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3D, simpler WordPress, machine learning, & better freelancing: design & tech predictions for 2017

The annual predictions from Envato’s CEO, Collis.

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Image: Envato co-founders Cyan (left) and Collis (right).
Image: Envato co-founders Cyan (left) and Collis (right).

When I worked as a web designer, I was fascinated by how design trends changed each year. Since hanging up my design boots and focusing on being CEO of Envato, my focus has shifted from visual trends, to industry and technology ones. As I did in 2014 and 2015, here’s my take on where the world is moving!

3D entering the designer’s toolkit

Project Felix from Adobe

3D is inexorably headed our way, and it’s coming in many forms.

First, we’re about to see a pretty decent set of 3D/2D compositing tools come out of Adobe in the form of Project Felix (alpha). Do designers want 3D? For graphic design work, I think the answer is very much yes. We recently partnered with the 3D giant Turbosquid to offer rotatable layered 3D renders in our Envato Elements subscription and have seen thousands of downloads in the following days.

For browser-based web design, we’ve got WebGL for serious applications, and CSS 3D Transformations for neat tricks. These aren’t new, but their usage is still pretty novel. Here’s a nice write-up with some eye opening inspiration from last year.

And finally, there is of course VR/AR interfaces on their way. With WebVR (visit Mozilla’s portal), A-Frame, and the freshly pre-released ReactVR, the tooling for creating UI for this new medium is evolving steadily. But don’t be fooled, just because these tools make use of familiar technologies, doesn’t mean working in this new space will be a simple cross-over. FastCo has a great write-up on just how far the mental jump is.

It’s never been a better time to start scrubbing up your 3D skills. Whether it’s just for making sweet looking graphics, experimenting with browser-based interfaces, or going in the deep end to invent the future of interaction.

Lots of tools, more market consolidation

Lingo, from the people behind the Noun Project

We’re in a golden era of tools for designers with new products coming out every month. Just hang out on ProductHunt for a while!

Innovative tools are popping up in every part of the workflow. From brand/asset management (Lingo and Bynder), to prototyping and collaboration (Marvel, Zeplin, InVision, Flinto, Justinmind), to website creation (Webydo, Blocs, Webflow), to tools for the amateur or marketer (Canva, Stencil, PicMonkey), and of course, to professional creation tools (Sketch, Affinity). And those are just the larger, more successful ones.

Where there is proliferation, inevitably comes market consolidation. The bigger tools are showing that they will acquire (Marvel buys POP, InVision buys SilverFlows) or imitate their rivals, in the race to win the space. The next couple of years should see more of the same.

What’s driving all this innovation? Much of it boils down to a paradigm shift created by the internet. The ability to collaborate and share online, the SaaS model for software in the cloud and browser, and the associated rise in importance of user experience and prototyping that mobile and web have necessitated.

Since those trends haven’t run their course yet, we should expect more innovative apps to follow in 2017. I continue to watch with interest to see how Adobe respond to these trends. So far we’ve seen one major push in the form of Adobe Experience Design, and it’s getting some solid reviews when paired up against Sketch. Surprisingly though, we haven’t seen a lot of acquisitions from the big U.S. firm. This isn’t because Adobe isn’t acquisitive (recent years saw them buy stock photo site Fotolia to create Adobe Stock and social network Behance to name a couple), so perhaps they are simply biding their time to pick a winner. Still no matter what Adobe does, it’s clear there’s plenty of appetite to go outside of the Creative Cloud for tooling.

Simpler WordPress

WordPress’ REST API based Calypso interface

Still the incumbent web platform, WordPress is increasingly under fire from the website builders — Wix, Weebly and Squarespace. With multimillion dollar ad budgets putting them into the Super Bowl, this trio are hell bent on taking on the mantle of most-popular-website-tool from WordPress, and they’re making inroads amongst the DIY / small business market.

WordPress for its part is responding. Matt Mullenweg has called a war council on marketing, and increasingly podcasts and media feature spots not for Squarespace et al, but for WordPress.

Mind you, it’s not advertising that’s driving the growth in these newer web builders, but simplicity and ease of use. So a more important effort from WordPress is the continued push on their REST API. Why is the API so critical? It enables WordPress’ rich ecosystem of developers and designers to repurpose the core of WordPress however they think most appropriate. Automattic themselves put out an interface called Calypso, in part, to demonstrate the power of the API.

To seal it’s spot, WordPress needs to find a way to fuse simpler interfaces like Calypso on to the complexity of its platform of plugins and themes. To make the complex simple is no mean feat. Especially when that complexity is the foundation of such a big ecosystem.

Still, there are a lot of bright minds bent on making sure WordPress has the cake, and eats it too.

More machine learning making its way in

Adobe’s Sensei is a framework of intelligent services

A couple of years ago I predicted we’d see more “AI” type tools appearing in the world of design. One of the first, a website builder called TheGrid, has been something of a disappointment after a much-hyped and marketed launch. But that doesn’t mean the design world isn’t seeing steps forward.

TheGrid’s fanfare paved the way for competitors like Wix to introduce their own take on the concept of AI-powered web design. Meanwhile in the logo space Tailor Brands has now raised millions, and seen newer entrants like Logojoy hit the market to compete with it.

Of course this isn’t the full-blown human-like ‘AI’ you might see in a movie like Ex Machina, rather it’s mostly ‘Machine Learning’. This is the process of using computers to optimize and ‘learn’ from user behaviour and data.

To a professional designer, all of these products are a bit clunky and produce some pretty naff results. But it’s not a good idea to bet against technology. These things will get stronger over time (that’s pretty much how they’re designed to work).

What does that mean for designers? It’s not that different from any other technological advancement in our field. We simply move upstream to broader, deeper solutions that solve design problems more holistically, while simultaneously making use of these same tools to help us do just that.

In fact, Adobe is working hard on their AI/Machine Learning framework, Sensei — some secret sauce they plan to feed into all their applications. Where might you see Sensei at work? Think Photoshop’s Face-aware liquify tool, and in-app “search by image”. It’s early days for Sensei, but Adobe is no slouch on the technical advancements, and we can expect its offerings in the Creative Cloud (as well as Marketing and Document Clouds) to get more powerful as Sensei learns from the huge troves of information Adobe feeds it.

Better services for freelancers

Clearbanc — targeted financial services

How people work has been changing for years, but the push towards the “sharing economy” has broadened the market for contract/freelance workers by leaps and bounds. While there is plenty about this trend that isn’t good news (think worker rights, stability and protections), there is some upside. Namely, the market for providing services for freelancers is improving with the increased demand.

In the U.S., the Freelancer’s Union has long been an advocate and service provider for the freelancer community. The union offers access to information, networks, advocacy and a range of insurance services. This isn’t always an easy business to be in however. Just ask Zen99, who formed to help freelancers in the US deal with their taxes (and the 1099 forms they file) as well as insurance. Despite making it into the prestigious Y Combinator, Zen99 closed down in late 2015 (here’s their fascinating post-mortem).

The traditional domain of businesses catering to the freelance market was in invoicing and accounting (Xero, Freshbooks, LessAccounting and their ilk). But more recently we’re seeing other types of services. Take Clearbanc for instance, special purpose financial services catering exclusively to freelancers.

Services around the freelance space are blooming on many fronts. Check out Bonsai to help manage teams of freelancers, or Konsus, a service to streamline the process of finding a freelancer. And 2017 should see even more services and tools for the freelancing ecosystem. It’s a good time to be going solo!


Check out UXDesign.cc’s The State of UX Design in 2017

Other interesting reads

This time of year puts everyone into a state of contemplation — and there’s always some good reads around because of it. Here are a few to get you started:

Add a comment if you’ve seen other thought provoking articles!

This article was also published on Medium


About the Author Collis Ta'eed

Collis is the CEO and co-founder of Envato. He also designs, writes and drinks tea!

  1. Personally, I would very much like to see how AI will evolve in the web ecosystem. Now that Adobe has the Sensei, it would very exciting to see how will it work as well in other Adobe software.

    Thanks for the write up. It’s very informative! Happy New year, Envato!