Last Tuesday was the first class of my systems course. As I did last year, I asked students to envision their jobs twenty-five years from now. What will their work look like in 2049? What will they be doing? Not in vague platitudes: I wanted to know specifics.
In 1999, I was designing websites. Although my work has become more specialized since then, I’m still designing digital things. Today’s tools are better, but 1999-me would’ve recognized them. Figma has a lot of Fireworks DNA. Some tools, such as BBEdit and Excel, already existed in 1999. Collaborating with clients was also similar. Which is to say, 1999-me would recognize how I work today.
I can’t say the same about 2049. I could still be working then, but can’t envision what that’d look like. AI will change things in unimaginable ways. And I’m not talking about AGI, which still feels like something of a chimera. I’m referring to garden-variety LLMs of the sort you can get today for twenty bucks a month.
How do you start a career in a world where these things exist? Let’s name it: these systems are coming for the sort of things entry-level knowledge workers — including interaction designers — have traditionally been hired to do. It must be hard to graduate into such a labor market and to project where your career might go from here.
I believe that in the future, digital systems, not people, will do much of the craft of (screen-level) interaction design. To provide value, designers will need different skills and mental models. I won’t wallow in the fruitless “job title” discussion but rather outline some possible roles for designers in a world where our object of focus isn’t stuff happening on screens.
This is the person who designs the thing that designs the thing. Today, this role is done by people with titles like Head of Design or Chief Design Officer. These folks recruit and manage the people who’ll produce the work. They also define processes, practices, values, and objectives that give them direction.
IMO, this is the most easily recognizable future role for designers. The primary difference is that digital tools and agents will subsume many of the functions currently performed by team members. In some cases, the Meta-Designer will be the design department. This post gives you a taste of what to expect.
Chief Ontology Officer
As UI design and production become more automated, the spotlight will move to issues of meaning and language. For example, what do we mean when we use the label “account” in our organization’s products? What is the relationship between “accounts” and “roles”? How do those terms map to similar – but different — terms in third-party systems?
In a world where large language models run much of the show, precise use of language becomes very important. To quote one of my school teachers, Mrs. Eskildsen, “If you don’t say what you mean, you don’t mean what you say.” The COO’s responsibility will be to ensure the organization’s touchpoints say what they mean and mean what they say.
The Coherence Generator’s function is to align the organization’s vision and purpose and that its actions and messaging support them. CGs work with leadership at the highest levels of the organization to ensure everyone is aligned and working together to achieve the organization’s strategic roles.
Language is obviously central to this role as well. But so are visuals. It’s a designerly approach to strategic alignment at the highest level. The CG’s central objects of concern — their “design material” — are models. An alternate title for this role might be Modeler-In-Chief.
I cribbed this phrase from Stewart Brand, who used it to describe Brian Eno. The Drifting Clarifier’s role is much like the Coherence Generator’s but done locally at the project or business unit level — i.e., without aspiring to drive organization-wide alignment. An alternate title might be Roving Sensemaker.
Whether performed by internal employees or external agents, it’s a consulting role: the DC moves from one project to another, ensuring products and services serve customer needs. They must also coordinate with Coherence Generators to ensure initiatives align with the broader vision.
UI design at scale is on the threshold of being automated. Think of what language models do with words but with UI patterns instead of phrases. (Stephen Anderson’s 2019 SXSW presentation offers a good overview.) For this to work, the organization needs a carefully structured “dictionary” of UI patterns for the AI to work with — the descendant of today’s design systems. Someone needs to look after this stuff.
Managing the system includes defining and maintaining patterns. Of course, AIs will do much of this. But ultimately, there will be a human in the loop looking after the system’s cohesiveness and utility. That’s the Pattern Wrangler. (A caveat: don’t assume that “UI patterns” represent traditional screen-level controls. Future interfaces might look very different from today’s. But it’s safe to assume interactions can be described in reusable patterns.)
Is It Still Design?
So there you have it, five roles for future designers. But are these design roles? Some read like engineering or management roles. Yes, there will likely be engineering counterparts for all of them. And yes, many of these positions entail managing, even if it’s managing are non-human agents and models.
But designers offer a particular way of tackling challenges: through abductive reasoning. That is, design allows organizations to know by making — i.e., to read their context and experiment with possible ways of being in it by grokking current conditions and needs (via research,) making things that satisfy those needs, and iterating based on how users react.
That’s very different from how engineers and managers solve problems. Even if production functions disappear, organizations will still need design as a sensory apparatus. Much of the sensing will be done with digital tools and agents. Organizations — and humanity, more broadly — will benefit from having user-centered designers at the till of these tools.
Do any of these sound like roles you’re excited to do? Are there any you can imagine that aren’t on this list? Please let me know.