2023: A Year of Technological Change and Evolution in Product Design

The fusion of design and technology is not just a meeting point; it's a dynamic journey of continuous learning and adaptation.

Written by the Cue Team

December 20, 2023

At Cue Studio, we are specialists in the intersection between design and technology. Which means our practices are in constant evolution as we learn and adapt at the pace of technology. In 2023 the areas in which rapid advancements most impacted the way our team functions and designs are:

✦ Designing and documenting motion systems

✦ Design tokens & Figma variables 

✦ 3D modeling 

✦ Minimalist Skeuomorphism and Dimensional Illustration

✦ Approaching AI with humanity and empathy

Creating a Full Motion System

When tasked with documenting our product's complete motion design system, we were surprised by the lack of available resources on how to build, deliver, and maintain such a system. We discovered that many companies don't standardize their animations, relying instead on trial and error. Implementing a standardized motion design system can offer significant benefits, including shorter animation development time, system-wide consistency, and quicker decision-making in the design process.

We learned that drawing inspiration from the atomic design concept, complex animations can be constructed using organisms, molecules, and atoms, each represented by specific classes for easy reusability and modifications.

Our first step was to define a set of time increments and assign them names as tokens, providing a consistent approach across the board. After that, we established standard values for various easing types, laying the foundation for smoother transitions. We then moved on to define basic animation patterns, each with its own distinct characteristics. To communicate these intricate details effectively, we opted for a user-friendly diagram chart, making the entire process clearer and more accessible for everyone involved.

Example of our Motion Design System time increment illustrations

New Figma Features–Variables

Our exploration into the new Figma features for Variables and the power of Tokenization unveiled a host of benefits along with a few considerations. With this update we were able to make our design work much easier, allowing us to quickly make changes across different parts of our projects. While navigating the ins and outs of this new territory, we encountered some challenges, primarily related to its learning curve and the need for meticulous setup to ensure smooth functioning. Despite these initial hurdles, the advantages of implementing Variables and Tokenization for our design process were evident, enhancing our team's efficiency and reinforcing a standardized approach to design elements.

Minimalist Skeuomorphism and Dimensional Illustration

As the metaverse continues to expand, AR and VR experiences become more common to everyone, Visualizing the world  in “virtual” three dimensions is becoming more and more relevant. With this evolution, we’re seeing an aesthetic return to skeuomorphism within product design. However, this is not the skeuomorphism of the early 2010s. A visual evolution in response to flat design, minimalist skeuomorphism uses subtle colors and shadows to imply depth and reference physical reality. In the same vein, there’s also been more dimensional illustration. With the evolution of 3D software, it’s become significantly easier for novice enthusiasts to create 3D illustrations. As we begin to play with these new aesthetics at Cue, we are interested in blending flatness and depth to create unique visual experiences. 

At Cue, we are constantly researching trends in all areas of design to apply to our work. With these new trends in visual design and illustration, we are inspired to try new aesthetics in our designs.

Using AI, Designing for AI

With the advent of artificial intelligence, the world is grappling with how to use this technology in a way that's helpful and ethical. Cue Studio is no different, as we learn new methods and explore new technologies. AI has definitely helped our team this year–speeding up writing and creating presentations and proposals, or creating off-the-wall graphics.

For a rebranding project, our client lacked imagery that would elevate the brand aesthetic but we knew it would be challenging to convince them to spend money on a photoshoot. With the power of AI, we were able to mock up our vision for what their brand imagery would look like, which ultimately convinced them to have us do a custom photoshoot. AI helped us win more creative business!

For another client, we conceptualized a new homepage idea with imagery sourced from the internet. When they chose the concept, we were unable to purchase rights to the image. Instead, we used the power of AI and Adobe Firefly to create a scene that looked like the setting we pitched, without the need for a photoshoot. It was an ideal use case, as the photo we needed was an interior office space filled with light. In terms of our ethical stance on use of AI imagery, we felt confident that the imagery was not surreptitious because it was a simple office scene without people. 

Within the world of product design, leveraging LLM models and APIs is becoming more commonplace.  AI into the technology we’re using makes it faster and easier to do everyday tasks. New interaction paradigms for interfacing with these AI models are being developed and tested in real time, and we’re watching the research and findings closely to learn how to best optimize our clients’ products for AI interactions.

Human Value in the Face of AI

AI is having an unprecedented impact on the tech world as well as on our lives as humans. We at Cue use AI for what movies to watch, to find recipes, for travel plans, and we even use ChatGPT to get information over Google. As an agency, the AI boom has impacted our own workflows as well as those of our clients. We're all constantly asking ourselves “how can we get ahead of this, how can we leverage this, how can we build this?” While we try to answer these questions we also try to remember the importance of human users, stakeholders, and designers in the face of an AI world.

There’s a fear that AI is coming for our jobs. And sure, there are some amazing product design AI tools out there that can create high fidelity wireframes or allow you to import your brand's typography and color systems. So how does this affect what we do at Cue? How is our human perspective of value to our clients if any old sketch can become a usable Figma file? Some of our deliverables are indeed those high fidelity mockups, but that is not the beginning or the end of our process. Our mission as an agency is to support our clients by creating outstanding work that helps enhance the lives of our end-users. This starts with deep conversations to understand our stakeholders’ goals and current issues. We learn about their users through interviews, developing personas, and their respective workflows and pain points. We analyze competitor products and patterns while honing in on their unique archetype to frame not only the visual system but the ethos of the UX as well. We continue to advise and project manage iterative products with our clients to create short-term and long-term strategies for multi-dimensional success. Strategy is inherently human. Project Management and facilitation is inherently human. Listening and interpreting is inherently human. There are some amazing AI tools to help us with these pillars but we have found that our strength lives in our empathetic perspective. Truly understanding and empathizing with our stakeholders and their clients is how we are able to create outstanding products that solve human problems. 

As we look to technology to support us in new endeavors, we remember that even the most creative technology is made from a string of code. It’s made of ones and zeroes, yes and no, black and white, on and off. Inherently, a "gray area," a "maybe" or "possibly," doesn't thrive in AI the way it can when human minds are put together. AI can grow and learn and guess and evolve, if it is programmed to do so. But we as humans are born into the gray area. The tints and shades of gray allow for perspective, patience, compassion, and an open-mindedness that is essential to our practice as champions of experience. We once heard “how you spend your minutes, is how you spend your hours, is how you spend your days, is how you spend your life.” The minutes and hours our end-users interact with our products is how they spend their days, and it’s our mission to improve their lives as much as we can through how we listen, strategize, and empathize.

Looking Forward

As we look forward to 2024 we're excited to use these new technologies in our work while we continue our quest to prove our human value in design. If we've learned anything, it's that there will be even more inevitable advancements for us to discuss by this time next year.