Designing the metaverse: ‘Instead of looking at the internet, we’ll be a part of it’

Igor Pancaldi, R/GA creative director, reacts to Facebook‘s Meta rebrand with a practical question – how will designers bring the vision to life?

Facebook’s recent announcement declares it as the home of all things ‘meta,’ but what's even on the table? “In its full vision, the metaverse is to become the gateway to most digital experiences, a key component of all physical ones, and the next great labor platform,” so says tech investor and prolific analyst Matthew Ball.

Ball makes it clear that the metaverse will be hard to ignore in the upcoming decades. It won’t just be an extension of today’s internet, neither is it going to replace it. Instead, they’ll exist together as parallel dimensions. It will fundamentally change the behavior of interaction as we know it. As the internet user evolves into the metaverse avatar, we’ll encounter a new reality where we become active participants of a new kind of network. Instead of an internet we look at, we’ll be a part of it. The metaverse will extend its reach into the physical world, shifting how we perceive and experience reality.

Is the design and communication industry ready for it?

The metaverse is an opportunity and a great challenge for designers to create a new world with unprecedented rules of engagement and full interoperability. Design will set the standard for this shared network. Undoubtedly, we’ll start by relying on what we’ve learned in the last two decades of digital communication, applying that knowledge to the metaverse. But is that enough?

Historically, we successfully evolved manual graphic design, which determined the way the communication industry worked for hundreds of years, into digital interactive design. We developed sub-disciplines of user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) and motion to serve the interactive experiences offered through two-dimensional device screens. In the metaverse though, we’ll need to expand our understanding of ‘spatial design’ to create experiences that are relevant in a world where artificial reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have become standards instead of novelties.

Adobe has already taken action by acquiring 3D specialists Substance and launching a full three-dimensional design suite, Adobe Substance 3D. Not only does the move represent a commitment to its future in the metaverse, it also makes it more accessible too by equipping the creative industries with simpler, more intuitive tools to start creating a bigger sharable volume of 3D assets and environments.

During lockdown, the creation of 3D artifacts increased by 40%. While uptake is swift at the grassroots level, how will the creative industry fare?

It took the communication industry a solid two decades of growing pains to set up service agencies and educational institutions to cater to the digital demand of a rapidly-growing internet era. Will it take the same amount of time to adapt methodologies, skills, craft and tools to do the same for spatial design? Will the workforce of tomorrow need 3D design skills as a minimum entry point?

At last month’s Facebook Connect, Marne Levine, its chief brand officer, pledged $150m to train the next generation of creators to build immersive learning content and increase access to devices. How are agencies and design practices going to keep pace? We could, like Facebook – ahem – Meta, throw a lot of money at training a whole new generation. Or we could do something much simpler. We could equip existing creative staff with 3D software and machines able to handle it. Share VR sets, organize workshops and allow people the time to follow them.

Stepping into spatial design isn’t only about mastering new tools. It’s introducing a new way to look at things, new perspectives, new collaborations, new environments, new technologies. Designing physical and digital connections enables us to truly experiment with user-centric experiences detached from a screen, built physically and virtually around the users’ presence. In this new, avatar-centric design discipline, we’ll cater to users’ needs as avatars’ needs. We’ll create environments guided by narratives that break conventional linearity. Designers will experiment with a ‘sandbox’ approach to content and interactions, where the users make decisions based on cues and prompts that surround them from every angle. Wayfinding and UI will be generated with a three-dimensional logic, to serve perpetual content that can collide and simulate the laws of physics.

Speaking personally, I haven’t been this excited to be a designer in a long time – probably since the advent of the internet. I’m invigorated by the prospect of pioneering a new way to design our collective future, and I hope the rest of our industry feels up to facing the challenge with me.