the technology pendulum

Is design technology doing what we need it to do? New products are everywhere, but is technology helping with quality products or obfuscating design’s purpose with quantity of products? Are those responsible for rendering our designs doing so in a timely way? Finally, is infrastructure for cloud computing ready for what designers will need it to do?
When I started designing, technology was looking for ways to catch up to design. Programs were popping up for illustration, photo manipulation, colour, pantone integration, tablets, etc. After a while, the software and hardware caught up, and (not for the first time) changed everything about the way we produced design work. Some more time goes by, the technology passed us, and the world of design moved far beyond typography, grids, shapes and the colour wheel to a lot of really technical, software and server oriented advancements. Fine, learn some code. Wait a year or two, and then no longer was simply knowing HTML enough to make websites, you had to evolve again with technology. As a designer, it was a question of not if I could learn a new programming language or program, but whether the particular language or technology was niche, or indeed the wave of the future. We, as designers, evaluate all new things this way. This, I imagine, is because we are not just designers, but also business people – people who evaluate a skill on the marketability of the skill in question. At some point you have to make a choice – either you’re going to continue learning every single program coming out, or you’re going to start doing what you love – which is to say, designing things for people that need it with the skills that you have.
For example, when Flash was new, I pondered learning it – and I did, a bit, but demand wasn’t there, and I wasn’t too interested in making animated websites that required a plugin to function. At the time, many people weren’t even allowed to install it, so it seemed like a poor idea. Over time, flash has certainly grown in appeal to me, but it’s still a niche so far as what clients actually need in terms of visual communications. Certainly it is more useful to certain types of industry than others. I digress. I love flash, it just wasn’t in demand in my area.
I don’t really want to make examples out of any specific software that I consider to be less than useful because it isn’t productive. The people who make the software know it’s not (because they see the numbers) and you know when you come across a piece of software or hardware that is not, in the foreseeable future, going to be of any use to you or anyone you know. The reasons why this irrelevant technology gets made in the first place could fill a whole blog post, so lets just say that there are reasons. The reasons themselves are not as important so much as the noise to signal when we’re looking to advance our skill-sets, and ultimately make visual communication pieces for our clients.
Lets talk about some technology that has jived with design, shall we?

Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) are one technological advancement that caught on gradually and with certainty. CSS1 gave us the means to be consistent across a site, and eventually it was supported by everyone. Separation of code from style, many pages using one set of rules for how it looks, etc. CSS2 came out later and added some bells and whistles. Adoption grew from many designers, CSS replaced tables as the main way to lay out websites. Now we’re looking at CSS3 to add even more design power to the web experience. CSS has been a hit because its massive power comes because it is design sustainability at its very core.
CSS3 brings a lot of vital new features to designers, but the CSS3 standard has not been adopted by all browser makers. This means waiting for some browser makers – most notably, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, to catch up to browser rendering standards. My current project is designing and implementing a new web application interface, and unfortunately, IE users are being left behind because IE does not support rounded corners. They get the same screens, but the boxes and overlays have 90 degree angles instead of 5px radius. Anyone using Firefox, Chrome, or any browser will see the rounded corners, just not IE. So who really loses from this? The users of IE get a boxier experience, and we lose a bit of appeal to them. The trade off to us is that we’re not spending valuable time, coding a classic, clunky workaround. I personally refuse to code to such ancient standards – we have things we need to do, and it’s not catering to a Microsoft technology that willingly lives in the past. It makes sense to move on.
The net effect of using new CSS3 design techniques is that those who use modern browsers are rewarded with a smoother looking experience. I am okay with that, and I think that is one of the benefits of using a modern browser. For a while, it looked like designers had not quite caught up to technology, but now it looks like technology has stood still for a while, and designers have passed it and are waiting for standards compliance to catch up.
Looking to the future, we are waiting for bandwidth to catch up to the movement to cloud computing with the application of visual arts. With cloud computing for design, we can have the power of centralized computing, the robustness of automatically backed up data (though this is not guaranteed, just in theory), and the rapid ability to share large files to others already on the cloud. What we are missing is the link to get our gigabytes of data to that cloud regularly. 50k/second upload will not cut it, and that’s the average upload speed you’ll get from an ISP around here. When you’re pulling 4GB off your camera a week and you need to send it up to a central place, you need the bandwidth to go along with that. In addition to that throughput, you also need good enough latency so that if you decide to design on the cloud (and one day, you will want to do this), your screen will update fast enough to what’s happening remotely to make it all a worthwhile experience. Latency and bandwidth are the domain of your ISP and their investment in the infrastructure necessary to deliver it, such as fiber optics. It is well documented that broadband in North America could be a lot better than it currently is.
To sum up, we have three examples of technology not matching designers and users at the moment: programs being made for the sake of being made are not necessarily filling the needs of designers, standards are not always being met by those who are responsible for rendering our designs to standard (browsers), and finally the infrastructure is lagging behind the potential use for cloud computing in a design context. It is my feeling that modern designers could be better supported by the environment that they operate in, and when they are, I believe that we’re going to see some amazing things happen.
What are your thoughts on design technology right now? Is it doing everything you need? What are the gaps currently that you see between what you do every day, and what software and hardware is providing for you? What future requirements are on your radar?
I originally posted this on the Graphic Designers of Canada national blog.

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