It’s that time of year (again). The festive season is upon us. The call of mince pies, rubbish TV, and awkward family gatherings grows louder.

Rowena Price
Rowena Price
15th December 2017

But right now, the call of the holiday season isn’t as loud as the voice in my head that’s leapfrogging into 2018, curious about the world, and curious about the role design will play in all of our lives this coming year.

There are tonnes of important issues in design right now, covering the detailed nuances of hands-on delivery through to the sometimes abstract heights of strategy and leadership. If you’re a design or digital leader, these three focus areas (by the reckoning of the Clearleft team) will be amongst your chief concerns in 2018.

The rising importance of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) isn’t exactly the new kid on the block as far as hot topics go. There’s been an increasing amount of noise about it in 2017, and that noise will surely infiltrate our collective consciousness even more next year.

A.I. will be of particular importance to design and digital leaders who want to explore the bleeding edge of innovation and the effect that automation can have on productivity, cost and customer experience.

But this is about more than the seduction of new technology.

It might be history's greatest opportunity or its worst existential threat — or maybe it will only optimise what we’ve already got.

Andy Budd

Of course there are risks involved, because the technology is still so relatively early in its development. We’ve seen design leaders get sold on clever off-the-shelf machine learning tools that fail to deliver the improvements they promise, so it’s important not to see A.I. as simply a technology purchase, but as service innovation that helps empower your business.

Either way, the emergence of A.I. in the mainstream will move apace.

We explored the heady possibilities of a world of A.I. at our A.I. Retreat back in Norway earlier this year - take a look at the Juvet Agenda to discover a set of design principles you might like to use to inform your A.I. decision-making.

The rise of Design Ops

Design Ops, the infrastructure of teams, tools, governance and processes behind the design, still a relatively lesser-heard term in the field these days. But rest assured it will gain prominence and gather momentum in 2018 as more design leaders discover the business potential it has, and the value it adds to design projects.

Put simply, Design Ops empowers design leaders and teams to deliver better quality design, faster. Pretty pertinent in a world where the work is becoming more complex and more specialised, whilst companies are wanting to deliver faster and faster.

If you want to ensure that product improvements continue to be delivered, especially in the context of increasing demands on speed and quality, the only way to do it is to have good tools, processes and governance practices in place.

Rich Rutter

design system is the most visible representation of Design Ops — a toolkit that allows designers to work quickly and efficiently without compromising quality or consistency. But creating and maintaining a good design system takes up-front investment, and it can’t be delivered from the top down — the designers need to be invested in building the system.

The spotlight on user rights

2018 will be the year that GDPR comes into force.

I look at GDPR as like a ‘bill of rights’ for users, where the power balance between businesses and real people will see a tangible shift.

Jeremy Keith

That shift will be in the interests of the user, protecting all EU citizens from privacy and data breaches in an increasingly data-driven world.

People will have greater actionable control over their personal data. So of course this is an important issue for design leaders to tackle in the pursuit of human-centred design solutions.

For companies, the opportunity lies in nurturing trust with their customers, and enhancing company reputation in turn. I would argue that this is incredibly valuable. But beyond that there are no other great measures of success. Measures of failure, however, are tangible and of a reputational and financial nature.

The through thread

It struck me that there’s a central theme that runs through the heart of the focus areas above. Something bigger (and less tangible) is drawing these things together.

A.I. empowers business.

Design Ops empowers those who are using design thinking practices in their work.

GDPR empowers users.

These three hot topics, or ‘trends’ if you prefer, empower three different groups (albeit there’s plenty of crossover amongst them). In my opinion, true empowerment in these contexts requires a foundation of transparency and trust – ethical practice – surely the prominent  thread in these trends in the year to come.

So what can we all do, as individuals, teams, business and sectors, to engender that transparency and trust as we seek to tackle these issues and design challenges in our work and lives?

Acknowledge it and open up the conversation. That’s a positive step in the right direction, and a positive action in its own right.

One of our Leading Design 2017 speakers, Alberta Soranzo, tweeted about taking action on engendering trust recently, which seems pertinent to reference here too. If nothing else, it’s an action-based reminder for a basis on which to act and work with our peers on design challenges in the future. I was intrigued, too, to read about GDS’s recent data science ethical framework developments.

It will be interesting to see how these often elusive, intangible, and vital issues play a part and affect how we do things in design next year.

Let us know what design challenges you’ll be focusing on in 2018 - tweet us @clearleft - we’d love to hear from you!