The Responsibility of Designers in a Virtual World

Although the Metaverse is still in its infancy, designers should be prepared to play a significant role in the next digital revolution.
2022 Quinn Metaverse Web

Bergmeyer Senior Designer Quinn Levine explores the responsibilities designers will have in the Metaverse in part one of our series:

The Metaverse is in its infancy, but large investments from big tech show potential for how we interact with digital objects.

Many envision the Metaverse as something like The Matrix, where you plug into a digital world… and this may not be far from the truth in the not-too-distant future. Experts believe the Metaverse will be persistent with its own functioning economy and will bridge the gap between physical and digital worlds.

Although there are a significant number of misconceptions about the Metaverse, designers shouldn’t allow these to cloud their curiosity in exploring the potential opportunities that come with designing the next internet revolution. The Metaverse will not be a virtual earth, virtual space, or virtual reality.

As Matthew Ball puts it in his essay titled, “The Metaverse: What It Is, Where to Find it, and Who Will Build It,

“… The Metaverse [can be thought of as] the Nightmare Before Christmas – you can walk into any experience or activity, and potentially address almost any of your needs, from a single starting point or world that’s also populated by everyone else you know…. The internet is a wide set of protocols, technology, tubes, and languages, and the Metaverse will be too.”

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As designers, we can often think of “building the Metaverse” as a series of architectural design charrettes to build out a virtual world, but it goes much deeper than that. The Metaverse requires infrastructure and a broader, more complex, and more resilient set of standards and protocols that do not currently exist. The internet was born out of public research at universities and government programs. None of which will be true for the Metaverse.

The virtual world will be developed by large corporations, who continue to invest in the future of the internet for profit or to create a stronghold in a new digital market. Many companies will compete to create their vision, and eventually the hope is that they work together to create a new way for people to experience digital assets in a more engagingly realistic way.

So, you might ask… What roles do designers have in all of this? If the Metaverse is another version of the internet, what are we, as designers, responsible for, and how can we play a role?

Those are very loaded questions since the supportive technology to run the Metaverse has yet to be developed, but there are ways for designers to prepare for it and to leave their mark as it’s being built.

One of Bergmeyer’s most notable specialties is the creation of unique experiences for our clients. Experiential design, while predominantly tailored to the physical world at this time, will undoubtedly translate to the Metaverse as a successful way to blend our real lives with extraordinary virtual and physical experiences.

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Take the luxury brand Balenciaga, for example. It chose to debut its 2021 fashion collection in a virtual environment, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects. This was not only a trendsetting event, it also gave the world a preview of what we may experience in a virtual setting. The catwalk has set the virtual stage and opened our imaginations to other simulated possibilities.

As stated in Chloe Sun’s, “Architecting the Metaverse,” published by ArchDaily:

“Architects always complain that it’s hard to find good clients that fully support their creatives ideas and pay the bills on time… The Metaverse needs virtual experiences to entertain their users… Architects can create unique digital assets like cities, buildings, furniture, sculptures, experiences, and sell them multiple times to multiple virtual worlds etc…”

The architectural world will need to evolve at a rapid pace to become content creators for digital assets as well.

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Many may call this an identity crisis. Architects have been relegated to the role of simple form-making, and the opportunity of the Metaverse may allow us to bring our additional knowledge to a new playing field. Designers are currently facing this paradox; while knowledge of construction techniques made us the master builder of the physical world, we’ll need to pivot our skills and establish standards in the digital realm. I believe it will be important for designers to make the same socially conscientious decisions that guide our designs for the built environment for the digital environments as well.

Rem Koolhas had a particularly intriguing quote about the transition to digital design assets and content creation in his post, “Architecture Has A Serious Problem Today,” in Fast Company’s publication:

Architecture is a profession that takes an enormous amount of time. The least architectural effort takes at least four or five or six years, and that speed is too slow for the revolutions that are taking place.”

As a rapidly evolving future unfolds, designers will be responsible for curating the bridge between the digital and physical.

Just as we are leaders of social responsibility in the design of the physical world, we’ll be responsible for designing the digital space with equality, cultural representation, and social equity.

Currently, in the physical world, architects have significant influence over how a design will serve not only a client, but the end-user and the surrounding population. Take the High Line in NYC, for instance. The High Line brings in billions of dollars a year in revenue, but only specific neighborhoods experience the financial benefits from this public park. Arguably, the High Line creates an economically gated community for the west side of Manhattan. Starchitect buildings have risen along the High Line since its opening, yet many buildings serving long-time residents and natives of the city just one block away remain neglected and ignored. In comparison, the Bentway in Toronto was explicitly designed to connect previously separated communities. Designers should employ similar, inclusive ideologies as we translate our craft to virtual design.

The allure of the Metaverse is unmistakable, and each party has an important role in encouraging the responsible use and design of the next generation of tech. Designers will need to be ready to step up to the plate and take the lead in creating socially conscientious digital architecture, continuing to act as stewards of socioeconomic impartiality for future design decisions.