A Case for Commoditized Design

99 Designs, Prisma, Squarespace. Every so often a design tool or service crops up that promises to make everything easier, putting ability once mystical into the hands of the aesthetically untrained. The results are generally the same: some light media coverage and an ensuing uproar from the design community talking about how the commoditization of our work is damaging or, at the very least, insulting. I’ve been in these discussions too many times — more often than not on the uproarious side — and oddly it hasn’t changed anything. They just keep coming. But time or maturity has lent perspective and I’ve got to say there might actually be merit to these tools.

First, to stand in support of designers: yes, it’s insulting to be told that your work is something that could be commoditized into a room of monkeys and typewriters, and worse that something somewhat decent might actually come from it. Certainly not Shakespeare, but maybe Danielle Steele or James Patterson. But is this really so bad? Spoiler: the answer is yes and no.

In the triangle of choice, selecting “cheap” and “fast” is a completely viable option.

When (and why) to commoditize design…

In the triangle of choice, selecting “cheap” and “fast” is a completely viable option. If you’re a company just getting off the ground, who has been told that branding is important without any explanation as to “why,” an automated solution ticks another box for you, another obstacle to launch removed. And, true, there are some examples of companies that need a solid brand strategy and bulletproof design on day one to be taken seriously in the market (fashion, luxury, cars) but for the majority of new businesses, humble beginnings focusing on the core of the business over the glistening sheen of aesthetics is not only thrifty, it’s fiscally necessary.

That’s the real sweet spot for these automated/crowd-sourced companies. Designers often don’t want clients who pick “fast” and “cheap” from the triangle, and these tools aim squarely at those who need to. They’re not taking the place of designers, they’re replacing clip-art libraries. Swapping them with something a little more useful, a little less generic so when you move to that next level, you’re in an even better position to do so.

Which leads to the real problem with these services. That the actual danger is in thinking that these solutions will be good enough for the long haul.

…and when to stop

When you’re a new business, you knock on doors and espouse your own message; the design is a nice-to-have, an added bit of legitimacy. But as your company gets bigger and your audience begins to seek you out as opposed to the other way around, your design becomes your emissary.

The actual danger is in thinking that these solutions will be good enough for the long haul.

Viewers and visitors scan your page, storefront, app without you. And they judge it. Every element, subconsciously analyzed and bucketed, gives a potential new customer a sense of who you are and what you represent before they even read a word on the page (which is also scrutinized; get a copywriter). If they don’t feel it’s speaking to them: too highbrow, lowbrow, too mainstream or too alternative, you will lose them without ever realizing that you had the opportunity. The crowdsourced and automated work often falls apart here, not because the work isn’t aesthetically pleasing (it very well might be), but because the work was often created quickly, without truly being able to take into account the scope of the design problem.

This is where a designer or a brand strategist is most helpful, anyway. Figuring out the gap between what you want to say and what you’re currently saying and collaborating with you to deliver new work that resonates with the existing audience but also attracts the new. Sometimes that means walking the brand back a good way to get on the right path, but in many cases the existing work only needs tweaks, refreshes and a fresh pair of concentrated eyes to bring you to where you need to be. That is definitely a level of thinking and effort that cannot be automated presently.

So, go ahead and use these services. They’re there and they’re “good enough.” You’ll get your product launched and look fine. Just don’t make the mistake in thinking that you can answer all your design challenges one $100 sprint at a time.

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