December 11, 2012, by Jenny Gallow

Design in a Digital Age

I spent Thanksgiving with my immediate family (Mom, Dad, Sister, Brother, and our significant others). After dinner we were all sitting in the living room and started laughing realizing that the coffee table was littered with 6 iPhones and 3 iPads. We spent the evening with the answer to all questions at our finger tips and the ability to see friends and family over FaceTime. The world and most things we loved were either in that room or within reach due to these devices.

My guess is your family isn't that different than mine … or at least you aren't surprised by it.

My generation (the nearing 30 crowd) is thought of as quite tech-savvy. We got our first computer when we were 10 (Gateway Destination System, anyone?)… first cell phone when we learned to drive … and now don't remember a life without all of these toys …

But we did have a life without them (before them). Our toys required batteries, not WiFi. Our TVs had an On/Off button, not 7+  inputs. Our music came out of big chunky headphones, not ear buds.

The generations coming after mine don't have such a reality - they truly are the "digital natives." Having lunch in Qdoba today a 3 year old played some sort of alphabet game on her Mom's iPhone (at least I hope it was her Mom's, although I guess I wouldn't be surprised if 3 year olds now had iPhones???). As designers of public spaces - often K-12 schools, these are our clients. We are now designing for children and students who have never been without Skype, Facebook, or Wikipedia.

Anyway, I use all of these stories to transition into a struggle so many of our clients are having these days (schools, public libraries, etc). When our youth can learn anywhere - on any device - what is the future of our public buildings? I think the answer is very simple - and again ties back to that Thanksgiving night around our coffee table. We talked with family on FaceTime … but what did we say? "Wish you were here!" The social interactions we get in our homes, schools, libraries … etc. ... are something that can never be fully duplicated digitally. Public Libraries are turning into Community Centers where it's more about what you can do there, not just about what you can check out. Schools are more about experiential learning and hands on activities, not just about lecture and independent study.

As we continue to move forward into this digital age I think it is important for designers (and facility owners) to hold onto the fact that the spaces we create are the foundation for these very real moments of interaction - and that's pretty cool.