With new technology like online apps, 3D printing, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and more, the designer’s toolkit is rapidly expanding as are the frontiers of design.

Technology and design have always been inextricably linked. The first cave paintings were made using the technology on hand at the time – the oldest found painting kit includes bones employed as primitive paintbrushes, shells as mixing pots and natural pigments as paint. Now, 100,000 years later, the amount of technology that designers can both employ and design for has exploded, breaking down the boundaries of what design is and can be.

The digital space, in particular, has given designers a new toolkit to play with and a new medium in which to apply design principles. For the design community, this is a time to rejoice. As Edgar Gonzalez, the director of the Bachelor in Design at IE University, explained, today’s design world is for “individuals who are not satisfied with their reality, and who are excited by the prospect of change.”

How technology impacts the way we think about design
Inspired by nature, this 3D printed partition is optimized to be strong and light. Image courtesy of Airbus

Product design in the 21st century

Seemingly light years away from design in the 20th century, today’s designers have embraced new technology to create products that are more interesting, efficient and innovative than ever before. Take the “airplane of the future” by Airbus, whose design used a combination of generative design, 3D printing and artificial intelligence (AI). To make the concept plane, the aerospace company plugged their goals including increased fuel efficiency and basic parameters into a generative design program, which was quickly able to produce thousands of options to meet those goals. Designers were then able to test the most appealing proposals and see which would best suit the company’s needs. The result is shaping the company’s vision of what air travel will look like in 2050.

One of the first actionable components of the concept plane was a cabin partition. The generative design program’s algorithm was based on the growth patterns of slime mold, a single-celled organism, and mammal bones, which are dense at points of stress but lighter everywhere else. After testing some of the 10,000 design options the program produced, the team found the strongest and lightest model and used 3D printers to create the new partitions. As a result of the technologically-heavy design process, Airbus came up with a new airplane component that could remove up to 500kg of weight per plane. If applied to each new A320 on order, it would give airlines the potential to reduce CO2 emissions by hundreds of thousands of metric tons per year.


The age of individualized design

Digital platforms have connected consumers with the brands and products they love. More and more, consumers can, for instance, fill out an online survey and get exactly what best meets their individual needs or desires, becoming part designers themselves in the process. This applies to customized shampoos, personalized vitamins or even individualized mattresses. Online, user experience (UX) design is increasingly critical. The concept, which didn’t exist until the 1990s, has shot to the top of employers’ wish-lists, and is about making each consumer’s online experience as relevant and engaging as possible.

At Nike, the concept of both individualized products and experiences are being taken to a new level.  At its flagship House of Innovation stores in Shanghai and New York, the worlds of interior design, digital design, UX and product design have merged to give each visitor a unique experience. For instance, the Nike+ app can be set to “in-store mode” which allows customers to request an item in a certain size to enter the fitting room, scan a mannequin to see what it is wearing, and simply check out without waiting in line. Similarly, shoppers in the special stores are encouraged to design their own shoes in collaboration with professionals in the Nike by You space. “There is much more focus on the consumer-creator based on the idea of interpersonal connectedness with the brand,” Lily Fletcher, the strategy director of Accept & Proceed, the creative firm behind the Shanghai store, told Forbes.

Nike NYC
Nike NYC, House of Innovation 000, located at 650 Fifth Avenue, covers 68,000 square feet in the heart of New York City. Photo: Nike

The Internet of Things impacts on urban design

Much like Nike’s hyper-connected flagship store, urban designers are now employing innovative technology like Internet of Things (IoT) applications to create better experiences for residents and visitors to their towns and cities. It is estimated that by 2020, the globe will have over 20 billion connected IoT devices, everyday objects able to send and receive data. This data, when used properly, can empower city planners to alleviate problems faced by cities such as traffic jams, pollution, garbage collection and security, and health and housing issues. It is against this backdrop that smart cities are taking form.

Hangzhou, China, for example, used to suffer from some of the country’s worst traffic congestion. But now, officials are using an AI program to monitor and manage the traffic flow, which allows adjustments to traffic lights and signage to be made in real time. Powered by a combination of big data, IoT and machine learning, traffic in Hangzhou now moves 11 percent faster than before, and emergency vehicles responding to calls for help are able to get to their destinations in half the time.

Traffic in Hangzhou
Traffic in Hangzhou, China, which was formerly the fifth most congested city in the country, but has now dropped to 57th. Photo: Alexander Popov

A toolkit to shape the changing world

As technology disrupts the world, design, in all of its forms, is an increasingly important toolkit that can be used to both shape and understand the world. Beyond the experience of creating products, experiences or even cities, it is now increasingly being understood as a way to reshape entire processes. “Design is not only about offering functional solutions; it’s also about asking questions. It’s the way that we shape the world around us, and look at those problems that face us all. Is the world going too fast, has the smartphone killed off the idea of privacy, will robots take away our jobs? All these things are shaped by and understood by design,said Deyan Sudjic, Director of the Design Museum of London and an advisor to IE University’s Design Council, a unique platform where academia and industry meet to act and talk about design.