Content: Afshin Mehin, Anna Savina

Illustrations: Cynthia Tranvo, Fran Pulido

In the past couple of months, so many of us had to rethink our lives due to the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdowns that followed. Our homes turned into the center of our (subjective) universes where we spend all our time while also serving as a backdrop for the bleak news as well as virtual meetings, events, and happenings. 

To do anything in the world (or at least in the world of knowledge work), we have to rely on technology even more than before. Simultaneously, our home is totally transformed and has acquired new meaning since it has to serve as a place for work and entertainment, as well as a vehicle for our survival. All these new functions need thoughtful technological solutions and designs.

As the restrictions are slowly being lifted, we will still need to rely on our home to provide much more for us than in the pre-quarantine times. Here at Card79, we are curious to see how our homes can change in these uncertain times and how they can serve us better in the future. Below are some ideas and trends we are betting on — some of them are more backed by data than others, but we feel like all these futures are equally viable and we are excited to explore these trends in the coming months through our writing and design work. 


How does everyday life look like when we are relying less on the outside world? Your home needs to become smarter and more self-sufficient. You need systems that help you make better decisions in the times when going out often and hiring professional help is not an option. We’ll see even more ways to monitor all the critical aspects of everyday life and tools to spend available resources wisely. We are betting on devices for smart gardening, advanced sprinkler systems and smart ways to preserve food and monitor what you have left and when you need to restock. We are also likely to witness a big leap forward in voice user interfaces. For those who work from home, screens can become too overwhelming, so these users may rely on smart assistants like Alexa and Siri to direct them on their path to self-sufficiency or, for example, continuous education.  

The Rise of DIY: Better Tools For Greater Autonomy

Under a lockdown, our abilities to move around the city to access professional printers, sewers, repairmen and other professionals are limited, and a lot of work and repairs around the house are considered inessential. And even if some restrictions are no longer applied, we may want to have greater autonomy when it comes to doing things around the house.  

These new conditions are likely to increase our interest in DIY and maker culture. The new movement can go into these two directions:

We’ll likely see a higher demand for content and expertise around DIY tips and techniques that allow people to create something new with the materials that they already have at home. Think Whole Earth Catalog in the world of Amazon, Home Depot, and broadband internet. Since this approach really emphasizes that everyday objects may be ‘hacked’ and assembled in a certain way to create something unexpected, it may not affect the market in a profound way. However, we’ll see a new wave of publishers, influencers, content creators, and lifestyle gurus who teach us how to DIY amidst uncertainty of our everyday lives and make tinkering a part of the ‘new normal.’  

Another potential outcome of the crisis is the growing demand for semi-professional tools that are smarter and more intuitive than the previous generation. Thanks to the progress in the fields of robotics and computer vision, tools like Shaper Origin allow makers to cut pieces of wood with much higher precision and create even complicated pieces of furniture at home. We’ll see how new technologies will allow us to have similar tools — like better sewing machines, vertical gardens with smart sensors that notify you when to water the plants, tools for home repairmen’s, etc. With the right technologies and increased interest in self-sufficiency, the hardware designers of the future may achieve what maker movement enthusiasts weren’t able to achieve earlier. This time around, the pressure to become more autonomous is high, and the threshold for entry will be lower.

Entertainment and Leisure

Another trend we are anticipating is, in a way, an extension of our ideas listed above. We are likely to experience several waves of the epidemic, and as we are going to try to be self-sufficient and create space for various different activities at home, we will also need tools to create space for entertainment and leisure. 

Very few people can recreate a movie theatre at home, or afford a restaurant-grade dining experience at their apartment (especially when it comes to decoration), but a lot of people miss these and other social experiences. We’ll see how digital and industrial designers will try to substitute experiences that we used to have outside of our home with new services and gadgets. We already see how parties, DJ sets, and proms are hosted on FaceTime, Zoom, and HouseParty, fashion photoshoots are done using video conferencing, and watch parties turn into distant streaming with friends with the help of Netflix Party and other apps.

What’s next? Some of the areas of our life may go back to normal, but it’s likely we will still see people, and especially strangers, as potential silent carriers of the virus. It calls for more creativity and higher demand for familiar experiences: think special equipment for socially distanced team sports, more powerful audio equipment, better home theater projectors or even more unusual lighting that recreates specific experiences.

Sanitizing Equipment and Touch-less Technology

In the past couple of months, so many of us learned something new about sanitizing and disinfection. News reports from around the world show a variety of measures and types of equipment to protect essential businesses and make public spaces safer — from drones spraying disinfectants to misty tunnels for factory workers. 

Coronavirus made us aware about the importance of sanitation as well as about the possibility of future pandemics. We can see how a lot of this professional-grade equipment will become more common so we don’t have to rely on Clorox and other products and gadgets that weren’t designed with a global epidemic in mind. It’s not quite clear if we should expect sanitizing stations and other equipment to be a big part of our future homes. Very likely, this new regimen can be encouraged by touchless technology, wearable sensors that help us keep a safe distance, and other technologies that make life in dense areas safer.  

Creating Space Inside your Home and Mind

Not everyone can afford to have a living space that has separate rooms or functional zones for different activities, so we believe there is an opportunity for products and services for creating space when you have none.

Our habits often revolve around certain triggers that can be set in motion by physical objects and rituals that revolve around certain objects and spaces. We’ll see a proliferation of furniture and home decoration that allows better zoning of the apartment or home. How to separate work from leisure? How to optimize storage to keep enough food and all the necessary tools and gadgets? How to use limited space to work out? How to get the most out of a balcony, patio, or a backyard? Those are the questions that became critical in the time of quarantine and are likely to be relevant after the lockdown ends. 

There will be a need for technologies that create more space inside our minds as well. Meditation apps and wearable activity trackers will appeal to a wider audience since the outbreak raised many people’s awareness about their mental and physical health and its importance in the times of crisis. Another powerful tool to explore the world that lies beyond our homes is VR. We are likely to see how it’s implemented not just for playing video games, but as a form of therapy

A Balancing Act

This great pause made us think of a future we never could have imagined before. Depending on our experience, political views, and unique circumstances, we may believe in different futures for a larger society. But on a personal level, this quarantine is making a lot of people reconsider their lifestyle choices. 

The pandemic makes us lean into a more sustainable and self-sufficient lifestyle — making our own bread or even growing our own food instead of eating out. We have started to think local instead of global, cutting off all the inessential travel and defining what truly matters. A lot of these activities may not look as glamorous as a globe-trotting lifestyle of the past, but it can be just as fulfilling with the right amount of creativity.

We believe that when we are left with our own imagination, skills, and tools, we can expect much more creativity and balance in our lives. The pandemic is making so many of us to be more mindful of our surroundings, our routines, and habits. Whether its being more sustainable with food, creating more mental space with VR, or inventing the newest touch-less technology, this pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we look at our homes and world. Here at Card79, we see this as an opportunity to embrace a new way of thinking and are excited to start developing this new world with our clients and end users. 

Written By: Heba Malaeb & Afshin Mehin

This article is adapted from a talk that our founder, Afshin Mehin, gave at the Interior Design Show Conference in Toronto this past January. The topic was “Disruptive Technologies in Design”; Afshin spoke about AI and how it will impact the creative process and makeup of design studios as we look towards the future.

Over the past decade, we have witnessed major advancements in artificial intelligence technology; some would say the decade’s most defining development was the rapid rise and evolution of AI.

As it becomes more and more ubiquitous, AI is transforming various aspects of everyday life – from the healthcare industry to the highly personal act of listening to music. As a design studio, we are focused on turning visionary technology into beloved products and services. Which means we are always deep in thought about the changes we will need to adapt to, whether that’s in meeting our users’ evolving needs, or in adapting our design process to the huge technological strides we’re witnessing today, with AI or otherwise. 

AI today

“AI” is an umbrella term that describes the ability of a computer to make predictions based on patterns and relationships that it automatically discovers in data. 

The quantum leap in progress AI has seen in recent years can be attributed to three main factors: 1) a huge increase in the amounts of data used for training AI; 2) improvements made around deep learning algorithms, which allow computers to filter information in layers; and 3) much more powerful hardware that allows for faster progress, and widens the possibilities for both testing and application. 

What AI can and can’t do

Move 37 of Go World Championship

In 2018, the UK-based company DeepMind built AlphaGo, an AI designed to play the 2,500-year old board game Go. AlphaGo ended up defeating the world champion, Lee Sedol – something that AI experts had previously thought would not be possible for at least another decade, because Go is such a complex game (the moves in Go outnumber the atoms in the universe). AlphaGo won the game by performing a move early on, Move 37 specifically, that employed a completely different type of intelligence than that typically practiced by humans – stunning both the researchers and the AI’s opponent.

Like in the case of playing Go, AI has proven to be extremely adept at learning complex tasks that have very clear and identifiable goals. Solving these hyper-specific problems requires narrow intelligence – a highly specialized skill set that applies to highly specialized use-cases. But as good as AI is at specific and complex activities, it lacks the ability to perform in other capacities: it’s bad at metaphors, concepts, creativity, and imagination.

This means that AI will be less like a sentient being that performs diverse and general tasks, and more like an appliance – something that does one thing really well. As a result, it will be the type of technology that will be ubiquitous not as a new product, but through powering a lot of existing products and systems that can be made better with AI.

AI in the studio

Some of our designer’s sketches going where no AI can

Though hearing about artificial intelligence might arouse anxieties in some (“Will we have a job in ten years?”), and rightly so, design might have less to fear than other fields. While a game of Go has a clear goal and a very narrow set of constraints, the process of design more often than not involves answering multilayered questions in a way that requires having a holistic – and human – perspective of a problem. Think of all the conditions that define the design of a successful public library, or a motorcycle, or even the design of a pair of shoes.AI, with its narrow intelligence, can’t come up with the creative, big-picture thinking we employ all the time to tie things together in the design process.

To counterbalance the skills of AI, designers more and more will have to become generalists – or, as Kristian Simsarian put it, “As designers we will need to be more ‘Verby’ and less ‘Nouny’.” So at the end of the day, if what we’re in charge of is coming up with the big idea, then the best thing AI can offer is to play a supporting role in our process. Ergo, the AI design intern.

New interns, new roles

AI technology can be applied towards everything from the most mundane tasks, to more collaborative, generative work. Recognizing this, companies like Google, Adobe, and Autodesk are working to develop AI resources that can respond to designers’ specific needs – whether that’s smart image editing tools or parametric modeling softwares. These new tools effectively act as “interns” – playing a supportive role in the creative process, and growing with time and experience.

Like any design intern, an AI intern will need to be trained and guided. After hiring an intern, you get acquainted with their skill set and work ethic by assigning them basic tasks like renaming files, color-correcting photos, cleaning up sketches, or touching up images. And it’s precisely these tasks that are perfect for an AI to do. This is something that Adobe has made some great progress on with Adobe Sensei, an AI product designed to take tedious tasks off designers’ hands.

Breeding Tables by Kram/Weisshaar, 2003

After the AI intern is trained to complete straightforward tasks, it could start taking on increased responsibility, and more creative roles. AI’s way with images makes it a great candidate for creating mood boards based on keywords or reference images; over time, the designer can teach it to return results that align with their creative vision. Another way AI can act as a creative collaborator is through generative design, where you teach the AI the constraints of a problem you’re trying to solve, and it returns a breadth of options that fit the brief. We can see a recent example of this in Philippe Starck’s AI chair for Kartell.

Having the reliable and personalized support of an AI intern could free up time, space, and mental energy for deeper creative processes. A great quote on the potential for AI to empower designers was from Josh Lovejoy, head of ethics and Society at Microsoft: “The role of AI shouldn’t be to find the needle in the haystack but to instead to clear as much hay as possible so we can better find the needle ourselves.”

What does this mean for humans in design?

The good news is that this does not mean that living, breathing interns will be obsolete. The roles of an intern are directly related to the roles of their mentor, and the focus of the design studio. This means that with a redistribution of responsibilities between AI and designers, human interns can get increased opportunities to be involved in the creative process itself. This creates the conditions for maximum creative output, or at the very least, a good environment for a consistent and more diversified creative flow.

In a collaborative environment like a design consultancy, and especially at Card79, the human conversation is paramount to the design process. We are constantly trying to create products grounded in originality, empathy, and responsibility. Just as we can adapt to AI’s inevitable and evolving role in our industry, we can adapt AI as a tool that helps us continue to reflect and support our fundamental principles. 

In conclusion, the future is bright and exciting. As designers we’ll grow to be more like conductors of an orchestra than sculptors shaping clay ourselves. We’ll be more focused on defining a good question than on the process of carrying out the task itself. After all, is there anything more human than asking a good question?

By Heba Malaeb and Afshin Mehin

Illustrations Jordin Kelsey

In our design process at Card79, and especially when designing technology products, we apply many different lenses to a product in order to create something that aligns with our values. Often, we design products where the emphasis is on usability, innovation, and seamless experience. But in data-driven times, where almost everything is believed to be quantifiable, is there room for something less measurable, like poetry? These days we are thinking about the potential of poetry to introduce a more human dimension to design in general, and technology products specifically. We started wondering: where can we find, or make room for, poetic elements in tech? 

Poetry in design

To nail down what poetry is into a single definition is a losing game; because of its abstract nature, poetry is elusive to define. For our purposes, we’re thinking of poetry as a form of creative expression that has to do with emotion, and intention. When speaking about objects or architecture, “poetry” is generally used to denote mood or emotion, or evocative forms and materials. Something described as “pure poetry” could mean that it’s difficult to put into words, that it stirs emotion, or touches something in us in an impactful way. We’ve all come across that one designed thing that speaks to us in ways we didn’t expect — that goes beyond function to evoke emotion, or offers an interaction that transcends mere use. 

Poetic predecessors

Before the digital revolution, design heroes like Ettore Sottsass were able to introduce poetry seemingly effortlessly into designed products. Poetry is the oldest literary mode of expression known to humanity; and yet poets continue to find new ways to use language and existing forms of expression to describe the human condition. From his Olivetti typewriter to helping found the Memphis Group, Sottsass invented forms and values that continue to shape design today; even in his electronics, he managed to incorporate into everyday objects a level of play and innovation that we deeply admire. 

Designer as author

Poetry in design can also refer to a certain carefulness and intentionality on the part of the designer, almost turning the design process into an act of authorship. (And some have even compared writing poetry to an act of design!) Just like writing a good poem requires expertise, discernment, and artfulness, design that is well-considered and thoughtful offers a rewarding emotional experience to its users. 

Authenticity: a brand value

The idea of the designer as author also comes up when thinking about human-centered design, a design approach based in empathy. Similar to how reading a poem is an act of attentive imagination and emotional investment, researching a brief to provide our clients with the best product for their needs always involves putting a little of ourselves in the work. More and more, the modern brand is striving for authenticity, as consumers seek out brands that reflect a connection with real values, that come from real people. For designers to forge authentic connections with users on behalf of a brand, the brand’s values must first line up with those of the designer in order to create an avenue for honest creative expression, whose honesty translates to the user.

Muji’s poetic emptiness

Muji is one brand that has long employed the principle of honesty, subtlety, and poetry as a value. Embodying the philosophy, “Muji is satisfying enough”, and then going the extra mile to include what they term “micro consideration”, Muji creates consumer products that exhibit simplicity of form, material, and manufacturing, while still offering experiences that are pleasurable in an unexpected and yet everyday way. This depth of consideration results in products that are as self-evident as a well-resolved poem. While Muji products are designed  to recede into the background of one’s life, they do so based on the concept of “emptiness” — acting as vessels for users’ specific needs and experiences. In addition to their own products, the brand’s concept of “found Muji” captures the ethos of the brand by collecting products from all around the world that fit within their philosophy and “feel like” Muji.

Poetic interactions

Tech has room for these subtle touches, too. The original Apple Macintosh had the signatures of its creators molded into the inside of the computer’s case — creating a direct link between designers and users, and adding a level of humanity to the product. With the introduction of software experiences, the poetry in tech slowly migrated away from hardware and towards software, turning hardware into merely a vessel for digital experience.

But even in interaction design, brands are gravitating towards creating experiences that offer emotional payoff. Think of Spotify’s “Wrapped” playlists that take users’ listening data and digest it into a personalized, friendly, and shareable format at the end of the year. Just like poetry only “works” when you interact with it, design only becomes meaningful when it is engaged with. These days we see more and more examples of technology’s potential to create objects and experiences that touch something human in us, like love in the case of the interactive game Florence and humor in the physically interactive works of Aparna Rao.

Alexa, read me a poem

And increasingly, it seems, tech is looking to the humanities to remain, well, human. Poets and other kinds of writers have had a significant role in writing for AI virtual assistants, to provide users with as close to a human interaction as possible, especially in use-cases that require sensitivity to nuance, like in healthcare. 

Emotional payoff

In a world largely ruled by numbers, intangible, un-commodifiable things have become particularly valuable. Alongside machine learning algorithms, holding onto the human in ourselves helps us design products that are in touch with our emotional and social needs. One thing we learned in the digital age is how deeply tech can affect our behavior — and so as designers, we can choose to create experiences that make user-product interactions feel not transactional or passive, but intentional and meaningful. As we build better and more powerful tools for living, let’s also provide an opportunity for those same tools to allow for moments of pause, connection, and magic. 

Anna Savina, Afshin Mehin

Elon Musk is well known for his bold ideas and unconventional ventures. He founded Tesla, a company revolutionizing the electric vehicles market; SpaceX, a famous aerospace manufacturer; The Boring company that is reimagining infrastructure and tunnel construction services; and OpenAI, which is a startup making big leaps in the field of artificial intelligence. It’s highly probable that the most ambitious goal Musk is trying to achieve has nothing to do with visions for the future of transportation or even space travel. One of his companies is working on products that can change the way we think and experience the world.

Neuralink, a neurotechnology company that Musk founded in 2016, is developing implantable brain–machine interfaces (BMIs). It’s turning decades of brain research into the world’s first in-brain wearable device that would allow people with paralysis to control assistive technologies. Like all of Musk’s companies, they’ve set aggressive goals and are planning to release their first version very soon — in the 2020s. We were lucky enough to work on the design for the first Neuralink device, and here is how we did it.

Finding a balance between usability and futurism

Neuralink’s first product is a wireless implantable device that is unique in two important ways. First, it has extra high bandwidth as a result of having thousands of tiny neural threads that are inserted in a user’s brain. Second, it’s bidirectional, as it can both read and write electrical signals to and from your neurons with the neural threads.

Neuralink’s engineers and researchers have developed a surgical robot that in many ways mimics the functionality of a sewing machine. It has a miniaturized needle that can accurately insert neural thread into thousands of locations in the brain’s cortex. These threads all lead back to Neuralink’s proprietary ‘pills’ which house microelectronics to process and interpret thread data. That data reaches the outside world through the Link, a wearable worn behind the user’s ear, which is the part of the system we were brought on to design.

When we started this project, we had two values we wanted to create within the end user experience. We hoped to create something that wasn’t intrusive or distracting when users are interacting with other people. We wanted the product to tuck away — almost out of sight — and have a soft and empathetic design aesthetic to balance Neuralink’s fearless vision of the future. We also wanted to create an experience where users could feel proud of this cool gadget that gave them a superpower that other people didn’t have. To get there, we had to focus on making a product that, when observed up close, appeared to be something futuristic.


Despite the fact that the product won’t be launching until the years 2024-2025, we still wanted to keep our design grounded in reality. The product needed to have enough battery capacity to run for a long time; it needed to be light enough to be worn comfortably and also be designed such that it could be easily swapped out with a fully charged unit when the batteries were drained.


Breaking out of the lab

It appears that Neuralink is creating an entirely new category in the market, but in fact, they are doing an amazing job of building upon a long line of academic research carried out over the last few decades. To better understand how Neuralink has been able to accomplish this, we decided to dive deeper and learn more about the history of BMIs.

One of the most popular existing BMI devices is called the Utah Array — it’s a chunky gadget used within laboratories and medical research environments that allows people to navigate keys: when they think up/down, right/left, the mouse moves to reflect their thoughts. It has 128 stiff electrodes in each array that is screwed into the patient’s head and then wired to a computer. Because of its large size and the awkward way that it hangs off a person’s head, it can only be used within hospitals and clinics.

Neuralink uses a similar approach, but is using advances in material science, robotics and microelectronics, so the product development team was able to make it in a far smaller and more flexible package. Also, whereas the Utah Array has 128 electrodes, Neuralink could support as many as 3072 electrodes. This creates a higher density of sensors, resulting in a device that can ‘read’ user’s intentions more effectively. So, with these possibilities, the Utah Array’s simplistic features seem like the tip of the iceberg. With higher bandwidth, more complex interactions will be possible.


A person using Utah Arrays to control a computer’s mouse cursor with their thoughts


Designing the Link

When we started designing the wearable device, there were no requirements that defined where the device needed to be mounted on the head. We consulted with Dr. Matthew McDougall, the Head Neurosurgeon at Neuralink, to better understand the surgical limitations of the Link placement. We understood that finding a rigid area of the skull with the least amount of soft tissue would be ideal, both in terms of making it easier for a user’s caregiver to apply the wearable to the user’s skin, as well as to ensure the best power and data transmission through the scalp.

Knowing that we needed to place the Link on the hard part of the skull, we also didn’t want to make people shave their hair or change their appearances (as they would have to do with the Utah Array). One location on the head that we learned was both rigid and hairless, was the mastoid process, a protruding bone directly behind your ear. We also liked the idea of putting the Link there because it would be partially hidden by the user’s earlobe, making it less intrusive in their daily lives. We consulted with Dr. McDougall and he gave us the green light.


Understanding comfort

After we understood where the device was going to be located, we wanted to understand how it would fit different ear and head shapes in order to check for comfort requirements. We knew that we didn’t want the Link to press up against the user’s earlobe, go over onto their hairline, or hang off of the mastoid process. To begin to get a better picture of the variation in head shapes, we 3D scanned the heads of about 30 volunteers.

To further improve on this data, we aggregated this data with a database of head shapes provided by the National Safety Council of America. It helped us to get an accurate idea of the features and critical dimensions of the average sized head to make sure that the design we came up with would fit as many different head shapes as possible.


As easy-to-use as AirPods 

It is likely that the first iteration of the product is going to be a wired version, making it so that people with paralysis would not need to swap out the Link every time the batteries run out of power. But as Elon Musk has mentioned before, there is a larger vision to enable all people to take advantage of the power of BMI’s. Neuralink imagines a future where a BMI will be an everyday product that is as easy to take on and off as a pair of Airpods.

The two step process of wearing a Link

In order to achieve that level of seamlessness, we came up with an innovative two-step method to wear the device: First, users would apply a magnetic silicone patch behind their ear that was strong enough to stay on for at least a week. We worked with 3M for several months to find the right adhesive that is capable of sticking to skin for seven days without peeling off.

Second, users could place the Link close to the magnetic patch and it would self-locate to the patch — thanks to the magnets. This seamless hot swap was a critical feature to introduce, since the Link needs to be replaced every 3 hours with a freshly-charged unit.


Diving into the brain’s magical future

In the long run, Neuralink’s mission is to “help secure humanity’s future as a civilization relative to AI.” It means that years from now, some version of Neuralink may become available to the general public. If and when that day comes, there will be a period of adjustment as people get used to living with those who choose to have augmented thinking.

Though this future sounds shocking and frightening to some, it’s not that surprising if we look closely at the history of user interfaces. For the last half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, our ways of interacting with computers has become more seamless and intuitive than ever before. We’ve evolved from using keyboards, to mice, to pens, to our fingers, to our voices, and the next logical step is totally frictionless interaction controlling computer interfaces just with our brain. Neuralink is one of the leaders in this space, and it was an honor, as well as an exciting challenge, to design a device that may define the next era of computing.

Afshin Mehin, Anna Savina

Designing technology products in 2020 is not an easy task. From kids with phone addictions to increased state surveillance, we’ve seen the huge impact that tech has on people’s lives and society as a whole. That’s why it’s so important to make sure that if we’re going to work on a new tech product, it’s got to have a net-positive impact.

As we kick off the new year, we’ve taken a moment to step back from our day-to-day to take stock of what matters to us, and think about the type of studio we want to be moving forward. This perspective not only helps us better filter the projects we take on, but also gives us a clearer vision of how we’d like to execute on them. Here are a few things we look for when vetting whether a new project is a good fit for us:


Make something original

This is a timeless requirement for creatives and as a team that loves creating new human experiences this one ranks number one for good reason. Whether it’s a food delivery robot or a brain–computer interface, we love making products and experiences that the world has never seen. So when a client frames a new project as “Uber but for X” or “a device that needs to look just like an Apple product,” it’s often a warning sign that the final product will not be very original. We agree that great companies deeply understand their market’s needs, which is why these projects are often framed this way, but we strongly believe that in general people gravitate towards people, products, and brands with unique voices.


Always try to go from zero to one

This title is borrowed from Peter Thiel’s book “Zero to One”. Making a new product consumes a lot of time, a lot of capital, and a lot of the planet’s resources. Therefore, if we’re going to invest all this, we should know that the end product will create a ton of value for people. In other words, the benefits a product provides will produce are a step function in improvement for people.


 Don’t create digital crack cocaine

Habits are incredibly difficult to break. That’s why it’s really important that people form positive habits. In the last several years, technology has been building some pretty terrible habits, whether it’s young kids glued to iPads or middle-aged people not getting enough exercise. We believe it’s important to use technology to enable healthier bodies and minds, whether it’s allowing people to better manage their screen time or encouraging more physical activity. These habits will result in a higher quality of life and stronger social bonds between people.


 Wag your long tail

Historically, huge markets have been great. The more you sell, the more money you make. The downside is in the process of trying to identify a target group within that giant market in which a lot of people have been averaged out to become a big, beige, generic goop of a market. In terms of providing inspiration for our design team, we often get more inspiration when designing for what Chris Anderson calls the “long tail,” a term referring to selling a smaller volume of product to a larger number of diverse niches. This reframing of what a market is has helped spawn companies that intentionally design for new market segments that were previously ignored. One great example of this has been the Walker and Company brands, which specifically create grooming products for people of color. The best part about a company like this is that not only are they doing good, but they’ve also been building a great business in the process, getting acquired by Procter and Gamble in 2019.


 Get good at zooming out

As designers, our ability to zoom in and out of a design problem is one of our superpowers. But more and more, our ability to zoom out will be vital to making systemic changes through our design. This ability to zoom out allows us to understand the larger context of our work and identify our intellectual blind spots. Once we can identify these blind spots, we can work with experts in other fields to help fill them. This can include connecting with materials scientists, recycling operators, and policymakers to better understand the future opportunities and challenges that different technological or social shifts could enable.


 Don’t treat manufacturers like vendors

As the manufacturing industries slowly transition from a take–make–dispose model to a more circular model over the decades to come, it will be increasingly important to find partners that are able to combine resource-smart production processes with the highest-quality materials. Knowledge of these process and material innovations will not be equally distributed among manufacturers, so the process of finding these manufacturers and material vendors and building strong relationships with them will be vital to making a larger impact.


Imagine where products go when they die

In order to really understand a product’s net effect, we need to consider its entire lifecycle. This extended perspective means we start from understanding where the raw materials for a product come from and follow through to discovering how the product is disposed of at the end of its life. This perspective is something that policymakers are also tuned into as governments start enforcing extended producer responsibility legislation, requiring brands to take responsibility for how their product gets disposed of after people are done using it.



Our hope: bringing meaning to everyday life

Our hope is that our process and approach to choosing design projects allow us to create products that help people be both more productive and more connected to the world in a meaningful way. We hope to develop technology that provides the greatest value to people without having a negative impact on the planet. We believe in technology that empowers people to do things that make them feel alive and, ultimately, creates space to feel more human. 

Words by Heba Malaeb and  Afshin Mehin, Illustrations by Giovanna Giuliano

One of my guilty pleasures is watching videos of people walking with their eyes glued to their phone screens, when suddenly they fall down a staircase, bump into a lamppost, trip into a fountain, or collide with a fellow pedestrian. It’s hilarious, and if the countless video compilations of texting-and-walking-fails are an indication, it’s more common than you think. To most of us, it seems like technology is pretty great at disconnecting us from our physical surroundings; so it might be counter-intuitive to think that tech could actually help heighten our experience of the outdoors, and create stronger connections between people and their environment.

As a studio that has one foot in beautiful British Columbia and the other in Silicon Valley, we spend a lot of time thinking about the relationship between the outdoors and technology. From GPS to Pokémon GO, all kinds of digital technologies have become a commonplace part of the outdoor experience. Through the use of tech, people are interacting with nature and the outdoors in increasingly varied ways. As designers, we’re always seeking to better understand these interactions, and the needs and motivations of the people having them.

The technominimalist

The classic user of technology in the outdoors has always been the technominimalist, who seeks the outdoors as a way to escape modern life and get in touch with their pre-Twitter brains. They do this by scaling back their technology to the bare essentials — ironically, if you’re hoping to “unplug”, there are apps for that. Cairn is one app that allows you to download maps in advance for easy offline access, and offers real-time location tracking as well as information on where to find cell service. The app also automatically alerts your “safety circle” if you’re overdue for a check-in, sharing with them pertinent details about your route.




If a tree falls…

The most recent and widespread example of digital technology intermixing with the outdoors is happening on Instagram. For many, a great hike into the woods or a walk by the ocean would not be complete without posting it to Instagram. As a result, parks have seen a significant rise in number of visitors, as well as increasingly diverse crowds. People are also becoming better observers of nature, albeit through the lens of their camera phones. But this hasn’t been without consequence, whether it’s death by selfie or natural landscapes suffering from too much traffic because of geotagging. Yet people continue to document and share their time outside with their followers — and who of us hasn’t vicariously enjoyed an Instagram-story hike on a lazy Sunday morning in bed? 

Digital daredevils

But for the IRL-adventure-inclined, technology can help keep thrill-seeking safe — enabling extreme fun without extreme danger. Experienced climbers, hikers, and explorers can rely on advanced outdoor tech like avalanche beacons and GPS devices that provide real-time tracking and SOS features, which can be life-saving in emergency situations. GPS gadgets can even be repurposed for lower-intensity outdoor applications; for example, LynQ’s People Compass is a friend-tracker that is as useful at a music festival as it is on a mountain. 

Training by numbers

For the performance-driven who go outdoors to train and push their physical limits, tech acts as a way to get deeper in touch with their bodies, by providing insight into their heart rate, speed, distance tracked, etc. When we worked on the Recon Jet smart glasses UX, we wanted to create an experience that allowed competitive cyclists and runners to easily glance at their body data while training. Similarly, sports watches like those from Polar and Suunto offer specialized features to fit specific user needs — whether that’s a barometric altimeter or an underwater heart rate monitor. This kind of outdoor tech gives users access to detailed data logs of their own performance, lending an extra level of rigor to their training.

Nature educators

Others venturing outdoors might want increased insight into nature itself — using technology almost like a digital magnifying glass. A quick look in the App Store shows tens of plant-identification apps (one popular one is the Seek app) you could download  to have an on-the-go learning tool. For these users with calm and inquisitive minds, our studio designed Tzoa, an environment tracker that measures air quality and particulate matter. Through demystifying something as intangible as air, Tzoa allows users to engage with their surroundings more deeply, and gain new understandings of their environment.  And sometimes tech even encourages people to go outside in the first place; for example, scavenger-hunt-style geocaching games use GPS technology to lead players to certain locations where items are hidden. According to personal testimony and subsequent studies, the AR game Pokémon GO had an unintended positive effect on players’ mental health, by incentivizing outdoor exploration, necessitating social interaction, and giving players an increased sense of purpose.

For millennia the interaction between humans and nature has driven scientific advancement, philosophical thought, and just plain enjoyment. As with all new tools, it’s important to find ways to adapt technology to serve different types of needs, contexts, and situations. And as a future-facing design studio that prioritizes user experience, we view each new project as an opportunity to connect people to the outdoors in new ways — and an opportunity to get out into the great outdoors ourselves!