Data-Driven Design in the Era of Pinterest

When I first started designing products with Umbra in the 80s, our tools were strictly analog; most of our inspiration came from a small number of European magazines that focused on high-end designer products. We would comb through pages of these magazines, tearing out relevant images and – quite literally – pinning them to a board.

Today, “pinning” has a slightly different meaning. Pinterest, Instagram, and other creative social media outlets have put a world of inspiration at our fingertips – and this has drastically changed the way we create and consume.

What happens when social media meets design?

For starters, designers are acquiring information at a much higher speed than ever before. We don’t have to wait for the latest issue of Dwell to appear in our mailbox anymore. Posts on the most current design trends and innovations are instantly available to all designers, everywhere, in real time. You can even view multiple posts simultaneously with sites like Feedly, which consolidates your favorite blogs into a single feed (my personal favorites include Design Milk, designboom, Dezeen, Sight Unseen, Core77, and Fast Company’s Co.Design).

Then there’s the sheer amount of content; as of June 2017, over 91 million Instagram posts had been tagged with #design. With so much product visibility in the palm of their hands, designers have no excuse to be derivative. For every new project, designers can research similar products quickly and comprehensively, giving them more confidence that they are producing original work.

Better collaboration is another benefit of these platforms. Eugénie de Loynes, Creative Lead at Umbra, uses Pinterest to research the categories of products she is responsible for producing. She creates boards to share with her design, marketing, and production teams, resulting in a more effective, streamlined, and collaborative process. She cautions, however, that it’s tempting to rely on these platforms entirely: “It can become a distraction. If you don’t have an idea and a vision for your design, you’ll keep checking your boards forever.”

Then, of course, we have the consumer. Focus groups can now be entire online communities rather than just a few people around a boardroom table. And the feedback they provide is what’s pushing design forward. As Dr. Sara Diamond, President of OCAD University, explains,

the design of the future is data-driven.

“Designers now have a direct relationship with consumers. Design research in the past consisted of information gathered about what people would say they do. Designers are now looking at data that tells them what they actually do.”

On Pinterest alone, 150 million people (most of whom are consumers) are searching for inspiration every month. This shared online space has had a huge influence on the democratization (or consumerization) of design. Instagram might have started up
as a platform to post personal photos, but it has evolved into a multilevel platform. Yes, there are still lots of pictures of brunch, but there is also a huge level of engagement on design-related content. Designers can measure the success of their ideas, prototypes, or products through the number of likes they receive on a post or click-through rates on the link in their bio or “story.” The critique is instant, accurate, and directly from the consumer.

On social media, consumers keep up with trends and innovations at a similar pace as manufacturers, and they make their tastes and desires known through what they choose to engage with online. Entire marketing campaigns are now directed by likes. Designers can certainly be swayed by popular opinion.

What impact will these social media platforms have on the future of design?

Design will be faster.

This is essential under the new and ever-changing market conditions. Designing slowly is not sustainable. Rather than spending time on costly immersion trips, designers can observe trends and behaviors via social media.

Design will be more competitive.

Through online research, designers can see all relevant pricing for a product, and knowing those pricing targets allows the designer to reverse engineer the design to reach them. “Likes” and “follows” will continue to play a big part in the product development process, and they will help to shape the strategies for future development. Designers can get a sense of what is selling and how the market is responding to different products on different social channels. As the market is more transparent than ever before, marketing is no longer just the job of marketers.

Design will be more original.

With global access to trends and ideas, designers are more likely to create original work in order to avoid replication and lost productivity. Gone are the days of people hiding in a studio and sketching out their latest idea only to realize that someone else has already done the same thing. By being able to access practically all recent designs (both launched and conceptual), designers have a better sense of how original their ideas are.

Design will be more sustainable.

Overconsumption has created vast amounts of generic product, and as such, excessive design is now highly visible. Consumer opinion on issues like sustainability and eco-friendliness will motivate manufacturers and designers to create more socially beneficial and environmentally friendly products. This is the first time that designers can hear directly from users about their concerns in these areas, and so designs (for everything from CPG products to customer service experiences) must radically shift accordingly. Consumers want to be heard, and designers finally have the ability to directly access their opinions.

Design will be more productive.

Research in the past (like my magazine clippings) was easily lost or inaccessible – now it’s highly categorized and readily available. With more data aggregation, we will see less mistakes and revisions, as designers can research ideas with a better understanding of the outcomes and organize their ideas more effectively. Design inspiration used to live in a sketch book or folder. Now it’s classified and organized like a personal design library, allowing for more time spent being productive and creative.

But what’s the real lesson here?

It doesn’t matter if you pin on a bulletin board or an iPhone – following trends usually leads to generic work. The best design in the era of social media will come from those who can utilize the available technology to dive deeper and push further. Innovative designers will study trend reports, and then create the opposite. That will be the next evolution of design.

the author

Paul Rowan

Paul Rowan is the cofounder of Umbra and CCO at