Human-Centered Design, Craft and the Intelligence Revolution

Having been an Experience Design Director in some capacity for almost ten years, and working in the digital field for over twenty, I like to think I’m somewhere near the middle of my career. Like anyone mid-life or mid-career, I find myself thinking more and more about what my craft means and the effect, or legacy, it is leaving behind.

Thinking about what ‘craft’ has meant in a historical sense has guided much of this thinking. One perspective that truly stuck out is that of the Arts and Craft movement. Most people are familiar with the ‘craftsman’ design aesthetic, but fewer know that the movement was started in the late 1800’s as a response to the perceived harm that the Industrial Revolution was doing through mass production and embellishment. The founders believed that the ‘joy in labor’ of making objects by hand, with a deep respect for the materials, creates moral and spiritual benefits to society.

But what does ‘craft’ mean today? If you search Amazon for ‘Craftsman’ you will get over 50,000 results. It is obviously a topic of exponential growth. Peter Korn’s “Why We Make Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman” talks about the messages he seeks to impart through his craft, but also what craft teaches him about himself. He shares the idea of ‘Mana,’ or magic, that is believed to be imparted when the materials and the creator have reached a mastery.

The conversation of craft has been, and continues to be, closely tied to materials. There is a discussion growing in the subset of Experience Design around materials and interaction. The thesis is that computers have mostly just been boxes with screens displaying representations of real world materials that users can interact with. An example is the document icons that look like pages of paper and the trash can that those pages can be ‘tossed’ into. There are countless more examples of growing complexity, but these are good for a basic understanding.

However, we are now finding ourselves at a point where real-world materials no longer require these representations because computers are embedded into the materials we interact with. The most ubiquitous example being smart-home lighting and autonomous features in many cars today.

But what does this have to do with the Intelligence Revolution? Remember, ‘craft’ is closely tied to the respect we show materials, and the materials of the physical world are quickly becoming interactive and easily manipulated by digital means.

The Intelligence Revolution is defined as “… exponential change based on machine learning, virtually free data storage and communication, and ever-increasing computational power that rivals some human capabilities.” This is more commonly known as Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI). ML and AI are hot topics right now as they are poised to effect some of the biggest changes on workforces that the world has ever seen — similar in many ways to the changes in consumption and economics brought on by The Industrial Revolution which, remember, spawned the Arts and Crafts Movement.

The Google Duplex demo during the Google I/O 2018 keynote is a prescient example of The Intelligence Revolution. During the presentation, an AI successfully mimicked a human caller scheduling a hair-cut appointment, with a real person at a hair salon. The AI was intelligent enough to manipulate the conversation to seem more human through the use of filler words, like “um” and “mhmm”.

Up until this point we have designed interactions so that humans can manipulate representations of materials and, more recently, actual materials with digital tools. Now we have a new consideration to make: that we have become the material that will be manipulated.

While this may sound dystopian to most, it has become a reality. This comes with risks unlike any designers have faced before, but it also comes with great opportunities. AI and automation will disrupt jobs, but it will also give us back time that currently requires our attention.

This all leads us back to ‘craft’, the materials and our respect for them. Human-Centered Design is evolving as digital representations become less visible and more ubiquitous in our world, and while humans will remain at the center of design we have to consider that they may not always be in control. As these accelerated changes occur, my craft will be one that respects us and our materials equally. Hopefully this will be the next revolution that continues the moral and spiritual benefits that “craft” is so closely associated.