The Future has Never Looked Brighter, Depending on Where You Stand!

Digital technology is an opportunity to reimagine your firm's service offer!

The future of Experiential Graphic Design has never looked brighter. In fact, it is about to fulfill the promise that SEGD’s founders saw for it when they started the organization declaring that it was so much more than just signs!

Our current vision is that SEGD represents a multidisciplinary community of professionals creating experiences that connect people to place. The emphasis is on experience over simply communication where we have been positioned for a few decades.

Part of what drove the broadening of the SEGD umbrella was the growing use of digital technologies in EGD. But it is not about the technology! It is about the expanded problem or opportunity space that comes with the technology that is important for us to take the lead on.

Whenever digital technology enters a new segment, there is disruption. Capitalize on that as it is the key to Experiential Graphic Design’s future and can’t be overemphasized! There is NO industry where digital technology has not disrupted its normal way of doing business, so we should not be so naive as to believe that Environmental Graphic Design will be the one field where this is not true. Hence the title …depending on where you stand.

We are a few years into understanding how this disruption—and from where we stand, this means big opportunities—are taking place. Predictions are useless, so this is not meant as a prediction, but rather as a scenario-building exercise to get you thinking about how you could reimagine your business and reposition your services to ride the huge increase in business and project opportunities that technology is and will continue to bring to our profession.

But let’s be very clear: You will need to learn new skills, gain new understandings, and develop new knowledge in order to fully participate in the shift.

There are many articles about the net positive effect of technological shifts on job growth, so it’s a given that integration of technology in the environment will result in more jobs in the EGD sector. But also be very aware that these will definitely not be the same jobs as before. The nature of the jobs is changing and you will need to be prepared to change with the shift, otherwise, may we remind you of the story of the dinosaurs or the flip phone? The average corporate website rethink is over $1m. Anyone still lamenting the passing of the annual report?

So what is the nature of the shift we are about to undergo in the profession? Imagine of you could replace every sign with a human.

Well that could be the end point vision that you might want to hold in your mind as you grapple in frustration with machine personalization, data standards, bad resolutions and wi-fi dead zones! Essentially though "digital" will ultimately be like adding intelligence, personalization and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances to today's static signs. Now that sounds like it could be pretty good for the users don't you think.

Environmental Graphics is today centered on information design and a mostly static communication of fixed messages in clear hierarchies with a strong sense of integration / placement into their environments. A gross oversimplification, but bear with me. When digital technologies were introduced, initially the only effect you saw was in the output device, a screen versus a printed sign for example. In fact, therein lies the problem: the focus is on the screen or the output device, not on the underlying increase in capability or intelligence, never mind focusing on what user needs we can better serve! The initial reaction is therefore, why do I need that? Really what is happening in the digital shift is that we are gaining processing power (computers), intelligence (from data streams and collections, sensors and feedback loops), connectivity (through communication links, hardwired or wireless), and interactivity (touch screens, voice control, sensing, haptics, and any number of mechanical interface options). Second, static and controlled information is replaced by changing data streams, requiring a different design approach. Clear hierarchy and layout are often compromised or modified by the cost or parameters of the technological solutions, the fixed nature of the format, etc. Just look at the cell phone for an example of what excellence means now versus what it might have meant in times gone by for the thing it essentially replaced, the business card! This is of course not entirely accurate, but I use it to paint an analogy that might be applicable to us. A very different sensibility is required to design for these new technological possibilities.

If you maintain your current frame of reference and define your firm’s scope by the current set of problems you are tackling (where am I, who occupies this space, what is this place, etc.) there may be little reason to investigate digital. But what if you ask this question: With the new capabilities at my disposal to design solutions to people’s problems while interacting with spaces, how might I better address the current set of problems people face in the environment? Or even better, why not ask the strategic question: What problems that people face interacting in the environment might the new capabilities help me solve? If you pose those questions, you will arrive at a very different definition of what business your firm is in or what services it could be offering. Reframing the question based on the fact that the digital technologies you will have at your disposal have greatly expanded is an important first step in redefining your business for the coming age of intelligent environments.

If you are prepared to take a longer-term view (10-20 years perhaps), you might consider a completely different starting point. In the first seven years of the century, all designers dreamed of a smart device that you could hold in your hand that would do all sorts of amazing things for you. This expectation was based on the rapid spread of the cell phone. When the iPhone landed in 2007, everyone was ecstatic about its capabilities. Well, now you can’t go to a design conference without a few presenters bringing up the “problem of the cell phone.” The problem? People not engaging with people around them or the environment, but rather focused instead on a postcard-sized screen! Well, here is a new perspective.

There are millions of screens, sensors, and interactive devices entering the environment every year. We are on the road to an intelligent environment. Have you considered that we might be creating an alternative means for people to connect to the Internet with its incredible data and entertainment capabilities? That really reframes what we are doing. Better still, have you considered that what you might be doing in 10 years is building the applications and interfaces that will make the cell phone redundant? Now that really paints a picture of how digital could shift our profession over the next few decades—and by the way, it will still be about “creating experiences that connect people to place”!

For the past 100 years at least, the designer’s job has been to take the advances in new technology and apply them to solving real human needs and turning the technologies into easy-to-use, compelling experiences for people. There is not a lot of thinking yet around what human problems intelligent environments will help us solve. However, there is already interest developing and the money is starting to flow into this area. See The Buzz link to Sidewalk Labs, Google’s advanced lab and first big investment in this area, and the work being done on creating smart cities and the opening of data flows for commercial use. During the week of the Xlab conference in November, there will be a DailyDOOH Investor Conference running as part of the New York Digital Signage Week that we are aligned with. It would be well worth attending that event as well if you are interested in how the venture capital community is seeing the intelligent environment opportunity.

Within our own community, we are seeing a number of firms experimenting with new interfaces in museums and in city wayfinding programs among many others.  Applied and City ID have shown us how they are implementing digital technologies into the process of creating city wayfinding solutions, and are starting to look at the ways that digital information can be linked into wayfinding systems. Take a look at the presentations from the XPlore Digital Bootcamps held this summer in the SEGDTalks section of the website where there are numerous talks  highlighting the possibilities and projects that people are working on. Take a look at the Digital Technology tab of the Xplore section of segd.org for a good overview of the latest developments.

These are the best of times for Experiential Graphic Design. The possibilities are endless, and the opportunities to think big and change your trajectory are enormous and open to all. Think about it like the beginning of the desktop computer era. It is the Wild West all over again (in the best possible way).

How will you prepare or change your business to take advantage of the shifts in available technologies?

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