Will the metaverse unleash — or stifle — designers?

Metaverse Gif
By Natalie Comins

November 4, 2021.

The “embodied internet” could be the canvas of our dreams, but only if we keep sight of our humanity.

Over the past 18 months, amid suboptimal circumstances, many professionals have tweaked and fiddled relentlessly to design optimal remote work environments.

Though WFH and IRL are in a hotly contested tug-of-war in many sectors, consensus is building around remote work and physical collaboration merging into a new ideal. But what about over the next decade? Will our physical and virtual working worlds gracefully intertwine? Or will they constantly bump up against one another, neither giving an inch?

Increasingly there’s chatter of an “embodied internet,” one in which the physical is invited into the virtual, and vice-versa — an infinite mixed reality where boundaries dissolve and creativity flourishes. That future is being called the metaverse.

What can designers and creators expect at this new frontier? The media is abuzz about the metaverse’s potential, claiming it may represent the next evolution of the internet. What’s not debatable is that change is coming, and though the metaverse may be young, we can already assume a lot about its nature.

As someone who spends every day thinking about how we can design elevated experiences for brands and their customers, let’s just say I have some thoughts.

When creativity goes meta

Perhaps the simplest way to envision how the metaverse might impact the lives of creatives is to pair ultimate convenience with unfettered access.

Science fiction has teased us for decades with face-to-face meetings between attendees from across the world, virtually gathered in the same physical space. Now let’s take that fantasy even further. Imagine each person speaking in their respective native language, with translation in real time. Another possibility: a dashboard of visual interactive stimuli that automatically resets and recalibrates as new topics enter discussion. Some attendees might get up and walk around the space, and as they build distance from you, their voices trail off into a soft whisper. At the meeting’s conclusion, attendees teleport to a new space for their next meeting. Alternatively, the virtual setting may be a social gathering, a fully customized workspace, or simply the attendee’s own physical environment, augmented lightly with curated, personalized content.

Tech-watchers could argue this isn’t so far from where we are today. After all, VR experiences like Horizon Workrooms allow people to step into highly immersive environments and interact with others. As a lower-tech extension of that same idea, video chats and digital collaboration tools have enabled business continuity during the pandemic. But as devices grow more sophisticated and wireless connectivity improves, experiencing our physical realities augmented by rich digital experiences and content will just become how work gets done. This will set off a new wave of spatial immersion where the distinction between digital and physical becomes almost nonexistent. That’s the lofty endgame of the metaverse: to truly rival physical experiences, and possibly surpass them in meaningful ways.

The amplification effect

So, what could all this mean for creative work? We all can get behind improved access to collaboration environments that inspire and unite us, and that enable richer, more rewarding work experiences — regardless of physical location. Could the metaverse spark a shift in creative industries, where ideas are realized in real time and are augmented by strategic data? Where brainstorms are supplemented with trends, related content, and time-saving auto-completions of systems and prototypes? Where colleagues ideate as a collective telepresence that respects identity and upholds etiquette, and that champions equal visibility?

That’s the lofty endgame of the metaverse: to truly rival physical experiences, and possibly surpass them in meaningful ways.

Such a seismic shift in work culture may empower some creatives to thrive well beyond the physical boundaries of an office. Back in mid-2020, I jokingly suggested that the pandemic singlehandedly enabled the rise of introverts. No in-person obligations? The flexibility to go off-camera? Occupying an equally sized box as a CEO on a Zoom call? It’s hard to argue with any of that. The metaverse could continue encouraging invaluable, but often overlooked, perspectives to come from otherwise “quiet” talent.

Chloe Wong, an associate creative director in our Brooklyn office, recently shared that over the past 18 months her colleagues have become acutely aware of their digital etiquette. For a more introverted creative like Chloe, developments like these allow for more visibility and right-of-way, empowering her to lead teams in a style that works well for her. The metaverse could invite precisely more of this: the ability to create the best possible runway for inclusivity, empowerment, and genuine human connection.

Stumbling toward a higher humanity

For all the metaverse’s promise, we don’t have to look far for cautionary tales. The advent of social media ushered in an era of hyper-curation, with algorithmically selected content tailored specifically to us. You don’t have to be a designer to appreciate how this can have a chilling effect on creativity. The same holds for the metaverse. If our professional experience becomes too curated, if we lose the ability to self-select our inspiration, or determine where experiences lead us, how do we preserve anything resembling authenticity? The remarkable breakthroughs brought by smart design software and creation tools could be liberating, but if we can’t tell good design from bad, what purpose do they serve?

If remote work has given us a crash course in adaptability and navigating ambiguity, the metaverse will force us to interrogate what has and hasn’t worked in a starkly new way. 

The subtle anonymity and distance of a virtual space, filled with avatars standing in for our physical selves, could defuse what normally could be difficult conversations during the creative process. The standard protocols of in-person conversations — exchanging routine pleasantries, body language, finger-in-the-air checks for tension — could dissolve in a virtual setting, allowing more honesty and comfort with one another.

Talk about your positive developments. Imagine what this could enable for historically marginalized groups, especially women. Could we become better at negotiating? Asking for what we deserve? Would we be more likely to vocalize our concerns? Might we shed our inhibitions, both intellectually and emotionally? For me, the possibility of inspiring confidence and assertiveness among groups who have found it difficult to project them is one of the most promising — and least buzzed-about — promises of the metaverse.

The ills of remote work are legion. Excessive meeting culture that does nothing to remedy isolation, and burnout from using our screens to connect are just two of my front-runners. In remote work’s favor, however, is the flattening of hierarchies and new ways of interacting that have allowed creatives like Chloe to thrive. And in my experience, remote work has bonded us and made us able to connect more freely with one another — an unexpected gain from an otherwise challenging time.

What’s been lacking through all of this is something the metaverse seems uniquely suited to deliver: a physical sense of place, and the natural and comfortable interactions that happen in one that make us feel more human.

Natalie Comins is a Group Creative Director at Huge, based in Brooklyn.