Are We Hitting “Peak Design”?

By Tim Höfer on 9. January 2016 — 5 mins read

“The end of design is approaching. Soon, we will have explored all interface paradigms, and all useable patterns will have been established. With this huge, differentiated toolbox full of solutions, all our clients have to do is apply them. We will have become irrelevant.”

If you run in design circles, you are bound to read or hear statements like this about the future of our profession. The regularity with which this idea is brought up suggests that there is a real concern that, like petroleum, design is an finite resource — and that it is depleting. Looking at the current state of interface design superficially, it’s understandable how people get this idea:

Services like Squarespace make it easy to put a beautiful-looking website online in a few clicks; amateur designers fluff up their portfolios with fancy-looking spec work that is entirely cobbled together from pre-existing UI kits that can be bought online for a few bucks; screens are decreasing in size, or even disappearing completely; and complex services are increasingly integrated into the platforms of a few big players.

The thing is: Neither the availability of templates nor the concern about them are new or earth-shattering. I remember hearing similar sentiments in my first year of design school (in 2002), and they were just as silly back then as they are today.

Let’s take a step back and look at things in perspective.

Early precursors

For people interested in design theory and history, the idea of cheap, mass-produced, template-based commodities is nothing new.

As industrial labor drew large swathes of rural populations to the rapidly growing cities in the late 1800s and early 1900s, a new profession emerged between craftsmen, artists and architects: Formgivers thought about how well-designed products could be made affordable for everyone. Often, the answer was rationalized, template-based mass-production.

Among the central, utopian ideals of the modernist architecture and design of such luminaries as Le Corbusier or Walter Gropius was that the growing working class should not live in the disease-ridden, sooty urban quarters of the industrial revolution. Instead, they were to live in new, comfortable and well-furnished dwellings, just a bus-ride away from their workplace. To make these affordable for the masses, they were often based on prefabricated, mass-produced building blocks and made it possible to erect huge housing estates in a very short time.

Residential district in Tyumen, Russia.

But like it’s often the case with well-meaning, great ideas, reality turned out to be much more messy and complex than anticipated. As it turns out, a century later, architecture is still alive and well, more diverse than ever, and faces problems that weren’t yet relevant during the time of industrialization: environmental impact and climate change, aging societies, post-industrial economies. The question changed.

Starting at the Wrong End

Designers working under the constraints of real-life projects — whether it’s budgets, deadlines or organizational challenges — know that the hardest part of any design practice is helping clients to come to an understanding what they really need, and how to reconcile these strategic product goals with the needs of users. This part of the work of designers is the hardest to see for people on the outside — it’s intangible, and it should be. Ideally, these struggles and hard decisions are invisible to the user.

Designers that make themselves dependent of pre-defined patterns, before even properly identifying the problem they need to solve, start at the wrong end of the problem.

Designers that are content to think in pre-existing patterns and templates allow themselves to be influenced by availability and convenience: Before even properly identifying the problem they were supposed to solve, they have made themselves dependent on a pre-defined set of elements that might not even adequately address the real issue at the core of the product. They have started at the wrong end of the problem and effectively painted themselves in a corner.

The tension between product goals, users, and real-life constraints cannot be adequately managed by applying cookie-cutter solutions like templates.

The Fallacy of the Mature Pattern

One point that is brought up in this debate regularly is the supposed maturity of patterns: That we have reached a point where pre-existing elements can be remixed and reshuffled by everyone, not just designers.

It’s true that there are patterns that are tried and tested to a degree that makes it to hard to imagine they will offer room for further innovation. But the fallacy of this assumption becomes obvious when exposed to the realities of design practice:

One pattern everyone is familiar with is the (digital) shopping cart: Usually it consists of a summary list, a price, and a checkout button. That’s it, right

Unless it isn’t. While working on a fashion e-commerce app that allows people to buy clothing directly from manufacturers, we quickly realized that the classic shopping cart was unsuited to handle the complexity of a decentralized supply chain.

Our users needed to be able to manage multiple orders, from multiple manufacturers in different countries with different shipping times, and in some cases apply different discounts to single products in their order — many of which had limited stock. Coming up with a solution that performed well in user testing took us considerable thought. Had we settled for the standard pattern, it would have destroyed the product.

Patterns that once proliferated wildly throughout entire app catalogues are now getting phased out again.

Even if the idea of pattern maturity was true, you still would need someone to curate these patterns and set them into a relation with each other that makes them work as a product.

Take the so-called hamburger menu. Initially, it was considered a godsend: an amazingly flexible solution to complex navigation hierarchies on mobile devices. It was exactly this flexibility that led to a loss of focus in many apps — often to the detriment of users. Because it is practically open-ended, it didn’t force product owners to think hard about the true purpose of their product. This pattern, that once proliferated wildly throughout entire app catalogues, is now getting quietly phased out again.

Design is not just about building. It is just as much about what you excise and purposefully leave out. These decisions are hard. A template will not do this job for you.

The Bottom Line

The commoditization of templates is neither a new development nor a real, existential danger to the design profession. Templates, website builders and design kits will not displace designers, just as mass-production and prefab buildings haven’t ended architecture.

What they will do, however, is affording cheap, prefab solutions to markets that wouldn’t have spend money on design anyway. For this market — small businesses, writers, ambitious amateurs — templates will suffice. But they will still fail to offer an answer to the question at the core of the design profession: What is the real problem I am trying to solve?

Get in Touch

I work at AJ&Smart, a design studio and innovation consultancy in Berlin. We design products, consult on digital innovation and offer training workshops for designers, entrepreneurs and companies. If you would like to know more about our service offering or just want to chat, please get in touch.