A Future of Engineered Design?

Did you hear? Print is dead!

That’s what they’ve been saying for years, decades even. The decline in newspaper sales is often the evidence for such a statement, citing that ‘digital/social/new media’ is what the kids are craving. I’ve always felt that the bullshit and lies printed on the front page (and every page thereafter) is what’s killing newspapers, but what do I know? Good content is good content whatever format you hungrily consume from.

I’ve recently purchased Amazon’s Kindle. After reading a few books on this nifty little thing I can’t see myself ever buying a paperback again. It is undoubtedly the perfect replacement for its printed predecesor, improving the system in all the right places; the next evolution.

The ‘wall of text’ content format has survived the test of time. It existed before the printing press and has existed for over half a millenium after, and if our schools don’t fail us, it will continue into the digital age for millennia to come. If Google has its way digitizing the World’s books, not much will get left behind either.

The question that’s been on my mind lately is what’s going to happen to more advanced content formats like newspapers and magazines? The page-turning paradigm is an archaic one in the digital world. The design of iBooks for example is that of immaturity rather than anything ground breaking.

The biggest breakthrough in digital content to date is perhaps the humble hyperlink, unleashing us from a linear information pathway. The web has evolved into a rich media format with HTML and CSS combining to form a strong backbone. But with website design we still look back to the safety of design principles established in traditional print. Stepping forward we embrace a concept that is new to the digital world - interactivity.

Interactivity has taken a long time to flourish in web design. Perhaps with improvements in JavaScript performance over the last few years we’re only now starting to grasp its potential. And before we can master it (modern graphic design has taken the last century to mature) a new game changer has emerged in the form of touchscreens and new hand-held form factors like the iPhone and iPad.

It would seem technology is evolving faster than the design required for it. Will we have established at least the basic rules of interactive content design before the digital paradigm shifts again? Or will we continue to play catch-up, hitting the occasional design element that we’ll bring along for the ride? Imagine what will be achieved after a hundred years of design on touchscreens similar to today’s. I don’t think we’ll ever find out.

Virtual or augmented reality (if you will) is already in the labs. I have no doubt we’ll be dropping the aforementioned devices within decades, and probably before I or anyone has truly learnt to design for them. Does technology need to slow down and allow design to catch up? Even as a designer the advances in technology are more exciting right now, and design by engineers has proved adequate so far; just look at Google.

With that all said I would be disillusioned not to expect a touch of design genius to set the bar higher every now and then.

I’m going to retreat behind the safety of my Kindle and its trusty wall of text, see if William Gibson’s latest novel has anything on the matter. I’ll watch the future of content design unfold through necessity, at least for now. One day I hope to make a splash.

Perhaps it’s because I refuse to buy an iPad…

Update 17th January 2011 - How Facebook Ship Code - a fascinating article on the engineer driven environment at the world’s biggest website. I wonder how many designers they have?


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