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What do you think of when you hear the word design?

You probably think about finely crafted objects that you can hold in your hand, or maybe logos and posters that visually explain things.

What you might not immediately think of is the kind of design that you use every day, but don’t give much thought to. Designs that change all the time and live inside your pocket–the design of digital experiences, or what is referred to today as user experience (UX) design.

Designers HaveĀ Greater Reach

This is the kind of design that, among other things, shapes your interpersonal relationships, dictates how you buy things, and influences how you consume your daily news. As a result, this kind of design has massive potential to shape our behavior and change our perspectives on the world.

It can also touch billions of people. Oftentimes people become dependent on these designs, and care immensely about them. Knowing the potential impact they can make (like deciding presidential elections), designers have a massive responsibility to do good with what they make.

That said, these kinds of designers need to have a sensitivity to different cultures and a broad understanding of human nature, things they don’t necessarily teach in design school.

A Multi-Disciplinary Approach

Unlike other design disciplines, digital design has a canvas that is constantly changing; from devices, to screens, to environments, and now, conversations. Because of this, the skills required of the people who make these kinds of designs are also continuously evolving.

But that doesn’t mean that the creators of these kinds of designs are necessarily coders or programmers. In fact, they are far from it; they are psychologists, anthropologists, physicists, economists, artists and business people.

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Raphael Arar, a designer and researcher at IBM, epitomizes the style and multi-disciplinary skill set of the modern designer. Among other things, Arar designs for the conversations we have with our devices. In his work with conversational agents, Arar pulls in elements from fields such as sociology and psychology to make better chatting experiences.

“Conversations are rooted in structure. Like playing tennis, sometimes there are a few back and forths, and other times there’s many. But they have a tendency to come in pairs. That is the foundation of conversation; things revolve around pairs. Once you have pairs, pairs build up sequences and sequences build up conversation.

But the underlying basis of a conversation is to achieve a mutual understanding of the purpose and intent. This applies to any ordinary conversation or something as simple as finding out what the weather is like, or getting a great restaurant recommendation.

When we communicate emotion, you can say certain things that convey meaning that might not be in the words that you choose, but rather, in the way that you respond. I can say something like ‘It’s a pretty nice day, isn’t it?’ And if the recipient pauses, it signifies a negation, that you disagree, and you can look at these signifiers in a variety of contexts.”

As a designer, Arar’s depth of understanding in conversation analysis may be surprising to many people. But the more we begin to speak or chat with these kinds of designs, rather than swiping, tapping and clicking, the more that level knowledge is required for effective designs.

Unconventional Career Paths

Arar’s undergraduate education is in behavioral economics and music composition. If you ask him, he’d tell you he has had a very unconventional path, but that his background has culminated into the designer that he is today. Through his MFA, he tied together the different aspects of his career, exploring interaction in an aesthetic and philosophical way.

“It makes sense when I look back on my path.” he says. “Behavioral economics is the understanding of incentive structures of humans, and music composition, I think, equates to user experiences–to compose music is to create an experience that is time-based and one that guides the listener.”

Like many of today’s digital product designers, myself included, you’ll find that most have liberal arts background–applying the broad knowledge base needed to creating a human connection with our digital experiences.

What’s more, a recent report found that 86% of designers learn their digital skills outside of their coursework. If the design industry continues to demand a wide range of knowledge, many more individuals from diverse background will fall into a designer role while learning best-practices on the job.

New Kinds of Designers Will Continue To Emerge

Although there are principles and best-practices that apply to all forms of design (like architecture, industrial design, graphic design, interior design, etc.), as new technologies continue to emerge, so will new kinds of designers.

Being a designer in the digital age has increasingly required a multidisciplinary skillset and knowledge base. But recent advances in the Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) have created a new demand for designers to understand data-science, mathematics, psychology and sociology.

The digital age has given design a new meaning, but perhaps the evolution of the trade is just beginning.

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