Four years in, here’s what Config tells us about the state of design

Andrew Hogan
Insights & Analysis, Figma

Config, our annual conference, is happening June 21-22 in San Francisco. Be sure to get your tickets here.

Each year, people submit proposals to talk about the things that matter most to them at our annual user conference, Config. Topics range from future visioning with AI, to advancing design systems, to the delights of designing a table. This year we received the largest number of talk proposals ever—over a 1,000*—and it was no small task for our subcommittees to whittle down such high-caliber content submissions to just a select few.

It was also a learning experience—turns out, you can tell a lot about the state of design, tech, and product development simply by hosting the conversation. On the cusp of Config’s fourth year—our biggest yet—we have the benefit of hindsight and the ability to bring people together IRL. To understand how we’re collectively showing up in 2023, we analyzed the year-over-year change in Config submissions trends and found that despite the challenges of the last few years, design remains an optimist’s game. Here are some of our major takeaways.

Config 2023 Trends include: 3x increase in accessibility and inclusion-related talks; 72% positive vibes; 2x increase in mentions of designer-developer collaborationConfig 2023 Trends include: 3x increase in accessibility and inclusion-related talks; 72% positive vibes; 2x increase in mentions of designer-developer collaboration

*Submissions jumped from 420 in 2021 to 520 in 2022, and this year we received more than 1,000.

Yes, the world is on fire, but the mood is strangely optimistic

The sheer appetite to participate in Config gives us a good signal, but as we dug deeper, we found that the content of the submissions themselves was thematically positive.* Despite 2023 being a banner year for industry crumminess, we read positive sentiments like there has never been a better time for X, or Y enabled us to thrive. Negative phrases like why is it so rarely done? and outdated, inconsistent designs seemed to be at a minimum. Simply put, 2023 is markedly optimistic compared with the cautious skepticism of the previous three years (pandemic, anyone?).

We certainly can’t discount the toll that isolation took on our collective wellbeing, but as the pandemic’s disruption to life and work abates (or as we become better at adapting), so too does the volume of chatter around the struggle. Mentions of "pandemic" are at 1/6th the level of 2021 submissions, and the word "remote" showed up at about 20% less than it did in 2021.**

Visualization depicting mentions of "pandemic" are at 1/6th the level of 2021 and the word "remote" showed up 20% less than it did in 2021Visualization depicting mentions of "pandemic" are at 1/6th the level of 2021 and the word "remote" showed up 20% less than it did in 2021

*In 2021, 63% of submissions were positive. In 2023, the percentage climbed to 72%.

**Phrases include: "...there’s so much going on around us, nothing we’ve experienced is 'normal times,'" and "nurturing user-centered design is important despite the unusual circumstances."

Don’t worry—design systems aren’t killing creativity

The line between the free-wheelin’ creative and the hard-nosed systems thinker isn’t exactly going away, but it seems to be fading. More people are on board with the idea that a design system might just set you free—or at least save you some time and drudgery. The world seems to be investing in design tokens and compounding them into creative capital. This, of course, reflects the state of design right now—with teams working at velocity and scale, they need a system to help them keep pace and dish out some fresh ideas while they are at it.

The language used in submissions reflects this shift. In 2021, the terms associated with design systems orbited around basic needs and setup. In 2023, Config talks are more likely to reference both design systems and creativity. Two years ago, basic needs were described in terms of scale and reality, and actions revolved around auditing. Now, we speak in terms of the expressive and visual: art, transition, color, next, and—of course—creating.

A graph that shows the fear of being replaced by robots decreasing, as hours spent naming layers also decreasesA graph that shows the fear of being replaced by robots decreasing, as hours spent naming layers also decreases

Who’s afraid of AI? Not the digital product world

AI is a perennially popular topic at Config, and this year was no different with AI seeing a 3x uptick in mentions in this year’s submissions. What’s even more interesting is how it’s mentioned. Whereas 2021 discussions focused on the user’s experience and tended toward the vague, this year hones in on specific, contextual details about workflow and process.

For example, a 2021 headlining talk on AI, “When Design Meets Machine Learning,” featured soundbites like "we talk about how good or bad the algorithm of a certain product is" and "we need to make sure that experience is the best it can be and users see the content that they’ll like the most. This year, talks are much more specific and opinionated about how AI might change the way work happens. “Designing With AI: Building the Flagship GPT-4 Language Product” is slated to be a behind-the-scenes story while “Emerging Thoughts on AI-Assisted Design” offers more of a how-to. There’s also more automation on the menu with “Lazy or Smart: How I Automated IKEA Product Data in Design” by Elliot Nolten. A whole day of AI keynotes will feature speakers from Adobe, Google, and Diagram—and investor and general great thinker Reid Hoffman.

We also fielded several submissions describing AI as a creativity enhancer. There seems to be real excitement to push the technology in that direction. The more general talks about AI seem to address our anxiety as opposed to a vague potential, which also reflects our more sophisticated understanding of it. Check out “Design Systems in Transition: Anxiety, AI, and Where We Go” this year.

The Metaverse: “I’ll be back”

When it comes to world-building and industry disruption, timing is everything. While the trend may suggest that the Metaverse is over, we predict that it will undoubtedly return—as will blockchain, voice assistants, chatbots, internet of things, and other previously hot ideas. How do we know? Well, just look at the fluctuations in interest in AI. When it comes to the new bets, the names, the use cases, and the key players may change, but the concepts have a habit of coming back in a different form.

Topics like Metaverse and web3 have small-but-devoted bases that keep developing them. Looking at 2023, Metaverse actually represents a small but slightly larger share of talks compared to last year. Related topics like extended reality (XR) and augmented reality (AR) pop up, too. The folks who’ve been working on AI for the last few decades will tell you: sometimes the time is right, and extensive effort is rewarded in a flurry of world-changing activity.

Product design wants to tackle the “big problems”

There’s hope that design and digital products can impact the big, existential problems we face. This year, submissions about the energy industry increased from a paltry few to 3% of all talks. Sustainability and the circular economy are other topics on the rise, all of which signals a bigger interest in the way we power society—and its potential impacts on the planet.

Discussions of healthcare have tripled from 1% to 3% since 2021, showing a desire to improve the foundation of human lives. Some are flashier, like the intersection of AI and health, and others cover the basics of improving patient interactions. In all of these cases, there’s a sense that digital products can and should be part of the solution.

Accessibility and inclusion are about 3x as prominent compared to previous years, showing that they’re still industry priorities. While progress has been frustratingly slow—WebAIM’s million homepage study found 96% of homepages had WCAG 2 errors, down just 1.5% from 2019—submissions reflect a shift from awareness to action.* In two years, talks have evolved from “Auditing Design Systems For Accessibility” to “Using Color at Scale for Aesthetics and Accessibility” and “Comprehensive Guide: Building Accessible Forms On The Web.” This year, we expect that trend to continue with folks offering detailed, actionable steps to tackle accessibility.

Venn diagram with work at the intersection of talking to people and trying to accomplish stuffVenn diagram with work at the intersection of talking to people and trying to accomplish stuff

*Figma’s own accessibility plans represent a step forward with more work to do.

Collaboration is still our Achilles’ heel

Collaboration. Teamwork. Stakeholder input. However you say it, the story remains the same: We’re still trying to match our tactics for collaboration to our expectations for efficient work. In 2021, proposals described collaborative projects as a road trip with multiple teams, and suggestions to ignite collaboration included things like low-fidelity design, journey maps, and a team-wide focus on goals and context-building. In 2023, submissions advocate uniting the entire team—including product and engineering—around the customer, but offer some of the same suggestions (which all have their roots in methods that are decades-old). It’s not surprising, given this is the central struggle for teams, and we’re only a few years out from dramatic changes to where and how people work.

We saw 2x growth on talks covering how design and development work together. Full disclosure: This was a new track we created for 2023 based on data. While 2021’s talks ranged from “Should Devs Design?” to “Designing for Code,” this year’s planned talks are “Pass the Ball: Designer-Developer Collaboration as a Team Sport,” “(Co-de)pendent,” and “How to Build Pixel-Perfect UIs with Storybook and Figma.”

There’s more detail and texture on the topic of collaboration in 2023, but the fundamental issue is the same: How do we bring people with different skills and worldviews together to make something that’s better than any of them could have made alone?