Thursday, May 21st, 2009

Drones at the karaoke lounge of design

Drones at the karaoke lounge of design
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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.  :-)

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Zinni says:


    Wow such a great post, you are totally right and it is actually almost upsetting. Over the past year I have grown less and less interested in design blogs (with yours being an exception) due to the type of articles they write. The endless screen caps, style grouping posts, and lack of understanding of design really makes most of them pointless to read. It is exactly the reason my blog has slowed down over the past couple of months, I refuse to perpetuate the ignorance. I do post links to portfolios I feel contain great work, but not because of the trends they contain.

    It is really upsetting that the great design blogs like speak up are going defunct, they are exactly what we need right now. This may be slightly unrelated, but I wanted to say that UNDRLN as it is right now (for the most part) shares the kind of articles I think designers should be sharing. I am glad that your team created it, as it has become my favorite source of new articles outside of trusted twitters!

    thank you for this awesome article!

  2. Thanks for the kind words, and for taking the time to read the whole thing. (I know it's a bit of a long one!)

  3. Ryan Burrell says:

    Hah! Nice to see someone else noticing that no one seems to actually write anything anymore. It's easy to start a site and just lift or recycle content from all the other blogs.

    Title formula: (n) + adjective + noun = Great Content!


  4. David Ronnie says:

    Great post Eric. A few thoughts:

    I think there's also a certain amount of effort that may be needed on the part of the GDC and similar organizations to trumpet the cause for, and education about, design. And I think that starts first and foremost in the classrooms. I'm extremely disappointed by how few students in the ECU Design program have even HEARD about the GDC (I'm guessing less than 10 in my year), let alone are active, participating members. I know very few professional "designers" that are even members. Can you imagine what it must be like in the Marketing, MBA, and other related programs at UBC/BCIT/etc? I doubt they even know the GDC exists. I'm aware that the GDC is still a small group, but I think there needs to be a much more aggressive stance/education on this topic because it'll take a long time to get ahead of the current curve (if ever).

    Additionally, I've been toying with the idea in my head that perhaps Design might be needing to enact a more fundamental shift towards a journeyman-style accreditation/education? I know a lot of the schools are having a difficult time trying to keep up with how fast the industry is progressing, let alone how to engage, attract, and teach the new Gen Y. A journeyman-style education would allow people to work their way up and grow with the industry and I think it would help the schools stay a little more agile AND it would create a designation expectation within the industry that would tell you exactly where a person was at in their "career" and help establish salary guidelines too. The combination of theory/training from the school with on-the-job work would also allow students to take their education at the rate that works for them. Of course, I'm aware that bottling something like design into distinct sections for a level-based education might be pretty difficult... but its an idea worthy to explore I think.

    If you're an electrician, you have to have the approval/consent of a senior electrician/boss in order to move to your next rank though, right?

    Anyway, tangent aside, I think it really comes down to a need for education to students and businesses on what design is, what to expect, and how it helps your business. And you're right, design firms need to start marketing/explaining themselves better but I think our governing bodies need to step-up as well.

    We're essentially getting called out and the "creative" excuse just simply isn't going to fly anymore. Without documented processes and outcomes, there's nothing that separates us from the stylistas.

    I think I know what I'm doing this weekend...

    P.S.: Final thought: boilerplate "process" documents from the GDC like their boilerplate contracts might be a good place to start on this as well.

  5. Good thoughts. One note regarding the GDC is that they're member driven, which means that a few people put a lot into it (often without the praise they deserve for doing so). As such, I'd urge you to get involved with them if you feel so inclined. I think they'd appreciate the help!

  6. Detrus says:

    Well as long as so called designers have arguments about what is art and is design an art, then they just reveal that they don't know what design is.

    Much of the work done by designers is stylization. I can see where the confusion would come from, I am called a designer but I mostly stylize things to certain specifications, which is exactly what artists used to do for a different subject matter.

    I have serious doubts that significant numbers of "creative" and "artistic" people that want to go to art schools and make pretty pictures will want to do the kind of work that design requires.

    It seems like the pattern on the large scale is specialization. Some firms specialize in IA, UI design. Other firms make visual extravaganzas, while others develop brand strategies. People are interested in doing specific things that are small pieces of what design really is, but the word "design" gets used by all of them because it's good branding.

  7. Corey says:

    Man this is spot on my thoughts exactly. Great post!

  8. Scott says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for hitting this particular nail *so* right on the head.

    I've certainly found that the lack of barrier for entry to the design world has really flooded the market with what I'd call "cake decorators" or those who may have some technical skill but sadly few who are interested in the tried and true practices of actual design.

    And for the people ultimately paying the bills it's not getting any easier to differentiate between the real designers (or agencies) and the "cake decorators", not until it's too late and they've already made an investment of one kind or another. And there doesn't seem to be any shortage of those who aren't particularly interested in being educated on what design actually is and entails.

    It can certainly be disheartening at times because there's so many clients out there that say they want design but in reality just want decoration, not strategic thinking or the other aspects that can actually contribute to measurable and sustainable ROI.

  9. Zinni says:


    I can agree with you on the clients that say they want design but really only want decoration. It can become frustrating to see soo many companies take the wrong approach and ultimately fail to make any impact as a result.

    However it is also why I feel that creating lasting relationships where you can educate and ultimately help the client are soo important. This behavior is exactly the kind that is needed to differentiate and generate the word of mouth marketing that firms need. Eric talks touches on this in the article, and I completely agree with him.

  10. Client education is definitely of an utmost importance. But it's a very challenging task for many designers. Some simply give up and give in to whatever nonsense the client wants to see.

    Last month I had a talk with a potential client and after an hour of phone consultation (a free one) she asks to give her a day to make a decision on which designer to go with (she short listed three people).
    Next day I get a call from her, informing me that she liked all of us and couldn't base her decision on anything better than tossing a coin, literally.
    Needless to say, that was the last time I talked to her. I might even follow her steps and toss a coin on whether or not take her as a client when down the road she contacts me to "fix her site".

    Thanks so much for this article, Eric, it's a breath of fresh air in the ocean of mediocrity.

  11. Great points + read! (bow)

    I'm glad I read this, as I was beginning to feel like I "rant" too much on my blog. Simply because I blog too much on my views, rather than "10 free fonts to download

    I think most bloggers (graphic design) have become victims of traffic (visitors, retweets, digg etc). They recycle post that bought traffic to other bloggers.

    There's less and less input about the author opinions and more "top 10 this and thats".

    I think the internet made it easier for mediocre designers to market themselves, sad part is everybody calls themselves "a great professional designer" — design illiterate clients usually falls prey to those.

    What happens when a not so good graphic designer reads a post by an "ok" designer?

    You'll get (re)tweets like: "great post by so and so... pls retweet" — while the article is the usual crap ("...25 great greens website...") populating the www

    10k RSS Subscribers doesn't really mean the author of the blog is a great designer! Expired food will still find people who'd cherish it and call it a blessing, the homeless!

  12. Brad C says:

    My first thought reading through the post was that you were right on and made some great points. It also made me think about my career, where it's going and how it got here.

    I didn't graduate from a design school, I majored in advertising and fell into web design because I happened to know a little HTML in the late 90s. It took years of bad work to become a passable designer. The reason I even got a chance to find this career I love was because there were clients out there who think design is ornamentation. And also because design tools are so accessible.

    I'm not trying to say that bad or boilerplate design is a good thing, but I do think it can be part of the learning process. The good designers I know are never satisfied, always trying to create something new or solve a problem. If you look at the folks running these blogs most of them aren't seasoned pros, they are fairly young designers just finding their passion for their craft.

  13. Lance says:

    This is a good piece. As you know I belong to the young people you mentioned here, I think the ideas that you mentioned here, the known facts, and pitfalls of the profession will shape this journey of mine.

    Thank you :)

  14. I'm glad I didn't have my feelings hurt after reading this topic. Maybe beacause I do (or think I do) design the "right way". I always try to be a consultant to my clients, always trying to tidy things up on their way of managing products, content, image etc., because mostly I'm contracted to design their websites and get dazzled by the lack of consistency of their contents, the awful lack of pattern on their publishings (thus a fragmented image).

    Before I even touch the mouse to design the website, I try to convince them to tidy things up before showing them broadly to the public (I'm glad I had post-graduation on Marketing & Advertising). The great problem is that clients regard those things as useless or too hard (or expensive) to do and give me an ultimatum: "we want a website and we are paying for that".

    Alright then, I try at least not to spoil their brands even more when I do a self-driven website. And that's self-driven because I wouldn't dare to drive it the bad way the client wants to, unless they threaten me not to pay. So, that's their money, that's the poor design they'll buy. Just don't tell anyone I did that, alright?

  15. Patrick says:

    As the operator of one of notorious screen shot based sites I couldn't help but reply. Yes my site shows thousands of screen grabs. But my goal from day one was to talk about it. And I agree, the countless emulators are somewhat annoying. I wasn't the first to do this sort of cataloging, but it does seem a flood of others followed soon after. Now I won't say that my thoughts on design are profound, but I always figured at least I was putting something with those collections. So to this point your right, sites showing endless streams of images seem rather pointless.

    Given the response my site and book have had I believe there is value in these sorts of collections. Others far smarter then I have done the very same thing (Steven Heller comes to mind). It seems there is a power to grouping designs in such a way that you can see patterns.

    And as soon as I think, well only the untalented imitators use my site I am reminded of the countless times I have seen top notch designers reference my site or comment how much they love it.

    Anyhow, just wanted to throw my two cents in. Good luck with the book.

  16. There's nothing wrong with documenting design. My concern is that the proliferation of visual lists is becoming grossly disproportionate to the amount of more in-depth discussion.

    Thanks for the well wishes regarding the book! I'm pretty excited to almost have it ready to go. :-)

  17. Anthony Bellemare says:

    Eric - "With time, however, the varnish wears thin, and we then see the difference between lasting solutions and passing fads."

    The army of 20-year-old experts ready to “style things up” is not going to go away, but over time the companies that use them (if they are still in business) will slowly begin to understand the value of designers like you.

    I see this mimicry happening in product design, including my own industry of exhibit displays. Many products come from the East and lack in quality, but match in styling at a very low cost. Many of these products are purchased sight unseen from the internet. It is only after they have the frustration of using it and experiencing failure in the product at critical times do they understand the value in purchasing quality and reliability.

    I think they same will hold true for companies like yours. Your commitment to "Position" yourself and focus on what the client needs will serve your business well.

    We need more designers like you.

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  19. Thanks for this intelligently written piece, Eric. I couldn't agree more...

  20. @Davie Ronnie I am actually surprised at fact that GDC isn't as popular as it should be amongst (young) designers. GDC needs people like you, to be their voice and advocates why being a part of a professional organization of their own profession is important.

    @Eric Karjaluoto Being someone who's starting out in Communication and Design industry, this kind of post is what I need to help guide my career path and choosing the experiences I need to get there. With SpeakUp closed, I hope there will be another forum like it for seasoned designers to discuss important matters in the industry and younger people like me to learn from.

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  22. linda says:

    the smartest and most insightful words i've read about commercial art in ages. you're smart and well-spoken; you've got me hooked.

  23. henry says:

    thank you for the insightful article.

    often in my course of my work, i was tempted to just label myself as a creative - an individual who is able to provide creative solutions to an organization without being settled in any medium or form. sadly, often the question that get asked to me is "so you do web/print design?" and of course i meekly reply "yes" to them:S.

    perhaps its time to speak up , to challenge my client's perception and help them understand the value a really good designer can offer.

    thanks again.

  24. Nicole says:

    You've touched upon topics I've been thinking about during the last few months.

    Some of the designs I've been seeing lately lack a sense of purpose or originality. It's sad really. Everything seems to be a retread of something else.

    It makes me wonder, what is the point of doing anything at all if you're simply copying another person's solution to a different set of problem? Pardon this celebrity metaphor but dressing like Brad Pitt won't make you look like Brad Pitt. He has a different body type (different problem) and his style (solution) is different from yours. Just because a design solution worked for Apple or Google, doesn't mean it could easily work for you or your client.

    It would do us a lot of good if some designers - especially the young ones coming up - concentrated more on creative thinking and thought-process than just flashy design.

    It reminds of an article I read a while back of a designer who said that the one advice he can give to others is to never look at design annuals for ideas on design work. The beginning stage of a design solution must come organically. It's good to know what's going on but don't let it be a crutch for actual creative thinking.

    A discussion on this topic would be enlightening to say the least. I reckon a lot of designers are thinking about the very same things you've verbalized in this post. Thanks for the wonderful article!

  25. David says:

    The lack of rigor in how design is employed and criticized is the #1 risk for our profession.

    Without an understanding of how design can be employed mindfully in the pursuit of meaning, the divide between low-cost decoration that evokes the drama of wallpaper and highly effective design that actually drives a client's business strategy will only continue to accelerate.

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  27. Steve says:

    Eric I've emailed you on this topic and also pre-ordered your book but would like to say publicly -- superb article and very well written.

    Strange I should just read this. This week I was asked by a client to 'design' an item of print 'based' on a piece of work by another agency. Of course I explained why this is not good practice and quoted to come up with a solution to HIS problem rather than that other agency's client's problem.

    I'm currently waiting to see if I win the project. It will be a sad affair if my agency looses out because my client found a 'designer' who would copy.

    I remain happy with my decision though and will do the same every time regardless.

  28. Naomi Niles says:

    It seems like every time I read your posts, I think, "That's exactly what I've been thinking." You manage to put things way better than I could have though.

    I agree that it is very apparent is that a lot of designers are focusing too much on style and forgetting that they are being hired to help actual businesses. What's the point of having a beautiful web site if it doesn't do anything for the client?

    If you were a client, would the objective really be to have a pretty website with the latest jazzy effects? Certainly not. Or at least it shouldn't be if you care at all about your biz!

    I've also found myself reading less and less design blogs this past year or so as others have mentioned. After awhile, they all become one in the same and almost none of them are really focusing on problem solving, which is what I think the root of good design really is.

    Anyway, thank you for this post. I've been thinking these same things, but this really sparked something in me that's making me think about my own approach and ways I can position my biz so that I no longer have to compete with the bazillion new web designers starting out.

  29. Phil K says:

    Thanks for the rant Eric...
    I have just completed my Masters in Design and thought I might address issue from a slightly different perspective.

    Over the last couple of years I have noticed a couple of trends:

    1. Designers design, other disciplines write about design. Business, Economics and the Social Sciences and many others are incorporating elements of design and design thinking into their discourse. If we want to raise the level of design discourse and the level of understanding about design, We need to have more designers writing meaningfully about design and design issues.

    2. If we as designers want to raise the level of understanding by clients and the level of design discourse, we need to be more open with our process. This has it's problems as everyone can leverage (steal/plagerize) our ideas and process, including the 'cake decorators', but if aren't talking about our process publically, how will our clients know what is important? This also means that We need to be better communicators and actually describe our value proposition in a manner that is easy to understand and meaningful to our clients. Not just hide behind vagueries and marketing spin.

    I agree with the comments so far and the only way I can see design moving forward is by pushing our discourse further, talking about the strategic benefits and focusing less on design objects.

    This could be reflected in our websites and portfolios, by writing case studies that show the progression of a piece of work and show how the act of designing can help identify problems as well as provide solutions. The amount of time and energy we spend on sketching, brainstorming, revisions, and research needs to be reflected, to highlight the value of the design process.

    If anyone wants to read more on this topic, Bill Buxton's Sketching user Experience, John Thakara's In the Bubble and Nigel Cross's Designerly ways of Knowing are some examples of books and articles that address some of these issues.

    There are also some great resources available on the value of design from the UK Design Council:

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  31. Joe Morris says:

    Question for you Eric or any of your readers.
    I'm interested in becoming a web designer. Where do I start? CSS/XHTML? Dreamweaver?

    Any input would be greatly appreciated.


  32. Tom Biederbeck says:

    Thank you for this cogent piece, Eric.

    I can't improve on your thoughts or the smart discussion that's taken place here. But one specific example of the misapplication of design skills that I've seen recently stands out.

    I've been observing that quite a few clients are eager to climb on the "social networking" bandwagon in their marketing. While there are inherent hurdles in addressing marketing needs in a knee-jerk fashion, often the discourse never gets even that far.

    Some of these companies & organizations are looking to generate what they perceive of as "free" marketing buzz. Yet when they get to the actual point of generating the message, they reflexively regress to conventional thinking. As the work proceeds, they start asking, "Fine, but what about my marketing message? What about the $5.99 weekend special we're running?"

    In these cases, the studio or agency who's supposedly shepherding the client into the new "social" spaces has neglected to prepare the client for what's involved. In effect, the design studio has failed to impress on the client that "the message isn't bout you, or your $5.99 special. It's about your audience."

    There's nothing wrong with marketing via what's become known as social media. But it's no substitute for conventional marketing, specifically advertising. Advertising one's wares is still essential. And the social spaces are about another means for communicating with one's audience. There's a difference, & failing to communicate with the client — if you want to call it educating the client, that's cool — leads to much wasted effort.

    Looking forward to the book, Eric!

  33. Josh says:

    If i may say so @Phil K proprietary brand process is nonsense. We all use the same basic process and whether we use allusions to furniture or farm animals. Many of us were taught the same kind of textbook way in school and then saw others creating a "process" and decided we needed to do that. When in reality, as we talk about the good vs. the candy practitioners, is that with practice and wisdom, one does become a good designer for branding or otherwise.

    I'm also regretting the loss of Speak Up. I think it might have been too consuming in addition to the rest of the blogs they were starting, but kind of inline with the quick, disposable nature of web content these days. Sorry to say to Armin, but I think lack of effort (and maybe just a robbing of passion with other responsibilities) really doomed Speak Up. As it lost frequent content, it just shed readers left and right. A dedicated to the craft blog like that needs content being fed a bit more than once a week.

    Probably not many will read this, but I'm laying it down for firm owners. Hire people! Have revolving internships where students can get practice. And make the area schools aware that you are promoting internships. You still have the final cut and you don't have to HIRE anyone. The critical gaps between being a quality student and blossoming into a practicing designer start with internships.

    I mean I had four internships and at good places too. Though my time with that was pre-recession by a few years, but when i advise young students these days there seems to be less opportunities. You, mega branding firm and you boutique design office HAVE TO hire young designer and invest part of your time in making them better.

    If you don't want the imitators you have to be willing to be the creators. Oh snap...what a rhyme!

  34. Keep me posted on the book. Please add me to your "set-aside" list. I look forward to getting a copy.

  35. I will--thanks Jason!

  36. Judith Mara says:

    Eric, How did you get so wise, being so young? Props to you! I have been a graphic designer/creative director/marketing manager and now a business owner for 35 years. And the only thing that has changed about intelligent branding and marketing are the tools we use to create our messaging. I think the reason why my company, who does mostly web design and marketing, is so successful is because of years of experience applied to new technology. Way too often we are asked to "redo" websites designed by people who no nothing but create pretty pictures (if you can call them that.) Thank you!

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  38. Joe Clark says:

    I don’t totally understand this post. It seems the important part of it – I am indeed suggesting the rest is not important – amounted to name-dropping the issue of the Value of Design. I’ve been reading about that topic since I was a teenager. There are clients with no taste who can’t be educated, and then there are the clients who will actually hire you.

    In the meantime, there are umpteen examples of the “value” of “design.” One you could start with in the graphic-design field is Spiekermann’s redesign of the Economist, some of which involved tasks as simple as adjusting tracking values in Quark.

  39. I'm not sure how to respond to that Joe. Is there a question in there?

  40. twitrounds says:

    This is an enlightening post for those who are entering the industry and probably a confirming post for those trying to make a living as graphic designers.

    It would be interesting to hear, in more depth, your ideas on art vs design...

  41. I think that would deserve a post all it's own. :-)

  42. Dennis says:

    Eric, I totally agree with you. I feel that we need to educate clients and the general public about what is good design versus fad design. I feel the only way quality design can out last crap design is to teach the general public.

    I come across sooo many people who have very little understanding of what I do and what it entails. They all seem to have a similar notion that I work with a computer and know how to use a piece of software and I can IT their computer crashes and all I do is stare at a computer screen all day.

    They have no idea how the design process works. They have little knowledge on the benefits of spending their money with a quality designer/studio as opposed to some joe-blow keyboard monkey who can embossed, lens flare, catchy color, design.

    We have reached a time where we need to introduce people to the importance of our craft and why we are more than just people who "make things look pretty." We are problem solvers, communication freaks and most importantly individuals that can effectively help them with their design problems.

    I am educating whoever will listen. I have had enough of the stereotypes and narrow minded views. There has to be a change in the perspective of the public. So far, people are starting to understand. But there is still lots to learn and teach but I look forward to it each day.

    Do you agree?

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