Towards a designer tomorrow: Students at the Royal College of Art will have to meet the challenge of the 21st century - the 'humanised' computer. Steve Homer reports

As society becomes more technologically sophisticated, the designer's role is changing. At the Royal College of Art, a post-graduate bastion of modernity, the emphasis is on design, with a mission to address the problems of today and tomorrow. Students are as likely to be struggling in front of a computer as in front of an easel. And they are not only using computers to make pretty pictures.

According to Robin Baker, professor of computing at the RCA, they are also working to make tomorrow's advanced technology more accessible, more interesting, more useful and to give it more cultural value. Professor Baker believes that artists and engineers need to be intimately involved with the development of technology if the technologically sophisticated goods and services now pouring on to the marketplace are to be useful for ordinary consumers.

In his sumptuously illustrated book Designing the Future - the Computer Transformation of Reality, Professor Baker argues that the basic disciplines of design are not an optional extra for the world we are inventing - they are an essential.

Professor Baker sees the imminent arrival of 'ubiquitous computing', with computers built into washing machines, televisions, walls, tables, cars - pretty much everywhere. He sees us wearing computers, perhaps on our waists, on our wrists, perhaps pinned to our lapels. We will certainly carry with us devices that contain computers. This is already happening, most obviously with pocket organisers and so- called personal digital assistants, less obviously with the newer generation of mobile phones which contain impressive computing power. The biggest move in this direction in the next 20 years is likely to be with the television. Connected to some form of data link - probably a cable TV system - the television will be able to carry a vast amount of data into and out of the home.

In this information-rich world, computers will not look like computers, they will simply be intelligent entities with which we communicate. It is that interaction that worries him.

'Computing should be as easy as picking up a pencil and writing with it,' he says. 'That as an objective is no bad thing.' To achieve this you need the right sort of interface so that people can understand and find their way around it. For this, he believes, you need good design. For good design you need good designers and to create good designers you have to get them to understand their tools.

And, he adds, fundamental tool changes are under way. Computers initially allowed people to do their design work more efficiently, but now they are able to do things that were not possible before. The example for this in business, he says, is the spreadsheet. In design terms it is the 3-D model realised within a computer.

But even that frontier is now shifting. Whereas a few years ago the computer could be used to store, in beautiful detail, the look of an object, that was all it could do. Today, the computer model of a new car can be used to gauge the performance of that car in a 'wind tunnel' inside a computer, without the car ever becoming a physical object. In his book, Professor Baker shows how a computer model can be used to simulate not only the appearance of an object and its form but also its functionality. He describes an electronic camera where it is possible to 'press' the shutter button, check the information display on the top of the this 'virtual' device, look through the viewfinder and see your finished shot.

But this type of application is only the start of what he believes will be a long journey that mankind must make with the computer. While ubiquitous computing will develop, in a fairly short time a much more interesting challenge will emerge. The intelligent apprentice will be some sort of computer looking over your shoulder or sitting on your desk reminding you of what you should be doing; learning about you, and the way you live your life. He believes we are very much in the first phase of this change. But eventually intelligent televisions that know what we like to watch, cookers that interpret our eating habits and other devices that will understand our wants and needs will start to fill up our lives. For these tools to work properly in terms of function, usability and aesthetics, good design will be essential.

Professor Baker believes that RCA graduates will be able to help the companies backing these advanced technologies, and communicate more effectively with their end users. The RCA has some of the most sophisticated computer systems available and courses that will show students both how to create multimedia titles and give them the intellectual rigour to analyse that work.

'Design has three aspects - it is to do with the environment, it has to do with the information within that environment and the products within that environment,' he says. All these areas, he feels, will change fundamentally over the next few years.

With a marriage of well-developed visual skills and a good understanding of technological matters, modern design graduates have a lot to offer.

At the end of his book Professor Baker writes: 'In the design world, the introduction of computers led to an overall raising of standards, and to a conceptual flexibility that would never have been possible with traditional media. The case for computers in art and design has already been made. But the role of the artist and designer is still evolving, and new forms of art and design work are still emerging, making this a most interesting time.

'If (artists and designers) decline to become involved, they will forfeit any say in the tools, media and disciplines that will inevitably form the basis of most work in the 21st century. Exploring new uses for the medium of computing, experimenting with new techniques, providing genuinely new solutions to new problems, and - above all - humanising the technology: these are all roles for the designer and the artist, not the technologist.

'Yet this is a cause that is too important to be fought alone. We must confront it not as individuals, but as a team. It is only by combining our abilities and exploiting our contrasting outlooks that we can discover fresh visions for the technological future.'

'Designing the Future - the Computer Transformation of Reality', Thames and Hudson, pounds 28.

(Photograph omitted)