October 28th, 2023
The Designer's Dilemma: Embracing AI's Innovations as a Multidisciplinary Generalist
I've often found myself at a crossroads in recent years, so much so that I even went back to university to try to gain perspective at this particular vantage point–one that has been both a source of internal conflict and (still up to today) constant struggle, but also of profound insight: The struggle of being multi-interested as a transdisciplinary designer, in a design-world that demands specialists. For the longest time, my career felt like a twisted chess game where I was both player and pawn, caught between the desire to delve deeper into a single discipline and the pull of diverse interests. This internal tug-of-war comes and goes and has become better over the years.
In navigating this, I've often prioritized project-based learning, where each new client project becomes a chance to integrate a new tool or framework, not only elevating client delivery but also challenging myself to learn something new and add to my tool belt. Yet, the dilemma persists. With every new project or potential career decision, I cannot be alone in facing this daunting question: should we narrow our focus or embrace the breadth of our curiosity in a field increasingly intertwined with technology? In the end, I repeatedly go down similar paths. My journey, punctuated by moments of self-doubt, gradually led to a realization that being a generalist in the AI era might not be a drawback but a superpower the more the specialist skills get automated. However, this path hasn't been without its challenges. In the past few years, I have repeatedly had exciting conversations with some big companies, but they often ended with the phrase, "You are not specialized enough for our team." Although this has been hard to overcome from a mindset perspective, I still value where I am in my career as I embrace this continuous learning. My forays into business thinking and innovation, combined with my deep passion and training for design and aesthetics, have allowed me to approach AI from a somewhat naive but unique perspective. I've learned that understanding the business impact of design decisions is as crucial as the creative process itself. And in a world enamored with the promises of AI, my diverse background has been instrumental in maintaining a focus on the human aspect of technology. In my design practice, AI is not just a tool for efficiency or novelty; it's a medium through which human stories can be told, experiences can be enhanced, and societal impacts can be explored.
Consider an AI-designed piece of furniture that adapts to the user's mood and physical needs, shaped not just by sales algorithms but by a deep understanding of human ergonomics, psychology, and art. Or imagine a fashion line where AI predicts trends and builds sustainability metrics, reflecting a designer's holistic understanding of our world's environmental needs. From the perspective of more preferable futures, I love the idea of true "Renaissance minds in a digital world," drawing from a palette of diverse skills and perspectives. In this era, the value of a generalist in design, particularly in AI, cannot be overstated. It's about blending empathy with technology, intuition with data, and creativity with practicality. To my fellow designers and creative thinkers: embrace the complexity of your interests and use those multifaceted perspectives to shape a future where AI is as much about human insight as it is about technological advancement. Your diverse skills will be an integral part of making innovation work for more people around the globe.
September 1st, 2023
Embodied AI: Designing the Future of Human Connection
As a professional deeply immersed in design and innovation, my journey from the small town of Hechingen, Germany, to the innovative landscapes of California has been marked by transformative encounters with technology. And today, the anticipation of AI companions is both invigorating and sobering to me.
As a 7-year-old, I remember the allure of our 486 computer, where the internet opened up the world beyond my small town. My older brother and I chatted with someone from South Africa – a moment that, unbeknownst to me then, would foreshadow a career intertwined with technology, imagination, and connection. Decades later, the evolution of technology is as exhilarating as it is cautionary. The promises of the internet and social media, once praised as tools of unbridled connection, have unveiled complexities we're still navigating. As we edge into the era of AI agents, designed to be our everyday companions – the dual forces of optimism and caution are strongly at play. I guess the idea that AI can facilitate genuine human connection is not just a theoretical concept but a design challenge at large. As devices become more intelligent, the ethos of design must pivot from functionality to empathy, from utility to humanity. These shifting paradigms of connectivity, privacy, and interaction are pivotal. How do we craft hardware that is not just smart but also kind, considerate, and ethical? I am compelled by the possibilities of rethinking CMF (Color, Material, Finish). Because we stand on the cusp of creating countless AI companions as ubiquitous as smartphones are today – our chosen materials and processes should echo our ethical and environmental commitments. Each device is not just a product but a statement of our values and our respect for the planet and each other.
Each new technology, from my first mobile phone to the advent of social media platforms, has woven a complex combination of connection and isolation, possibility and challenge, from the happiness of staying connected to my friends and family back in Europe to the nightly doom-scrolling because I cannot fall asleep. As a German immigrant and a designer in the epicenter of innovation in the Bay Area, I anchor myself on a foundational principle: design is not just about creating products but about shaping experiences, ethics, and connections. It's a question of weaving the future of AI companions with the yarn of human dignity, ethical integrity, and environmental respect. (Forgive the blooming metaphor, but I started my career as a designer in apparel and accessories.) We can see its potential and challenges with the rise of AI companion wearables. As designers, technologists, and creators, we must aim for a future where technology enhances our collective human experience.
In the words of Spock, "Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end."
August 22nd, 2023
Define, Decide, Execute (DDE) - My Formula for Getting Sh*t Done and Fighting ProcrastinationAs a designer, I often find myself in the labyrinth of creativity, where ideas are abundant, but bringing them to life can be daunting. Each concept, rich with potential, demands to be nurtured, refined, and ultimately, realized. The good old paradox of having ideas differs significantly from acting on ideas. Also, that journey from idea to tangible world of existence is always dynamic. It's forward and backward, a boxing match with my formidable partner called Procrastination.
My German upbringing meant that I often heard phrases about productivity. Phrases like "Was du heute kannst besorgen, das verschiebe nicht auf morgen" (Never put off till tomorrow what can be done today) Or my personal favorite, "Schlage deinen Inneren Schweinehund" (Defeat your inner pig dog). This "pig dog" is a uniquely German expression referring to the inner voice that advocates laziness, the sneaky whisper that lures one into the comforting embrace of procrastination, away from the disciplined path of action – and boy, the force is strong with me on this one. Yet, in the creative domain where chaos and order coexist, I also love to embrace procrastination. I call it "processination", as it is a helpful tool for the creative process in itself. But at some point, you got to snap out of it. Entrance my very own formula: DDE. It is not a groundbreaking scientific theory; it was created out of pure necessity, of the emergency of years of personal procrastination. DDE is a process designed for one thing only – getting your sh*t done. And here is what I mean by that.
In the first phase, 'Define', the task is broken down into its core elements. Every professional knows that a well-defined problem is half-solved, particularly in design. In this first step, the objectives are articulated clearly, and the expected outcomes are delineated. It's akin to sketching the initial lines on a blank piece of paper, the foundational to-do list. Every 'what', 'why', and 'how' is explored. What is the task explicitly aiming to achieve? Why is it essential, and how will it be accomplished?
Decision is the bridge between intention and action. Here, choices are made, and priorities are set. Every decision is a commitment, primarily to just "doing it." But this is where the clarity achieved in the 'Define' phase fortifies the resolve. For a designer, this phase could mean choosing the theme, the colors, and the materials – a decision to focus on a specific path.
Execution, the final frontier, is where ideas meet reality, where concepts are morphed into creations. At this step, action is the mantra. Every step and every effort are directed towards realizing the defined and decided task. In short, executing means my "to do" turns into "done," which is my favorite.
A Universal Tool
Over the years, I've found DDE to be a professional tool and a life philosophy. Whether it's organizing a wardrobe, cleaning the kitchen, or sorting belongings into 'sparks joy' and 'does not spark joy' categories, DDE has been my compass. The formula is also part of my leadership compass now. It has been instrumental in prioritizing tasks swiftly and delegating them to the best-suited individuals. Every definition, decision, and execution are amplified in a team setting, each member's contribution echoing the collective commitment to the defined objectives.
DDE is a formula that's versatile, adaptive, and profoundly effective.
I got this text written using it :)
June 19th, 2023
Dude, Where is My Device? Embodied AI - Why the Artificial Needs Embodied Homes
The trajectory of technological evolution has always fascinated me. And even more so, our pop culture's science-fiction shaped many of my career and personal interests. As a kid of the 1990s, the rate at which the physical form of technology has drastically changed is potentially one of my number one interests. I only recently started collecting some of those artifacts of my youth, like the Sega Dreamcast, the original iMac, and a Tamagotchi. But as we stand on the precipice of another technological revolution - the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) in our everyday lives - a fundamental question emerges: Where will we house this intelligence?
The digital space, as expansive and limitless as it seems, is intangible. We all share this inherent need to touch, feel, and interact with the physical world. This is where the concept of embodied AI comes into play. The present state of AI is impressive and excitingly overwhelming, with its capabilities manifesting in various digital platforms and software. But AI needs a physical form- a home- to be genuinely compelling, relatable, and intuitive. This is not just about robots or smart devices; it's about designing interfaces that feel natural, intuitive, and human-centric. As a designer, my approach to this challenge is twofold. Firstly, it's about understanding the human psyche. We relate better to tangible entities. There's a psychological comfort in knowing that the AI we interact with has a defined space, a boundary. It's similar to the comfort of talking to someone face-to-face versus a video call (XR and Spatial Computing might want a word here). But secondly, and perhaps more critically, it's about the design ethos. As we move into embodied AI, the materials, aesthetics, and functionality we choose will play a pivotal role. This isn't just about creating a shell for AI; it's about crafting an experience that resonates with users. In this context, the potential of reimagining Color, Material, and Finish (CMF) is immense. We're not just designing products but creating experiences that echo our ethical and environmental commitments. Suppose the next big wave in technology is AI companions as ubiquitous as smartphones. Our materials and processes must be sustainable, ethical, and resonate with our values.
As we move forward, it's essential to remember that technology is a tool in its purest form. And like all tools, its impact is shaped by the hands that wield it. We can argue that this intelligence is the last tool ever needed for humanity. But in any case, the "AIoT" companions are coming. As designers, innovators, and consumers, we must ensure that this new era is marked by empathy, connection, and a deep respect for our shared humanity.
June 9th, 2023
Building the XR Milkyway - Thoughts on Augmented Experience and Spatial Computing
Let me preface this by saying that these are unfiltered thoughts sparked by the introduction of the Apple Vision Pro this week. Having delved a bit into the world of XR while at UC Berkeley, the potentialities and implications of Extended Reality have occupied my mind for some time. Augmented Reality will/does/might represent a quantum leap in our (spatial, environmental) interaction with technology. Blending our tangible reality with digital enhancements will/does/might redefine every day-to-day experience, from learning, working, dating, entertainment, and whatever lies beyond. Nothing is new here; all the "digital universe" visions have been marketed toward us for years.
How transformational will it be once the internet becomes 3D? Once the internet will mean just that – Reality. Beyond the tech, we're looking at potential shifts in social constructs. How will our behavior change in public spaces if our interactions involve unseen digital constructs? There's also the concept of "digital gentrification." As specific augmented spaces gain popularity, could they become digital real estate hotspots, pushing out those who were there first? Will it cost money to occupy digital overlays? And with these developments, will we see a new digital divide, an "augmented divide"?
The ethical dimensions of AR are vast and multifaceted. Data privacy is the tip of the iceberg. The more significant questions revolve around mental health, identity, and reality perception. With photo-realistic AR constantly feeding us digital information, how will our brains differentiate between tangible reality and augmented overlays? And if AI assistants curate these overlays in real-time, are we at risk of falling into augmented echo chambers, where we only perceive a reality tailored to our biases?
Designing for the XR Era
From my vantage as a designer, AR is a mixture of expanding opportunities and a multi-layered rubric of responsibilities. As we design these augmented experiences, how do we ensure they're engaging, ethically sound, and psychologically safe? The design principles of yesterday may need to be revised. We must think about the long-term effects of our creations. How do they impact mental health? How do they reshape societal interactions? And how do they fit into the larger fabric of our shared reality? A social media doom-scroll timeline is still bound to a screen; what if reality is the doom-scroll experience?
May 30th, 2023
Book Recommendation: Inspired by Method - Creative Tools for the Design Process
Navigating the world of design literature can sometimes feel like an endless search for genuine insight. "Inspired by Method," by my former professor and bachelor thesis advisor, Alexandra Martini, stands out as a practical and enlightening guide. It's not just another book; it's a systematic approach to understanding and harnessing inspiration. The core 5D method, encompassing dimensions like the ‘Formal-Aesthetic’ and Interactive, provides a structured framework for designers at all stages, simplifying the complex process of turning ideas into reality.
I appreciate this book for its clarity and practicality. Whether you're just starting in design or looking to refine your approach, "Inspired by Method" offers valuable perspectives. It's a testament to Martini's expertise and a tool I believe many designers will find beneficial.
Author Alexandra Martini
Number of pages 240 pages,
Measures 22.4 x 18.7 cm
ISBN 978 90 6369 573 6
May 10th, 2023
Designing the Near Future of Belonging
A recent address by Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, gave me pause and forced me to reflect on the human side of our digital (design) evolution. Chesky's revelations about the rising tide of loneliness in our hyper-connected era struck a chord with me. It's a sentiment that's both paradoxical and poignant. We live in an age where communication is at our fingertips every second. Yet, genuine connection seems to be slipping through them. Even 1:1 eye contact seems complicated coming back from the pandemic these days. The irony of all this isn't lost on me. As a designer, my mission has always been to enhance human experiences. So, as designers and creators, have we been inadvertently designing for isolation but straight up thought we are doing this for belonging? Yes. Yes, we did. However, design fosters connections, enhances experiences, and enriches human lives. If our technological advancements drive wedges between these fundamental human needs, it's time for introspection. For example, when conceptualizing the future of devices and services, the challenge isn't just about the "what" and the "how" but more critically about the "why." Why do we design? For whom do we design? Who is left out of the equation? It's the 101 of Human-Centered Design and Design Thinking, and it shows how it has lost the foundational power it once seemed to have 20+ years ago.
Most importantly, we must ask: what kind of future do we envision? It's not enough to design smart; we must create with heart. Devices and platforms must be more than just tools; they should be bridges to genuine human connections. We're in the midst of creating the next generation of consumer devices, and the choices we make now will shape the experiences of tomorrow. It's an incredible responsibility and an exciting opportunity. As designers, innovators, and visionaries, let's keep sight of the bigger picture. Let's design for preferable futures of belonging. Let's envision a future where technology doesn't just connect devices but hearts and souls—a future where devices aren't just smart but also empathetic, intuitive, and genuinely human.