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A year for the designer

To the reflective posts and predictions that invariably define a new year in the blogosphere, add, in no particular order, three more:

  1. The great products of 2013 will be lead by designers
  2. Successful designs will be determined by outcomes, not appearances
  3. A big re-think is lurking in the pipes

1. Design will lead

Design and development have traditionally enjoyed a cyclic relationship. Design has driven the development of new technologies; similarly, the widespread adoption of these new technologies advances the baseline expectation for subsequent design. When technology lags, it’s up to developers to expand the realm of possibility. As development is streamlined by a set of standard tools and practices, designers once again take the fore.

This is old news. CSS, AJAX, web typography, and responsive design each eliminated a technical problem that bounded the approach designers could bring to a specific problem. Historically, adoption of new technologies has been neither quick nor uniform. A significant portion of development time disappeared into supporting minor variations in how key browsers chose to implement a key technology.

Over the past decade, we’ve seen a sea change in how the languages of the internet are interpreted. For the most part, the key players in the browser market have coalesced around established standards–and just a handful of rendering engines. Discrepancies remain, of course, but they are much better documented and enjoy much better library support than at any time in the past. It’s no longer a question of whether a specific technique or toolset is unavailable in a specific browser; rather, it’s simply a question of the resources needed to implement an alternative or provide an adequate polyfill. Where design once depended on an intimate knowledge of what was possible, “Can you build it?” is now an unequivocal yes.

Software development requires less technical acumen than in the past, but the rewards of standardization are being offset by the demands of an expanding array of devices. Unlike in the past, however, the ability to respond to these demands are already in place. The challenge instead lies in determining the best ways to simultaneously meet the needs of uses on mobile, tablet, and desktop screens.

2. Restraint will be the order of the day

The visual appearance of the early social web was defined as much as anything by self-indulgence. Gloss, texture, shadows and gradients began turning up pretty much everywhere, regardless of their actual contribution to a product or experience. Things didn’t improve as the techniques used to create them were enshrined in CSS3; with their implementation moved from bitmaps to the browser, excess is only a few properties away.

In 2012, two big events may have started the pendulum swinging back towards the functional minimalism championed by Dieter Rams. First, Apple’s leadership shakeup may portend a much-needed shift away from glossy skeumorphism. Second, Microsoft’s all-in bet on the radically simple touch interface of Windows 8/RT may drive both designers and developers to revisit the way that users interact with their products.

Functional design represents one modest position on the much-debated form/function spectrum, but the demands of the mobile web have been pushing the needle towards the latter end for several years now. Successful products will still require some modicum of balance, but self-indulgent chrome seems headed for the exit.

3. This too shall pass

Change comes quickly to the internet. Even as we struggle to harness the opportunities of the mobile web, bigger stories in development may fundamentally alter our relationship with the internet.

For my two cents, the next big design debate will follow changes in the structure of the internet itself. The internet of 2012 is still built on content, even as all signs point to an emergent future dominated by data. Content has intrinsic meaning, but relies on design for its effective conveyance and distribution; on a data-centric web, the real challenges hinge on our ability to shovel meaning from unimaginably complex collections of data. New development frameworks will emerge to help describe and manipulate these collections, and developers will once again enjoy the advantage in conceiving and delivering cutting edge products. But these are battles for another day: for 2013, at least, look for the designer to stay at the helm.

Epilogue

The failure of New Years predictions is at least as much a tradition as the predictions themselves, even for ones as conservative as these. Over the past two years, the front-end world has coalesced around a set of technologies (CSS3, HTML5 and its Javascript APIs) that enjoy broad support, excellent documentation, and a wealth of development tools. The next round of big changes seems some distance off, yet, though the appearance of some elements may expand over the coming year.

Similarly, it’s impossible to forecast a prevailing design aesthetic. Sales of Windows 8 are modest, at best, but that’s no reason others won’t draw inspiration from certain functional elements of its design. If nothing else, it’s different–and in a fierce competition for limited attention spans, that may prove enough.

And who can see the future? While much of the data-centric web has already arrived, we’ve barely begun scratching the surface of how it might look and behave. That will change, soon, but whether “soon” is two months or two years will be for history to tell.