Getting to the heart of Design & Combatting “Design as a Commodity”

Graphic design is not just visual design. In fact, graphic design is a beautiful, stunning, thought-provoking amalgamation of communication design, visual communication, art and design, industrial design, product design, packaging design, interactive design, user experience design, and typography. It’s the convergence of “making things” and solving complex problems. A talented graphic designer can solve problems you didn’t know you had in ways you didn’t know were possible.

The graphic design industry is not a simple service-oriented industry, even though that’s what many people see it as, nor is it a commodity. It is much more than that. Designers are not only expected to come up with fresh ideas and creative solutions, they have to occupy a unique position between reading, writing, editing, and distribution. Designers possess a wide array of skills.

Shawn M. McKinney, in A Shared Language, suggests that “in essence, designers ‘move things about’. We [designers] consider new combinations, new possibilities. We align one thing with another. We create physical (and psychological and metaphorical) relationships. We consider size, weight, space, proportion, materiality and so forth. We utilize, knowingly or not, design author Robin Williams’s catchy list of principles: Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, Proximity. We order, organize, reinterpret, shape and communicate ideas, information and space.”

However, he explains that designers still struggle to communicate the value of design to the business community. In order to bridge the gap between the design world and the business world, it is necessary to employ the use of a common language: that is, “process”. “Both designers and business people have their own ways of doing things, particular processes and procedures for solving problems and achieving results.” Thus, repetition is a “key element of success”.

What design is not, or should I say, should not be, is a commodity. This would cheapen or devalue the discipline of design, and would suggest that all design is similar. Customers, or clients, would only base their selections on price. This is unnerving to designers everywhere not only because it devalues design, but because it allows non-professional “designers” to participate in the surrounding “design-scape”, and allows for unethical work/work that violates professional standards, such as “spec work”.

The sad truth is, design is being commoditized, with crowd-sourced design companies encroaching on the design field. David Holston poses an interesting question in The Strategic Designer: “how do designers compete in this new environment?”

I believe this to be true: the answer is in the designer’s ability to “offer a unique value to their clients — specifically a value that rivals cannot easily copy. An area that provides opportunities for this distinction is design thinking.”

Designers must not only be experts in form, but in creative problem solving as well. Designers must be skilled in a variety of disciplines and be able to think critically. If we [designers] are able to call on a broader range of skills related to other disciplines such as the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences, and technology, we will have a much better chance of offering unique values to our clients.

“The ability to collaborate, manage the increasing complexity of design problems, to design ‘in context’ to their target audiences, and to be accountable for design decisions through measurement transforms designers from ‘makers of things’ to ‘design strategists.’”

I can say, as a fourth year design student, that it takes a lot of research, contextual inquiry, experimentation, and lastly, process work/iterative work in order to successfully execute a design solution that not only solves the design problem in question, but also goes beyond just meeting the bare minimum requirements. Design must always be informed by knowledge.

David Holston proposes that there are four important principles that the successful designer in this new commoditized landscape must embody. That is, the ability to embrace complexity, the ability to work collaboratively, the ability to design in context, and accountability.

As Holston explains, the first “step to move from the realm of ‘makers of things’ to ‘design strategists’ is to embrace the complexity of design problems.” Once the designer is able to analyze and critique complex problems, they are no longer just ‘decorators’ but problem solvers.

In order to ensure that our design solutions are meaningful, it is important for designers to “provide a solution that embraces both the business needs of the client and the needs of the audience.” This is at the heart of graphic design. It is important not only to solve the design problem and cater directly to your clients business needs, but also to reach your target audience in a rich and meaningful way.