Digital Design: 2016 and beyond

by / Wednesday, 27 April 2016 / Published in Blog, Experience Design, Information Design, Interaction Design, Latest posts
Michael Janiak, Fluid’s VP of Creative provides a look at design themes that are happening at a macro-level in business, technology, customer experience and society.


Design trends. The phrase itself makes me a little edgy. I’ve always thought of design as the process of solving problems visually – do “trends” really have a place in that? At a time when critical discourse about design and its efficacy seems to be lacking, do we really need another “Top Design Trends for 2016” post cluttering the interwebs?

As it turns out, no. We don’t. We don’t need any more posts about the hottest typefaces or techniques, there’s plenty of that stuff out there (some of it is even pretty good!). What we do need is a bit of thinking about the larger context of design – where we as design practitioners are, what we’re doing, how we’re approaching it and where we’re potentially going.

So here is my contribution to the conversation about design in 2016 and beyond. I decided it would be a lot more interesting to focus on 5 big macro-level themes that I’ve been seeing – and have been a part of – in business, technology, customer experience and society at large.

1. Mission-driven Design: In a landscape that grows more crowded daily, here’s the million dollar question that every brand, business, and startup needs to answer: Why do you exist in the world? For many, that’s a tough question to answer, but a necessary one to cement your position in a consumer mindset that has little time or attention span to spare. The smartest, most relevant and most successful brands are using what I call “Mission-driven Design” to answer that question.

Mission-driven design is not branding or UX. It’s not a design discipline or specialty. It’s a mindset that tethers design to strategy at the highest level of an enterprise and acknowledges the simple truth of today’s landscape: with so many businesses from startups to Fortune 500’s running the same technology made by the same providers (think Dropbox or Box, Salesforce, etc.) the process of design has emerged as a key differentiator in staking out a position in the landscape.

Mission-driven design is simply design thinking applied to answering the question of why a business exists in the market – and then integrating that answer into every single service, touchpoint and interaction, customers or users have with that businesses brand, product or service. One needs to look no further than AirBnb and Uber for examples of how startups have employed this strategy effectively and to Apple or Google for companies that have grown massively yet still keep mission-driven design principles front and center.

2. Microinteractions: Interactions are everywhere, and are designed into every digital product or service or customer experience you touch. But increasingly the traditional notions of UX “interactions” aren’t enough, or are too binary to express things like nuance, emotion or anticipation. That’s where the burgeoning school of thought around microinteractions comes into play.

To be clear, microinteractions are in no way a new idea. Autocorrect, autocomplete, AOL’s “You’ve Got Mail” (remember that?) – all of them are in one way or another microinteractions. But what’s really driving this new crop of microinteraction-based thinking are two things: the drive to simplify the consumer-facing layer of the very complex products and services we’re designing, and a desire to make technology much more “human” and accessible without resorting to cheesy visual metaphors or clunky skeuomorphism.

I personally am fascinated with this trend. I lived through the first web “boom” where we were using microinteractions in Flash to do everything from “wow” people with the most insane button rollovers you’ve ever seen to exposing multiple layers of interactive content like videos or product specs.

These days, I think the drive toward using microinteractions as an integrated design layer – instead of a purely visual/stylistic expression – is a lot more productive and valuable to our clients and their customers. The pendulum has swung quite a bit from the heady Flash days, and the best uses I see are in creating simpler, less intimidating, cleaner and more intuitive experiences that create value, surface critical information, exemplify the strategy behind the project and ultimate drive the business goals of our clients.

3. Prototyping and Native Digital Design Processes: Way back in the late 90’s, when the web really started to take shape and an entire industry sprung up around it, the only real way to design for it was to use tools that were largely created for print designers and bend them to our will. Over time those tools evolved, and more and more features were added to make them friendlier to designers whose primary medium was pixels, not paper. But with very few exceptions (Flash being one of them), design for screens was largely a forked, tortured offshoot of print design.

Now it’s 2016, and we’re designing for a range of devices that’s too large to count and use cases that can change before you’ve even read the brief. We are designing apps, experiences, marketing, ads, ecommerce stores, software, products, brands, platforms, social content, web sites… things that are alive and constantly evolving across a landscape that changes fast. As designers, it literally makes no sense to restrict our workflow to one singular program that does one singular thing. Mainly because in this day and age, that option doesn’t exist.

There has been a massive proliferation in the designer’s toolset over the past couple of years – everything from what I call digitally-native design tools tailored toward digital creatives (like Sketch) to prototyping tools that enable varying degrees of fidelity (InVision, Proto,io). After tinkering around the edges and trying a few here or there, I firmly believe this is the year where designers of all stripes will completely blow up their workflow and rebuild it with digitally-native design tools at the center and legacy tools like Photoshop moved to the outer perimeter and used only when you need to use it for it’s true purpose – editing photos.

The interesting thing to watch here is – how quickly will clients evolve their own processes? After all, you can use all of the best new tools you want, but if your clients still write PSD’s into your scope as a final deliverable, all bets are off. The opportunity here is for designers to lead the way in showing clients a new, more effective way to design for the digital landscape on which their success hinges.

4. Component-based Design: Remember the days when we used to design an entire page template? Everything perfectly locked in it’s place, never to be touched or rearranged. I do too, and wow did that suck. Not for us, but for our clients.

Could you imagine having to run your business, or do your job locked in a box with no flexibility or simple way to adapt to changes or pounce on opportunities? And the only way you could move was to break the box, and then you had to put the whole thing back together before you could do anything else? You’d go crazy. That’s what it’s been like for clients since the advent of the world wide web.

Fortunately there is a better way to design: break the page apart into components. Pattern Lab was really early to the game here but it’s a little complex for my taste. I tend to think that there are really only 2 pieces to the puzzle – the page, and the components, or building blocks, that the page is composed of.

At Fluid, we’ve been using this methodology for years and it’s yielded amazing results for both our design teams and our clients. When you look at it from a practical standpoint, the benefits are so clear. Locked, fixed templates are replaced with a flexible, Lego-esque system that keeps the design language intact while allowing for a ton of visual and experiential flexibility for the people who actually have to run the site you’ve designed. But the other amazing thing about breaking a page into components has to do with responsive design: you can focus individually on the responsive behaviors of each design component. This means you can really tailor both the behavior and interactions of each component  rather than just assume global behaviors, and create an experience that is well-considered down to each individual part of the page.

5. AI & Invisible UX: Artificial intelligence is fascinating. It’s not necessarily new, but computing power is finally powerful and portable enough to make it a viable avenue for new and interesting ways to interact with the digital world. Automating things like scheduling meetings or organizing email, creating natural-language conversations that make digital shopping much more intuitive, and the oncoming army of “bots” are just a few of the ways AI will radically reshape work and leisure over the coming years.

The interesting thing about AI is that it’s a really complex user experience and design problem to solve, yet the best uses of it have little to no actual interface or design. Think about that for a second. Siri and Google Now can be activated and interacted with, and you don’t even have to look at the screen. Amazon Echo is a great example of product design and AI, and it literally has two buttons and a strip of ambients lights. The entire experience is crafted around the voice of Alexa.

This scares the crap out of a lot of people, but I see it as a massive opportunity for designers and creative thinkers brave enough to take on the challenge. The amount of forethought and experience design that goes into creating products and services like this is staggering. I’d know, I’ve been working on a version of it for the better part of 2 years. It’s a fascinating mind-shift to think that by doing your best work, the highest metric of success is that nobody will actually be able to see it. That’s so radically different than the current design and UX paradigm – where visibility and tangibility is king – that I can’t help but think that a byproduct of AI will be the complete transformation of multiple creative and technological disciplines.

With the pace of change accelerating and new technologies, products and services appearing almost daily, I truly believe it is one of the best times in history to be a designer. The range of possibilities, from clients to business models to media to areas of expertise, is profound and expanding rapidly. Creativity hasn’t been valued this highly since the Renaissance. So stop worrying about if your typeface is on-trend for the year. Find a mission, sketch an idea, build a protoype, take a risk, and above all solve a problem for yourself or for a client. Approach design through those lenses and everything else will fall into place naturally. Including your font choices.

Michael Janiak is VP, Creative at Fluid. He oversees the visual design teams in Fluid’s SF & NY offices and lead teams that produce innovative, award-winning projects for happy clients. Michael works hard to maintain a company culture that rewards creative risk-taking, hard work, and dedication to the craft of creating the best possible experiences.