Futurist, Designer and Thinker – Michell Zappa

A defining moment when Michell Zappa, a designer/futurist is willing to share the way he conceptualises and rationalises the way in which the world appears to him.

For those who aren’t familiar with Zappa, Kolidar posted his work ‘Beyond 2012 – Envisioning emerging technology’ back in April.



Since then Zappa has been very busy over the past few months published new work including ‘The Future of Health’, ‘Smart Phones of the Future’, ‘Envisioning the Future of Education Technology’, and ‘Hybrid Reality Illustrations’. If you ever wondered how your great grandchildren will be educated down the track, then check out Zappas work, which includes ‘digitised classrooms, gamification, opening information, disintermediation and virtual/physical studios’ as key areas for the growth.

Zappas most recent work released in November is “Envisioning The Future Of Finance” (see pic below). A highly appropriate topic area considering the world revolves around the economy! Within this work Zappa explores the advancement and integration of technology within the financial sector. He has once again managed to break complex data structures into a systematic awesome looking information graphic. Focusing on the industries level of preparation in relation to ‘data, automation, security, disintermediation, crowds, mobile, currencies and reputation’, processes such as virtual economies and currencies. Person-company lending and bank-free digital p2p transitions take shape. I suggest going to the Envisioning Technology site to check this out further.

Interview With Michell

I was lucky enough to have an informal interview with Michell. While I set myself up ready to take notes and be inspired, I called in to start the session as Zappa sat in a café on the other side of the world, hearing the familiar noises of the coffee machine I almost felt like I was there.

Prompted by the first question Zappa went into explaining how his career evolved into having his own business forecasting the future of the world. With a background in marking and design, Zappa acknowledges that he is “part marketing, part design, part futurists”. This explains the information graphic visual representation that his work is formulated into.

Like all true designers he is programmed to continually observe the world, how it is changing and the people in it. Documenting these occurrences enabled Zappa to fall into a futurist’s mindset, drawing from his own reflections and understanding in addition to publications and formal sources. Combine all that with being a self proclaimed ‘tech head’, the foundations of a great thinker are developed.

Zappa tested the water working on Envisioning Technology as a night shift job while maintaining his day job. Gaining traction and participating as keynote speakers from a number of conferences Zappa decided to take Envisioning Technology on full time.

Unlike majority of futurists or forecasters, the industry often keeps methodologies close to themselves. Perceiving this as something that can be sold, and rightly so as corporations will pay significant amounts for someone to work out a strategic approach or insight into the future of the industry.  Zappa himself appreciates such methodology of something that is “open sourced releasing it as a experiment to observe and monitor how people will tinker and modified ‘the technological scaffolding’ and how this will effect the future developments in various industries.

From a design and research perspective, releasing methodologies is something that is not only brave but also nearly unheard of.

Zappa’s work from a visual design perspective shows a clear influence from information graphics, a area of visual communication that is steadily becoming more recognized and respected as it’s becomes mainstream. This coincides with the commercial drive for analytics on digital interactive interfaces (web, mobile or onsite) published as a feature article in the ‘Interactions’ journal, as people become interested in the impact that devices have within a space and the users as well as using this data to improve or rationalized design choices. 

In relation to the representation of data, Zappa aims to shift his work to take away subjectivity (such as size variations and the taxonomy structures) and focus more on the connections between areas of interest/technology within the work looking at how things relate to each other and construct the Sci-Fi scaffolding to strengthen possible outcomes and defend intuitive speculations.

While I dissect the Beyond 2012 work making wide eyed gestures when reading words like ‘retina screens’, and ‘programmable matter’, I asked Zappa if it frustrated him to have to wait for such technologies to be developed into society knowing that they could be possible. He eloquently replied with rationality, “ I don’t think so, simply because for being so in tuned to what is possible and what is likely you dismiss the very far out technology as ‘yes I would love to have them’ but I would rather think about the implications before they happen. On a personal level…yeah it would be awesome to have half of these things that are listed for very evident reasons…”

However in saying this Zappa also recognizes that fact that you can never actually realize the change of such things while you are also changing with it. To look back ten years from now you would never have known that certain technology now would be realized, such as sitting on a coffee shop talking to someone on the other side of the world so freely. Essentially humans evolve just as the technology does and as humans we seems to over estimate how much change will occur in the short run while under estimating how much things will change in the long run. Given this perspective there are also a number of factors after all we are all only “one of seven billion’ therefore how society changes is dependent on politics and who is in control, corporation and education etc.

Zappa goes on to explain that as the rate of change increases so our capacity to deal with it decreases because we as humans can only evolve with being able to deal with ‘x’ amount of change per time unit which is in fact increasing therefore, our readiness will go down which in effect is going to make our world become weirder!

The integration of technology into our daily lives is allowing communication and data to be assessable and shared more than ever before. Technology is constantly evolving and becoming more efficient therefore the demand of programming is high. Zappa makes a suggestion that programming will be as important as what scribes were before literacy was integrated into society. As the programming languages become more refined it will become a language known by many breaking down a possible class system of those know can and can’t understand and write digitally to make activities, connectivity and customisation more efficient.

And if you don’t think your part of this than think again. On a basic level understanding how to book a flight online with a preferred seat allocation, allow an SMS update of the flight as well as an emailed itinerary, well not only have you customerised your experience, you have also created a loop of connectivity between various services and devices…welcome to tech scaffolding!

To end on a lighter note and to mix up the fairly brain intensive conversation, when I asked Zappa what the world would look like in the next 100 years and it was a selection between, the Jetsons, The Matrix, Fifth Element and Blade Runner, he smoothly selected the Jestons with logic and a solid rationale, he put it to me simply “they seemed to be happier…it’s a lifestyle where everything is automated, I guess the optimist in me would say the Jestsons, because it’s what we are sort of ending up with already”. A very good point! Everything starts with a press of a button or screen and this is accepted as natural behaviour.

After an hour or so of talking not only did I have a shift in thinking on a number of areas in regards to technology, interaction and human behavior but I had to give myself some incubation time. When talking to a futurist your perspective and outlook changes weather you recognize or know it. Zappa is fluent when explaining complex ideas and thinking and making them seem logical and rational. This communication is also present in his visual delivery.

I would suggest everyone keep an eye on Zappa and regularly visit his site to expand your thinking!

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