To be on the cutting edge of design means embracing the dual nature of design itself; successful designers are constantly called to embrace new technologies while staying grounded in their mission to solve the very human problems we face. As innovators around the world are pushing the limits of new technologies, designers are right there with them; and, if you ask many design leaders, the importance of design in our world continues to grow by the day.

As we kick off 2020, we’re taking a close look at the biggest trends and technologies facing designers. Voice interfaces are taking on a level of importance one could only dream of a few years ago; newer storytelling tools, like AR and VR, have become pillars of multi-platform storytelling; and, design has taken on a highly significant role at boardroom tables. In fact, the numbers suggest it is now an essential part of business growth.

“Humanizing technology, democratizing technology so more people can benefit from it, oftentimes that is good design,” said Mike Rigby, global head of brand for R/GA. “If you’re a graphic designer or a product designer or a writer or a strategist, you’re really good at making things better and solving problems. And, guess what? We’ve got a lot more problems than we have people in our industry. So, that is a huge invitation for innovation with technology.” 

Read on for more insights from Rigby and other design leaders as they discuss the biggest design trends we’ll see in the next year and beyond.

Voice is taking over as the preferred input mechanism, and it’s up to designers to make sure that’s a good thing

“All roads lead to voice.” That’s one of the guiding mantras for Will Hall, chief creative officer at RAIN. It’s a conclusion he’s come to after extensive research into changing user behaviors. At Adobe MAX, he shared the latest data regarding voice: 30 percent of Americans are using voice, mostly on their mobile devices, as their preferred input mechanism to achieve many tasks, especially when it comes to searching for information. It’s not even that number that has Hall so impressed, but rather the explosive growth of voice over a short period of time. Last year, just 22 percent of Americans were using voice to complete these same tasks; the year before, just 15 percent.

“Voice is a natural interface…It’s not surprising that we’ve wanted technology to be something you speak to for a really long time; voice is so fundamental. When the technology does it well, it tends to be the thing we want to do,” said Hall. “This is a pretty big deal for the product folks out there.”

At RAIN, Hall and his team have decided to lean into voice experiences in a big way for their clients; most people, when they can successfully use voice to solve their problem or obtain the information they need, will not go back to screen-based interface. Big brands, like Starbucks, Balenciaga, and RAIN’s client Tiffany’s are taking steps to create and own their voice experiences. “There’s a disruption that’s happening by the sort of authoritative nature of voice. This is a lot of the work that we do at RAIN, it’s helping figure out that voice of authority, it’s a huge implication,” said Hall. Until designers are involved, and a deliberate and effective voice experience is created for a brand, this “voice of authority” is essentially up for grabs — what kind of result is a user going to get when they ask their Amazon Alexa about your product or service? This is a key question all designers should ask themselves in 2020.

China is the “distorted crystal ball” when it comes to voice design

If anyone doubts that this rise in the adoption of voice interfaces will continue, they only need to look to China, said Hall. 98 percent of people in China use the internet on their mobile devices; where designers in the western world often talk about ‘mobile-first,’ in China the conversation is about ‘mobile-only.’ This results in a completely different way of thinking of the internet.

“We’re getting closer and closer to this [in the western world] every day,” said Hall. “So the question to ask is, what changes when you have a mobile-only internet? And the answer is everything.” In China, the preferred input for sending a message is voice over keyboard, by three-to-one. It’s projected that half of all internet searches in China will be done by voice in 2020 because, quite simply, it’s easier and more natural than typing on a mobile device. When you factor in the Chinese approach of “go heavy,” of building all necessary or desired services into a digital app, you begin to see how a systems-based approach, fueled by voice UIs, may very well be more than a part of the future of UX design; it is the future of UX design in a world where technology is more ambient.

“To win at voice, you have to think in systems…voice directly and profoundly affects your mobile, your e-commerce, your website, your SEO, your SEM, your content, as well as yes, of course those 150 million some-odd smart speakers in the market today, as well as any physical locations. They all need to work together as one cohesive mesh,” said Hall. “We need designers at the table.”

The future of storytelling is interactive and non-linear

“People instinctively like AR. They get it. They want to play with it. They understand it has a connectivity to the physical world.” For Wesley ter Haar, founder of MediaMonks, the explosive popularity of augmented reality experiences (and demand for them) makes perfect sense. It’s a departure from the one-sided way of telling stories and advertising to potential customers; linear film remains the most common method brands use to communicate and advertise online, yet AR and other emerging technologies are increasingly accessible to audiences. At Adobe MAX, ter Haar argued passionately for the role of designers in “opening up” storytelling. 

“We need to go back to some of the original intent of digital, which is interactive and innovative in its flows and mechanics. And that’s where emerging technology, like AR, voice, and AI are interesting, because they are not places for linear film,” he said. Much like the design of voice experiences, explored by Will Hall above, there is also a need for systems thinking in this kind of work. “Storytelling in digital spaces isn’t one short thing. It isn’t one six-second film. It’s people using different touch points across an ecosystem, sometimes weeks apart. It’s about making sure everything still feels like a consistent narrative,” he said.

Convincing clients to think beyond ‘instant conversion’ and invest in multi-touchpoint experiences  

This approach to digital storytelling has helped propel MediaMonks to the successful agency it is today; for ter Haar, the focus of his work has been creating consistent, multi-faceted experiences. Designers in 2020, and beyond, are called to think beyond linear stories, he said.

“More and more, we think about digital as improv. There are these moments of engagement with the consumer, and you’re trying to get them to the ‘yes, and…’ moment. We are constantly thinking, as designers, ‘what’s the next version?’, ‘what’s the next moment we can get a person to be engaged with a brand?'” Ter Haar says this has been and continues to be a challenge, as well as an opportunity. Many brands think that every digital interaction needs to be an instant conversion.

Fortunately, designers have more proof than ever of the impact of their work. For ter Haar, walking into client meetings armed with the latest research from McKinsey, Forrester, and more has gone a long way in selling the business impact of their creative work. These consulting firms are publishing reports that show what many designers know but have sometimes struggled to prove: that there is immense ROI in good design.

“I think digital sometimes gets put into the corner as something that doesn’t have any brand impact, as something that can only be of value if you can show a direct conversion, which I don’t believe,” said ter Haar.

“When I think about our work, it has a huge impact on brand loyalty, on brand perception. The experience you have through these little screens actually can have real emotional resonance. It might not be the same as a 30-second Super Bowl spot that makes you cry, but it still has emotional weight to it if it’s done well. It isn’t just a two-second ad. It isn’t just a conversion point — there’s more to it.”

Design is now an essential part of business, and it’s transforming the world around us

“Design drives satisfaction.” It is an important, and now quantifiable, point to make, and one Mike Rigby reiterated several times during his talk at Adobe MAX. Much like Wesley ter Haar, he and his colleagues at R/GA are emboldened by reports from top consulting firms that show companies driven by creativity have outperformed the S&P 500 by 228 percent over the past ten years. Design-driven companies, says Rigby, are focused on creating connection with their audiences, rather than simply pitching their products to them.

“Prioritize connections over narrative big ideas,” said Rigby, pointing to several examples of companies, such as Pepsi Co., that have successfully done this. In the talk below, you can see Rigby break down many cases of brands that have done this successfully, but essentially it comes down to identifying, and truly understanding, “the first best customer,” the person that’s within reach and will bankroll the future of your project.

Putting people first is so 2020

Another key takeaway, from Rigby’s talk above, that “putting people first is really good for business.” Being able to provide this, through reports or through case studies as he’s done, is particularly useful for designers. The evidence suggests, in 2020 and beyond, that brands should be fully on-board with human-centered design by now (to borrow a phrase from Don Norman). It’s imperative for their success, and also for the betterment of the world around us.

“Connecting a brand story and system together, allows you to achieve an incredible network effect that technology enables. We couldn’t do this before. Build brands from the bottom up, and think about behavior as much as belief…it just makes brands more useful, more generous, to help people do things they couldn’t do before. Brands are incredible things, if we can design them better,” said Rigby.

“Design can transform businesses and move culture. Challenge minds and biases, and really improve lives in ways really big and really small. You are really needed.”