Written By Anna Savina

For several decades, we used digital design tools to help us create real-world products. As new technologies like VR, AR, and broadband streaming became more accessible, a lot of designers are creating products that only exist in the digital world with manufacturing as one of the options. 

This process is also being accelerated by COVID: people spend much more time in the immersive digital environments (like games, productivity tools, or fitness apps) and are more likely to spend money on surrounding themselves with interesting digital objects. 

Is real-world design becoming obsolete? In this article, we will explore the possibilities that designing for the virtual world gives us and how industrial designers can stay relevant in this new setup.  

How it started: 3D tools and the dawn of contemporary industrial design 

CAD or Computer Aided Design systems first appeared in the 1960s, but they didn’t fully take off until the 1990s when Autodesk and Silicon Graphics software was widely adopted. At the time, personal computers started becoming ubiquitous and CAD tools as well as software applications like 3Ds Max were finally available to the majority of designers, animators, and architects.  

Since the dawn of computer graphics, the 3D design field has always moved in several directions. First, there were a lot of tools that helped create physical products. Surprisingly, in the 90s computer aided design was being judged for how it inhibited the creativity of designers and computers were seen as stunting the creative output of a designer. But over time, the gap between the reality and the way it’s represented in the digital world was getting smaller and smaller — each new iteration of design software was becoming more intuitive and allowing the designers to create more realistic renderings of their concepts.

In addition to design tools for architects and industrial designers, the proliferation of 3D tools allowed whole new industries to flourish — now we have 3D animation, video games, and special effects in movies. Technologies allowed creators and storytellers to build narratives and engage the audience through character design and game dynamics — for example, Autodesk tools were used for creating special effects for movies like Titanic, Inception, Avatar, and many other box office hits. 

Industrial design is moving away from physical-first 

In the past decade, there have been more artists and designers who don’t see 3D tools as means to creating physical objects or telling stories within the canons of the entertainment industry. Digital art is as old as the internet itself, but in the past decade we have seen at least two big movements that were particularly memorable. 

Dolce & Gabbana auctioned a nine-piece collection of digital NFTs alongside some actual couture for a total of 1,886 Ether.

First, there was a post-internet art boom of the early 2010s with artists like Jon Rafman using 3D graphics regularly as part of his practice (he often combined these graphics with installations and other mediums). And second, there is an NFT boom that we are witnessing right now. It’s enabled by blockchain technology that is allowing a lot of digital artists to create and sell their unique digital artwork without producing any physical pieces. 

The NFT boom has also encouraged a lot of designers to experiment with the new Medium — for example, this February Andrés Reisinger who is known for his surreal furniture renderings, sold ten of his pieces for a combined $450,000. His designs were deemed ‘impossible’ — Reisinger’s beautiful renderings show chairs and couches made out of thousands of flower petals, bubble gum, and other unusual materials. 

One of the chairs that Reisinger created — his famous 2018 render, Hortensia chair, was later adapted for mass production by Moooi. This is believed to be ‘the first  product designed for the digital world has gone into mass production.’ What does this mean for industrial design? This is a full circle moment — for decades, designers were creating objects for the physical world and using digital tools to help us along the way. Now the physical world is not a destination — it’s an afterthought. 

It’s not unusual for furniture designers to blur the boundaries between art and design — in the past decades, the novelty in this space was mostly achieved through experimentation with materials and form, not a function (a chair is a chair is a chair). What’s new is our ability to create these 3D objects that are only possible in the digital world. We then expect manufacturers to follow without considering any material limitations that industrial designers have always been dealing with. 

The rising tension between digital and material

The story of Moooi and Andrés Reisinger’s design sets an interesting precedent for generations of designers who were taught that it’s critical to understand a medium at its deepest level to create good products. Moreover, renderings were often seen as a cover up for poorly designed things. A beautiful rendering could hide imperfections of a real product and mask bad decisions made by a designer who hasn’t truly mastered their medium yet. 

We see not just how digital representation of something is replacing the final product itself, but also how the value of digital products is rising — Reisinger’s digital armchairs cost more than the majority of luxury armchairs available in the real world. Similarly, the world’s first digital couture dress was sold for $9,500 which is far more expensive than a lot of designer clothes made with fine materials and hundreds of hours invested in manufacturing. 

It’s not surprising that a lot of people start to see more value in digital products than before. Thanks to new technologies, a lot of household products that were widely used just 10-20 years ago are becoming obsolete (think CDs, USB sticks, tapes, phonebooks, stationary, film cameras, etc.). We are also spending much more time online and having much more fun, especially with new VR headsets, better interfaces, and faster broadband connection. 

2020 was a sad and traumatizing year, but industries like gaming grew and attracted new audiences that are likely to invest in their digital presence. Though digital couture is not super popular yet, people spend a more modest amount of money on ‘skins’ in popular games like Fortnite. Experts predict the market for “skins” in video games will reach $50 billion USD by 2026. This comes as no surprise as we spend more and more time immersed into digital experiences, and as our homes before that, these spaces give us a sense of safety, allowing us to express ourselves, and provide entertainment value. 

Finding more meaning in the world of objects, online and offline in design

As industrial designers, we’ve assumed the physical world is more important than the digital one, and our beliefs were confirmed by consumer habits. People with disposable income invested in status symbols that are easily noticeable in real life: a piece of jewelry, a Rolex watch, an expensive car or a big house. In 2021, our lifestyle is changing, and with new technologies allowing for greater experimentation, we are getting to a point where the digital world seems like it’s eclipsing the physical world in importance. Now we have tools to buy and sell exclusive digital artworks and objects that become a new equivalent of the exclusive luxury items of the past. 

So what does this mean for the industrial design industry and for consumer’s everyday lives? It’s easy to imagine a dystopian vision for the future where we fully move into the digital world, don’t own anything, and only invest in good computers and digital goods. It’s true that a lot of industrial design (and especially consumer electronics) is moving towards miniaturization or even complete obsolescence of certain goods, but that’s just a part of the picture. But as industrial designers we believe that the physical world is not going anywhere. Living in a virtual world allows us to experience things that are visually rich yet lack the ability to engage our tactile senses. This tactility is something that we value as humans because it’s such a huge part of what makes us human.

Yet products of the future will surely look different as we continue experimenting with digital artworks and objects. For one thing we’ll be able to leverage digital objects to better test new product ideas and gauge an audience’s interest before investing in high volume manufacturing. Secondly, we’ll also want to surround ourselves with less physical objects, and instead opt for things made with a much higher standard of quality. With this rebalancing of importance between physical and digital reality, people are reframing the way physical and digital products fit into their lives. Our hope moving forward is that both platforms will continue to be celebrated for their strengths to provide people with useful and meaningful experiences.


As a studio, we are guided by our curiosity around futuristic technology, and a dedication to approaching design problems with empathy, poetry, and mysticism. We are constantly striving to better define who we are, to better shape the world around us. Aligning ourselves with a true sense of optimism and purpose is what drives us to constantly explore new depths of innovation. It is what allows us to see further into the future. 

Our studio is inspired to look into the future based on events in the past. Back in the 1950’s, our founder Afshin Mehin’s grandfather, Hormozd, made a name for himself as a talented palm reader in his small town in Iran. Although he was first and foremost known for his palm reading skills, he always kept around a curious set of round fortune telling cards, called the Ganjifa. They were covered in suits and characters Afshin had never seen before on playing cards, and instead of 52 cards, there were 78 in total; 78 cards to see the future. But what lay beyond the 78th card?

As a design studio that is creating things that have not existed before, we are Card79.

We believe that the best design is like fortune-telling. 

Fortune tellers inhabit the space between what is and what could be. It is in this space that we, as a studio, thrive. At Card79 we are dedicated to having a hand in shaping that unformed space, bridging it, and helping others envision it as well. 

It’s not enough to just see the future; we give it a distinctive form and thoughtfully design its interactions with users. At the core of what we create is a humility and a dedication to the needs and experiences of our users as well as our clients. With our strong ability to understand what people want in a product, we endeavor to make future technology something people both today and tomorrow are excited about. From early concept to production, we take a beautiful design and find a way to bring it into the real world. We shape the future by grounding the present in an atmosphere of progress.

Because of human nature’s innate tendency to innovate, the future is constantly evolving. There is no limit to what might be real in a few years’ time — the times we live in attest to that. Our job as a studio is to help define what the world will look like when forward-thinking ideas, new scientific discoveries, and technological innovations meet user-centered products and experiences.

To tell the future, one must be guided by more than an inkling or an inclination. We are deeply rooted in spaces of innovation, and fueled by our drive to create the most beautiful and integrated interfaces between new (and sometimes unfamiliar) technology, and human users. Sitting across from a fortune teller requires a little bit of faith in the magic of the process — and ours is one that we have spent years refining. At Card79, we work to have the foresight — and vision — to imagine the future, and the skills and tools to create it.

Telling the future also requires a willingness to engage with the undefined, and all the risks entailed in that. By using a more agile mind and being more ready to make connections, a fortune teller can more vividly see what is coming. Their prowess lies not just in seeing the future but in speaking it out loud; conveying it as an answer to a question. While we as a studio remain grounded in the physical world, devoted to responding to scientific discovery, the spirit of mysticism and scrying gives us the framework to achieve greater conceptual leaps and intellectual clarity in our process.

We believe that human intuition and creativity are a powerful thing when honed correctly, and the fortune teller applies those ways of seeing the world in what they do. But what makes a good fortune teller is the ability to make the future resonate with the present. At the core of what we do as a studio is a dedication to human experience, and we work to ensure that the future is not only graspable, but approachable. 

At Card79 we are informed by the past and the present, while remaining unfettered by them. We use our global perspective and longstanding experience in designing futuristic technology, to deliver compelling, carefully considered products worthy of the future. When all the cards have said what they have to say, Card79 points down the path yet untold; after all, the future — mesmerizing, daunting, and unknowable as it may be — is a human invention.

“A thought-based interface is the ability to engage with technology, interface with it, not using your fingers to type, not using your voice to speak, but simply using your mind to think.” 

Last month, Afshin Mehin, our founder and lead designer, sat down with the hosts of the Liftoff by Bottle Rocket podcast to have a colorful conversation about the future of Thought-Based Interfaces. The conversation went in a lot of interesting directions asking questions like: what would thought-based interfaces be good for? What are thoughts exactly anyways? How will we interact with thought-based interfaces? And what are the ethical Implications of thought-based interfaces? The full podcast is available to listen here, otherwise you can read the condensed version of our conversation below.

As a studio we’ve always been interested in new technologies that can change the way that we live our lives. We worked with Neuralink for the last couple of years to carry out the industrial design for the Neuralink wearable implantable device as well as the outer enclosure of their surgical robot. After completing the work for Neuralink, the Card79 team took it upon themselves to start to ask themselves what the User Experience of a Brain Computer Interface could feel like and what it would be good for.

Brain computer interfaces have been around for a while and there is presently a huge push within the scientific neuroscience and neurotech community to better understand how to create interfaces for people with limited physical capabilities who can use BCI’s to improve their daily lives. During these developments, these scientists and engineers are digging deeper into how the brain works and trying to create a holistic understanding of how the brain works.

The Liftoff Podcast conversation looks at this from a designers perspective asking how this technology could impact people’s lives in both positive and negative ways and what the user experience might look like for both people using this technology as an assistive technology as well as broader applications that could also apply to non-disabled people. 

Have a listen!

For more information about Liftoff: https://hubs.li/H0Bq3T40 

Written By: Anna Savina, Afshin Mehin

Illustrations by: Cynthia Tran Vo

Earlier this year, Card79 was a part of CES, the biggest consumer electronics show in the U.S. We introduced a new product that we had worked on — a humble garbage disposal unit for Sepura Home. We collaborated with them to design a new type of garburator that could securely store compostable food matter until people are ready to dispose of it or put it in the garden plot. We were really proud of the result, but some people at the show commented on the fact that it wasn’t “smart” enough because it wasn’t as connected as other devices.

Back in January, we brushed this criticism off, but the pandemic and the pressures to stay home made us think about this story more and more. How do we define what ‘smart’ means during and after the pandemic? Does smart equal better? And how we can make products for the home relevant to our new reality? Here is our exploration of how we can design home devices for the post-pandemic world.  

A Dream Of Smart Homes

Though it seems like the idea of ‘smart homes’ is fairly new, the idea of devices that have improved our quality of life have been around for decades. The majority of home appliances that we use today (think of dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, food processors, etc.) were popularized in the first half of the 20th century and caught on because of how they were able to free up people’s time. Despite the fact that they were not “smart” by today’s standards, they still made a big impact on people’s lives and got people thinking about what was next for technology in that field. 

Both inventors and sci-fi authors started imagining automated homes — spaces that use advanced technology to make people free of chores. After WWII, this dream started coming to life. In 1966, the ECHO IV, or Electronic Computing Home Operator, was built. It was able to turn the stereo system on and off, set an alarm, and control’s home temperature.

In the 80s, the idea of a smart home gained more traction as the National Association of Home Builders created a special interest group called “Smart House” to advocate for this new technology and popularize it with designers and architects. 

In the 90s, as computers started to get connected to the Internet, the concept of smart started to seem more attainable than ever. Fast-growing tech companies like Microsoft started thinking about the way devices can be connected, and in 1999, Kevin Ashton coined the term ‘Internet of Things.’ For him, the progress in this field is closely associated with new ‘sensing’ technologies. ‘In the twentieth century, computers were brains without senses […] There is many billion times more information in the world than people could possibly type in through a keyboard or scan with a barcode.’

The Microsoft infomercial from the 90s shows a lot of technologies that would become widely available in the 2010s (for example, touch ID and face recognition). Moreover, the main value proposition stayed the same: smart homes promised too ‘change and improve our lives.’

Everything Connected: The IOT( Internet of Things) Boom Of The 2010s 

In 2010, the promises of the 90s became a reality. That year, Nest introduced its first smart thermostat. It was the first product in a long line of home innovations that became staples of the modern home, from Amazon Echo to Philips Hue.  

This new generation of devices turned a lot of visions of the 90s into reality, but they still lacked a lot of features needed for a truly seamless experience. ‘Smart home systems often have gaps in their functionality, leading to disjointed experiences and at times causing users to abandon them altogether’, writes Veronika Ji, Senior Strategist at frog. ( frog design?)

Without an industry standard or a shared platform, it was hard to create a sense of control over the user’s home. ‘I believe the next generation of smart home will also need to be truly context-aware, which means understanding a user’s situation (e.g., whether the user is home alone or with others) and being able to make intelligent interaction decisions accordingly,’ adds Veronika. 

Privacy and safety are other important concerns that became more prominent in the 2010s. Many companies’ data collection practices lacked transparency. In 2015, Samsung got a lot of criticism for a passage in Samsung Smart TV privacy policy that warned users to avoid discussing sensitive topics near the device. As smart home devices become more common, their users’ awareness of potential drawbacks and privacy issues also grew.    

Innovation Post-2020: What Makes a Product Smart

Here at Card79, we believe that it’s time to redefine what ‘smart’ means in the context of home devices, and, more broadly, consumer electronics. It looks like the overall trajectory is changing. A lot of features of the smart home devices from the past were designed to enable busy working lifestyle — your smart home was there, waiting for you to come back from work. It greeted you with turning on the lights and setting the right temperature. Post-COVID, as we are spending more time at home, our priorities change. Our home is our whole world, and we need new devices to accommodate our new lifestyle. 

For us, ‘smart’ is about innovation, usability, and efficiency. The pandemic and the climate crisis are demonstrating that the world doesn’t need more gadgets for us to play with. We need sustainable devices for our home to quantify and understand our environment and use our resources wisely. 

When we think about what ‘smart’ means in 2020, there are several aspects of that term that we want to focus on and highlight: 

In one of the episodes of Mr. Robot, a TV show that ran between 2015 and 2019, one of the characters was attacked by hackers. Her smart home suddenly started ‘acting out’: the temperature dropped, the water in the shower turned boiling hot, and the phones started ringing. The owner has to flee the house, allowing hackers to enter it. 

Though the technologies shown in the episode weren’t available at the time, Mr. Robot illustrated a common fear associated with smart homes. Smart home devices gather data about people and environments, and the episode showed how the home was able to use this data against the owner. 

What we hope to see in the future is more transparency around the ways data is being collected and how it’s used. Otherwise, we risk encountering these fictional scenarios in real life where we don’t know if the smart home is really acting in your best interest or prioritizing the interests of the companies trying to sell their goods and services.

Creating more immersive experiences. The pandemic showed that although a lot of smart home devices are connected to the internet, they don’t present us with opportunities to feel immersed in certain experiences. 

Mirror is one of the good examples that represent devices that are focused on providing this type of experience and entertainment rather than bare utility. This startup selling full-length mirrors that can also act as an interactive home gym was bought by Lululemon for $500 million this June. Unlike VR-headsets, these devices don’t allow their users to lose connection with their physical reality, but they represent an experience that we have previously had outside of our home in a pretty believable way. 

In the future, we may see more immersive experiences and entertainment. Not just for workouts, but for watching sports, interacting with your friends, attending events, etc. As broadband speeds are getting higher, it will be easier to stream better quality videos and give people access to events and happenings that only existed in real life before. 

Using new materials and building for sustainability. When creating smart home devices, it’s important for designers to focus on sustainable materials and production techniques. We need to design the ‘end of life’ experience and avoid planned obsolescence. Over the last 5 years, we’ve seen examples of where this hasn’t been a priority. In 2016, when Nest acquired Revolv, a company building smart home hubs, they permanently disabled the platform, rendering the Revolv smart hubs as essentially useless. 

A more inspiring example is with the smart watch Pebble. Despite the fact that it’s not a home device, its story gives us an insight into how the future of smart home electronics could look like. Released in 2013 and discontinued in 2016, Pebble got a devoted fan base that kept the platform alive years after it’s shutdown. This kind of scenario is far from perfect, but it does shows how truly useful products can and should survive  beyond the teams that created them.   

Home Devices In The Post-Pandemic World 

We believe that COVID is helping us redefine our expectations for home comfort and efficiency. It’s a chance for designers and builders to create the next generation of devices that solve the challenges of the past. Whether you are designing utilitarian products that make people’s life easier amidst the pandemic, protect them, or entertain them, it’s a chance to build devices that are more sustainable, autonomous, and safe than what they were before. This indeed feels like what smart really is.


This article is adapted from a talk that our founder, Afshin Mehin, gave at the Interior Design Show Conference in Vancouver this October. The topic was “Natural Wonder”; Afshin spoke about humans as a part of nature, and the delicate line between natural and unnatural technologies when designing futuristic tech. 

Because humankind often acts in opposition to the natural environment, and sometimes in ways that even violate it, we tend to think of nature as external to us; so we might forget that humans are, by necessity, a part of nature — and a significant one. At Card79, our primary lens when designing new products is the human experience. Our main emphasis as a studio is future-oriented technology: autonomous vehicles, brain chips, fitness rings, wearables, to name a few. But first and foremost,  we are a human-centered design studio, that uses empathy and an understanding of people’s wants and needs to inspire and guide our design process.

Yet technology has long been positioned or regarded as unnatural; so we asked ourselves: by designing futuristic tech that gets pretty intimate with humans in their everyday lives, are we actually intervening on something that should not be tampered with? 

Elusive nature

When you think of nature, one of the most obviously “natural” things that might come to mind is a forest, especially if we consider nature as that which is untouched by human technology. But a park, which is basically a simulacrum of a forest or meadow, is a manipulation of nature for our own satisfaction, designed to create leisure space for our own pleasure. So parks, which feel pretty natural to a lot of us, could actually be considered quite the opposite. 

The fine line

As with parks, some common forms of modifying nature are normalized and accepted, like genetic engineering in the form of dog breeding; but with 1996 the cloning of Dolly the sheep, society as a whole quickly jumped to decry it as too unnatural. Thus when a modification to nature is too unknown or outlandish, the more obviously unnatural it seems.

Closer to us than parks and dog breeding, are the tools that humans have built for ourselves – like a bicycle that allows us to zoom through the wilderness, or a kayak in the ocean allowing us to float, or even just the miracle of shoes. Though technically an “unnatural” adaptation, they are integral parts of our everyday lives; ones we couldn’t imagine living without. This complicates our definition of nature, and highlights how blurry the distinction of natural vs. unnatural is. When have the tools we’ve created to augment ourselves “gone too far”? 

Upgrades, uproar

Throughout history, there has been a prevalent fear of new technologies when they are first introduced. Books, the telephone, cinema, VHS – all had their detractors, critics, and dedicated paranoiacs. Even amongst inventors themselves, tensions ran high; in the late 1800s Thomas Edison, whose businesses utilized DC power, ran a brutal campaign in order to discredit his competitors in Alternating Current. This involved travelling around from city to city and publically electrocuting stray dogs and cats, to create fear and indignation about the dangers of new technology. 

Unnatural Technologies: Apple Smart Watch

Fast forwarding to today, the same uproar occurred when wearable technology first came on the scene. Before the first smart watch even hit the shelves, there was fear that wearable tech would have negative impacts on our health. The New York Times published a 2015 article that suggested smart watches could cause health issues like cancer. Slate’s Phil Plait was quick to respond that there was still no reliable evidence that suggests wearable technology causes any form of cancer – nor any other illness. The NYT amended their article with multiple editor’s notes and a headline change, admitting that the original (“Could Wearable Computers Be as Harmful as Cigarettes?”) “went too far in suggesting any such comparison.” 

Nature vs. …?

A lot of our own products, especially those that augment the human body, could also be looked at through this lens of natural vs. unnatural. As humans, it is in our nature to modify nature. And nature itself is constantly optimizing; a perfect system of push, pull, give, and take – it is nature’s own tendency to evolve.

Without the interdependence of the elements of nature, we humans work inside a collective consciousness led by market factors, technological possibilities, and our own human compassion. The trick is to balance the three to offer people a better quality of life.

Wiivv For example, with Wiivv, we created sandals with highly individualized orthotic inserts created through 3D printing and scanning, to make a perfect fitting sandal that corrects a person’s specific foot shape shortcomings.

Kokoon – We worked with Kokoon to create a pair of headphones that are sculpted to be comfortable enough to sleep in. That meant we had to consider different profiles that would not create pressure points while people were tossing and turning in bed; we also incorporated technology that reads your brain waves in order to adjust the audio feedback to match up with the stage of sleep you’re in. 

Unnatural Technology: Recon Glasses

Mio With Mio, we developed a wrist-worn tracker that would make it easier for people to track their heart health via a proprietary heart tracking algorithm. We worked on both the app and the device in order to create a unified experience for the user, and help them understand the status of their heart in real time. It’s easy to overlook the “unnaturalness” of having visibility into the most important organ known to keep you alive, in favor of the benefits of that ability.

Recon – We worked with the team at Recon to create a pair of cycling and running sunglasses that would place a tiny computer screen right at the corner of your eye for an accessible drip feed of your own body data while training. Though the idea of having a computer strapped to our heads feels scary and uncomfortable for some, it’s not that different from using a pair of headphones.

Going within

Our most boundary-pushing project, however, is the Neuralink N1, a wearable that would allow people to control devices with just their thoughts. We had to think both about the device unobtrusively fitting the anatomy of the skull, and about the surgical procedure that would install it. We designed the device to be as out of sight as possible, hidden behind the ear, to dispel users’ fears of looking different or “unnatural”. 

Unnatural Tech: Neuralink N1 Wearable

Because the Neuralink process actually is placing electronics inside your brain, a pretty invasive process, it forced us to think about what is means to be natural. But when we zoomed out to consider the applications for this, it began to feel a lot more acceptable; the main initial user of Neuralink will be paralysis patients, who would use this technology for more independence in their daily tasks, without having to always rely on a caretaker. 

Designing the robot that actually carries out the surgery gave us strong insight into the actual procedure of placing electronic threads inside the skull in order to read and write information. This also made us pause and think whether this was too unnatural. But we believe that creating something that empowers people by enabling them to do things they otherwise could not will always be a good thing. Another point of reassurance was hearing from Elon Musk that the process is reversible, allowing people to return to their “natural” selves if they wish it, or if Neuralink doesn’t exist in ten years’ time due to the improvement of Technology.

Designing (un)natural technologies

As designers of a lot of technology that interfaces with the body, we found that as soon as we design something that goes beneath the skin, we start to feel differently about it – possibly we don’t trust our own contraptions as much as we trust the inherent intelligence of nature. But we’ve also found that it has a lot to do with the faculty of our body that we’re designing for. Changing a limb feels very different to altering someone’s brain, where we assume human consciousness resides. The last thing we would want to do is create a device that will plug us into the matrix and strip us of our free will. 

At the same time, this technology allowing you to send and receive data with your thoughts is creating an entirely new category of interface design. And as a studio that is designing both products and interfaces, there is nothing more exciting than being at the forefront of exploring a completely new discipline of design, which we are calling “thought-based user interfaces” for now. 

Whether the technology has already been integrated into our lives, or will be in the next 10 years, we love being part of creating things that we have not yet lived with, or still can’t imagine. And we believe that because these new technologies are created by humans, they will become a natural part of our everyday lives. 

The future is a human invention

What makes us unique as a species is not only our ability to imagine the future, but our ability to envision a reality that is better than the one we’re living in right now, and advance and innovate towards it. The future is not something we should fear, but something that we should be cautiously and optimistically approaching. Cautiously, because we have to constantly evaluate our near- and long-term impacts. And optimistically, because this is what makes us truly different from every other species: our ability to seek and shape new developments in the world around us.

Our job, then, is to leverage new technologies in respectful and intentional ways, in favor of beneficial, and humane, advancements that tread lightly on natural ground.

Unnatural Tech: Neuralink Robot

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 Card79, 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.

Gather Project by Woke Design Studio
Photo Credit: Gwenael Lewis

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. 

Designing for the Future | Woke Design Studio
Photo Credit: Iman Khalili

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. 

Designing for the Future | Woke Design Studio