Once a year, tech enthusiasts, marketing professionals, designers and entrepreneurs meet in Austin, the capital of Texas, for South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSW). The conference, which had its 30th anniversary this year, is perhaps best known as the place where the internet phenomenon Twitter was first launched a few years ago, before spreading like wildfire. SXSW is not just an event for the experts, however; in light of the current debate about data security and surveillance, technology is also political, and this year’s main speaker was the president of the United States, Barack Obama.
Now, this was my first visit to SXSW, but more seasoned participants tell me that every year, certain key trends will be evident across the thousands of presentations and workshops that take place during the five-day conference. The hot topic last year was Virtual Reality (VR). That remained a key topic this year, but now that the big players, including Samsung, Oculus Rift and Sony, have brought their VR products to market, it does not attract nearly the same amount of interest from tech front-runners.
Instead, two other topics in particular captured the interest of the almost 100,000 participants in the Interactive section of SXSW. One is the emergence of robots – from the ones that are capable of working alongside humans, soon to be our new colleagues on the factory floor, to Google’s self-driving cars. According to experts, both robot types are deliberately designed to appear benign and harmless. That is necessary to make us want to work with them and accept sharing the roads with them.
The other hot topic at SXSW was artificial intelligence. Today, a computer has not only defeated a human in the game of chess and in the quiz game Jeopardy; a Google algorithm recently bested the reigning world champion in the 2,500-year-old board game Go, said to be one of the most complex and demanding games ever developed. There were widespread debates about how robots and artificial intelligence are going to influence manufacturing, the labour market, the healthcare sector and our transport infrastructure.
What happened to the human dimension?
From a Danish perspective, one of the most intriguing aspects of SXSW was how poor most American and Asian tech innovators are at taking the human role and experience seriously. At the sessions where start-ups pitch their ideas, although many had actually come up with cool solutions, they still seemed to miss a good problem to apply them to. Questions about who was going to use the technology, in what context, and based on which business model were often left unanswered.
In cooperation with LEGO and the design and innovation agencies Hello Group, Prehype and Another CPH, the Danish Design Centre therefore held a seminar titled Discovering the Nordic Design DNA, which clearly demonstrated that our Danish and Nordic design tradition still has something crucial to offer in a digital age: the ability to take a simple, functional, pragmatic and inclusive approach that addresses and understands the human use and experience of technology. The debate between the Danish design front-runners and a global audience at the seminar showed that Denmark has a great deal to offer, both at an event such as SXSW and in a wider sense in relation to the international markets.
Putting beauty back on the design agenda
Perhaps the most surprising element I saw at SXSW took things beyond the human dimension; it put the concept of ‘beauty’ on the agenda. In the techno frenzy in Austin, the Austrian designer Stefan Sagmeister, a partner at the design agency Sagmeister & Walsh in New York, gave a presentation titled Why beauty matters. Sagmeister, who is a frequent TED speaker, a writer and known for his award-winning album covers for the Rolling Stones, Lou Reed and others, made the provocative claim that we have forgotten to appreciate beauty when we design products and services. The human ability to appreciate beauty is universal, however, cutting across boundaries of time, culture and geography. Beauty matters to us, he said, and offered a powerful example. Wherever archaeologists have unearthed flint knives and axes, the tools have always been symmetrical. Even though that requires a greater effort, and even though it does not serve a strictly functional purpose.
Another, more contemporary example is that people, regardless of nationality, more or less agree which are the most beautiful cities in the world. Regardless of background, the same 10-20 cities are regarded as the most beautiful – cities like Paris, Rome, San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro etc. Finally, studies show that people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease preserve the ability to appreciate beauty, even when most of their other mental capacities are impaired or eroded.
Who will be the first to create beauty online?
What, then, are the implications of this central and universal role of beauty in a globalized, digital world? Well, Sagmeister argued, if beauty matters in our physical world, it is equally important in the design of digital and high-tech solutions. But the amount of energy and money that leading companies put into good and beautiful product design far outweighs the funds most of them spend on web design. Creating something that is truly beautiful requires great care, quality craftsmanship, time and resources. The companies and designers that understand the importance of really beautiful design as a competitive parameter stand to gain more than a small advantage.
As Stefan Sagmeister pointed out, ‘The ones that take the trouble to create beauty online are going to reap huge rewards.’
For a designer, he said, taking the trouble means taking form seriously, taking the time to test and play with a range of possibilities, rather than seizing the first acceptable solution. Fundamentally, it requires a skilled artisan.
In the room, during Sagmeister’s presentation, I saw many designers – including Danish designers – take notes. So perhaps in the coming years, we are going to see more precision, care, finesse and creativity, also online? At least it seems likely that the competition for future consumers is going to be won by strong combinations of innovative technologies and world-class design. In Sagmeister’s words, the digital services and products that are going to win will be the ones that make the user think,
‘Someone put some real thought into this. Someone made an effort.’
That is a feeling that holds a certain beauty in itself, is it not?
Post by DDC /17 May 2016