Like all things, design is bound by time. And yet it can completely transcend the laws of nature in our lived experience. I’ve always been drawn to this transcendence. It is, in part, what draws me to the archives of classic designers who sought to outlive their lifetime through their work. Timeless design is so compelling because it says so little about it’s origins or the time in which it was made. It has far less to do with its setting than it does with the hands that interact with it.
Transcendent products that endure throughout time understand the human experience—illuminating things that will always be true about us. They are hard to make better because they understand who they design for: humans.
And yet it is easy to glorify timelessness. We can get so caught up in finding the perfect solutions that we ignore the present problem right in front of us. Sometimes the solution doesn’t need to last a century. Sometimes we design something to work efficiently and then become irrelevant on purpose. When we become too enamored with the past and too focused on the future we overlook the present.
Some things are designed to need to evolve over time. It is a form of humility to design a system while knowing that the needs of its audience will change in the next season. Just as we cannot control the wheels of time, we cannot control the outcome of our design once set in motion. When we launch our products, we are surrendering them to the erosion of time. As we see in many areas of life, some endure the elements of change better than others.
Often with innovation comes an unnecessary complexity. Perhaps constraints of our present reality can offer clear solutions for the future. Though we may be designing for the future, we exist now.
Design serves a purpose. As I mentioned before, sometimes our vision for a solution’s scope is too short. If the outcome solves the issue at hand, it has succeeded. Yet design exists on a continuum. It’s unwise to think that our work should either last forever or for the next fifteen minutes. We must acknowledge the grey in-between.
The always moving and changing current of design can be hard to navigate. We’re in an age where our work can be viewed by anyone with a screen. And the amount of inspiration fueling our creativity is infinite. Naturally, this continuous melding of ideas begins to form trends.
The word trend has a couple definitions. The first, commonly used meaning is tied to aesthetics or fashion—something timely that’s in favor. The second definition, however, describes a flow or current. It’s directional and moves forward. This ties directly to our discussion of time. We can look back in design’s history to see this trend, or current, forging new paths and meandering through new landscapes.
Sometimes this flow is headed in the right direction. It’s easy to identify that it’s progressing toward a desirable outcome. But this isn’t always the case. There are times when the pushing current has more momentum than substance. It’s like this in our practice: Before we take a blind plunge into the rushing waters, we must evaluate their course.
We have to remember that only time evaluates trends. Wisdom looks like being able to pull from past experience to determine whether the current is moving towards a collective good. Things naturally tend to happen in cycles. Once we’ve experienced a cycle or two, we’ll have more confidence in what trends we should move with and which ones to move against.
How should be navigate the sands of time? When should we travel with the current, and when should be swim against it?
Here’s a start:
1. Cut to the core.
Timeless design identifies a purely human need and creates a simple solution that stands the test of time. It’s not about having the trendiest aesthetic or remediating a short term need. It’s about designing for real people, in real time.
2. Learn from the present.
Allow yourself to evaluate your current landscape. Discuss the problems that affect your users now. There’s nothing wrong with anticipating changes in the future. In fact, it’s part of the job. Start with the now and work outward.
3. Learn from the past.
Not only can tremendous wisdom be gleaned from the work of the past, but exponential wisdom can be gained from the lived experience. The best way to refine your skills is to practice them with real people. Sit with designers who are more experienced than you are. Learn from their mistakes and share your own.
Certitude can become harmful to designers. We’re all approaching a collective horizon, but the image ahead is still blurry; it lacks full detail. The future will always be something we fantasize about. Maybe it’s a form of escapism, holding fast to the promises of tomorrow rather than facing the problems of today. Whatever it may be, I find hope in approaching the future with humility.
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