Why do designers obsess about the future? Admit it. We do. In the after party of a recent conference—and why is this where all the best ideas bubble up?—this point was driven home by Bernard Canniffe of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He leaned over and said, in an exaggerated whisper, “The secret to any design conference is this: begin each conversation with “In the future….”
A prompt for the evening, the conversation took off from there. We went around the room, each giving the statement our best stab. We moved from “In the future, designers will be questioners,” to “In the future, designers will be telepaths,” to “In the future, there will be no design.” As the night wore on, these statements seemed increasingly funny, not because they were ludicrous, and not because we were tipsy, but because the idea struck a cord. The future fascinates designers. We jump at every bump that suggests we are being left behind. One whisper of, “in the future,” and we all strain to hear.
This craving for insight goes back to the early days of our profession. Avant-garde artists of the early 1900s focused pointedly on what lay ahead. Bauhaus designers, like El Lissitzky, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Herbert Bayer, strove to discover a visual language appropriate to the new age of the machine. The past, a time of symmetry and ornament, was a stale leftover to be thrown away. Avant-garde designers sought to communicate instead through universal forms—sleek, functional, efficient and unequivocal. “In the future,” dominated their ideology.
(left) Herbert Bayer Bauhaus sixtieth-birthday exhibition poster for Wassily Kandinsky, 1926
(right) Herbert Bayer Photomontage cover for the first issue of bauhaus zeitschrift, 1928.
El Lissitzky Cover and spread from Dlia Golosa (For the Voice, or Read Out Loud), 1923.
This same spirit spread westward after World War II, as many Bauhaus artists immigrated to the US. Machine-inspired Avant-garde ideology morphed to fit the needs of big business, as it suddenly found itself booming and popular. Industry, after all, had won the war, or so their public relations departments proclaimed. Eager to hold on to this public support, big business seized upon design and designers seized upon big business. The future of design became corporate power, a wealth sure to transform graphic design into a respected white collar profession. “In the future” designers of the 1940s and 50s might have declared, “designers will lead international corporate powers.” After all, as industrialist Walter Paepcke, long-time executive of Container Corporation of America famously asserted, “Good design is good business.”
(left) Herbert Bayer “Great Ideas of Western Man” advertisement commissioned by Walter Paepcke for Container Corporation of America, 1954.
(right) Herbert Bayer Advertisement for Noreen hair color, c. 1950–1955.
In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Switzerland became a hotbed for fresh forward thinking approaches. Leaving behind the social, revolutionary fervor of the early 1900s, International Style designers, like Josef Müller Brockmann, Karl Gerstner, and Emil Ruder, converted Avant-garde ideals into a formal methodology, transcending the local to embrace standardization and mass communication. The resulting style leapt from Europe to the United States. The grid became a metaphor for a Modern breed of designers neutrally transmitting meaning through visual logic and mathematic precision. 
Karl Gerstner Packaging for Teddymat, a laundry detergent brand marketed by Coop, a large union of Swiss retail chains, 1964.
Fast forward about 50 years, through the revolt of New Wave, the destabilizing power of postmodernism in the 1980s and 90s, the vernacular, remix culture of the early 2000s, and still we listen for the tune of the future. The forward thinking ideology of Modernism perseveres, even as the system of mass production and mass communication that helped inspire it dismantles. The ideology of our past compounds with this disruption, pushing us to stay on top of shifts in culture and commerce: social media, the transition from print to digital formats, rapid prototyping tools, the birth of participatory culture, and on and on. To thrive, we don’t just want to know what our future holds, we need to.
While this pressure intensifies, though, daily work distracts, consuming our immediate energy. We have to keep our heads down to meet our deadlines, but this posture ironically makes it hard to peer into the horizon.
Here, now, let’s look up. Let’s give in to our honestly inherited drive to fill in the blank of “In the future…” Let’s fast forward and speculate. No holds barred.
I’ll start us out.
In the future, users will be designers. Mass production will fall away as one-offs become more economically feasible than mass produced goods. Professional designers will build frameworks to facilitate user creation rather than carefully constructed finished products. To achieve this, designers will focus on developing key constraints for enabling the user’s creative process rather than their own. Algorithmic approaches and large-scale collaborative endeavors, enabled by new technology, will empower this movement.
Where do you think we are heading?
1. For a discussion of the Bauhaus quest for visual language see Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller, eds., The ABC’s of Triangle Square Circle: The Bauhaus and Design Theory (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000), 22.
2. For a discussion of the rise of American big business, post WWII, see Roland Marchand, Creating the Corporate Soul: The Rise of Public Relations and Corporate Imagery in American Big Business (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).
3. For a discussion of avant-garde artists and corporate America, see Johanna Drucker, The Visible Word: Experimental Typography and Modern Art, 1909–1923 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).
4. For a lengthier discussion of the schools of thought behind 19th century design, see Helen Armstrong, Graphic Design Theory: Readings from the Field (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009)