Adrian Shaughnessy | Essays

When Less Really Does Mean Less

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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.

Posted in: Business

Comments [12]

I agree with much of what this article says, however, it seems to me to be very "Agency" designer focused. You cannot equate a deflation of ego with the fall of Western business, even if you had to take reduced fees.

Your fall of confidence adds to your fall in value as an artist — with that kind of cut I have a rule, always charge full price and if I had a long time client like that — it would be better to say - Ok - I'll do this one for free — because that much of a cut is unsustainable. If I were your client I would ask you for a refund for previous evident over charges. If you can do it for 400 now, you could have done it for 400 last year... I'd feel like an ass

Adrian, why did you accept the job at such a reduced rate? I'm not sure that's adapting for survival then...

"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"

Actually a good analogy would also be:

"lots of people drive, but few can drive well." (by "few" I mean in the context of multi-millions, not literally a few.)

I think what we should fear is the dumbing down of design that is occurring quickly because of social media and accessibility to quick solutions (i.e.: crowd-sourcing).

I understand the financial ramifications that are presently affecting how the public approaches and views design services. But we still need to continue to push and strive for higher quality of design along with educating and fostering better design attitudes among the general public, then the design industry will find a way to adapt, evolve and survive as it has in the past. Design isn't about the tools you use, but what you do with them. Otherwise design will become worse than just a "driver's license" type of acquired skill it seems to be heading towards.
Alvin Martinez

The economic problems we face today are essentially the result of bad design. In other words people and business have made poor decisions without considering the ramifications of those decisions. This says to me that their is an increased need for intelligent design.

Because of an economic recession people find it easier to rationalize taking advantage of others. Designers create solutions to difficult problems. The need for a designer should increase in a time of political, economic, or social crisis, as we have the capacity to present solutions that people can understand. If we can't do that we are not designers. If that need is not realized it is our responsibility to educate others on the need for design.
Scott Raney

This article seems to show that we as designers value ourselves much lower than we charge. How can you possibly take on a job for less than a tenth that you had done the same job merely a year before? Every situation is different but surly sometimes you must pass up on jobs if there is no money to be made. That same problem comes into crowd sourcing, often you find great looking logos with little to no research done and no real lasting power. We as designers must show our value, not simply turn to working for free because a crowd sourced version exists. These problems are nothing new and will always happen, there are highs and lows but we must push through them and strive for successful design. If nothing else it will weed out the non-designers from the actual designers.
Nicholas Cochrane

This reminded me of an article from (way back) Fast Company in 2003. The point being that, eventually, these cheapskate companies won't have any customers left because their customer base will have been replaced by overseas workers doing the job for much less. If the working population is unemployed – no one can buy the service/product anymore. Then the dominoes fall. Which is what's happening now, sadly.

Joe Moran

You certainly make some very valid points in this post, but I have to add my voice to those who have expressed concerns about charging less than 10% of what you normally would. If for whatever reason the client is that important, I, too, would do the work free of charge very exceptionally in light of the current economic climate. But when things finally do start picking up, one wonders how willing your client will be to part with £5000 for a job he once paid £400 for. Unless you have enough of a relationship of trust with this person and he knows just how much of a sacrifice you're making, it's kind of a risky strategy and I'm not sure how much it will ultimately pay off.

I agree with the description of the situation but the explaination seems to be different to me. Developments in technology have always changed the way human beings interact with the world. However, instead of a new "post graphic design era", we might be entering a new design era in which the intellectual work that design is does not depend so heavily on the monopoly of the use of technological tools, but on our ability to think, produce new ideas and add value to all kinds of products.

I'm sorry for the terribly long post, but there are two separate issues I see here and i'd really like to stress them out:

1. I can't avoid linking your article with Dmitri Siegel's "Designing Our Own Graves", especially when he touches on the subject of the "templated mind". It is ubiquitous now, and of course key decision makers in enterprises of any scale, as the number crunchers they are, will go for almost zero cost ready-made social media structures and outsourced fast-food services if those measure good results. But feasible businesses will understand it's not that simple, which ensues looking out for expertise and customization, and being willing to pay for it. Good products and ideas want to be a brand, and the people behind them will keep going after branding agencies. Large companies in several sectors will need design specialists to build their own design culture. Competition and hunger for innovation in this scenery will rise while overnumbered design schools will keep churning out designers to the market, which is worrying, but different from design-specific work being shunned away. Even if it is so, designers must adapt, as you suggest, and refuse to scratch their cremaster muscle for £400.

2. Contemporary design expertise isn't built by climbing up to a senior position in an established vertical position graph, but by scope. e.g. You can take on logo design, typography, UX design and Javascript programming, but you various skills rotate around the center of your scope. It's the emphasis you put on each that will determine whether you're a brand specialist, a UX designer or a front-end developer (in that sense all skills abide to your metaphor of the driver's licence). When we aim for scope, the idea of design consultancy seems to be somewhat flawed, as the line between intellectual and technical work tends to be blurry. Current design professionals, as senior as they are, do collaboration, not "consulting". Current aspiring designers should look less to Spielberg – who is capable but has a huge staff below him that does the hollywood feature film happen – and more to Eisenstein – who to realise his vision got hands down with camera parts, cut 16mm film and wrote an essay or two linking linguistic and metaphysical issues with the form of cinema. It's that second class of worker who will thrive.
Rafael de Azevedo

You have to clearly point out that they are buying less than they would get for the higher fee – time, commitment, variations or whatever. If they are happy with that, do the best possible in the resulting small amount of time available and don't deceive yourself by sneaking in masses of uncharged hours. They are not buying just a finished product, with an unquantified amount of time beforehand to "get it right".

I agree a lot with what the authors says in this article since the fall of the western economy has brought many down sight to our life, especially our consuming based behaviors. We cannot deny that all businesses are built on customers’ need and want and more and more people are trying to learn to live with reduced spending power today. However, I think this “post-graphic design” era actually gives all designers in all industry some more challenging yet interesting opportunities to renovate our designing strategies and marketing possibilities. The reduction in spending determines the decrease in people’s want but will not affect people’s need. So how can we find the balance in between further boosting people’s need and transforming it into people’s want and demand in service this period? I always believe one golden rule in design that a good design should be just enough and not taking any extra part and I also believe that this is a better explanation for “less-ness” today as “less is more”. The shaping of technology and economic structure did impose a lot of restrain and limitation to many of our industries today. However, we can also take the note of the rising of developing regions and their increase need in better design in their life. As the author said, we are never the defeatists.
Rubin Qiang

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