Twitter’s Dan Saffer on design systems vs. the designer

4 min read
Rebecca Huval
  •  Mar 14, 2018
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The world is commonly ending in the design industry.

When Google’s Material Design materialized in 2014, it sent designers gasping on every end of the internet: Was this the end of design as we know it?

That same year, Dan Saffer published a Medium post of a very similar title: The End of Design As We Know It. He focused on a breaking development in the world of industrial design, Autodesk’s Project Dreamcatcher, that intakes requirements and spits out designs of 3D products.

Photo by NeONBRAND

He imagined how the very same might easily happen in digital and interaction design.

I caught up with Saffer, now a Twitter product designer, to see if we’re still on track for his predicted changes.

“When I wrote this, it felt like: ‘Hey, this is coming’—and now it’s, ‘Hey, this is really coming,’” he says. “At my job, I do AI, machine-learning stuff. It’s coming fast.”

So, what does it all mean? Are generative design systems—with their sophisticated algorithms and machine learning, such as Dreamcatcher—that much more disconcerting than design systems a la Google Material Design that are essentially robust pattern libraries? Should designers be worried about either development?

Related: A comprehensive guide to design systems

“The really simple answer is no,” says designer and author Jeffrey Zeldman, “because someone has to design the systems, and a bespoke design solution is usually best for products and clients that can afford it.”

The more complex answer: Designers should be aware of these innovations because, even if they don’t quite replace the humans, they will become necessary tools that change the shape of the industry and the jobs within it.

Saffer adds, “People think the automation world is going to hit truck drivers hard or people who work in service jobs, but I think it’s also going to hit the UX community harder than they think it will,” he says. “Now, I work with the engineers to make sure what I’m proposing is possible. Soon, it might be negotiating with the AI: ‘What can you do with this [mockup]?’ That’ll be an interesting change.”

History of worry

It’s been a long time coming. The first waves of worry landed in 2005, when WordPress began rolling out its readymade templates, and later again when Squarespace hit the market with its smooth-as-butter dashboard that turned anyone into a web designer in an hour.

And yet, did templates replace designers? Not yet, anyway.

Next, it was the tech behemoths rolling out their design systems, such as Google’s and Airbnb’s. The worry became not only about replacing designers’ jobs, but also diminishing their creativity: Could such extensive libraries of building blocks enable designers to simply drag and drop through their careers?

Zeldman says it’s not so bleak: The same designers or companies that would have lazily copied before now have open-sourced, legitimate style guides to borrow from.

On the other hand, pattern libraries and templates free up ambitious designers to do more creative work. He cited the example of a friend who recently used the open-sourced pattern library Bootstrap to quickly create an innovative solution for a nonprofit client that looked nothing like the out-of-the-package typical hero image followed by two photos.

The design library empowered his creativity.

“For real designers, this is a seachange in the way we approach our path: Let’s not think about the page first, but interactions first—people are going to be interacting with different devices,” he says. “The existence of pattern libraries is a way for thoughtful designers to deliver bespoke systems.”

“Let’s not think about the page first, but interactions first.”

Twitter Logo

But design systems won’t cure the industry’s ills.

“I do think we have a terrible problem now with lack of creativity—sometimes I’ll blame humanity, capitalism, Bootstrap,” he says. “Designers serve capitalism, but the cruel agencies of capitalism are what lead to lack of creativity. Some people just take a job and they aren’t passionate about it, and those people are going to be uncreative anyway. But some people want to be creative, but they’re so under pressure to produce: ‘We don’t care, we need it next week.’ You grab Bootstrap and pattern libraries and icons someone else made and do the best you can.

“The pressures of a system that constantly has to return stakeholder profits every quarter, never saying this quarter we’re going to educate our designers or invest in R&D—that more than anything will drive a lack of creativity.”

Well, at least it’s not pattern libraries’ fault. Saffer echoes the sentiment that design systems free up mental space for the problems that really matter.Twitter Logo

“You can use the system to think about deeper level things like, ‘How does this all fit together?’ or ‘Is this the right feature?’ rather than ‘Is this the right color blue?’” he says. “It’s a boon, not a hindrance.”

Future anxiety

Once design libraries evolve into even more sophisticated technologies like generative design systems that employ AI, Saffer imagines designers will be forced to change how they work, for the better: They’ll do less manual labor moving pixels around, and more thoughtful design that includes empathizing with the end user.

“I’m trying not to use the term ‘design thinking,’” Saffer says. “There will more of the product-strategy, UX-strategy focus. Being like, ‘What are we trying to achieve here?’”

Ultimately both “design thinkers” (sorry, Saffer) agreed that AI won’t replace the human touch of a designer—at least, not for the foreseeable future.

“The algorithm is not going to know what works for your organization or business or your customers,” Saffer says. “It’s not going to have the contextual knowledge that the designer’s going to have. There’s still going to be this movement back and forth between the AI assembling these things and the designer. A lot of people are talking about this centaur of half-human or half-animal, half-AI—and that’s what these generative systems are going to be a lot like.”

In other words, designers will simply gain extra powers through the AI. If that’s the case, job titles are sure to become even more ridiculous than they already are in Silicon Valley.

Maybe generative design systems will finally mark the end of the designer, after all, and the rebirth of the UX designer-AI-unicorn-centaur.

Want to learn more about how InVision and other companies are using design systems? Check out the Design Systems Handbook at DesignBetter.Co.

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