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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