Earlier this summer, Business Week launched a magazine dedicated to communicating the value of design and innovation to the business community called INside Innovation. The fact that it was designed in part through an unpaid design competition seemed more than, um, ironic to many visitors to this site, and they responded with a vengeance.
With that battlefield's embers finally cooling and the bruises barely healed, an email arrived in my inbox, inviting me "to learn some basic design skills" in order to "create attractive, eye-catching letterheads, logos, flyers, brochures, business cards, and more." Well, okay! Let's check out the website:
Everyone at one time or another has had to create a document of some sort. Whether it was a poster for your son's 7th grade presidential election campaign or your boss's directive to create a flyer for distribution by fax. The question is, do you have to be a trained graphic designer to create these documents? No, you don't. You only need to have a set of guidelines to follow, one of which is to open your mind and let your creativity out to play. It's probably been a while since the two of you got together. There is a world out there to explore with your two hands and one brain, so roll up your sleeves and put on your thinking cap.
Do you have to be a trained graphic designer to feel incredibly depressed? No, you don't. But it helps!
The offer, by the way, is from Business Week.
Here we go again, right? But wait, there may be more here than meets the eye. Maybe it the fault isn't with Business Week, or any of those mean, uncaring other people out there. Maybe, instead, it's us.
What stings here, I think, isn't just the specter of do-it-yourself. We're used to that. Some of us even applaud it. Once graphic designers possessed unique technical expertise: the names of fonts, the phone numbers of typesetters, the formula for calculating the precise length of a 200-word manuscript set on a 14 pica wide column of 12 on 14 point Bodoni Book. Today, anyone can do it. If some untrained-in-graphic-design parent wants to support Junior's political ambitions, out comes the Photoshop and some awful typeface and before you know it the printer is cranking away. (Of course, Junior, if he's got a brain in his head, has already launched his viral video and won't get around to hanging your pathetic old-skool posters. But it's the thought that counts!) For graphic designers, our craft is now a commodity.
It's a little depressing that there are some designers who can count on a little respect. Do you have to be a trained product designer to create a new sports car? Do you have to be a trained architect to design a new house? Despite Divine Design with Candace Olson and Pimp My Ride, the answer is still yes and yes. You don't see Business Week offering any fun courses in industrial design or architecture, at least not yet.
So what's an embattled graphic designer to do? During my three-year term as president of AIGA, our members consistently ranked one priority above all others: proving the value of design to the general public, and specifically, the business community. To put it bluntly, we were all searching for some magic formula that would make clients predisposed to respect us, and to demonstrate that respect by paying us large fees. We wanted design to have "a place at the table." We yearned for a silver bullet that would slay our insecurities once and for all. The silver bullet took a variety of forms. Perhaps the process of design was too mysterious to be credible: would agreeing on a standard 12-step sequence reassure clients that there was valuable science behind the art? So many amateurs out there: shouldn't we be licensing graphic designers so clients could distinguish the professionals from the dabblers? And, oddly, so many credible firms participate in unpaid competitions: can we make it, if not against the law, than at least professionally embarassing?
But none of this has ever worked. Graphic designers use too many different processes — those that use a process at all, that is — for any single methodology to make sense to more than a fraction of practitioners. Licensing has been discussed for years and has yet to make any real headway; there's just no way to come up with a basic body of knowledge that could serve as a basis for determining meaningful qualifications. And simply demanding to be paid for your work is different than establishing your work's value.
Business Week's Bruce Nussbaum, finding himself at the center of the anti-spec work maelstrom earlier this summer, responded with an observation that has stuck with me. In a competitive world, he wrote, "value is not created by rules or prohibitions but by what one brings to the game. Architects, writers, industrial designers, painters, journalists, baseball players, screenwriters and many other creative professionals understand that. Heck, the entire business community around the globe understands that."
Admit it: Nussbaum has a point. As a class, we designers long to wrap ourselves in the bulletproof cloak of our profession, thinking that if "a place at the table" is reserved for something called "design," maybe we can slide into that empty seat. But the game doesn't bring the player; the player brings the game. Every great designer I've ever met has gotten respect the old fashioned way, by earning it. The means to that end are glorious in their variety. There is no one true path to victory, no silver bullet. I know some designers who are incredible strategists; others who are charismatic witchdoctors; still others who are patient teachers; and a few who are just plain magicians. Each successful designer has to prove him or herself with every new project and every new client. And, perhaps, with each new success the job gets a little easier for the rest of us.
It's time to stop being defensive. You may never find that silver bullet. But you can always improve your aim.