Spatial Design


Updated 10 months ago

Product Design is a term we use broadly these days to define a designer who creates products. This is a term that was often super unclear in my early days as I confused it with the role of an Industrial Designer. In reality, whether the product is digital or physical, designing a product makes you, technically, a product designer.

We’ve continued to expand the spectrum of what a Product Designer is and what their craft should be; from apps to websites, and virtual reality to audio-only, from physical products to the intangible. Product Design is the art of building something from nothing, but I’m seeing a shift in what that role should encompass, and I think we’re going to have to hone our craft to include a new skill: Spatial Design.

Whether it be visual space or auditory space, being able to design for different spatial planes will be critical to the success of the next breed of designers as AR, VR, MR and audio-only platforms take off as the mediums of the future.

With the announcement of Apple’s AirTag, playing with the delightful experience of finding a lost tag got me thinking carefully about what this design experience really was. The experience included a physical product, a visual experience (including physics-rendered objects), a sense of spatial plane (vertical and horizontal direction), haptic feedback, and an auditory experience. That’s a lot of things to cram into a single, small, $29 product.

The key to the success of the AirTag experience is in the team’s sense of spatial planes when designing for it. Navigating the space of a room, understanding if the product is up or down from my current phone’s placement, thinking about when audio and haptic feedback play a key role in the finding experience. It’s so many layers of complexity that lead to a cohesive and satisfying customer experience.

Comprehending that a single designer could ever create something like this is mind boggling, so its clear that this is a prime example of Apple’s commitment to owning the entire stack and having individuals across the org playing a role. Say what you will about the anti-trust element to this, as a customer it’s a perfect experience, so there you have it.

No single designer should be expected to think of everything that leads to this product’s success, or be capable of delivering upon it, but being able to have even one part of the vision for it and think about how all those world’s collide is something I think all designers would benefit from. Being able to think about Spatial Design when putting together a product in Figma that is purely two-dimensional will be critical to being a successful designer in the next few years. Spatial Design doesn’t have to mean that you design the spatial experience, but having understanding of the technology at play and the empathy to be in the shoes of the customer in that moment is crucial. And designing an experience that feels in concert with the physical experience will be essential too.

This mindset follows on from my belief that all Product Designers should understand the core concepts of the development stack, even if they don’t code [1, 2, 3]. Knowing how your idea is built is crucial to being able to design optimally for it. With spatial design, it’s exactly the same.

As we see the rise of AR, VR, MR and audio-only platforms, we’ll see the need for designers to think about the spatial experience increase. There’ll become plenty of specific jobs for AR Designer, Audio Designer, Spatial Designer and so on, some of these even exist already if you look in the right places. But we’ll also see the need for regular Product Designers to be thinking about the spatial experience alongside the host of other things they think about daily when designing products for customers.

Customers will become increasingly invested in these spatial technologies, and as they do, designers will need to step up to the plate to deliver on those world class experiences. AirTag and Google Maps' AR directions are just the start.

Update, at WWDC21, Apple put together an excellent video on how to design for spatial interactions. I highly recommend checking it out!

How to follow along

Subscribe to stay up-to-date

This site, and all of my work, is dedicated to my hero, my inspiration, and the strongest man I've ever known. My father. I love you Dad ❤️.