What visual communication might look like in 50 years

Design Week editor Angus Montgomery considers what visual communication will look like in 50 years’ time, with his predictions informed by a look back at the past 50 years.

Accurately predicting the future is practically impossible to do. The science fiction writers of the 1960s who imagined a world of flying cars and personalized jetpacks would surely be disappointed to see an alternative reality featuring hatchback cars and public buses.

But imagine transporting someone from the 1960s to today and showing them an internet browser, an Apple iPad or a Twitter feed. If there’s one area of human life in which the revolution predicted in the 1960s has truly taken place, it’s in communications.

With this in mind, visualising what communications might look like in 50 years’ time is incredibly challenging. We might all be interacting using voice commands. ‘Sensory communication’ – the use of smell, touch and sound alongside sight – might become commonplace. We may even have got to the stage where designers are able to ‘think’ their creations on to screens and into life.

Equally though, we might still be reading paperback books, sticking stamps on to envelopes and commissioning poster designs.

So I hesitate to say that this article will be a prediction of what visual communication might look like in half a century. It’s better to think of it as a suggestion of the world we might be living in, and what that might mean for technology, the medium of design and the role of the designer itself.

It was 50 years ago today

Before looking forward 50 years, it would be useful to turn the clock back five decades to 1965 and look at what visual communications were like then and how much they have changed.

In 1965, Michael Wolff and Wally Olins opened the doors of design consultancy Wolff Olins. In the window of their Camden Town office, they hung a blue-and-white poster, appropriated from a fishmonger, which read, “We lead and others follow”.

In the same year, Alan Fletcher left Fletcher Forbes Gill, formed three years earlier, as a precursor to co-founding Pentagram in 1972. Michael Peters, who would go on to be one of the biggest names in design business in the 1980s and 1990s, was in 1965 busy setting up the design department of advertising agency Collett Dickenson and Pearce.

London’s commercial design boom – which would reach its apogee in the 1980s when Peters and Rodney Fitch took their businesses public and made a vast fortune as a result – was well under way.

A short hop over the Channel, Wim Crouwel, Benno Wissing and others were hard at work establishing the reputation of Total Design, which had formed in 1963 as the first major Dutch design consultancy.

Across the Atlantic in the US, Seymour Chwast and Milton Glaser were just over ten years into the life of Push Pin Studios, while a young Lance Wyman – soon to make his name with the identity program for the Mexico 1968 Olympics – was discovering the power of branding while working on graphics for industrial designer George Nelson.

Graphic design, at this stage, was an almost entirely Western European and American endeavor.

The iconic design project of 1965 was the British Rail identity, created by Gerry Barney of the Design Research Unit (DRU). DRU had been founded by Misha Black in 1943 and was the UK’s first multi-skilled design consultancy.

The British Rail identity was commissioned by its design panel, which had already proved itself an imaginative and far-sighted client by tasking Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert to create a new Rail Alphabet for use across the system.

Barney was just 25 when he created the famous double-tracked British Rail logo, which was apparently sketched initially on the back of an envelope. The new branding launched with an exhibition at the Design Council’s Haymarket showroom.

While British Rail itself may have been consigned to the sidings of history, Barney’s logo lives on. Now a trademark owned by the Secretary of State for Transport, it is used across the UK rail network as a de facto symbol for train travel.

Plus ça change

So what are the key similarities and differences between visual communications in 1965 and 50 years later?

In 1965, just like today, the ideal scenario was that a talented design consultancy would be commissioned by a forward-thinking client to create interesting corporate identity work. But almost everything else has changed.

It’s a bit of a shock, for example, to realize just how new the concept of graphic design was in the 1960s.

The Royal College of Art’s 1963 exhibition, Graphics RCA, was one of the world’s first major displays of graphic design, while the term ‘graphic designer’ had only been coined some 40 years earlier by William Addison Dwiggins in the US. The concept of ‘branding’, which would be popularized by studios like Wolff Olins, was practically unheard of.

In 1965, the launch of a corporate identity came accompanied by a huge stack of guidelines designed for internal use. The corporate identity manual for the British Rail logo, for example, stretched to four thick binders and covered logo use on print, buildings, liveries, uniforms and even ships.

If you want an indication of how much design has changed in the intervening five decades, take a look at Tumblr’s brand guidelines, which fit on to one concise internet page and feature the phrase “go ahead, grab a logo”. Or visit the Create Airbnb website, which lets you draw your own version of the travel company’s logo for bespoke use.

These contemporary logos are identities created for use on digital touch points as much as they are for print or physical manifestations. They will be appropriated and manipulated not only by a small group of in-house design or brand managers, but also by hundreds of thousands of people around the world, the majority of whom would never class themselves as designers.

Over the past five decades, from its European and American ghetto, commercial design has spread throughout the world, with key work and practitioners now as likely to hail from Sao Paulo, Sydney or Singapore as they are from London and New York.

And while graphic design remains a disproportionately male-dominated industry, the reputations of Paula Scher, Marina Willer, Irma Boom and many others show that we have come some distance since 1965, when the list of acclaimed female designers pretty much started and ended with Margaret Calvert.

The white heat of technology

Having looked back 50 years and examined the huge changes in visual communications, what can we extrapolate as we imagine 50 years into the future?

One thing we can be sure of is that there will be dramatic changes in technology. Designer Mike Dempsey says: “Fifty years is a long time in the world of scientific discovery and innovation – just look back at what has happened over the last half-century.”

Dempsey speaks from experience. Fifty years ago he was just starting out in his design career, and it is doubtless the radical changes he has seen in that time that lead him to predict revolutionary technological shifts over the next five decades.

“I would imagine that our brains will be able to interact directly with any device that can aid us in the creative process,” he says. “The creation of art, design, film and music will all benefit by dispensing with the cumbersome process of keyboards, musical notation or other handheld gizmos – thought and voice command will be the norm. Designers will simply think our creations into life at great speed and they will be capable of infinite changes and variations on that journey.”

If this sounds outlandish, just think how much Dempsey’s practice has changed over the past half a century, from cutting and pasting type for book covers in the 1960s to collaborating over Skype and email for digitally-focused identity creations today.

Malcolm Garrett has seen a similarly revolutionary journey in his design career. After finding early fame as a record sleeve designer, he became a leading advocate of new media and digital design. In Garrett’s view, visual communication over the next 50 years will “continue to become more cloud-based, more connected and thus more contextual than we’ve previously known it”.

He adds: “As information becomes more location-aware it will be continually changing as we move from place to place. This means that designers should already think less rigidly about the visual frameworks within which information can be presented and think in terms of customizable filters that dynamically attune to our needs.”

Monotype type designer Nadine Chahine focuses on how the medium of visual communications might have changed in 50 years’ time. She says: “I would hope that in 50 years we would have found a new medium for communication that brings in the speed and practicality of screen-based communication and the durability and tactile quality of printed media.”

Chahine adds: “The closest to date is e-paper, but maybe we will evolve to start thinking of surfaces – the fabric and plastic version of wearables – as the next medium of communication, rather than paper or electronics.”

While it’s clear that the next 50 years will bring huge technological change, it doesn’t necessarily follow that these innovations will lead to ground-breaking work. For example, wearables, augmented reality and 3D printing are some of the current tech buzzwords, but finding examples of inventive and appropriate uses for these platforms is actually quite hard to do.

There’s a strong argument that good designers and intelligent brands will be the ones who properly interrogate and use each new technology rather than just hopping straight on to the next big thing.

And sometimes the oldest platforms are the best – just look at print. As Supple Studio founder Jamie Ellul says: “The birth of the internet predicted the death of print, but it hasn’t happened yet. In fact, print has become a luxury commodity.”

He adds: “If you want to let someone know you care, you don’t send an email, you send a card. If you want to impress a new client you meet at a networking event, you don’t get them to look at your website on an iPhone, you give them a beautifully printed business card.

“I could go on, but what I predict is that these little exchanges of crafted print items will become even more of a luxury, even more special.”

The designer of the future

We’ve had a look at what visual communications might look like in 50 years’ time, but what about the designers who create them? What will they look like? Where will they come from and what will their influences be?

Here we can make two reasonably firm predictions: the designer of the future is more likely to be female than they are today and they are less likely to come from Western Europe or the US.

This is a bold claim. Although we’ve come a long way since the 1960s, there is still a huge lack of diversity in design. The Design Council’s much-referenced 2010 census of the UK design industry includes a section headed “Industry lacks diversity”. Under this it pithily notes: “The average UK designer is male, white and 38 years old.” Despite this, the report says that the design industry has a higher proportion of women (40 per cent) than other related professions.

That the designer of the future is more likely to be female we can predict not just anecdotally from changes over the past 50 years (there are now more big-name female designers than there were in 1965), but also empirically from the number of women coming into the design industry.

A 2013 Guardian survey showed that 72.5 per cent of students at the University of the Arts London were female, while Central Saint Martins program director, Rebecca Wright, recently noted (writing in It’s Nice That about the lack of female representation at the top end of graphic design) that this year’s cohort of graphic design BA students at Central Saint Martins was 70.8 per cent female.

As Wright goes on to say in her article, there’s still a serious discrepancy between the number of women going into the design industry and their profile at senior level, with awards juries, conferences and boardrooms still male-dominated. But optimists can point to a growing number of women in senior positions (Georgia Fendley at Mulberry and Construct and Harriet Devoy at Apple, for example) and Pentagram’s four female partners (it had one five years ago) and propose that this growing equality is a trend that will continue.

As Professor Teal Triggs, associate dean of the Royal College of Art’s School of Communication predicts: “The future is female and [in 50 years’ time] we will see gender equality finally arrive in the design profession.”

We can also extrapolate from higher education that the designer of the future is less likely to come from Europe or the US. The University of the Arts London is one of the UK’s biggest recruiters of international (non-European Union) students. In 2012–13, 36 per cent of its student body was from outside the EU. Only University College London and the universities of Manchester, Edinburgh and Nottingham had more international students.

There are, of course, pragmatic reasons for universities recruiting more international students: in an age of cuts to higher education, the startlingly high fees paid by overseas students are understandably attractive. But the growing influence of overseas students is not always welcomed. Former Royal College of Art’s rector, Sir Christopher Frayling, told the BBC in 2012 that the college, which was then celebrating its 175th anniversary, was at risk of becoming a “Chinese finishing school”.

However, regardless of your views on the growing diversity among UK students, if we take a wider view, it’s hard to argue that new and growing international influences on design and visual communications are a bad thing. As TEMPLO founder Pali Palavathanan says: “In 50 years I feel like the growing mix of cultures – which is already happening to some extent – will lead to unexpected outcomes. The cocktail of references, languages and even humor will surely encourage designers to think differently.”

Many commentators (including Frayling) note that increasing government investment in the creative industries in countries like China, Taiwan, Singapore and India will lead to them having an increasing influence on international visual communications.

Rajesh Kejriwal is founder and chief executive of Kyoorius, one of the major players in the Indian design scene and organizer of the annual Designyatra conference. According to Kejriwal, Indian design has only recently started to come into its own. “There is an air of confidence in the way we present ourselves that is unprecedented,” he says, pointing to Indian design commissions by the likes of Paul Smith as evidence of the country’s growing clout.

Kejriwal sees government support as a significant factor. “It is good to see the new government picking up the gauntlet and using design and creative partners to drive growth and further economic success,” he says.

Kejriwal also has an enlightening point for Western journalists who refer to Indian (or Chinese, or Asian) visual communications as one monolithic aesthetic norm. “India is a vast country,” he says, “and I imagine there will emerge multiple definitions of [Indian] design.”

Despite all this, we probably shouldn’t be too quick to write off Europe and the US – countries such as the UK are reacting rapidly to the growing influence of overseas design. Monotype’s Chahine says: “The global direction of design today is very much informed by European and American trends, and the visual language is a clear evolution of ‘Western’ aesthetics. As long as these regions remain the innovators in consumer electronics – think the iPhone and its impact globally – then that trend could hold true.”

Can anyone be a designer?

The technology and communications revolution described above means that pretty much everyone around the world now has the tools and opportunity to be a designer. As we’ve seen from the Airbnb and Tumblr brand guidelines, many brands are conscious of this increasing design-savvy among their users and actively try to open up their visual assets to their audiences.

Monotype’s Chahine says that there are pros and cons in this growing trend. She says that while designers “could face fierce competition from the democratization of the design and publishing process,” she adds: “I would hope, and sort of expect, that design becomes a part of everyday life rather than a discipline to be learned in school.”

And as Dempsey points out, what makes a designer a designer isn’t necessarily the craft skills, or the access to technology – it’s the ideas. In 50 years’ time, this is what will set good designers and clever commissioners apart. And however far technology develops in the next five decades and beyond, the idea will always be the key element that a human can bring.

As Dempsey says: “The one thing that won’t be replaced is our unique ability of original thought. If that is ever replicated by a device then it’s time to move on to another, simpler planet. By then space travel will, of course, be the norm…”