The invasion of design has begun, fueled by an army of talented newcomers and low-cost offshore services. This new breed trades methodology for mimicry and by doing so radically undercuts pricing, sometimes even working for free. Like it or not, supply and demand in the design industry is undergoing upheaval. Worse yet, for design buyers it’s getting harder to differentiate between good and bad design.
“You’ll have to change your name to something cool”
As a teenager in the eighties/early nineties in rural Canada, my access to (and awareness of) the creative community was limited. I had a two-colour catalogue for Emily Carr College that I read from cover-to-cover, hoping to one day get into art school. I was incredibly lucky that my high-school art teacher Keith Carlson kept pushing me, as his influence really helped me find my way.
Aptitude training on some Apple IIe computers told me that I should consider a career as a foreign ambassador (some pretty keen software there, no?), and the guidance counselors didn’t really know what to do with me. When I told them that I was interested in becoming a designer one suggested that I change my name to something memorable, as all designers do that.
Now, it may seem that I’m snickering at such a suggestion (which I sort of am), but what I’m trying to get across is that the creative fields have since “gone mainstream”. Choosing art school at that time was perceived as a risky move akin to opting into poverty. Now we uphold creative careers as exciting and potentially lucrative ones, which is certainly a good thing. The creative-class has arrived (en masse).
Supply and demand
Growth is exciting and dangerous. The new entrepreneur dreams of rapid growth but has little knowledge of what pains it can bring. (There’s a reason why more seasoned business owners suggest measured growth.) I wonder if those same considerations might be wise for us to consider as we experience a seeming proliferation of those in the creative industries.
The demand for creative services has accelerated in many ways over the past decade. The virtualization of business alone has necessitated the use of better design. You may not have a top-floor office with annual sales in the millions, but that doesn’t make it okay to look like you don’t. As such, business owners who would have once seen it as a frivolous luxury want design–even if they’re not quite ready to pay for it.
And here’s the big problem. Demand for design is a little like demand for web services: all of us want to use Facebook and Twitter, but few of us are ready to pay for them. Similarly, many businesses want design, but are unwilling to invest in it. As such, we find around us a great deal of low-cost “style” that often isn’t very effective design.
There are lots of talented designers out there, but not as many qualified ones. Think I’m wrong? I continually speak with design studio principals who bemoan the difficulty they find in hiring capable designers. (That’s a strange thing to hear, particularly in an economy like the one we’re currently experiencing.)
The newly-minted experts
The problem that we’re facing on both sides of the equation is that of confusion regarding the value in design. Unsophisticated design buyers approach design like they’re slapping a coat of paint on a crumbling shack. Uninterested in more substantive change, they dream that a quick-fix like a splashy new logo or website will magically remedy more “root” problems. (i.e.: product flaws, deficiencies in operations, or misaligned communications)
Nevertheless, supply rises to meet these needs. Enter an army of 20-year-old experts ready to “style things up”. Now, I don’t want to be dismissive of these talented young folks, because many of them are incredibly gifted. The volume of raw talent out there is beguiling, particularly to those of my generation. While we felt special for once “being the kid who could draw stuff”, the new batch displays more natural talent in this capacity than we would have ever imagined. The number of promising kids out there is staggering.
The associated challenge with this isn’t in having so many talented people; it’s in confusing their talent for skill. While many vocations have some kind of related apprenticeship model, this isn’t always the case in design. Some of us are self-taught, while others have completed a design degree; both need applied experience before taking on larger projects without direction. The challenge, however, is that any of these parties can (and often do) present themselves as seasoned veterans of the industry. As such, it has become increasingly challenging for buyers to guage the difference between a gifted novice and a skilled practitioner.
How does today’s Marketing Manager enlist a design-team? The visual impact of portfolios is perhaps at an all-time-high; meanwhile, seemingly everyone has license to throw around terms like “brand” regardless of whether they fully understand them. Presented with a new studio, even I have to dig a little to get a feel for whether they are capable. Some are good at using the right language and visual cues, which makes it hard to determine whether they have sufficient capacity or are just good at imitation.
The great karaoke lounge of design
Desktop publishing was an important advancement and few designers would question the importance of tools that democratize communication. (Most of us appreciate that our moms and dads can now make little invitations, basic signs, and so on.) When desktop publishing first appeared though, many practicing designers lamented the inevitable misconception that access to these tools would qualify one as a designer.
We’ve largely moved past this. (I have a guitar, but that doesn’t make me Eddie Van Halen. Pity though–that would have been nice.) More recently though, we’ve contended less with the ubiquity of said tools, and more with the ease found in “styling”. While creating a suitable and effective design solution generally involves depth of expertise and an investment of time, “lifting” and regurgitating treatments is rarely as grueling (or successful).
The newest design blogs are particularly telling of this as they largely seem to concentrate on a steady-stream of eye-candy and visual masturbation. Seemingly, the past year has played host to the superseding of actual writing and reflection on design to vapid graphical lists like “25 Great Green Websites”. Easy to create, bookmark, and subsequently mimic, it’s as though we’ve collectively walked into the great karaoke lounge of design–all of it somehow comforting but unlikely to result in anything of substance.
Today, we’re seeing logo “trends” documented a little like those catalogues for hair-stylists, showing the season’s most popular hair-dos. These styles are typically presented knowing that they will now be cloned without mercy. Such documentation of trends in design should only be used as a cautionary note on what to avoid doing; no sober designer should set-out to apply a pre-fabricated approach to any design solution. What value is there for the client in that? Styling like this leaves the client with generic visual treatments that may very well age as gracefully as parachute pants and feathered hair.
The relative ease of “ripping” popular styles results in a premature and inaccurate measure of a designer’s capacity. Established firms with decades of experience often appear somewhat out-of-date when compared to these more fashionable upstarts. With time, however, the varnish wears thin, and we then see the difference between lasting solutions and passing fads.
Communicating our value
I’m ranting, yes? Well, I should hope so. This is a rant-worthy topic, and one I want you to rant about too. More than that though, I’d like to start a little discussion on how we can better communicate the value of effective design. This is something many designers seem hard-pressed to do when it comes to promoting their own services. We’re too modest and don’t like to sell; maybe this has to change?
Confusion in the marketplace is inevitable, and there’s little we can do to combat it. You can talk until you’re blue in the face about the value of lasting design solutions; meanwhile, it’s seductive to try to find some kind of language to separate one’s practice through less common terminology. This, in my mind, is equally futile. Copying is faster than inventing, and almost anything you come up with will be replicated by another firm (or many others) faster than you can make a ham sandwich.
I believe that the design industry as a whole has to become smarter about practicing what what we preach. Most all of us are so excited by a multitude of exciting niches and mediums that we’re slow to discount any of them. This is a trap that bleeds us to death, very, very slowly. Not having a focus leaves one to differentiate their firm through subjective arguments like offering better creative or service. (These aren’t defensible positions.)
No, we all have to dust off our copies of Ries and Trout’s Positioning and read it personally. No more selling clients on this–it’s time to “buy it” for ourselves. Want to know why? Just survey the websites of most design firms (even ours) and you’ll find a lot of generalization and feeble positioning at best. Sure, lots of us know where we add value, but if we can’t afford clients a solid reason for how we’re different, we’re screwed.
In recent months, I’ve watched a number of our peers position themselves in specific verticals. One seems to be concentrating on education; another is focused on a particular area in the hospitality sector and another works wholly with law firms. In my opinion, this signals intelligent strategy: position in one sector and offer one particular service. As a result, they benefit from clarified marketing, accrual of specialized knowledge, and reduced business development costs while avoiding commoditization as a result of their chosen specialty.
It isn’t in the creative
I gave-up painting some time ago, and I cringe when someone thinks that what I do is about “art”. As a collective though, we’re still struggling with confusion on where art ends and design begins. We applaud designers for appearing in award annuals for work that is beautiful even if it functions poorly. Many of today’s most revered graphic designers are so as a result of creating iconic “cake-molds”, which are easily documented, exhibited and recognized. Although we love seeing pretty things, we need to evolve.
Instead of offering “cutting edge” creative and comparing our (figurative) penis length with that of competing designers/studios, we need to ask ourselves what our work needs to achieve, and what our clients truly need from us. And what is that? Well, I’m sure there are numerous answers, but I’ll get the ball rolling with just a few.
First of all, our clients need someone to lead and advise them. Most groups are so close to their own problems that they are unable to accurately look inward and see which issues are of concern and necessitate taking action. Agencies are full of clever people; similarly, the number of talented illustrators, photographers, writers is ever increasing. What’s often lacking, however, is the ability to look beyond one’s personal craft and determine how to best meet the client’s actual needs. (i.e.: What if they’ve asked for a website, but they actually need to concentrate on developing their content?)
The next run of successful design firms need to take on less traditional roles. They have to harness the power of all of these talented people, but do so in a way that is driven by thinking. We need to connect the marketing logic and business strategy; in short, we’ll have to become as obsessed with the facilitation of solutions as we once were with the perfect character spacing of a wordmark.
We also need to better appreciate the fear associated with purchasing creative for those unindoctrinated in our discipline. Whilst we’re really excited to see something wildly different and inventive, we have to appreciate the fear that such approaches can represent to our patrons. They look upon such possibilities with the fear of going back to the office, presenting it to the boss, and subsequently living with these “crazy” ideas for years to come.
It seems to me that a critical way for us to differentiate our services is to better manage apprehensions by articulating our methods increasingly well. This means better documentation, more discussion regarding the logic behind proposed directions, and more coaching around how these things stitch together with overall business practices. Largely, we have to show them that we’re not just a bunch of fun people with neat offices and copies of Photoshop.
It’s getting awfully crowded out there. The only way that good firms (and designers) stand a chance is to apply the same thinking they provide to clients, to the marketing of their own firms.
Pre-order my book
I know I mentioned it the last post, but I’m getting close to releasing my first book. As such, I want to make sure that you’re in the loop. The upcoming book looks at how small companies can out-market bigger ones, which is a topic I’m quite excited about.
If you like ideasonideas, you’ll probably enjoy the book. More than that though, I think you’ll really find it useful as a tool for your clients. Email me if you’d like me to put a copy aside for you (and perhaps a few for your clients) when they’re ready for purchase. :-)