Ken Carbone’s Wonderlust: The Future of Design — A 50-Year Perspective

Posted inWeb & Interactive Design

This spring marks 50 years that I have been practicing design. I graduated from the Philadelphia College of Art in 1973, when the controversial eroticist Anaïs Nin delivered the commencement address. That summer, I stuffed my backpack and embarked on my maiden voyage to Europe, arriving on the bell-bottomed streets of London in June and sunbathing on pristine beaches in Greece three months later. In those days, guidebooks promised you could see Europe “for five dollars a day.” Times have indeed changed.

In fall, I returned freshly tanned to the U.S. and began showing my portfolio before landing a position with the seminal multi-disciplinary design firm, Chermayeff & Geismar Associates. A year later, I seized an opportunity to work on the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and moved to Canada to join the Euro modernist firm Gottschalk + Ash Intl. By any measure, this was an auspicious career beginning.

I eventually co-founded The Carbone Smolan Agency with designer Leslie Smolan. CSA had a successful 40-year run before we closed our doors in 2019 to merge with the Chicago agency 50,000feet.

The author with Leslie Smolan (left) in their Manhattan office.

Today’s design students would be baffled (if not amused) by the laborious design-making process from decades past. The change is perhaps nowhere more significant than in typography. Selecting fonts and using type is a common activity enjoyed by the public every day. However, early in my career, the typographic arts involved unionized artisans, molten lead, clanking machines, and ink. Working with type required meticulous specifications, measured in agates and picas, and waiting hours, if not days, before receiving paper repro proofs that were cut and pasted to “mechanical boards” with lots of hot wax. Yes, it was downright medieval!

I’m not the least bit nostalgic for these days, and you can decide if the technical democratization of design today is a good thing. But this article is about the future, so I’ll leave the further tales of bygone days for another time.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “the best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.” That may have been true in the19th century, but in the velocity of the present, predicting future events is an all-consuming activity. Society is so focused on the future that the present seems increasingly irrelevant, from political campaigns that precede elections by 18 months to exploring the potential for human existence on Mars.

To help me speculate about the future of design, I invited a charming chatbot to share impressions of the profession decades from now. I’ll call her Pythia.

Pythia, created by the author in Midjourney.

In her unedited response, she touches on a range of topics that are like a classic S.W.O.T. analysis of a possible future for designers:

“Design has come a long way in the past 50 years, from traditional sketches and blueprints to digital rendering and virtual reality. But what does the future hold for the field of design? In the next 50 years, we can expect a rapid evolution in technology, materials, and human needs, which will undoubtedly shape how designers approach their work.

Designers will need to be adaptable and creative in their approach, utilizing new technologies and materials to create sustainable and user-centric designs. By doing so, they will be able to create innovative and impactful designs that can stand the test of time.

One of the key advantages of generative A.I. is its ability to automate many of the tasks traditionally performed by designers. For example, generative A.I. can quickly generate large numbers of designs, allowing designers to focus on refining and improving the designs rather than creating them from scratch. This could result in a more efficient design process, but it could also mean that designers are required to spend less time on individual projects.

In addition to this, the rise of generative A.I. also raises concerns about the role of designers in the creative process. With generative A.I. capable of generating designs autonomously, there is a risk that designers will become less central to the design process. This could result in designers being relegated to more administrative or supervisory roles, rather than being involved in the creative process itself.

Another potential impact of generative A.I. on designer job security is its ability to create designs that are cheaper and faster to produce. This could make it more difficult for designers to compete on price, particularly for simpler design projects. However, designers will still need to work on more complex and specialized tasks, which require a human touch and creative insight.

Despite these potential concerns, it’s important to note that the rise of generative A.I. and other technological advancements also creates new opportunities for designers. For example, designers can use generative A.I. to create designs that were previously impossible to produce manually, or to automate repetitive tasks, allowing them to focus on more creative and strategic work.”

An increasingly popular, unattributed quote floating around the internet offers an assessment of the new frontier of design and AI’s potential threat to the profession: “Generative A.I. will not replace you; someone using generative A.I. will.”

After my discussion with Pythia, I wondered how a future designer equipped with new technology might respond to a brief I received from a client several years ago.

In 2018 the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, a world-class institution whose credentials include collaborations with David Byrne and Beyoncé, asked our agency to help them create a new brand identity. They specifically wanted an image that felt progressive, non-traditional, and reflected the experimental reputation of the chorus. Our recommended solution used symbols of pulsing sound waves to depict the features of a child’s face. We chose the gender-neutral name “Sam” for the logo.

When I asked the popular generative A.I. program Midjourney to create a logo for the same group in 2073, it offered these suggestions minutes later:

Clearly, these examples do not indicate future results and, in fact, look quite dated. But the computing power used here demonstrates an evolution of design tools that will shape words and images for our world.

Whatever the future of the design profession, I hope the net result is some form of BEAUTILITY. This term was coined by industrial designer Tucker Viemeister, and I’ve always embraced it as a simple standard of achievement.

In my long career, I’ve experienced remarkable advancements in the design profession, from the analog, to the digital, to what now appears beyond the virtual, as anyone can generate incredibly rich, seductive images with a key stroke. I just pray that future design clients and arbiters of taste will not be easily swayed by the shallow pyrotechnics of tech. As for me, I still like to draw with charcoal and consider a day well spent when I’m scrubbing paint from under my fingernails before dinner.

Next month: “Politically Speaking”

Ken Carbone is an artist, designer, and Co-Founder of the Carbone Smolan Agency, a design company he built with Leslie Smolan over 40 years ago. He is the author of Dialog: What Makes a Great Design Partnership, a visiting lecturer at numerous design schools, and TED X speaker. A recipient of the 2012 AIGA medal, he is currently a Senior Advisor to the Chicago-based strategic branding firm 50,000feet.