Written By: Heba Malaeb & Afshin Mehin
Illustrations: Levi Joo & Afshin Mehin
Working in the Bay Area, and with tech giants like Elon Musk, means that we not only have front-row seats to the changing times we live in, but we actually get to play a part. In our fast-paced, innovation-fueled field, it feels like the story of what’s to come is in constant flux. And in uncertain times like these, the future is as unwritten as ever.
The future is messy, multithreaded and multidimensional. Being able to see the future with our clients requires constantly trying to stay relevant. That means learning new tools, embracing the evolving perspectives of our global team, and sharpening our point of view around big ideas that will impact society.
Becoming fortune-tellers, as a design studio
The 2000s arrived, but flying cars did not. Predicting the future may be futile, and even a little presumptuous sometimes; it’s a fun but fairly passive act of imagination. We’ve opted instead to focus on actively shaping the future we want: one of sustainability, global equality and giant leaps in progress. After all, if we’re design futurists, then why not become fortune tellers? Or, at the very least, eager storytellers of the future?
The unknown comes with its own exciting problems and solutions. Though it can sometimes feel clumsy to design for an unknown, the thrill of excavating what is to come keeps us on top of our craft and point of view. As a future-oriented design studio, we meditate often on what exactly that means. Designing for the future still happens in the present, and is based on present-day concerns and ideas as well as attempts to understand where things are most likely headed. This makes the future not so much a destination, but a project – one that we, as humans, all get to contribute to in various capacities. But as designers, we are a little more involved.
Getting with the times
To anticipate and respond to changes, we need to remain agile and adaptable; at WOKE, we don’t only design cutting-edge tech products, we also use technologically advanced tools during our design process. Our UX/UI practice has already started to master working with a distributed team using tools like Figma and Miro, but our Industrial Design practice is presently still working through these questions on a daily basis. Though our approach remains rooted in traditional design tools like sketching and model making, we have started to diversify our methodologies.
For example, experimenting with VR design software has allowed us to explore intuitive form-giving processes and share physical product designs with team members in different locations, resulting in finer-tuned, more deeply considered products.
We have also started to apply VR to our product design practice, by simulating certain features in VR that would be difficult to recreate in real life. We recently benefited from this approach when we were designing vehicle lighting systems and wanted to understand how pedestrians would experience the car’s new lighting scheme under dangerous circumstances. This strategy meant we didn’t have to build a large scale electronics prototype, and allowed us to avoid putting user testers in situations that were actually dangerous. We’ve also been applying the knowledge we’ve gained from using VR tools ourselves towards developing VR tools for others, like the Gather VR grocery shopping experience.
But though tools and products are increasingly migrating into the digital realm, we remain designers of objects; this means maintaining a balance between the physical and digital side of things. On the prototyping side, 3D printing technology means fast iterations, fast edits, and mass customization, where we either use our in house printers for quick simple prints or outsource to our partners for more functional complex or cosmetically refined prototypes.
Around the world
Our studio’s makeup also reflects our desire to expand our minds and values. Working from all over the world, we’re a global team – “team” and “global” being equally important parts of that equation.
This enriches our design conversations, and builds multicultural perspectives that inform our work and our world views at large. Despite time differences, the synchronicity in our process allows for a productive and highly collaborative way of working; it feels nice to wake up and find that one of our team members, now sleeping, has completed a task that sets us up perfectly to continue in daylight.
Most importantly, these decentralized global perspectives enliven our work, and come together to create more interesting and versatile design products.One result of this approach to design is the Samovar we developed as an internal project. An object which has crossed many cultural lines over time, the samovar involves a unique tea brewing process that we loved — and that makes great tea. We wanted to take that functionality and adapt the aesthetics to suit a more contemporary setting, while preserving a traditional feel that hearkens back to the long history of the object. Through some iteration and back-and-forth, we were able to stretch the look of the product to create something that felt new and exciting, yet still connected with tradition.
Rituals and flows for the future
Aside from the work itself, we are constantly reconfiguring and innovating our own studio culture. Our team are both localists and globalists — though we get to enjoy living each in our own unique part of the world, we also appreciate the ability to jump on a plane every quarter for a week of face-to-face team time. To deliver world-class design, we need to cultivate a polished workflow that we take pride in, and that feels like a product in itself. We imagine supporting this workflow through daily rituals that help celebrate and circumvent time differences: elegant handoffs, curated shared meals, and other ways to let everyone become comfortable working remotely, while avoiding the trap of being online 24/7.
Our shared aesthetic values come to life both through the various digital platforms we inhabit, as well as the physical tools we use. Having distributed team members with coordinated color and material swatch books, VR headsets and 3D printers ensures we are able to effectively design together. We’ve also discussed designing and developing custom tools that we can ship out to each team member, to create a space in their own home or city that feels like an extension of the studio. This could be something like stationary (think staplers and calculators) or paint swatches that feel like the studio. By mixing this into their homes, it gives them a chance to inject their own unique aesthetic back into the studio’s, resulting in a broader visual language for the studio. In this way, we are also constantly innovating our own sense of beauty in design.
The future is beautiful
What does beauty look like in the future? What does beauty look like in the present? Working across time and space, we are aware that beauty, and design on a larger scale, is subjective, and varies based on its context. We do not claim to have access to an ideal standard of beauty, or even the set of criteria that would define it. But what we can do is always seek it: collaboratively, intentionally, humbly, and with visionary initiative. Though we recognize that the future can never be a one-size-fits-all solution, what we can do is focus on what we, as a design studio, are uniquely equipped to offer in shaping it.
Though the present-day complexities and inequities of our world can sometimes skew our imaginations towards a dystopian view of the future, we as designers and dreamers always try to hold on to our hope for something beautiful. As makers of visionary products, we recognize that our role is not only to anticipate the future and prepare for it, but to actively create it. “I think optimism is never going away within the design practice,” says Afshin, our founder. Perhaps, guided by this optimism, we can create tools for a better world. The more compassion, diversity of thought, and honest effort we put into contributing positively to the time ahead of us, the more it will shape up to be somewhere we all can, and would like to, live.