Forewarned is forearmed – so Digital Arts has tooled up with some of the best names in creativity to find out what’s in store for interactive, graphics, 3D and post for the next year.
Whether you work in graphics, Web, interactive, video, post or animation, daily immersion in your creative pursuit can blind you to what’s happening in the market beyond the workstation. It’s a bit like children; only after you’ve stepped away from them for a time can you spy any change.
So what is changing across the various design disciplines? We spoke to a number of well-positioned figures from across the industry to gauge what’s new, what’s next and what today’s and tomorrow’s challenges are.
A common sentiment is that creativity is always more important than technology, regardless of the scale of technological advance, while designers across the board seem to be experiencing an ever-tighter squeeze on time and money by clients.
Other observations, among many, include rants against ‘plastic designers’, falling wages and how to affect stylistic evolution (here’s a clue: don’t leave it to the client).
Print & design 2008
Slow-moving though it may be, some feel technology is still becoming the enemy of creativity. Paula Ribeiro, who runs design and communications agency Artideas (www.artideasdesign.co.uk), believes designers need to refresh their creativity and styles, “because technology is making [their work] look the same”.
She adds: “Software and technology have made a lot of people believe they are designers, just because they know how to use them. Mixing traditional skills and styles with a variety of programs could be the starting point for a new generation of designers.”
Gary Dickson, who runs Epidemic Design (epidemicdesign.com), a US-based graphic design studio, echoes this: “Unfortunately, it seems that the thinking designer is on the Endangered Species list. The most successful designers past and present are those with the ability to think conceptually, tactually and strategically.”
Some have detected a change in perception among clients of what design is, with the emphasis shifting from aesthetics to problem solving.
“Companies are asking for designs that solve their problems, whether it’s branding or advertising,” says Ribeiro. Rob Gonzalez, of two-man graphic design and art direction agency Love Everyday (love-everyday.co.uk), agrees: “Customers are becoming more interested in the design process, and we work closely with clients every step of the way. They are certainly gathering a stronger knowledge of the design industry as a whole, particularly when they interact with design groups more and more.”
“An increasing number of clients are open for more original, creative solutions to their problems,” confirms Peter Jaworowski (hejz.com), a freelance designer and illustrator based in Warsaw. “People have started to care more about quality, and some also trust you more and let you do your job.”
In terms of stylistic trends, Gonzalez says he’s detected a use of extremely heavy, almost abstract fonts: "It would be easy to say this has been influenced by some of the powerful typography of the 70s – which in many respects would be true – but it’s the clever way in which it’s being used in modern design that is interesting.”
Ribeiro, meanwhile, observes how advertising is using a lot of illustration, “particularly vector graphics works with colours that catch the eye”.
Interactive design 2008
In no other realm of design do things move as quickly as in the Web, interactive and mobile spaces. What’s new today seems to be outmoded tomorrow. Luke Davies, founder, of Luke Insect Studio (lukeinsect.com), specializes in the music and youth markets, and says these are areas in which illustration is also going strong.
“Although the market was flooded with quirky illustrators a few years ago, and there seemed to be so many copycat styles around and bandwagons to be jumped on, I still keep seeing fresh new work out there."
Davies adds: “Now that every billboard you see is showcasing some bright new image-maker, the large consumer brands that would have once shied away from anything so experimental now welcome the weird with open arms. This is great, as it’s pushing designers and illustrators to constantly break new boundaries.”
But it is typography that has caught Gonzales’ eye recently, particularly the use of heavy, almost abstract fonts: “With today’s technology and software, beautiful and simple typography of the past can now be freed, and allowed to taken down breathtaking new avenues that interact with imagery, which years ago would take weeks or months to produce instead of hours.”
As for future challenges, Dickson believes the biggest problem will be posed by an increase in competition but a fall-off in quality.
He says: “The competition for design work seems to be accelerating very rapidly, with large numbers of college graduates and even people with no formal education in design calling themselves graphic designers.
“This would be fine if they were actually competent in the craft of design, but this does not appear to be the case. Companies looking for good design often are more focused on the expense than the end product.
"The temptation of someone offering design services at a bargain-basement price is too great. The net result is the bar is lowered across the board, and it becomes increasingly more difficult for a small design studio to keep afloat.”
Micah Laaker (laaker.com/micah), design manager for the Yahoo! Developer Network, says the latest big shift is the push for “distributed” experiences.
He says: “People want you to take an existing product and bring it in some relevant fashion to a different environment. And, further, they want you then to extend it by using what that new environment does best.
"For instance, taking someone’s listening habits in iTunes to a Facebook profile page and then comparing these to those of their closest friends or potential new co-workers. Or, taking Yahoo! Mail messages and plotting each on a map, and then overlaying weather data to see if that day’s rainy forecast has any impact on the mood of the sender.”
One man with a more complete picture than any of what the future holds for these fast-moving sectors is Bill Buxton, principal researcher at Microsoft Research, a designer who is the world’s foremost expert on human- computer interaction (HCI).
Mobile technology, he says, will increasingly interact with other technologies to deliver new services- delivery mechanisms. “Transactions you’ll have with your mobile are going to be done in concert with other technologies that are in close physical and social proximity.
"In Japan right now, for example, you can use your phone to access vending machines, while in Europe you can use your mobile to rent and unlock electric scooters. It makes it your own personal, portable interface to the larger physical and virtual world.”
Another interface – between Web site publishers and their audiences – also continues to evolve. Laaker says “social fabric” is what defines most Web 2.0 content.
“The one common theme across all environments is the social fabric running through them. We’re no longer designing for the publisher – whether that is CNN or a blogger – to reach individual audience members.
"Now, publishers are building experiences for their audience members to interact, and preferably with their existing friends and family as a starting point.”
One of the best-known “social fabric” sites, MySpace, is also providing creatives with redesign opportunities.
“We’re doing a lot of MySpace customizations, reveals Fran Lima, producer with creative consultancy Stylorouge (stylorouge.co.uk).
“Default MySpace pages are quite ugly, so we change this with an identity and graphic and photographic elements that are used as part of a wider campaign. Examples include our work for Sarah Brightman.”
Web 2.0 may be a nascent phenomenon, but some designers feel some of its design flourishes are already jaded. “I’m hoping we will soon see a return to a straightforward use of flat space – to more-modest use of faux- dimensional tricks like gradients and bouncy, playful buttons,” says Toke Nygaard, creative director of Cuban Council (cubancouncil.com), a New York digital development agency. “I can safely say that I have no more Gradient Juice left in the tank.”
Tim Jarvis of London-based Web design agency The Profission Partnership (www.profission.com), meanwhile, feels the role of Web and interactive designers is reaching beyond aesthetics, and into business management.
“For us, the entrepreneur is well and truly back on the Web scene,” he says. “We’re now actively involved in moulding our clients’ business plans, so we’re working with them before the usual consultative steps we’re used to, and for some, we’ve become a crucial component in the progression of their business on the Web.”
The Web 2.0 technologies that will continue to herald evolution and change are the maturation of Ajax and Flash.
Lakker says: “These have had a tremendous impact in this area, as have the proliferation of Web services and APIs. These technologies have made it much easier to access off-site content and paste it on another page or site.
"The more sites exposing RSS feeds and services for their users’ content, the more capable they are of moving nimbly into the next ‘it’ environment.”
As for challenges facing designers in Web, interactive and mobile, Buxton believes the skills required to do a good job are beyond any single discipline, because clients’ multi-channel demands call for skills that go way beyond most designers’ formal training.
“In some sense, the skills required are becoming more akin to what you’d expect of a game designer, rather than a graphic designer. It’s the same for industrial designers, who are designing devices with embedded computing to access things, such as the new form factors for phones and GPS.
“It’s a question of rethinking how you approach design. If it’s about experience, then experience happens in the wild, it’s not in some lab or shop.”
3D and post production 2008
The past year has seen a marked trend in the 3D, video and post-production spheres – with technology often driving the manner and style of work being undertaken – especially in post.
Take Sumners, (sumners.co.uk), the largest post house outside London. In the past year, owner Andrew Sumner has spent £200,000 installing HD kit, and as a result is doing a lot more drama than previously.
Sumner says: “With HD, a good colourist and good dubbing mixers all on one site it means you can comfortably undertake everything. There’s not a tsunami of HD work hitting us by any means, but a post house has to be able to do the big 5:1 Surround Sound mixes.”
Any upshift in technology raises the bar on skill levels. “Acquiring the expertise is about upskilling the workforce you’ve got, and that’s something we do all the time,” Sumner says.
Sumner believes the future for post won’t be dramatically different in terms of what’s being done, but rather, how it’s done – with desktop editing being the emerging workflow.
“I’d expect in a lot of instances this process will replace going into an offline suite for five to six weeks. Producers will do the first trawl through the rushes and, possibly, a simple sync assembly using Avid or similar software, and only then bring in the talent to polish it up.”
He adds: “BBC Media City in Manchester will be wired up to enable this to happen, and I think this is the way things will go within the next two or three years." As the BBC example shows, clients can drive change, but this doesn’t always make life easier for designers.
Angie Wills, a visual effects producer with full service facility Cinesite (cinesite.com), reveals that in the past year, client demands have become more onerous: “In VFX and film post-production there’s a need to turn around multi-layered and complex 3D and 2D work within evermore challenging schedules and time frames. "
She also cites “the flexibility to accommodate feedback right up to the hard edge of final delivery” as another growing challenge. These are views echoed by Hector Macleod, founder and CEO of digital animation and effects house, Glassworks (www.glassworks.co.uk).
“The focus of [client] requests regarding content hasn’t changed at all,” he says, ‘but clients are requesting things to be done faster and cheaper”. This, he believes, is because advertising agencies lack control over the relationship with their clients.
“There’s so much fear involved that when an idea gets approved they want to get it out as quickly as possible before there’s a change of mind.” Creative risk taking, it seems, is at a premium. “Basically, this is why most of the ads you see on telly now are shit,” is Macleod’s stark assessment.
The past year, though, has seen creative shifts in both 3D and video. A good deal of photo-realistic 3D animal and creatures work is something Cinesite’s Wills has noticed, “as per the box office appeal for magical and fantasy epics”.
Photo-realistic 3D environments and matte paintings are other areas in demand. “It goes with the territory in such film as Harry Potter, Inkheart and The Golden Compass.” Jason Arber, founder of online creative digest pixelsurgeon (pixelsurgeon.com) and co-founder of moving image agency Wild Stallyons (wyldstallyons.com), stresses that the onus is always on creatives to steer clients in new directions.
“From a stylistic perspective, we’ve noticed that clients see something in a showreel and then want a variation of that – which is exactly why we always try and fill showreels with new personal work, to push clients in directions they may not have thought of.”
For Macleod’s part, stop-frame photography is the big thing at present: “The reason is that digital cameras make it very easy to do, because digital SLRs comes with a program that can fire shots every five seconds,” he says.
“The Sony Bravia 1000 ad with the jumping rabbits that was filmed in New York is an extreme example. There’s been lots of people shooting stop frame that aren’t necessarily experienced in it, and it’s made for some quite interesting work.”
Tolga Yildiz, a senior designer with New York studio Trollback (trollback.com), says that for a while now, motion graphics “has been overloaded with pure eye-candy without an idea behind [the visuals]”. But, he says, things may be on the cusp of change.
“We’ve been in so many client calls and meetings now where ‘modern’, ‘clean’, ‘simple’ and ‘sophisticated’ are the keywords. Perhaps we’re known for that kind of work, and those clients choose us for that, but I’d like to think that there’s a trend towards simplicity among the clients. Those types of works are usually the ones that stand the test of time.”
FRAN LIMA, STYLOROUGE
Illustration Tragik Labs