-founder of the School for Poetic Computation. While going through his brilliant work from the early days till today, he emphasized the importance of constantly documenting your work and repeating it for the sake of improvement. “Always keep iterating,” he said. “Creating is about change. If you have to do something over and over again, you will optimize.”
Concluding a wonderful evening was Carly Ayres who is a partner at HAWRAF, an interactive design & technology studio in NYC that helps brands have better conversations. Carly focused on the hurdles and rewards of running your own agency, the major dos and don’ts involved and the tough yet rewarding process of becoming your own boss. “Figuring out how to start and run a studio was always THE project,” she shared. But as it turned out, “nothing with work is precious,” Carly said, followed by an announcement that she and her partners will gradually be closing HAWRAF,after four years. “Sometimes you have to kill your darlings,” she explained, ensuring the audience that “this is a good thing” and a happy moment overall that will allow her to create something new.
These four speakers not only elevated design in the digital age, each with their unique skill set and point of view – they also dove into their own doing in a way that invites a discussion around the profession itself. And it only gets more complicated as technology keeps advancing.
For Nicole, it’s becoming more important than ever to establish the responsibility of designers in the tech world. “While we get better at deepening our understanding of effective and helpful interactive technologies,” she says, “I don’t want the utilitarian aspect of digital design to outweigh the creative. Designers still need to push boundaries beyond functionality, and I worry that the tech industry stifles designers in this way. Design is such a crucial component to our cultural dialogue, and I hope the histories and ethos of exploration embedded within early digital work and the beginnings of the internet remains a part of our future tech narratives.”
This approach of mastering a way to walk the thin line between functionality and self-expression is something Carly also emphasizes when asked about the role design should play in building a better online world. “Designers can play a lot of roles,” she says. “The one they should play more of perhaps, is one of the advocate, working on behalf of the end-user to create experiences that serve everyone – improving accessibility, avoiding dark patterns. But,” she continues, “they can also play that of the provocateur, pushing the boundaries of the web to help others see what’s possible in that context. It all depends on what a better online world looks like and how you’re positioned to create it.”
Though there are major changes in design education working towards catching up with the rapid disruption of the digital world, both Carly and Nicole believe aspiring designers and creatives must adopt a hands-on approach regarding their education. “I have been so incredibly impressed with this next generation of design students,” says Carly. “Last year, I had the immense pleasure of meeting two Pratt students, Valentina Vergara and Farah Kafei, who – frustrated with the gender parity that existed at the front of their classrooms – created a campaign to rally for more female teachers, including the history of design education. Their activism is a great example of how students are taking an active role in shaping their education, rather than passively letting their education shape them.”
Like with any growing field, the response of the academic world is faster in some institutions than others. “While physical schools, colleges and the like will always likely be relevant as concentrated havens of learning,” Carly explains, “you can get a design education from so many different places now, particularly online. You can also learn coding and other new forms of technology, which are advancing at rates that most curriculums can’t keep up with. I think we’ll find that the greatest designers of the future will be self-taught, having taken the initiative to create an education for themselves that they couldn’t find anywhere else.”
As a self-taught artist herself, Nicole had to dedicate long hours to perfecting her craft. She shares advice to designers who wish to brave into new creative fields, but are discouraged by lack of a formal training. “We all start somewhere and tools are just that, a means to help bring your vision to life,” she says. “If you have great ideas they will always shine through, regardless of tools. Focus on developing your specific voice and trust that the tech will come gradually over time. Think about yourself on an evolving journey to master your craft, and try to add in a technical challenge to each new project.”
Addressing the issue of formal training, Nicole, who teaches at Pratt Institute, doesn’t think it’s as necessary as it once was. “We live in an age where our educational systems for creative work can be in competition with a series of tutorials made by 15 year-olds online. In general, the digital world is open and welcoming to those trying to learn new skills and new technologies. This seems to be an agreed upon ethos being a creator in this field; lifelong learning.”
This idea of self-learning as an ongoing lifelong process can of course coexist next to formal education, rather than be presented as an opposing choice. “Interaction and animation is now a part of introductory web design classes, which is wild and advanced compared to what I experienced in college a decade ago,” says Nicole. “For all designers now, it’s crucial that they have a comprehension of foundational HCI (Human Computer Interaction) theories. I hope the study of digital design continues to deepen, and I believe that interactive design will become more nuanced and start to develop a history and language of criticism similar to print design.”
As the future of digital design unfolds, and the responsibility of evolving with it lies mostly on designers, we must keep an open discussion about ways to grow, both as individuals and as a community. Thinking about the skills designers can acquire in order to grow professionally, Carly refers to a familiar meme that “showed the title ‘designer’ under 2009, and then under 2019 it listed ‘experience designer, interactive designer, visual designer, brand designer, software designer…’ etc.,” she describes. “The most valuable skill will always be adaptability. Designers need to keep an open mind and be able to keep learning, so that they’re able to remain nimble and relevant as the future shifts around them.”
Part of this nimble approach is to get familiar with 3D animation software. “A lot of tools used for animation are made for animators, and the language or logic of them can be a bit foreign to designers,” she explains. “I think these professional 3D and animation programs will continue to become more democratized and easier to use, inviting more designers to experiment with movement.”
Another important skill creatives – and all human beings – must master today, is the ability to focus while the usual noise and stimuli of the online world is ever present. “I think the burden is on us to find ways to focus in this brave new world,” Carly explains. “I live with my phone on Do Not Disturb mode, try to stop carrying it around with me everywhere, doing activities where I can’t use my phone (climbing, baking) and making sure that when I’m having a conversation with someone, my phone is nowhere to be seen. I make an active effort to diversify my inputs between the content I consume and who I communicate with. I have lots of coffees with old and new friends, try to document ideas on paper, carry a book, and try to be intentional with how I use and engage with the internet.”
“Staying engaged and inspired by your own process can be a powerful antidote to distraction,” says Nicole. “Adapting or updating your workflow when it starts to feel too familiar can also be helpful. I find that learning something new in the process of finishing a project will always propel you forward. I also think it’s important to engage your choice of media wisely. I try to think of my social streams as a natural environment I have to upkeep and tend to. In this metaphor, everyone’s garden has the potential to look totally different, which is the beauty of it, knowing and appreciating what level of engagement or ‘upkeep’ works for you.”
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