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Are We There Yet?

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It seems hard for most to recognize what to many has now become painfully obvious: the prevailing mode of graphic design practice is an anachronism if not completely irrelevant.

Professional design practice, of course, takes many forms. The possibilities are perhaps infinite. There have always been and continue to be novel modes of organization and collaboration, but they remain at the periphery and have had little if any impact on the mainstream of the profession.

In the past century, this well-worn path has led us from self-employed practitioners stylizing messages to larger, integrated firms created to support the worldview of marketers, on to more specialized groups that feed on “positioning,” and ultimately to companies that justify their fees with easy, feel-good blather about the power of branding and the customer experience.

Today more and more prospective clients, including some very big and savvy organizations, are deliberately choosing small design groups over our largest firms, hurrying their descent. Small groups are perceived to be more reliable, cost-effective, creative and manageable than large firms, which are seen to have lots of overhead, layers of management and conflicting priorities.

In a way, we have come full circle. Design is increasingly being sold as a process rather than an outcome. Many firms have begun to pull back the curtain on their methods and reassert the virtues of craft. Design education is drifting back towards developing apprentices rather than well-rounded professional communicators.

Our magazines and journals have given up on pressing issues and have gone back to being and arbitrating cool. And our professional organizations have become trade associations, promoting prevailing interests, not challenging them. One notable exception was the late, lamented STA cum ACD. The abduction of its mission by a few and its eventual demise are further grist for this mill.

Like phototypesetters, color separators and film strippers, we face the daunting challenge of redefining ourselves or the likelihood of oblivion. The bloodletting and shameful pettiness being seen throughout our industry are but the first symptoms.

We’ve also seen the great danger in attaching ourselves as a discipline to any particular current in the economy, culture, or marketplace, whether it be marketing, positioning, branding, the web, experience, emotion or some other flavor. Such currents are almost always cyclical or temporary and maintain our status as supplicant and service provider.

Everyone in our business, whether working as a sole proprietor, in house, or at a large firm, believes they should have a seat at the decision-making table, not just the kids’ table in the other room. We believe in the power of design to nurture thoughtfulness, build understanding, create opportunities and embody spirit. But this emphasis on systems-level thinking has added depth to our work at the expense of relevance.

What we do is ill-defined and becoming more so every day. Many other practitioners in both related and unrelated disciplines use similar language and methods. It seems we spend more time and energy selling clients about the value of the creative process and midwifing them through it then coming up with new ideas. On top of all this, the spread of professional-quality tools for creation and production has commodified our deliverables.

Worst of all, we seem to have lost our way. We certainly don’t have a good idea of where we’re going. As Tucker Viemeister has said, the design profession has “not only lost sight of its future, it’s lost sight of the future.”

Clearly, we need to step back and redefine graphic design, which is an obsolete and limiting term. More importantly, we must re-engineer our profession and modes of practice. It’s time to break the mold, tear down the walls, delete the files, toss out the magazines and try again.

So, where should we begin? Let’s start by considering what it is that fundamentally sets us apart as a discipline, especially relative to advertising, public relations and all those other folks that command the attention and budgets of our prospects. What do we have to offer?

To me, the answer is simple and clear: Design is a reliable process for solving problems, engaging opportunities and generating innovations, particularly in today’s economic and cultural climate.

There are several inherent attributes of the design process that allow me to make this statement. First, the design process is driven by the search for meaning and relevance. By this I mean something more than a servile invocation of the customer/user/audience. I mean that we take the time to listen and understand, that our anthropological, immersive, you’re-soaking-in-it method for engaging contexts and meaning helps ensure grounded, relevant results.

Traditional research has its place but often provides too much of the wrong kind of data. There are inevitable biases in the ways data is collected, from whom, what kind of data is collected, and in how it is conceived, summarized, visualized, conceptualized, and acted upon – too many filters to make any quantitative or qualitative data reliably predictive. In the end, decisions are made on intuition, insight, gut feelings and hunches. The real beauty of design and it’s power lies in its systematic process for harnessing this creativity, for aligning the gut with the world around it.

Second, our ability to embody thinking in tangible form, whether it be in two or three dimensions, on paper, screen or in space, improves understanding, deepens communication and helps clients make sound, richly-informed decisions. It also provides juicy, multi-dimensional and well-grounded inspiration to creative teams and keeps solutions organically connected to earlier insights.

Third, the design process is iterative. The systematic development and testing of prototypes is a proven, age-old method for consistent innovation. Finally, the design process is the embodiment of systems thinking. It is integrative and holistic by its nature. It honors and embraces the intuitive.

If that isn’t a sufficient business case for the value of design, try this: the design process can be effectively executed quickly and inexpensively, and can increase return on all the other resources, energy, and karma already being invested in advertising, packaging and public relations. Basically put, design informs and adds value.

Notice how I’ve managed to avoid invoking the word “brand” in making this case. We must sell design on its own merits, lest we throw out the baby with the bath water.

This is our big chance. The one we’ve been waiting for. But there’s a catch: we must be willing to change, fundamentally. Like the tiny doorway to the garden in Alice in Wonderland, such change requires us to make ourselves small. With humble respect for those who came before and for the great traditions of our craft, but leaving our egos behind, we must move bravely forward if we are to survive in this strange and wonderful place.

Many are heading in this direction, but our leading institutions – schools, associations, firms, publishers – must help create transformation on a broader scale or there is no basis for the continuation of the profession and all will suffer the consequences.

That means doing more than holding conferences or spouting platitudes, such as those you’re reading now. We must make our message resonate through what we do, not what we say. Consider the model of European and Asian design centers. Remember the sense of community that came from the true dialogue of our professional past.

Let us develop new models of practice. Let us open up and democratize our professional organizations, or better yet, create new ones. Let us reject big-name-designer ego trips by not attending their presentations or copping their style. Let us treat educators as colleagues. Let us champion significant public design initiatives. Let us avoid buzzwords. Let us talk to each other.

We’ve come a long way, but our journey has just begun.

Published in inForm, the quarterly of AIGA/Chicago, 2004

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