Crystal ball-gazing may give you a headache, but one thing's certain in the world of design and that's progress. Karl Hodge looks at the technologies and trends looming on the horizon.
Design in general, and digital design in particular, is enjoying the fruits of a long revolution. Around eight per cent of the UK's Gross Domestic Product is generated by the creative industries.
More importantly, many perpetually promised technologies are now here. The first video phones are coming to market, the web is thoroughly mainstream - with around 60 per cent of users browsing on fast broadband connections - title-for-title console games are outperforming movies, and the online world is available anywhere to early adopters of WiFi.
The design world has been in a flux of change for the best part of two decades. So is this a peak? Or are we seeing the foundations being laid for new, exciting types of design?
Technological change is easy to predict - the market is a different beast. Alec East, media director of www.tomorrowlondon.com puts forward a prediction based on economics, one that points squarely at a new boom in digital design.
"The market is shifting as online, mobile and location-specific media take-off," he says, "Their success has in turn sparked massive interest from the City, which now wants to know how it can invest in it."
He suggests that renewed interest in the profitability of design may have negative as well as positive consequences. "Creativity doesn't respond well to formula, but investors need systems to gauge success. Some companies will take the investment path and others will insist on self-sufficiency, but all this attention focused on the creative industries can only be good for our kind".
While this is good PR for design, and better investment means more money for projects, we might still see some individuals scrambling for work. "There will finally be a reduction in the number of courses teaching design as students and universities realise that there are far more candidates than jobs," claims Stephen Holmes, creative director at Bloodybigspider. Perhaps, but as long as there's demand from students, courses will always be there to cater for them. The best may thrive in a market that's invigorated with investment. The less talented may simply fall by the wayside.
If the last five years have been a roller coaster for technology watchers, then 2005 has been a bungee jump. Big mergers between Adobe and Macromedia, Alias and Autodesk, plus a projected takeover of AOL by Microsoft, will inevitably have an impact on designers in the long term. And then there's Apple's recently released imaging software for pro photographers, Aperture, which could mutate into a credible Photoshop rival. But which technologies are catching the eyes of the design experts?
"I think it will be the 'boring' technologies, the ubiquitous ones, that we hardly notice that will be most important," says East. "For example, it is now much more common for us to work with international clients, and we need multi-lingual support across our design tools. This is dull, but essential to the UK's competitive future." necessarily lead to the sketchpad becoming redundant, though? Not right now, at least, according to Holmes. "Everything still starts out on a layout pad with a pencil before being taken to the computer. It's still quicker and easier to make a rough sketch on paper."
While new standards, languages, protocols and applications all have a part to play, the boom in digital design has been driven by one technological factor above all others. That's a continuing, exponential increase in desktop computing power that shows no sign of letting up.
Most machines on the market have CPUs that deal with data in 32-bit chunks. The Mac market already has 64-bit processing, complete with an operating system to match in Mac OS X Tiger. The Power Mac G5 is a topspec machine, though - tantalisingly out of reach for fledgling designers. The PC could be their saviour.
The first 64-bit processors have already hit the desktop PC market with AMD chips. Intel has held back from bringing 64-bit to its desktop range, preferring instead to concentrate on Itanium, server-specific chips with a high premium. But now Intel has pitched in with 'Cranford' and the forthcoming 'Paxville' CPUs - cheaper 64-bit chips based on its Xeon x86 architecture.
With the next home version of Windows, now known as Vista, available in a 64-bit version, 2006 could be a landmark year for faster, more memory-intensive computing. Add that to the now widely-known news that Apple will switch to Intel chips in 2006, and it looks like a certainty.
Imagine 3D animation rendering taken to the next level - with waiting times cut down to hours instead of days. Sources at Adobe have hinted to Computer Arts that a 64-bit-ready version of Photoshop is in the pipeline. It might be able to render live effects over highly detailed, vast canvas areas. And how about live, broadcast quality video composited on a desktop machine? While 32-bit applications can benefit from the enhanced memory-handling capabilities of 64-bit hardware, you'll need 64-bit software to really make it fly. Both the 64-bit versions of Windows Vista and Mac OS X have impressive, dedicated graphics-handling capabilities built in. On the Mac it's called Core Image - a feature introduced with Tiger.
Right to the Core
Core Image is an operating system technology that enables programmers to directly access the Mac's graphics card. With a powerful enough Mac - and Apple's new quad-processor G5 could fit the bill - this may mean the holy grail of real-time effects processing. Imagine applying radial blur filters in Photoshop in an instant.
Core Image is joined by Core Video - a direct bridge between QuickTime and the machine's GPU that can accelerate video handling. Whether on 32 or 64-bit machines, this frees up the CPU to do the background, donkey work while your graphics card throws pixels around the screen. Long Global improvements to interface technologies, especially the convergence between tablet PCs and input devices, are key to the development of UK design, suggests Holmes. "Tablets and pens will become more natural and much easier to use while creating improved results, therefore encouraging more people to draw direct on screen rather than on paper." Will this story short: working with graphics is set to get much, much faster.
Technology doesn't just change the way we work, but the way we work together. It was once the case that to get the fruit of your labours out there you had two choices. You took to the streets with your portfolio in hand or you collaborated to set up an agency.
Option one is still a reality for many work-hungry practitioners - but the web makes getting your work seen much easier. A well-produced website can stand in place of your portfolio. and become the defacto method of touting work to clients.
Consumer ISP Wanadoo has just announced a global upgrade to 8MB per second download speeds for its customers - fast enough for graphics-heavy sites to come into their own.
These speed improvements are part of another emerging trend: the end of the bricks and mortar company. With faster broadband, collaborative tools such as Adobe Version Cue and the team-building features of Macromedia's Dreamweaver, easy file sharing and the growth of the 'writable web', groups of designers no longer need to share an office to work together. Instead they can collaborate, conference and deliver their results online. Check out virtual agencies such as This Is Real Art (www.thisisrealart.com) for inspiration.
For predictions on the themes that will affect design, we turn to a bigger idea: postmodernity. The apogee of the modern project that began with renaissance art, the term 'postmodernity' describes the condition of the accelerated, played out and media saturated times we live in. Don't confuse it with Postmodernism, the short-lived, collage-based design and literary movement prevalent in the 1990s.
Computers are key in the cultural shift to postmodernity. For designers, they've brought powerful techniques and capabilities to every desktop. Now the 'gee-whizz, I'm on a computer' days have passed, and we're once again free to experiment with all tools in our arsenal. The past is like a vast library that we can pick styles from and use as the occasion merits.
"Hand-drawn images, photography and textures are now mixed with crafts such as knitted or embroidered patterns and computer-generated imagery," says Alec East "This has all been possible and, indeed, done in the past, but never with such visual literacy and vigour."
Globalisation is part of the condition, too, and a key feature of future design. We're not talking about having a McDonalds on every high street, we mean the dissolution of nation state boundaries and the instantaneous communication of ideas. Design is becoming, and will continue to be, global rather than local - powered by the internet and visual media. The work of real innovators gets soaked into this global culture at high speed. Even totemic, culturally specific styles are subject to this accelerated process of dissemination.
"There are still 'local' styles, and graphic designers will continue to be influenced by their environments," says Caroline Roberts, editor of Grafik magazine. "But once a style has been originated, it travels very quickly to the rest of the world and the association with its place of origin sometimes becomes distorted or simplified. Trends are born and die with astonishing speed and the idea of 'place' has come to replace 'style' - witness the recent fascination with South American contemporary art, street art and design. China is next."
Application and interaction
When we think about the future, we want to think about innovation. We want to think about cool and sexy applications and cutting edge, experimental imagery. But design serves the culture it evolves from as much as culture serves design - it must be usable. East suggests our definition of usability should evolve as we become used to new, improved interfaces.
"We should not take usability as some kind of ultimate truth or give it the credence of a science or religion purely because it has a few fundamentalist evangelists. We acquire our communication skills, we learn how to speak, how to eat, how to read, how to write, how to use a Nintendo, and we learn all this through our innate curiosity, mimicry and repetition. Anyone who has ever watched a toddler play can attest this."
Interface design, above all disciplines, will be the key growth area in future design. Two major trends point to this. The first is what analysts are calling 'Web 2.0' - the growing split between a web that displays information and pages and one that serves applications to online machines, whether those machines are computers, PDAs, digital music players or mobile phones.
"Soon you'll be able to visit an application on the web rather than just a page," says Tristan Celder, creative developer at AKQA. "These will feel just like fully-functional applications, such as iTunes, and they will sit alongside all your other applications."
The second reason UI design is so important is that our major media - the internet, television, computer applications, music players and communication devices are merging. In time the box your sofa points at will be a kind of computer, instead of a television and a pile of other devices. "Interconnectivity is the key word: content and applications will not be device specific but just part of a communication stream throughout all digital (and non-digital) media," says Lateral's Simon Crab.
Battle of the platforms
Right now, the progress of these 'convergence' devices is being hindered by a familiar battle - a VHS vs Betamax-style battle on a grand scale - being played out on both static and mobile platforms. We have competing sound and video formats, opposing animation platforms on mobile and a growing collection of application delivery environments. It's been quietly raging for years - but now this stuff is coming to market.
The QuickTime-powered video iPod got its release in October at the same time that Nokia announced a range of Windows Media phones. PC World offers Windows XP Media Centre-powered PCs for the price of a graphic workstation and SMS enabled smart devices are integrated into the homes of early adopters.
The shape and form of the future is by no means certain, but the field of design is in great shape, and there are few challenges it can't match up to.