25 Ideas Shaping The Future Of Design

What the landscape of design will look like in 2020, according to the most innovative designers of 2015.

Design is always changing, and with tech and design increasingly aligning, we’re arguably headed to the most radical period of change in design history. How radical will the design landscape of 2020 be, then?


To find out, we asked five elite studios–each and every one a member of Fast Company‘s Most Innovative Companies list–to give us their predictions for the near-future of design. Designers from Ammunition, Herman Miller, Code and Theory, and more gave us their thoughts on everything from the future of the office as cathedral, to the rise of the designer CEO.

Here’s what they all had to say.

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Designers Will Have Permission To Play Outside The Sandbox

As leaders and organizations increasingly understand the ability of designers to use their talents and perspective to expose opportunities and understand and solve complex problems, designers will officially be called on to move outside the traditional boundaries of what a design effort is, into the true definition of businesses, and be responsible for exposing and building new markets. This happens today–we do this [at Ammunition]–but what will be new is that we will have tacit permission to play. — Robert Brunner, Founder, Ammunition Group


The Walls Of Design Will Crumble

As everything becomes a connected device over the next five years, you’ll see a crumbling of the wall between graphic designers, technologists, interfaces designers, and so on. To design the cross-platform experiences of the future, everyone’s brains will meld together. I see Jony Ive taking over software design at Apple as the way things will continue to happen in the future; the distinction between industrial design, digital design, and system design will continue to blur. — Mike Treff, Managing Partner, Product Design Group at Code and Theory

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The Internet Of Things Will Lead To The Internet Of Spaces

The Internet of Things usually refers to technologies like Nest and Fitbit, but one does not make something “smarter” simply by placing a circuit board in it and connecting it to a network. There will also be vast ramifications for the way we design products and spaces. The converging requirements of aging baby boomers and technology-embracing millennials will lead designers to focus on where product design and architecture intersect and inform one another to create better outcomes. — James R. Wisniewski, Senior Associate – Architecture, Michael Graves Architecture & Design

The Rise Of The Self-Educated Designer

Self-learning options for designers in tech will outpace offerings from universities and colleges. Because the knowledge required to design in the medium of technology continues to expand and evolve, real-time learning will be more important than what a college course can teach in a perfected, hermetically sealed form within the span of a semester or quarter. Options to keep with the pace of learning will expand through Starter League, Codecademy, and General Assembly. — John Maeda, Design Partner, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers


Hello, CEO

More and more, individuals trained in design will hold leadership positions. But not all will be qualified. It will always take a broad understanding of a business and the vision and strength to take it somewhere. But strong business skills combined with design training and talent will become a potent combination. Not all will be successful, but a few will kick ass. — Robert Brunner, Founder, Ammunition Group

Design Will Destigmatize Aging

Traditionally, houses have been designed for young, able-bodied adults, but not so well for people who are disabled, chronically ill, or simply aging. As baby boomers age and care for their parents, they and their children are recognizing the need for homes that are designed to support all stages of an individual’s life. In the next five years, designers will use design as a tool to destigmatize aging. — Patrick Burke, Principal – Architecture, Michael Graves Architecture & Design

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Furniture That Learns And Teaches

If our thermostats are talking to us and learning from us, why not our chairs or conference rooms? Increasingly ubiquitous sensing technology, coupled with mechanical automation and high-tech materials, will allow furniture and environments to effortlessly respond to and support the people using them. Your lounge chair will know how soft or firm you like your pillows, and automatically readjust for your partner. The conference room could tell you you’re having a bad meeting, and give you tips for turning it around. — Ben Watson, Executive Creative Director, Herman Miller


Browsers Will Feel Like Native Platforms

Google’s already been pursuing this with Chrome OS, but in the future, I think you’ll see browsers than can do a lot more than we’re currently used to. There will stop being such a distinction between in-browser design and native design. Not only will most of our apps live in the cloud, but they won’t feel any different than the ones that live on your hard drive. Mike Treff, Managing Partner, Product Design Group at Code and Theory

Design Will Become Important To Every Company

There will be a rise in large tech companies taking a greater point of view with respect to design. This is not dissimilar to what occurred in the automobile industry as it began to mature–the famous point when Henry Ford refused to sell variations in the only color that mattered, compared with GM, which diversified its designs to appeal to larger populations. We can see it already with Google’s efforts around Android’s enhanced “Material” visual language led by Matias Duarte, eBay’s design leadership efforts that I supported last year (just Google “design playbook”) led by John Donahoe, and IBM’s resurgence in the design space with their new center in Austin led by Phil Gilbert. — John Maeda, Design Partner, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers


The Object Will Be Less Important Than Ever

The object will be less important than ever. As products become increasingly more complex and in many ways act as portals to much broader functionality or capability, the object that delivers this will become even more important, especially as a means to attract and drive participation in an ecosystem. But the object being well designed will not alone be enough for success. The entire ecosystem and all its interaction points must be as well designed as the object itself in order for sustained adoption to occur. — Robert Brunner, Founder, Ammunition Group

Offices Will Become Our Cathedrals and Recording Studios

Work has become like singing, you can do it anywhere now. That’s why offices will need to become more like cathedrals and recording studios. Cathedrals because singing in that setting (atmosphere, reverb, etc.) alters the character of even a single human voice and inspires a greater performance. Recording studios because they are specifically designed to help create and capture the highest-quality experience of singing–capture that and reproduce it. When we can work anywhere, people should want to come to an office because it gives them a heightened experience of work that can be had nowhere else. — Ben Watson, Executive Creative Director, Herman Miller

Greater Empathy In Design

A deeper empathetic understanding of how people experience a space or product will become more important. With an aging population, people may need an item to help them, but not necessarily want it . . . for example, an alert bracelet, or something that protects their safety. No one wants to be reminded they are aging, and the design of both products and buildings must respect the emotions of this audience, as well as meet their needs. — Donald Strum, Principal – Product Design, Michael Graves Architecture & Design


Advertising And Marketing Will Be Part Of The Design Process

Right now, a lot of companies design their product two years out, then go all the way to the factory before they even start thinking about advertising and marketing. That’s not going to be successful in the future: For products to succeed in the future, everything will need to be super consistent. Design will stop happening in a vacuum, and advertising and marketing will become increasingly linked to the design process. — Mike Treff, Managing Partner, Product Design Group at Code and Theory

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Designing For The Human Operating System

Over the next decade–and beyond–human-centered design will take on increasingly complex meaning. Through initiatives like the Human Genome Project, or the more recently announced BRAIN Initiative, scientists are rapidly discovering the realities behind how human beings really work. For 200,000 years we’ve been running our human operating system, and only now are we beginning to truly understand the circuitry and software! By harnessing this revolutionary new understanding of people, we will increasingly be able to create designs–from cities to chairs–that stimulate or provoke knowable outcomes like greater creativity, a stronger sense of belonging, the elimination of distractions, deeper relaxation, and so on. — Ben Watson, Executive Creative Director, Herman Miller

The Emergence Of The Engineer-Designer

There will be an increase in the number of designers in tech that emerge from engineering majors. Back in the ’90s, as an MIT Electrical Engineering and Computer Science grad, I always knew that designers with engineering backgrounds were rare because I was the odd duck. At the close of this decade, we will be seeing more designers with an engineering background like Peter Cho of Inkling, Deena Rosen of Opower, Marcos Weskamp of Flipboard. — John Maeda, Design Partner, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers


Design Infrastructure Will Drive A Company’s Valuation

An organization’s ability to understand and utilize good design practices will become a key part of valuing a company. We are seeing this today in that our simple participation with an early-stage company increases their valuation. This idea will grow as a general measure of competency in the same way that a company’s operational infrastructure drives value. We will see design competency as an official aspect of how much a company is worth. — Robert Brunner, Founder, Ammunition Group

Atomic Storytelling

This is more a branding thing, but people today don’t experience the Internet in a linear form. They don’t watch just one video, or read one blog post about a product. Brands will need to stop trying to tell their stories linearly, and instead break them apart and tell them across a system. Marketing campaigns will start to look like subway roadmaps, and become more granular and complex. — Steve Bear, Managing Partner, Brand Design Group at Code and Theory

Designers Will Have To Become Psychologists

Owing mostly to the sheer number of devices that require management and interaction, consumers are surrounded by objects that have resulted in new complexities. The future is going to consist of more automated objects, and designers will need to take a deep dive into the workings of the human mind using psychographic, ethnographic, and sociocultural research to develop products that provide meaningful engagement that will simplify our lives. — Vijay Chakravarthy, Senior Product Designer, Michael Graves Architecture & Design


Bespoke Design vs. Design For The Billions

There will be a well-defined divide between designers in tech for the bespoke economy (i.e., at the scale of tens of users) versus designers in tech for the global economy (i.e., at the scale of millions of users). Designers for “fewer people” will deftly leverage technology that enables short-run advances like 3-D printing, as well as the many e-commerce front-end technologies that are now available. Designers for a “gazillion people” will deftly leverage technologies for evaluating their solutions at scale to test and retest their assumptions in large sample populations. They are at the bleeding edge where social science meets big data meets leading hundreds of designers, researchers, and engineers — John Maeda, Design Partner, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

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From Sustainable to Regenerative

Responsible companies and designers will set higher goals for their environmental efforts. With our Earthright initiative, over the next 10 years, Herman Miller is committed to achieve zero waste from our facilities, consume 50% less water, reduce our energy intensity by 50%, and take 125,000 tons out of our annual production of products. We’re also committed to creating better products and design processes to protect our health and well-being, restore the ecosystem, and give back more than we extract.​ — Ben Watson, Executive Creative Director, Herman Miller

Universal Design Meets Livable Design

Livable design will become increasingly important, driven by the expectations and sheer volume of the baby boomer generation. While universal design embodies the critical aspects of safety and functionality, it does not cover everything. What about comfort, familiarity, and dignity? What about self-identity? We will see architecture and product design working together in order to strike a more meaningful balance for people. We will see an evolved blend between universal design and livable design that will meet people’s functional and emotional needs. We are already working with several clients to develop designs that are usable and livable. In five years, we expect to see this richer approach being applied to our aging population, health care, and more! — Robert Van Varick, Principal – Product Design, Michael Graves Architecture & Design


4-D Design Tools And Beyond

There will be new kinds of design tools to help designers in tech craft effective experiences for consumers that go beyond “beautiful” pixels. Most of the tools we use today are rooted in conventional two-dimensional, static media, as they all grew up during the “desktop publishing” revolution of the ’80s and ’90s. We will see more “hybrid” tools that cross code with design, like Koen Bok’s Framer.js, Ben Fry and Casey Reas’s Processing, and Evelyn Eastmond’s DesignBlocks. — John Maeda, Design Partner, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers

The Relationship Between Design And Data Science Will Grow Tighter

As we build more connected smart things that observe and measure us and our world, the relationship that design, functionality, and experience have with real-time data analytics will grow. So designers will need to know how to play with data scientists, and work together to build new definitions of everyday objects as we make them smarter and more effective. — Robert Brunner, Founder, Ammunition Group

Companies Will Become As Responsive As Their Websites

The companies that succeed in the future will be the ones that can responsively react to what’s happening. In the future, it’ll be more important to design long-term systems that can pivot to change, optimize, and reinvent their products, without having to start from zero each and every time. Companies will have to become as responsive as their websites to meet the challenges of the future, in a literal sense: The way they are designed will have to respond in real time to culture, not just predict it all out. — Steve Bear, Managing Partner, Brand Design Group at Code and Theory


The Design Is Never Finished

As everything becomes available everywhere–in the physical and virtual world–more and more people will respond to designs that offer a mutable framework for personalization, individual expression, and adaptability. In other words, design will increasingly become less about what you take out of the box, and more about what that design offers over time as you live with it. — Ben Watson, Executive Creative Director, Herman Miller