Photo by Daniel Olah on Unsplash
When we think about the evolving digital expanse ahead of us as it relates to technology, it can be hard to know how to continuously approach the future.
Designing with memory in mind is about creating longevity and building a memorable footprint from which the future’s idea can be inspired and grow.
I recently came across one of the most poetic and concise definitions of life: life is the universe developing a memory. Memory as the condensed footprint of space and time of life’s evolution in the universe.
We all want to build something memorable, something that is valuable, resilient, adaptable and sustainable. There is no better source of inspiration than admittedly the longest and most successful “research and development” experiment that we can track: the creation, evolution, and constant regeneration of life. An experiment underlined by a language of beauty, the semantics of which is intimately governed by design, in its three main roles of creation, structure and behaviour.
During the past two years, unshackled by the burden of long commutes, and taking solace in nature from the isolation of lockdowns, I thought a lot about the link between the guiding principles of nature and their inspiration as designing tenets for building something beautiful: a company, an object, an experience, a relationship or just a simple moment in time. I had the pleasure and fortune to be able to discuss those on long walks with Alan Moore, a designer at heart, whose two lovely books called Do Design and Do Build explore this process and exemplify it through (a few) companies that adhere to those principles. The principles of building something beautiful.
The main design patterns that nature follows in its unending process of ever emerging and evolving life are the following ones:
- Nature designs for resilience and optimises for sustainability.
- Nature minimises waste through a finely tuned process of recycling, a circular approach to evolution.
- Nature uses only the energy it needs. It relies on free energy.
- Nature is hyper-specialised and profoundly tuned in to the local expertise that is needed. Extreme generalisation and maximisation occur through the complex intertwining of those attuned experiences.
- Nature is selfless, encourages cooperation and has an innate understanding of the limits of growth so that other life is allowed to flourish alongside.
- Nature uses shape to generate functionality.
When we “do build”, biomimicry, a term that has become more prevalent in the past two decades or so, is a good practice for ensuring long term, sustainable results. It points creators towards providing solutions based on the understanding and application of nature’s fundamental processes.
Every good design starts with a question that reflects the profound desire of using the outcomes to better the world at whichever scale that is possible. Community, society and the environment are valued on an equal par with profit and shareholder value.
I am a technologist. A humanistic technologist. I do believe in the power of technology in supporting the advance of our understanding of life and helping the process of upgrading our existence. Very often though, during that process, we seem to become prisoners of those same technologies and loose sight of the final desired outcome: to build upon those but make them as invisible as possible from the final user experience point of view. Only then one achieves “flow”, that state of deep enjoyment and creativity relying on combining change, excitement, and slight discomfort at the same time made famous by the work of the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly. Moreover, expanding this in one of the most viewed TED talks in 2004, he goes further in correlating it with the state happiness. Happiness as a vital ingredient in building long lasting memory.
In an attempt to extrapolate the previous principles to the process of designing with technology, we could come up with the following tenets for creating something with future-proof value:
- Design something that does one thing and one thing very well. Think hyper-focus first and then generalise if necessary (vertical integration).
- Design for integration with existing physical systems, environment and society (horizontal integration)
- Combine the above two as much as possible.
- Design for the end user not for fellow technologists.
- Simplify constantly.
- Design for the ultimate experience irrespective of the foibles of the underlying technology.
- Make the underlying technology invisible.
- Design with human value as the main goal. Articulate that from the beginning and use it as a guiding principle.
It has been almost impossible recently to miss the constant attention (hype?!) devoted to the subject of the Metaverse. Akin to the development of the Internet, 30 years ago or so, there is no precise definition that can be associated with it. And very much like the Internet at its incipient stage, it is defined merely through a collection of technologies, existing and future possible applications, and paradigms that no doubt will evolve in time. Both in terms of their capabilities and mutual integration. It’s like we have the pieces of the puzzle laid out on the table, but we don’t see yet the picture on the cover of the box.
One central part of the Metaverse is the concept of “virtual worlds”. Synthetic environments that either fully immerse the user (Virtual Reality) or superimpose onto, and combine with, the physical ones (Augmented Reality or Mixed Reality). The areas of gaming and training simulation are the obvious current candidates for those experiences. I must admit though that I am struggling with the generalisation of this concept into an all-encompassing (parallel) virtual world that is not ultimately inextricably linked and fluent with our physical world. Still worse, a synthetic world where one would be expected to spend a great deal of time very often replacing what otherwise are perfectly normal physical experiences. It made me think again about the first principles of design that we could apply to build something that has that future-proof value given by excitement in discovery, resilience and sustainability. And last, but not least, beauty.
A virtual experience ought to be designed with the focus of understanding one aspect of life rather than a total replacement of an existing physical experience. The ability to “bend reality” in a virtual environment and create something that is otherwise difficult to imagine can provide insights into our physical reality and our own behaviour in that reality.
Virtual and physical should live side by side and the user should be able to move in and out of those in a frictionless way. They ought to be extensions of each other with clear “portals” between them. That will ensure the achievement of flow whenever the user experiences them.
The ultimate value is obtained through the integration of those virtual environments with the existing physical processes, workflows and systems. Data, as the underlying exchange currency between those systems, should flow in a multi-directional way. The role of the virtual environments is to enrich this data when fed back to the existing physical systems. The role of the physical systems is to provide the data that informs the shape and behaviour of the virtual environments.
The visual sense is important, but the other senses are as important especially in creating the state of flow. Unfortunately, very often “the other senses” like touch, smell, sound are underlings of the main visual experience. Moreover, a stronger shift in the normal interaction paradigm for instance, albeit novel and potentially interesting, can act as a friction point and lead to the loss of flow. Shape determines function.
There is too much emphasis on the ideal, “realistic” synthetic recreation of the real worlds. We can take a cue from art. While essentially it tries to reproduce the natural, it is not always expected to be perfect. And it is in those imperfections and interpretations that we sometimes garner insights that otherwise we would miss in the real world.
The value of the virtual experience needs to be articulated as a function of the outcomes, insights, and experiences that the user brings back and integrates with and within their physical one. The goal of those virtual experiences must be the enrichment of our physical ones. Claude Shannon, the father of information theory, said that the past cannot be changed but the future is still in our power.
It is no doubt that the Metaverse can be a building block of that future. This new platform has the real potential to better our understanding of our behaviours and support the upgrading of our existence. Its success or failure will ultimately depend on our ability to properly design it in the present so that it becomes a memorable footprint of our joint collective existence. And going back to nature’s fundamental principles is not a bad place to start. Design it with memory in mind. And beauty at heart.