Package design will disappear in 20 years, or less

My design career has been long enough that I have been able to watch the inexorable march of technology and witnessed first hand the disappearance of huge pieces of our industry, and the good people that went along with them. Based on predictions by one of the keynote speakers this morning at the FUSE conference, I can now predict the end of package design as we know it.

The field, again at least as we know it, will disappear between 2025 and 2030, and here’s why.

Ray Kurzweil’s wikipedia listing calls him an inventor and futurist. That doesn’t even begin to hint at the scope of his abilities and interests. As the inventor of the CCD flatbed scanner, optical character reader, and text-to-speech synthesizer, he knows a bit about technology’s application to visual signs and symbols, and the immeasurable impact of technology on progress of all kinds.

He also knows a bit about the history of innovation. When he predicted, in the early 1990s, that the military network with a couple thousand computers would blossom into the world wide web connecting billions of users by the middle of the 2000s, people laughed at him. When he accurately predicted the date the human genome would be decoded, years before its completion, he was again laughed at.

But he based these and other predictions on history, simple math, and the miracle of exponential growth.

Using medical research as an example, he discussed the linear path drug exploration has taken for thousands of years. Whether we are talking about the hit and miss method of finding magic mushrooms on the rain forest floor, or the complex formulas of modern chemistry labs, it has been an essentially experimental process. And importantly a linear one, with predictably slow growth.

But with the decoding of the human genome that has now radically changed. It means that drug discovery will move from the analog to the digital,  and now become a product of information technology. And every time something becomes an information technology, its innovation growth trajectory begins to take off exponentially. Think 2, 4, 8, 16, not 1, 2, 3, 4. Moore’s Law of semi-conductor power is just one example of the power of information technology and of its amazing predictability over time.

As his speech ended it occurred to me that medicine and design are really not so different. They are both uniquely human examples of the way we combine applied knowledge and intuition. So I had to ask him when he thought design would become an information science?

I cornered him as he left the room, and here is how he answered. He paused, smiled, rubbed his chin and said, that design is simply the result of human intelligence, and he predicts we are 20 years away from developing, and being able to apply, human level intelligence with computers.

Answer, so when we develop human level intelligence in 20 years, no more designers!

Hey don’t kill the messenger! I know this implies all kinds of other moral questions about creativity, art, intuition and artificial intelligence (most of us designers are accused of having too much of that already), but enough for now, I’m going for a drink with my friends from FUSE at The House of Blues.

Ray Kurzweil ended his speech on an optimistic technology note by predicting that at the current pace of solar power innovation, which of course is growing exponentially, we are only 8 doublings away from being able to use this technology to harness all the energy requirements that the world needs.

Best news I had all day.

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About Richard Shear

designer, husband, teacher, blogger, father, athlete, author, historian Richard has over 25 years of brand identity and package design experience, with a wide range of clients such as Ahold, Coca-Cola, Hasbro, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Pernod Ricard and Procter & Gamble. He began his career working with the legendary advertising art director, and AIGA Medalist, George Lois and the British design manager Clive Chajet. In his next design management position at Lippincott & Margulies, he worked with Walter Margulies learning the complex skills of global corporate identity. He then became Creative Director and Partner at Peterson & Blyth, one of the premier brand identity and package design firms of the time. He is a founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding Program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He publishes the blog The Package Unseen, and has been a guest lecturer at colleges including FIT, Trinity College and Tyler School of Art. He is a graduate of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Richard is a Board member of the AIGA MetroNorth Chapter, past President of AIGA‘s Brand Design Association, President of the Package Design Council and a member of its Board of Directors. He is a member of USA Cycling and US Rowing, a nationally ranked masters bicycle racer, and a member of The Saugatuck Rowing Club, the 2010 Masters Club National Champion.
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5 Responses to Package design will disappear in 20 years, or less

  1. Design is like drawing, the only way you can learn to draw is to draw over and over again. Its about the hand, the eye and feeling as a way of knowing, but its not about thinking. No amount of reading about drawing will result in a person being able to draw.

    Designing visual design) also is about educating the eye as a tool for knowing. The eye learns to see, i.e. have a direct experience. without words or thinking in the way.

    Most people do not have it, machines can never have it.

    However, most people can open up MSWord, pick out colors, choose a font, import a RF photograph and OH YES, in PhotoShop can make a drop shadow or distort the image. And to them it looks REALLY GREAT— as good as any designer can do. Many people in marketing perceive graphic design as little more than opening a program, picking colors, choosing fonts, something they would do if they just had a little more time in their work day.

    If you ever worked with programmers and coders, for most of them having a word for something is better than knowing (experiencing ) the thing. Words are just abstractions, something we use to communicate with each other, but they are not the real thing or the experience.

    The experience of the designer’s eye is direct. The experience of the thinker
    or intelligence as a way of knowing is indirect, not real. And for most people having a word for something is not only better than having the experience, but a reason not to have it. Everything into a computer has to first be defined as a thing.

    But “thing” is a concept, an abstraction about our experience n the universe, a tool we use for survival, for thinking, for doing things, for communicating with each other. Its a very important tool, without it we could not have survived like we have done.

    Thinking as humans do is about things and this is one of the main points of McLuhan and the relationship between the structure of society, its historical experience with print and the future with electronic media.

    We will apply human intelligence to design and the common thought will be how great it is, but it will not be great, just accepted as great. Because the most important thing about design is that its not about human intelligence (which is at least one step away from human experience) as a way of knowing, but direct experience as a way of knowing.

    While human intelligence and knowledge will always grow as a way of knowing, the (visual) designers eye has always been the same. And looking at the old cave paintings or other things we call “primitive art” makes that obvious.

    • Steve, Thanks so much for your thoughts. While I generally agree, I think we will see more and more of the iterative aspects of what we do taken over by Adobe Creative Suite or whoever is writing the software. For instance a FUSE speaker later in the day, Rick Valicenti of Thirst, showed a really wonderful series of lyrical motion graphics work called Top Five Love Songs, using sophisticated computer technology. He had definitely directed the computer, but the look and feel of the final result was probably as much a surprise to him as it was to us.

  2. Hugh Sansom says:

    Agreed about many points. Only one problem. Twenty years ago, the AI people at MIT (whom Kurzweil knows well) were saying “In twenty years, we’ll have human level intelligence in computers.” And twenty years before that, they were saying “In twenty years, we’ll have human level intelligence in computers.”

    Some problems have proved impressively tough: a cure for cancer; the Grand Unified Theory; human-level intelligence in computers.

    Design in the US is going to disappear because of outsourcing and design wizards like the hideous garbage in Microsoft products., not because of human-level intelligence in computers.

  3. Michael Endy says:

    Very interesting discussion, however I think we need to take a step back and look at where we do our shopping, and what is available to us there. I’m not talking Amazon, or Google…but the brick and mortar stores where we buy the stuff to fill the fridge and the pantry. We shop at Costco, and Target, and Wal-Mart, and Trader Joe’s. Each branded store has a tightly controlled inventory: our choices are minimized. Our brand choice is driven by where we shop – the storBilly Loveland Charity Dinner Auctione – than the products we buy.

    The consumer model has evolved greatly in the past 20 years, and stores are now much closer to websites in inventory. Or perhaps pharma formularies. The only reason to go to a physical store now is immediate need. If we don’t need it until tomorrow, an online order is often the more convenient (and certainly the greener) option.

    All this to say that when choice is constricted, the role of design is altered. With only one choice of wet wipe or Brie, differentiation is no longer a benefit. The old model goes out the window when the brand choice is the store (or website) that we choose to shop at.

    So is it really product design that is changing, or the role that brands play in our evolving marketplace?

  4. Pingback: uberVU - social comments

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