Two or three times a year, a longstanding design client commissions me to do some work. He normally pays me £5000 ($7907), but recently he told me that for the same amount of work he could only afford £400 ($632). After some harrumphing and eye rolling I accepted his terms. In other words, I grudgingly embraced the new reality: less is the new normal.
Since the banking crises of 2008, Western nations are learning painfully to adapt to this condition of less-ness. Writing about the current American situation, the economist Joseph Stiglitz paints a bleak picture: ‘middle-aged people who thought that they would be unemployed for a few months have now realised that they were, in fact, forcibly retired. Young people who graduated from college with tens of thousands of dollars of education debt cannot find any jobs at all. People who moved in with friends and relatives have become homeless. Houses bought during the property boom are still on the market or have been sold at a loss. More than seven million American families have lost their homes.’
Here in Europe, the European Monetary crises has contributed to the gradual realisation that after years of economic growth we have now entered a period of contraction and reduced expectations, and there’s no end in sight.
This is a bitter medicine for designers to swallow. We have become accustomed to prospering by catering for the insatiable appetite for consumption that has characterized the last few decades. But what if there is a fundamental change in the way people think about consumption? And what if huge numbers of people are going to learn to live with reduced spending power? This is not mere speculation; there are signs that this process is already underway.
In a post on the Yale e360 blog titled ‘The New Story of Stuff: Can We Consume Less?’, a report by environmental campaigner Chris Goodall is quoted at length: ‘In the past decade, Britain has been consuming less water, building materials, paper, food (especially meat), cars, textiles, fertilizers and much else. Travel is down; so is energy production. The country produces less waste, too.’
It is also noted that even in the United States there are signs that something similar is happening: ‘American truck mileage has been on a plateau for a decade now. The number of cars on American highways is also flat. And per-capita mileage is falling. As a result, gasoline consumption is expected to be at a 10-year low this year, according to the Department of Energy.’
How can graphic designers adapt to this new world? For some, life goes on as normal. Digital expansion provides opportunities for modest growth and there will always be a need for specialist skills in areas such as packaging, way finding and information graphics. But for others, there is only contraction and the fight for survival – studios that once employed 10 or 12 people, now get by with two or three interns.
All we can be sure about is that the old way of hoping for big clients with fat fees is no longer viable. P&G recently announced that it would lay off 1,600 staffers as part of a cost-cutting exercise. CEO Robert McDonald told Wall Street analysts that he would have to "moderate" his ad budget because Facebook and Google can be "more efficient" than the traditional media that forms the bulk of P&G's ad budget.
Even the small clients are vanishing: who needs a designer when you can start a business with a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a crowd-sourced logo, and a fully functional, oven-ready, customer-targeted website downloaded straight from the internet?
It appears that we are entering a “post-graphic design” era: a time when pretty much anyone can make graphic design, and when, in a networked and “template-for-everything” world, communication can be had more cheaply and more easily than at any time in history. In the post-graphic design era, the demand and need for routine graphic design skills will inevitably diminish.
But I refuse to be defeatist. None of this is unique to design. It’s a problem shared with many other professions: journalism, publishing, filmmaking, music, and advertising are all facing up to the need for wholesale reinvention in the face of the new less-ness. No one knows how designers will earn a living in the coming decades, but the most likely outcome is that for many people, design skills will become the equivalent of owning a driver’s licence: lots of people drive, but very few earn a living from just driving – they drive to do other things. In the long-term, I can see design skills becoming a license – a passport – to do other things. But in the immediate future, survival will depend on adaptability. And as the Darwinians tell us, adaptability is the key to survival.