What will the future of design and new design workflows look like? Figma's Chief Product Officer, Yuhki Yamashita, sits down with me to chat about what he thinks the future of design will be, one where "chaos" of an "always in progress" workflow should be embraced rather than feared.
Collaboration is not new, we use cloud-based design apps and editors all the time, such as Creative Cloud Express to share and update ideas and plans, but this kind of ever-persistent approach to work is central to the work Yamashita is focused on – read our Figma review to discover more. (For more, read our guide to cloud-based apps for designers.)
Below I share some of Yamashita's thoughts on the future of design workflows and artists will need to work in the coming years. An overview is he sees the future of UX design, the future of logo design and in general the future of product design will be about teamwork, fluidity and an acceptance the project will always be evolving and never remain static.
Has working from home and Web 3 had an impact?
Yamashita: Yes […] people now are always working on a single source of truth, in real time, which is kind of what makes it really easy to just keep updating something.
The extreme thing about design is that even once it's built the product itself is a work in progress, in the sense that nowadays it's so easy to push a change into production […] as for example if you're Tesla and you decide you need to change the car dashboard, it can happen.
Design like that is very next minute and companies are deploying changes every single day. So from that perspective it kind of changes the entire game, because both the design and the product is work in progress. I think that's both kind of an artefact of the tools that are available and the processes that are built around it. As well as advancements in how quick and how fast it has become to just build and deploy and get products out there.
How do you sell and promote a product that's never finished?
Yamashita: It's kind of a double edged sword. For sales and marketing it's most important to make sure that everyone understands the philosophy behind the product design […] and the intent behind it, the philosophy driving it.
Also, we have a responsibility as product builders to not just keep on changing the product from underneath users hands, because there's a lot of change aversion and it takes a lot of time to get used to new things.
From my perspective, it's more of a positive framing of, 'we can keep making it better,' even after launch day, based on customers' feedback, and I think that's what's great.
But of course, there's these other things that make you feel unstable or we have some healthy tensions; sometimes the marketing team will need a final product visual… What are we putting on the advertisement if we're changing features? So that can be very difficult, which is why I think it's a really interesting topic.
Are there areas that are easy wins for this approach to design?
Yamashita: Yeah, I think so. Anywhere there's a screen, basically. That immediately transforms that surface and product into something that's 'work in progress'. It's been happening for a while. Most recently I was in a subway station, but all the posters are outdated because they're printed. But there are some screens in the station and, of course, those are up to date. So where there's the screen, and where a product has been digitised, I think that product completely changes and your relationship with it does.
If a project is always in progress, how will designers cope?
Yamashita: There's definitely a higher demand for responsiveness, and from that perspective, it's great for the end user, but perhaps, sometimes, at times, it can feel stressful for designers.
But I think it'll be also liberating in the sense that you can be highly experimental, or rather mistakes are much cheaper. You can come up with something very different or vanguard and immediately get feedback on it. If it didn't work, just change it the next day, it's not a big deal.
I think that's going to be really great, because right now you live in this world of assumptions, or what your manager thinks is right. So I think this always on progress approach will push the boundaries of creativity a little bit more.
Collaboration sounds a lot like chaos?
Yamashita: We're gonna have to learn how to tame that chaos. I think that will be the next evolution [of this workflow]. I think we see versions of it internally at Figma and by the internal struggles that we have in this world where, as a leader, it's very hard for me to 'review work', this idea that I could sign off on something but the next day the designer could come up with a better idea and decide to evolve that work but by that time I've left the file and have my impressions of what the project is about.
So it becomes very unobvious when a team should put something in front of people to get reviewed because the work is constantly changing, as opposed to these very gated stages that people are slowly graduating.
That's the internal struggle. The reason this is interesting for me is I see it still as an unsolved problem that we're all trying to figure out together, and everyone has to be rewired in a very different way.
So where does this leave the traditional structures of leadership?
Yamashita: From a process perspective you will still require a sign-off before something goes into production, but what this culture is pushing for is the idea that moment should not be so momentous. Just because a project has been signed off if we find out something doesn't work, we can always change it. This will change leaders' mental models because there's an understanding the product can evolve, even after it's closed.
Instead one moment in time, you're starting to get a pulse […] so my feedback is not about that one moment in time, but rather how I view this project evolving the philosophy behind it, and whether I'm in alignment with that trajectory. I think that changes the terms of leadership.
How does this collaborative approach affect freelancers?
Yamashita: I think it can be more liberating and creative. But I also think that when the work is viewed as something that's evolving, it could feel never-ending. With freelancers, oftentimes, you kind of have these understandings that you'll have three iterations on this work before a client is able to have the final version. When these iterations can be really rapid, or when the client also can play with the work, it starts to become harder to define those boundaries.
I think that's something we'll see the evolution on, and in many ways Figma has changed things as well, in the sense that you can invite your client into the Figma file, and they can watch the work evolve, as opposed to looking at a PDF or some snapshot in time.
[In a collaborative workflow] there's a lot more empathy and a lot more nuance in the discussions. It's very easy for a client to say 'make it more beautiful' but when they're in there and seeing how that's getting done, they understand the problem a little bit better.
It can mean people will share docs earlier because everyone knows it's a work in progress. The willingness to share early is usually a good thing, because it means that you're getting the inputs faster.