Monday, April 11th, 2011

Put Down Your Crayons

Put Down Your Crayons
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I like hiring designers. This is in part bias: as one of them, I tend to understand where they are coming from. More than that, I like the way designers tend to think. We’re currently hiring for a couple of roles at smashLAB. As a result of the numerous applications received, I recently made the remark that there are too many designers out there. A few mistook this as a jab at inexperienced or not-particularly-good designers (admittedly, fair ways to read this comment). What I was really trying to get across, though, was the rather bleak feeling I was left with as a result of looking over so many applications.

There Are a Lot of Designers

In grade school, when I talked about becoming an artist or designer, the response was met by some degree of bewilderment. Most simply didn’t believe these to be viable careers. I still remember the advice of one guidance counselor. He suggested changing my name to something memorable (I believe this was in jest), gave me a couple of calendars for technology institutes (that didn’t offer design programs), and wished me the best, verbalizing his hope that I wouldn’t end up as a “starving artist.”

Although this recollection may seem snarky, I don’t bear any kind of ill will to this individual. At the time, students were being advised to become doctors, lawyers, accountants, and (in our part of the world) foresters. At some point along the way, things seem to have changed. I say this because any design posting we now advertise is met by many hundreds of applications. A number of these are from individuals with impressive credentials and portfolios. I might add that many of the applicants seem like rather nice people too.

For a while, I responded to each applicant individually, given the caliber of talent often present. Eventually, I learned there simply wasn’t enough time to do this. Today, as I look over this virtual mountain of applications, I’m left feeling a little uncomfortable. If I could, I’d hire many of these people, however, we rarely have more than a single opening at a time. Meanwhile, as I look at the sheer number of applicants, I fear that supply has far outstripped demand and that, as a result, many qualified people will wait a long time before securing work. There are just too many people who want to be visual designers.

Maybe There’s a Bigger Issue

The curious part in all of this, is that what I really need out of a designer isn’t what most of today’s applicants actually talk about. I’m of the opinion that this results in many designers missing out on a huge opportunity. What most candidates fixate on isn’t necessarily what I can best put to use. Yes, I need someone who maintains a strong command of visual language, typography, composition, form, and all that good stuff. That, however, is only really one—rather small—part of what we do at smashLAB.

Want to know what I can really use? Thinkers. Yes, beyond anything visual, I need people who can look at a communication problem, and propose a way to solve it. The tricky part, is that what it takes to get from here to there doesn’t really look like design to most designers. I’m talking about research, analysis, organization of findings, non-linear reasoning, and the ability to write these things down. Further, I need people who can probe intelligently to achieve insight, and later articulate their thinking to those who don’t have much interest in design.

Sadly, a great many designers don’t feel like doing this kind of work. Instead, they want to be artists who only explore visually. I don’t blame them, but I do believe this bias leaves them missing out. This sort of tunnel vision can unnecessarily limit one from taking on the really interesting parts of the work.

While I’m as excited as anyone else about novel visual approaches and design details, the part that really blows my hair back is the “big idea.” I love how arriving at one of these establishes a platform for what we’re doing for a client. I also appreciate how this kind of approach to problem solving positions our agency as a group of thinkers, instead of just a bunch of visual stylists.

What Our Clients Need

I’ve started to wonder if posting jobs for designers might be misleading. Lately, I’ve contemplated whether we should instead advertise for “Design Thinkers.” In spite of this possibly sounding a little silly, and cliché, I believe it might better describe the kinds of people we’re looking for—and the work done at our agency. I’d even go a step further, and argue that this is where the design industry in general is moving.

Do we need people to make aesthetically appropriate (and even beautiful) things? Most certainly. We also still need those folks who obsess over character spacing, paper stock, visual balance, and all that standard graphic design fodder.

At the same time, the world of communication is getting awfully messy. Clients these days need someone to help them shape their stories, craft marketing strategy, make sense of changing media, and figure out whether they need a blog, podcast, Twitter account, or direct mail piece. More than that, they need people who think critically and can to tell them that the answer to this last batch of requests may simply be “no.”

Our customers need people who can help them come up with intelligent plans to respond to problems that are often quite different from the last. Again: thinkers. Depending on the situation, an ad campaign might not cut it. A social media exercise may be a complete waste of time. Additionally, PR efforts that once seemed to hold promise may prove deeply flawed. Our clients aren’t being effectively serviced by those selling a single channel or deliverable; as such, they increasingly need to find partners (i.e. us) who can help them find their way.

The Work We Should Be Doing

The point I’m trying to make is that there’s a lot of opportunity for us—as thinkers—to provide great value to our clients. We won’t, however, do this if we continue to hold tightly on to the notion of designers being purely visual practitioners. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: design is about facilitating outcomes, not selecting colors.

The fact of the matter, is that many designers are a good fit for this kind of work. I posit that this is because we tend to veer away from prescriptive approaches. Contrary to many of our marketing brethren, we rarely believe that what worked the last time can simply be applied to the situation at hand. I argue that this is simply out-of-alignment with our nature. We like to see each situation as a unique problem, for which a custom solution must be devised. (This tends to be the fun part.)

There are lots of smart people out there. Some of them hold a strong visual aptitude; others do not. This isn’t really the important part of the equation. What is, is that design thinking stuff: the ability to look at a situation and come up with alternate (less linear) solutions is becoming increasingly important and at the same time, far more valuable.

I can have access to any photographic, illustrative, or “design” style immediately—and relatively inexpensively. This means that the power of those who concentrate solely on visual treatments is dropping precipitously, due to the simple laws of supply and demand. Therefore, any designer concentrated principally on visuals faces a grim forecast.

On the other hand, those who have a capacity for abductive reasoning, speak the language of their clients, and can articulate their findings and ideas well, can look forward to a rather bright future, indeed.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Shawn Petriw says:

    Kind of reminds me of one of Steve Jobs' better quotes:

    "People think it's this veneer -- that the designers are handed this box and told, 'Make it look good!' That's not what we think design is. It's not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works."

    Most of designing a customer user experience has little to do with what the letterhead or invoice looks like. Lots of workflows that achieve the experience aren't visually designed at all, but they are design thunk, that's for sure.

  2. Is it getting to the point now where designers are growing closer to what some would traditionally consider the role of an art director?

    To me, at least, the term "designer" is a fairly limited one in that it focuses too much on the "design" part of it. To your point, what you're looking for is thinkers, and "art directors", whether at an ad agency, a magazine or wherever, have typically carried broader considerations, recognizing that design elements, while important, are secondary to a more impactful whole.

    It sounds a bit elitist to say as much – especially, working as an art director at an ad agency, I'm not exactly objective – but that's been one of the things bugging me about design in general, is that it gets too stuck on the "design" part of the equation. Seeing how design is fighting for tooth and nail to gain more "respect" in the business world, I feel like I'm not alone in that assumption.

    Sometimes, a custom typeface isn't needed, and fifteen spot colours are simply out of the question. I exaggerate for emphasis, but my point is that often the right solution – to your point, Eric – is simply the right message stated simply.

    Different terms carry with them different expectations. Maybe "designer" has come to mean "decorator" in the truest sense of the term to the broader world, and what's needed is a new name. Or maybe it's up to designers to stem the tide and start thinking beyond grids and typography to consider wider objectives.

    The ironic thing is that the best designers do this instinctively. It's a bit sad that the rest have to be told this once they're out in the real world.

  3. adam says:

    This post should titled design thinking. Very interesting points.

  4. Bill Kenney says:

    Great read, couldn't agree more!!

  5. Alex Magill says:

    I've seen the effects of this glut of purely visual designers on my clients.

    More and more my questions to clients, focussing on their business, goals and problems are met, at first, with suprise. From most of them I've established that it is because their previous relationships with designers have focussed on "how cool does this look!" and the most in-depth questions tend to be "what's your favorite colour?"

    Perhaps I should be pleased by the competitive advantage that this gives my business, but that's not why I got into design. I enjoy competition, both learning from it and just seeing some of the incredible ideas and solutions that others are capable of. But mostly I enjoy being part of a vital (in both senses of the word) and ingenous industry - something I feel is in danger of being drowned out at the moment.

  6. Max says:

    The things this article has touched upon, I've noticed as a design student, a few years ago, and have been thinking for some time now. At least, I'm not alone in this!

  7. This isn't any different than most other white collar professions, is it? I'm a software engineer/developer/programmer, and while technical excellence - knowledge of technologies, languages, platforms, algorithms - is important to my work, even more so is thinking and being able to solve actual problems rather than just typing in a monkey-like fashion.

    It's also an insight that I see 90% of other programmers fail to grasp. Sadly, many managers fail likewise.

    I once had a heated discussion during an interview for "team leader", on whether programmers benefit from knowing what their code will be doing in the real world. His claim was that programmers merely need to know what goes in and what should go out. Needless to say I never started working there.

  8. Josh Hughes says:

    100% agree with this. Design thinking is of course what sets the professional designer (for want of a better title) aside from the 'nephew with Photoshop' who just throws ideas together without really understanding the underlying reasons—or the potential implications. It's this in-depth understanding of our craft and our clients business needs which is what clients are paying for, and what we should actually be selling.

    @Stuart Thursby — Your comment about needing a new name really hits the nail on the head. I've actually shifted from telling people that I'm a "graphic designer" to describing myself as a "brand consultant and designer". It more accurately describes what I do, where the bulk of my experience lies, and certainly commands more respect amongst those who tend to think of designers as merely decorators.

  9. ????? ??? says:

    A great read!
    I'm probably one of the people you call thinkers, I am no designer, I work on the front-end stuff. Being handed down numerous 'pictures' I had to code, I just couldn't realize the thinking behind the fonts, paddings, the logic of the page. After questioning why this or that was done the way it was, the answer was more or less 'because it looks better'.

    Most "designers" today just make up pretty pictures the client likes and afterwards it's left to coders to think how things should work. But it's their job to think how things work, not to draw pretty pictures on their Komputorrs. And then explain.

    On another note, I recently saw a job posting about "Solution architects" and i lol'd. But after reading this post I think i can begin to get it why such an obscure position was created.

    Cheers, for the nice read.
    - Pavel

  10. Pavel Kuts says:

    My name is Pavel Kuts and the last post was mine. I just wrote my name in Cyrillic. Cheers :)

  11. Kevin Cannon says:

    Surely you're just talking about a UX/Interaction Designers there? Ideally you'd have both on a team.

    I don't think it's neccessary that one single person does everything, as there's people who love the 'thinking' phase as you describe it.

  12. Justin Price says:

    There's a very incisive article

  13. Eric, I could not agree with you more. But my personal experience shows the irony of your argument. I came to design in my late 30s, after having been a science journalist, editor, and writer, and with a PhD in sociology, which of course teaches you how to formulate questions, and research the answers. I have always tried to position myself as a strategic thinker, but for the most part, I have found potential employers stuck on formal composition and whether I have a BFA.

    Without boring all with too much personal detail, one experience sums it up: A small studio was recasting itself from design to strategic communications, melding the two principals' businesses (a married couple). I applied for a senior designer position, sent in resume and samples, and received a call from the design half of the pair, who was greatly excited by my background in research and writing, because of how she was trying to reposition herself. She went on at length about how my skills would be a perfect fit.

    Went in for an interview, showed my book. Heard nothing for some time, and finally, after reaching out, I was told that basically, it was clear I did not have a BFA and not all of my work was of good formal composition. Instead, they hired a young woman just out of school who had "beautiful work" but not a lick of experience thinking strategically, researching client's businesses, etc.

    It's great that you see what we really need more in this industry is design thinkers. I only wish that more studios thought the same way. (BTW: In case this sounds purely like sour grapes, my work has received several awards and recognitions from other designers).

    I now work as a senior designer at a university center, where I ask the tough questions about the purpose of a piece of work long before the first crayon comes out of my box!

  14. jeff white says:

    Eric, I think you and I discussed hiring processes a bit when you were out east at the AIM Conference last Spring.

    My biggest issue with hiring designers (and I've hired a bunch both for my firm and as a senior designer working for other firms) is that there are just way too many schools putting out way too many people without anywhere near enough ability.

    In Halifax, we have a major design university pumping out ~30 grads a year. It used to be that this school focused on design thinking and theory but it's been at least a decade since NSCAD's had the professors to impart this knowledge, and a lack of vision (and money) at the school isn't helping matters. Then we've got a publicly-funded Community College driving double this number of grads out every year from a two year program. These grads have more technical experience, but even less design thinking than the university grads. On top of that, there's tons of private colleges driving dozens more 'designers' out from an 18 month program. These designers have some technical skill, ZERO design thinking, and even less (if it's possible) eye for design. It's really quite sad, especially given that they've spent tens of thousands of dollars and they really don't even know what it means to be a designer.

    We're presently hiring a designer as well, and like with your experience we received tons of resumés and portfolios. There were a few standouts that we're considering, but the rest were pretty atrocious.

    As designers and business owners we need to get more involved in the design education process. I've taught at NSCAD, and it's a wonderful experience to be able to shape the curriculum somewhat, but I can only do so much. As business owners, we should be having a frank conversation with the people who make up the faculties of these institutions. They are simply NOT preparing their students for the workforce. It's true that some people simply aren't cut out to think as problem solvers, but it would certainly help if at least they were being taught this way.

    One of the things that I value most about my design education from the early 90s was a massive focus on rhetoric, semiotic theory and design history. Computers be damned. Almost everyone I graduated with had a passion for design thinking, and virtually all are in positions of power within companies, schools and agencies all over the world.

    I'm scared to think what the current crop of designers will have to teach designers twenty years from now.

  15. Gab White says:

    As a design student graduating this month, it's very reassuring to read an article like this! I've always been encouraged by my professors to explore the research, analysis, and design thinking part of design just as much as the visual exploration. The struggle for me, as a new designer, is knowing whether the design industry is encouraging the same level of critical input from their designers. It's great to see that design education and the design industry are finally syncing up in terms of expectations from designers.

  16. Amen! I couldn't agree with you more! Here's to Design Thinkers everywhere!

  17. Well stated, Eric, as you are wont to.

  18. PattyGii says:

    These are selling points to my clients and at the same time provide them with a whole new 'respect' for what WE do. Thank you for the sanity check!

  19. Pingback: Pitching for design work in floating cement factories | David Airey, graphic designer

  20. Great post, lots of relevant information for all of us in the field.

    I think you may have inadvertently found your way to finding the "thinkers" you're looking for. Have anyone wishing to be a potential candidate read this post before responding.


  21. Pingback: “Design is about facilitating outcomes, not colors.” – Eric Karjaluoto

  22. vicarious1 says:

    Love your post Eric, as all the previous ones. Allow me to be slightly sarcastic. As long as the greatest "Thinking" does not translate into something clearly "Visual" there is no "Design".
    hense my company name "Visual Senses Design".
    Over my many years of international work I yet still have to meet a client thrilled by great "thinking", prior to visuals.
    As you stated in other words, often clients aren't great Design buffs. If from the start of a project a client can't "see" our "thinking" the attention span tends to fade dramatically.
    This leeds me back to a still very relevant question for any Designer "How fast can you get visual? I still think is a decisive factor in the process.
    I knowledge that the "Design Thinking" has grown into more that a niche market business. There's group on LinkedIN who advocate for the "Thinking" only, that would make me doubt that I ever was a Designer , if I would adhere to their very tubular views excuse my punt. Having lectured as a professional I often found that Academics in our field are the best at the "Thinking" but lack terribly at implementation and translation into anything beyond.
    Having been a Design Directors for Conran Design London I believe big entities and smaller with tighter budgets even more, rather have staff exercise their the "Art of thinking" on their own time, as studio time = $.
    Although I care for the term, I believe that good Designers can see the a project through from the "Thinking" to final implementation making us more and more "Jack of all trades"
    now including IT more then ever.
    In this new century tighter economics , we are more and more expected to be on top of it all. A graphic Designer in the 80-90 not needed to know Dreamweaver and and and . When looking at market offers, I am flabbergasted reading the list of requirements in some job offers. In the early 80s my colleagues thought I was going mad. Why printing out in 256 colors when you can use felt pens and gouache?
    Since then have exercised the practice from thinking concept, to overseeing the residential, shops, hotels interiors, building of homes, beside designing and the production of feature glass, garments, uniforms, mountaineering back bags, & accessories, tents, sleeping bags.
    I enjoy taking what I call 1D (the thinking) to 2D and then 3D as much as far as I can but there are limits to my being a "Jack o.a.t."
    And if my comment is not 100% Queens English, forgive me.
    I am Latin "Francais, Italian" educated..and speaking 5 languages, I lack of your exquisite polish that I love reading here to learn more of the English Designer Lingo.
    But then I feel damn good about my thinking up Visuals and their implementation that kept me working on five continents.
    Looking forward to your next theme.

  23. Good form! Design is problem solving, plain and simple. Thanks for the advice.

    I too lived in town based upon the forest industry. I get strange looks when I mention "Designer" as a profession when I go back to visit. But once I come back to the city, everyone and their dog is a designer!

  24. Of course, I see where you're coming from, Eric. You always state your case well and with nuance. But are you maybe railing at the bell curve? There are a handful of great lawyers, a bunch of good ones, and hordes of mediocre hacks. Doctors, engineers, poets, musicians. Where is it any different? And if you asked each of them, would they identify themselves correctly on the spectrum? If you ask for design thinkers, wouldn't you get the same portfolios for review? Or would changing the job description elevate the entire curve?

    There was yet another article on Ivy League admissions in the paper a while back. It said that schools like Harvard look so extremely selective, because thousands and thousands of obviously underqualified people use the application like a long-shot lottery ticket. How do you counter that effect?

    Typed on a phone. Forgive me for ant odd typos or auto-corrected submarines.

  25. I think it has less to do with quality of designers in general, and more to do with what the job increasingly seems to entail. Largely, I wonder if the we need to recast the role of the designer according to what many of us actually do on a day-to-day basis.

    As for the submarines, no need to apotheosizes. I undertake. I half an iPhone that autocorrelates curds to.

  26. George Loch says:

    Part of the challenge of this is educating the client/manager. They often think of the designer as the "make it look cool" person. As an art director in a larger corporation, I come up against this all the time - and I am a thinker. So often a project is handed off with all the strategy decisions made and the art dept. is simply supposed to "polish it". Having freelanced for a large portion of my career, my mind automatically turns towards strategy but, most designers who worked up through corporations or agencies have been conditioned to think of themselves as the make it pretty person.

    Yours is valid point and projects the right direction but, there will be some artists that struggle to think of themselves as anything other than a photoshop guru.

  27. You're cutting to the heart of it, George. It's about selecting your client as much as it is about being chosen by them. If they need a decorator, and you enjoy decorating -- perfect. If you want to do more, just hold out for those clients. But to your point, Eric, I suppose it would be helpful to have separate names for those two things. And to have the division be demonstrable. Because how many designers do you know who call themselves art director or even creative director, or visual strategist or experience architect or whatever the cringe-inducing term of the day is. I'm still proud to be a graphic designer. Though maybe Doyald was right. He stuck with commercial artist, and I think that does fit nicely. The Germans call it "applied arts" or "applied graphics," which also seems accurate.

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  29. What you are talking about is marketing. We need designers who think like marketers.

    I've been calling myself an "Internet Marketing Strategist" for about five years now. Five years ago no one knew what I did. Now companies are clamoring all over themselves for an Internet Marketing Strategist. We are guides helping companies navigate the fractured media landscape and helping them put together a strategy and plan for telling a story about the company or product.

    It's actually really old-school, basic business 101. It's just that there are lots of new tools and the world has gotten smaller -- these two things have created a world culture in which companies need to express who they are with more visual acuity AND a more complete narrative. Because of how transparent everything is, a 30 second jingle doesn't do it anymore.

    That's why all people, no matter their profession, need to be right-brain left-brain thinkers.

  30. Marketing is certainly a part of it, but I believe there's still a distance between marketing and design thinking. The former is informed from a promotion standpoint. The latter can be too, but also takes into account a number of other considerations, some of which may have little (or nothing) to do with promotion.

    That's why I think design thinking is such an interesting topic: it can be applied to a variety of unrelated situations, and result in really impactful change.

    BTW: None of this said to disparage marketers. A large part of smashLAB's work is done in this capacity.

  31. Alex Magill says:

    @Stefan "railing at the bell curve" love the phrase. I think you're quite right - though I suspect that as the bar to entry lowers the curve will continue to widen.

    With respect to new titles, I've never found anything that sums up what I do better than 'designer'. I wouldnt class myself as a commercial artist - a title far more suitable to specialist, visual craftspeople like the late Doyald. Anything else feels pretentious or overly broad or narrow.

  32. George Loch says:

    @eric I agree that there is a difference in what a marketing strategist takes into consideration and a designer who thinks strategically. It's much more difficult to come at this from the latter perspective. Hence the reason a strategic designer is so valuable - if you know what to do with them :)


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  34. vicarious1 says:

    Bringing marketing into the Design process? Sure at all times we do think beyond the project itself and how it may be perceived, received and on the why it may be rejected by the public at large and how to improve on all the above. For any Designer honest with her/himself this is an affordable process part of our work.
    Allow me to compare the marketeer as bringing a chef into fresh produce market, having a field day. "Yippee, goodies" we can cook up a storm. With a chef, we can taste if the food was tasty or not so, before going ahead and putting it on the menu or selling it freshly packaged under some golden marketing arches. Designers after visualizing their thinking can be put to the scrutiny on how their new baby looks, but marketeers?
    Most Art/Design oriented people I have encountered in my career rather looked at the profession through the corporate glass doors. Number crunchers helping on how to create a need for something that may not be really needed in an already saturated market? Some will shoot me down in my flight here :-) But having had big corporate clients on my resume I have encountered often the behind the scene opinions on marketing.
    The more budget, the more anything good or bad gets sold to brainwashed driven society by marketing machines. Especially the bad, do I dare say? Sadly good Design sadly still does not outsells average'r bad. Although the hope for a happy ending is increasing as society's informed Design perceptions are slowly increasing. Sadly our world is filled with very average and bad Design that has to be marketed. The marketeer will hear see say no bad, as long as a client foots the fees so go for it.
    I am not claiming to be the judge in the know what is good and bad Design. But allow me to compare marketing to a devil in disguise, or the lawyer showing the guilty under his best looks. Innocent, no blemish like a white dove and that has nothing to do with Design. Marketing, a very successful profession created by the market itself after WWII. This just made me do a little research on the origin of the word "marketing" from 1949 only the world existed before. The bigger players paying millions to sell rejuvenating creams to " wanting to be forever young" as the gorgeous "Beyonce" because "You are worth it" and you are "one of the selected few".
    What ever the clients sales outcome, marketing fees are paid. Ever met a marketing entity working on % or profit share?
    For smaller companies who cannot produce to test the market, if the product did not sell, the market has changed, or the product "Design" was not right .or because the Designer did not listen. Never ever was the marketing strategy wrong.
    Allow me o compare it to banks. They all wants a business plan and "Projections" that we all know most is a whole lot of BS.
    Most countries and governments can't get it right and did not get it right so how can smaller entities, how does anyone know what unexpected 9/11 or Fukoshima may happen anywhere and change the whole perspective and still the marketeer will prevail. No one ever knows if someone will or not buy something or walk in that store. To me marketing projections is like paying for someone to "Design" your minds highest expectations and make you feel good about going ahead.
    So I put down my digital crayons and will work on happily as a "Designer" and trust the perception of the beholder's eye ...till it is has been properly marketed. Then you can sell it as a "Must have" black plastic garbage bag, stamp on LV and sell for the price of an expensive Nappa leather
    How many smaller companies do you know that have viable marketing budgets for their products and services to bring in someone to in from the outside in 2011?

  35. Rick Wolff says:

    This is such a refreshing post! As it happens, the aspect of graphic design that every graduate can do — that thought puzzle, like a crossword or sudoku, that you commit carefully to paper and then hand in — in other words, my bread and butter until the fall of '08 — seems so boring to me, I actually fall asleep doing it. What I crave is to be let in on the bigger picture, the evidence that can lead to the REAL problem, not the one the client says he has. I am now encouraged in my own job search.

  36. Jayson says:

    So you want us to know why we're doing or not doing something?

    On an objective level I can understand that, particularly if your organization has a tangible need for that. What I will say is that the "world of design" is not set up to produce this kind of person.

    First, it is still a visual world. The magazines, the web sites (design inspiration sites especially), blogs etc are all predicated on "look at this cool thing." Almost nothing in the greater world of design is geared toward examining this kind of thought process. It's all "look at the cool thing!" You do hear things about client interaction and whatnot, but it's usually limited to a sentence of roughly this length. It's almost never "Wow, check this out, it's a really great solution. Excellent problem solving!"

    Second, there is a huge part of the world of design employment that doesn't not care what a designer thinks. While recognizing that my personal experience doesn't constitute a universally relevant statistical sample, I haven't see the demand for a thinking designer. All I see today is the desire for a designer who can use an increasingly larger set of tools. For a lot of working designers, it's just a case of either your boss or your client wanting you to make the thing. The boss is the architect, the real designer; the graphic designer is just the facilitator. The person who wants the project doesn't know how to use Photoshop, or code, or shoot and edit a video or whatever.

    There is no trust. The designer is not recognized as an expert at design. Design is subjective, everyone knows what they like, they just can't manipulate the tools needed to realize it. I have personally never been in the position where I could say no to anything, or where my methodology was regarded as authoritative. I had one position where research (based on analyzing the subculture and visual language for a given product category) was required. Even then in the chain of command it wasn't "why did you do this?" but "why didn't you do this the way I would have done this?"

    A designer saying 'a social media campaign isn't the right response to your goals' does not carry the weight of a doctor saying 'you don't need your appendix out' or an engineer stating 'that won't take the weight.'

    Look at the positions advertised for in-house designers, there is frequently one sentence stating the designer must be creative, then an increasingly large laundry list of tools the designer must be able to use. What you're looking for is not what the HR departments of the world want out of a designer.

    Third, the way art eduction is taught in public schools and then marketed at potential college students doesn't produce a design thinker. Grade and high school art education is mostly an exercise in expression of personal creativity, if it's encouraged. Professional art education is mostly about being the facilitator or builder; mine was. At best you'll be evaluated on whether the piece in question communicated what you wanted to say effectively or not. That is still a far cry from asking whether it was the right vehicle to solve the problem at hand.

    Regardless, at a point there may be too many designers. Not being a visual problem solver won't get you hired at smashLAB. At another job it's not being a programmer and videographer on top of being a designer. At still another it's not being personally interested in the German car after market accessory scene. This profession continually resists codification and classification. What a designer is or should be is always in the mind of the person needing work to be done.

  37. vicarious1 says:

    @Jason I loved your "eloquant" reply and admit I wish I could have written my comment reply with your style, as I concur with your views. Looking at your site I can't locate where you are but where ever you are Best of creative luck.

  38. @vicarious1: Don't the quotation marks mean that you're being sarcastic? You didn't think Jason was eloquent?

  39. Jayson, sorry. Forgot your y. -- To your point, it jives with my experience, but only in the direction of doing less. My clients generally seem happy doing something more than they thought they initially requested. But on occasions when I've said, "You know, you actually need something simpler." it's almost always gone badly.

    Most people are more comfortable having their point of view validated instead of challenged. If you think you have a BIG PROBLEM, and I tell you it's actually a small problem you either think that I don't respect your perception of things, or I'm too stupid to see the magnitude of the thing. But if I say, "Oh boy! You sure do! In fact, I think your problem is even bigger than you thought!"... well, then you'll feel pretty smart for seeking me out.

    Not every situation is like that, and things change with trust built up over years, but more often than not that's been my experience.

  40. Euge says:

    Totally agree. You need a systemic view in order to call yourself a designer.

  41. Bo Pentecost says:

    I think you could increase you line spacing just a bit. :)

  42. I read a good post about something similar a couple months ago by Fred Oliveira called The D in Design.

    I would also say that design might be Facilitating outcomes through strategic color selection. To rephrase the statement you used above.

  43. vicarious1 says:

    @ Stefan ..sorry no not at all I though his writing was fantastic. OMG I hope he did not get the wrong feeling now!.
    I did not leave some positive comments on his website and wrote a personal note so I think he must have gotten the right vibe.
    I did not know that he quotes means "sarcastic"
    Thanks for pointing out.

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  45. Manuela says:

    About six months after my first job as a designer, after graduation and all of that, I realized I don't want to be a designer.
    When I grow up I want to be a design thinker, and you gave me the best definition. Thank you.

  46. Jim says:

    Employers like to judge who will be interviewed by who has the best resume. A lot of the time, especially when applying for a seeing position, that can come down to who's resume can catch their employers eye.

    The problem is, how do you show "abductive reasoning, speak the language of their clients, and can articulate their findings and ideas" on a resume? You can't. You have to style something up really well and hope it catches your employers eye, THEN you might get an interview to show you can actually think

  47. Actually, you can show those things in a resume.

  48. jeff white says:

    I agree with you Eric. In fact, I find that resumés speak less about the person's design thinking ability than the cover letter or website. Really great applicants have an incredible opportunity to showcase their thinking via blog posts and personal projects as well as their explanations of the thinking behind the solutions they've developed for clients/employers.

    It's incredible to me how few actually do that though.

  49. Jason says:

    I bet your next crop of applicants rave about how they love to chew over deep questions and nut out problems, big-picture thinking and structural understanding and such.

  50. unfunction says:

    At one point I was in charge of the hiring proces and I went through something similar (I think) to your situation. I wanted someone who could connect the dots. Sure the work was eye candy, but I wanted someone who could speak multiple languages - "Hey, I know how to do back end and front end" vs "I am proficient enough in back end that I can explain it to your boss in laymans terms, who has no technical knowledge whatsoever, and then present the front end in a three slide presentation for everyone in the company." I discovered that it's very rare to find "big picture" thinkers out there. I would always ask, "what is the concept? Explain your entire concept in five words or less." And I would never get a straight answer. I could get an explanation of an "idea" but no one could seem to differentiate the two. Also, its frustrating to find that designers don't really ask "what if" anymore. They dont take the time to stretch their mind into unfamiliar territories and then keep going. "What if the client had a social media app that would earn users points for using their phone's camera to take a picture of another user's phone screen, thus encouraging physical interaction and sharing?" "Well, that's not very practical." "Ok, then what if there was an app that played a single note but differently on everyone's phone, so when people actually stood next to each other on a bus it would create a symphony?". I like to see really wild and broad ideas get filtered down into a precise point. It's tough to just hear people go, "oh... I dunno. What if we had a facebook page?" It's like designers are just giving up or are not excited about their own potential anymore. They are the creators of all the visual and technological artistry out there. Most of them seem very satisfied at their sense of entitlement.

    Also, you are absolutely correct, there are too many designers out there. But what I have found more troubling is that most of those designers don't have the discipline to put themselves into a niche category. They all have a subconscious understanding that they "belong" somewhere, but when it comes down to job postings, they ALL immediately flock to it, thinking "I do that". They lack that restraint because they dont admit to themselves, "I know what they are looking for and it doesnt sound like me." It's like going on every random blind date because they are asking for "tall and handsome", but completely ignoring the "enjoys Minecraft, makes memes on the weekend" part. Sure, there are certain fundamental standards when it comes being a designer: an eye for layout; storytelling; typography; etc. But everyone has that one special "thing" that makes them unique, above everything else, and I wish schools encouraged students to identify that before they were released into the wild. I wish someone had told me that.

    I apologize for starting this off as a comment, then turning it into a rant.

  51. ufunction says:

    Oh and another thing...

    If I could do away with resumes and portfolios for designers, I totally would. I have noticed that portfolios are becoming like resumes where they don't tell the whole truth. If I saw a nice piece and asked "So what exactly did you do?" Most of the time, I would hear "Well.. I worked with a director to produce it." Fake out.

    I wish I could just hand out an application that simply said "solve this problem" and in it would reveal their entire thinking process. Do they sketch? Do they just use Wikipedia or actually go out? How much do they get caught up in the small stuff? Do they complain? Are they able to teach themselves? Can they write in a story? These are things, I feel, you won't really find out until after they are hired.

  52. vicarious1 says:

    @unfunction: With no disrespect meant. You want Designers to resume a Concept in five words? Doesn't the size of the project decides that? Yet yourself, like me, I admit, convey thoughts in a rather longer then shorter way. While studying I always produced the longest essays with great joy.
    Most clients don't comprehend fully a concept told or shown with five words only. I believe for the simple reason they want to hear/see more for their money. So why kill ourselves to minimize communication unless to resume a final concept on a presentation board title.
    I can't concur with you, suggesting Designer would do better putting themselves in a "box" and do their "niche" thing.
    The way the markets have evolved also do not underline your suggestion. If one shows to move only within a limited circle of Design medias will see her/his chances curtailed.
    Don't we see the market splashing cross pollination Designer bees doing nearly everything as long as it pays? And that is the bottom line, isn't it? Which Designer would refuse a chance of creating anything she/he feel she/he can if a client hands out the opportunity and trust?
    Allow me to say what I have no shame in saying in cruder words at time :-). Designers work is the closest to the oldest work in the world, yes, you know what I mean. And as long as a client places her/his trust in my creativity I will accept the challenge and deliver what I think will be the best and leave the rest to they eye of the general public beholder.
    Read any job offer for Graphic Designer and see if that says "niche". Most clients want 25% Design a all the rest a infinite amount of non niche knowledge to bring the graphic to the marketing platform. Be it an app, a website or "Youtube" flash mob. Putting it on a banner, poster, brochure and other "old times" media only is long gone.
    To you I would really lost case. I am a trained and diploma fashion and interior Designer from Paris and YSL old school with no computers then but was one of the first to embrace the CAD technology in Hong Kong in the early 80s. Then other Fashion Designer hair raised of horror thinking printing that print or label instead of sketching and coloring it. Our proprietary software "Colour Matters" that I also use in graphics and architecture was created from the enthousiasme and has over 2000 corporate users worldwide. I'll beat anyone by he clock on a PC or Mac creating a print and it's only 2D but the menu layout and user friendly interaction makes the difference. Ask me for a demo I'll try to oblige a.s.a.p.
    In these decades the way Fashion & Interior Designer thought, was if you can't touch it, it's no good. I still have my 1st Mac Book also but sadly they never thought of Fashion and Textile Designers so I switched to PC.
    My love for CAD has taken me to design from baby bottle warmers, mountaineering back bags and clothing tents sleeping bags for many years, digital wallpapers, five star hotel interiors and uniforms for dressing their staff from Hong Kong to Beverly Hills and New York , airlines and cruiselines, million dollar homes and oversee the building and the architect signing off my own plans.
    Now I am drifting towards including green marine oil containment oriented technology.
    Beside that I finished last year my 1st Hollywood full feature movie as Art Director, Costume and Set Designer and partner with Gabriel Morosan to calm my photographer frust doing fashion and other editorial setting Design.
    Currently scouting in the moment for any creative out of the box thinking Engineer, Designer interested to consider creating an entity specializing in oil containment technology here in Vancouver.
    Anyone not in a niche, contact me. You need to enjoy 3D Max and other 3D platforms, have a great 3D imagination, a caring attitude for the marine environment and ultimately see the big pictures that oil companies are the biggest spenders, so why not give it a shot to profit from that especially south of the border and adding Canada to the ones offering ecological savior.
    Thanks Eric for allowing us to use your blog as a Networking platform also.

  53. Jayson says:

    I can't help but feel that the net result of the comments here end up reenforcing the basic problems facing the design industry.

    In five words:

    No one understands the profession.

    Not even the practitioners it seems, based on the discourse here. Objectively the designer as a specialist practitioner makes sense to me. Practically every other profession in the world works on the basis of specialization. Even relegating the designer to the role of tool user, the complexity and depth of our tools seem to make this a logical assumption. It's one that's made, design is codified, at least in terms of education. If you get a degree it's going to be graphic design, web development, 3D, etc. You're taught to use a set of specific tools to build things that it's expected you'll be commonly called upon to make in your career. When you get out in the world, you as the graphic designer may be called upon to use any combination of tools from any of those degree fields, up to and including all of them.

    Now people can be good at more than one field, and we all certainly can learn and move into other realms of design, but not all of us are good at everything. At least in terms of written descriptions for graphic design positions though, it seems the only rule is that what is asked of the graphic designer could be anything or everything. Niche does seem to work for people, but they seem to be a minority.

    The problem again is the design often isn't the issue. It's tool use. I personally can design a web page, I've done so before, but outside of the XHTML/CSS2 markup world I'm not able to code it. I've studied JavaScript and PHP, but I'm just not the best coder in the world. Where that should probably be two people, it's now one. So can I design for web? Yes. Can I build for it? Not completely nor as competently as someone who has made that their primary focus.

    I still maintain that the designer isn't valued on the strategic level, and frequently not the tactical. They are the carpenter, not the architect, nor the planner who decides there should be a building in the first place.

    I do feel like I can speak to why designers don't pitch a lot of wild ideas though. It's simply not rewarded. In any given business there are more leaders than followers. It's not that people don't take time to stretch their minds into unfamiliar places, it's more that the general risk-adverse nature of business doesn't reward that kind of thinking. After x number of years working like that, people become conditioned not to think at that level.

  54. Jayson says:

    *more followers than leaders. Oy.

  55. unfunction says:


    I hope I can clear up some things I said about the 5-word concept. This type of confusion was exactly what I meant. When I refer to the "concept", I refer to the elevator pitch. Of course you can provide the client with as much detail as possible, but thats where the proposal/brief comes into play. That's when you can enthusiastically answer the question, "So, what's the BIG idea?". But if you can't boil that down into five words or less then you need to rethink your strategy. You're not limiting yourself in anyway. I just believe that your audience needs to grasp onto a personal association very early on, or else you lose their interest. Imagine you were trying to get funding for your new startup. You can't say, "Well, this idea is about taking your health metrics and having it report back to you on an hourly basis, so your doctors are notified of any upcoming health problems." Sure, to YOU that may make 100% sense, but all they want to hear first is, "Imagine Twitter for your body". The concept is the overarching, and easily identifiable, framework, while the idea(s) is everything that supports it. So, concept vs idea, big difference. So when I ask people what their concept is, I get long and drawn out stories. Then when I ask them to boil it down, they can't. That's the problem I have. The inability for designers (strategic communicators) to break their work down into simpler terms.

    I'm not sure if I understood your other points, but the whole point I was trying to make about being "niche" was, don't be generic. If you try to play the technological race, you will lose. You have a better chance of surviving by being a better conceptual storyteller. Identify your strengths and weaknesses. Times will always change. Technology will always change. But things like emotions won't change. And that's where the medium doesn't define great work, the personalized content does.

  56. unfunction says:


    No one understands the profession because there are no standards. If you study law, there is only one law system you have to know. If you study medicine, there is only one human body. There are comfortable limitations and expectations. Sure, you can branch off into pediatrics or become a brain surgeon, or take on international copyright law or be a local defense attorney. But design is so vast and undefined that it's totally the wild wild west. Anybody and everybody is doing it.

    When I came out of school I thought AIGA was the cornerstone of what I should aspire to. I thought going to ADC events was necessary as part of my profession. But then I realized over time that anyone can "become" a designer - take a course at Gibbs Institute online and you got yourself a portfolio. I've met people who just did crappy logos their whole life and don't know what an identity system is. But somehow they continued to find work. That's what led me to the conclusion that there is an audience for everybody. There are crappy clients for crappy designers. There are knowledgeable and aesthetically keen clients for the good ones. It's such a mixed world out there. Designers needs to identify what their strengths are and identify their audience.

    And I agree that the designer is not valued on the strategic level. Because the client was never educated to speak that language. They only know of the magic that goes on in front of the curtain. It's sad to think that creatives become discouraged over time, just worn down to a dull nub. That's why I always believe that work is done to pay the bills and I hope the wold spends their "free" time towards more rewarding and creative endeavors.

  57. @unfunction: the client isn't supposed to be "educated" on what we do. That's not their job. If you as a designer can't articulate your value to a client, you have failed. If you're looking to side projects because you feel you can't properly do your work, you have failed. If you feel worn down and underappreciated, you have failed.

    I encourage you to take a few weeks off and decide what it is you want to do with your life. If you're feeling this beat by the profession, you may need some rest. If you determine, after said rest, that this is the work you want to do, then it's time to take responsibility for the enagement. If clients don't understand your value, find a way to show them. If you feel you can't do your work properly, examine where the disconnect lies. If you feel worn down and underappreciated, take some time to objectively examine what value you have really afforded your clients, and see if it's in-line with your promises and beliefs.

    I'm so dreadfully sick of hearing designers complain about clients not "getting it." So many of us claim to be problem solvers, yet, fail to solve the problem of effectively selling our own value.

  58. unfunction says:

    Eric: Well, I think we were saying sort of the same thing. I believe that clients are not expected to speak the same language - I never said we're supposed to educate them. Sometimes they just don't need to know what's under the hood, just as long as it runs. It's like a photographer saying, "You have no idea the hell I went through to get this shot, and the brilliant techniques I've used". It's irrelevant. Did it solve the client's problem in the end? I'm not sure how that came across as a complaint about them not "getting it." I was just saying that it's sad that designers mistakingly take that as a sign of under-appreciation and lose their "faith" in design.

    Actually, let me clarify one point, which I should have probably included earlier. I subscribe to the philosophy that, as a designer, I am a creative tool, not an artist (is that still a hot-button debate these days?). So, for me personally, client work pays the bills. But that doesn't make it any less gratifying. It doesn't make me respect my clients less. I deeply enjoy the challenges, because it makes me feel like MacGyver. I look for the best solution that works for them, not the best solution that works for me. Also, I have never, in all my years of experience, ever expected praise, appreciation, or even gratitude for the work I produced. I only ask one question, did it work? That makes me happy. I don't care about all the other nonsense. Because, for me, client work is not the end game. A portfolio is not what I'm after. I have other personal aspirations that I want to achieve, and I have carved out a very specific path to do so.

    So, I just wanted to make clear that my comments had absolutely nothing to do with clients at all. If anything, I wanted to get the point across that I was more frustrated at designers, and the system that pumps them out. No sense in feeling dreadfully sick.

  59. Well, I can't argue with any of that. :-)

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