All this talk lately about what it is we do, how we do it and how we talk about it has kept me… let’s say entertained. I have enjoyed the “questioning” albeit showed resistance and restraint to really answer some of it. In any regard, I thought now might be a good time to revisit the conversation that took place November 18, 2003 during our second seriouSeries in the wake of the AIGA conference in Vancouver — which consisted of a cozy evening with Kathy Fredrickson, Marcia Lausen and Joseph Michael Essex.
This is not intended as a recap of those two events, rather a brush on some issues relevant to a few of the discussions we’ve been having around here. Obviously, the theme of that conversation revolved around the power of design but there were great insights that went further than the topics of the conference and provide interesting items for discussion regarding how we profess as designers. Please excuse the length, possible redundancy and if some of the ideas are disparate, I will try to make it as cohesive as possible.
The first issue that arises when talking about graphic design is mainly what is it? Every designer has a different response to this, yet it invariably revolves around the end product (i.e. I make logos, web sites, etc.). Rarely do we think to explain it, even amongst ourselves, as a process of investigation, collaboration, discovery and ultimately of implementation. Essex points out that “[The power of design] comes not from collaboration alone but from focused collaboration towards an end goal and we don’t talk about design that way. Nobody talks about process being the core of design”. He adds, “Design firms are being classified by what their office does and delivers not by what they actually do”, leading to a profession defined by a categorization of specialties rather than by a definition of the valuable service it is providing.
Part of defining what design is involves a certain maturity in realizing that it in fact can’t save lives as commonly as we wish or as rudimentary as doctors do. We struggle to find the value of our service, and find that “helping somebody facilitate their argument,” as Fredrickson says” in a clear and understandable manner” is not enough to think of our profession as important. She also relates the following story:
I was sitting next to a woman that I didn’t know on the plane and was telling her about a project we were doing. It was an invitation, for which we hired an illustrator to do a gargoyle. I was telling her that at the last minute the client decided the tongue of the gargoyle was too insidious and disgusting — this was a crisis for us because we had to go to press — so we had to go back to this major, New York illustrator and ask him if we could remove the tongue, he was very accepting and gave us permission to do so and in the end everything turned out great. I finished telling her the story and asked her what she did for a living. She said “I’m a pediatric thoracic surgeon, I operate on children that are chocking” I paused and thought �well, I’m not that’ and I’m OK with it.
We tend to compare ourselves to other professions like accountants, doctors and lawyers — and as of late to plumbers — that have achieved a high status and respect within society and culture. We must get over this inferiority complex, as a profession, that many of us seem to believe in not because we are dumb or uninformed but because we are constantly at the end of the production line to pretty things up. Only we can change that and prove that our service has real value but up until now, we have been doing it wrong according to Essex, who says, “We end up evaluating the wrong thing. Don’t just look at the end, look at the beginning — that’s where the value is.”
Moreover, this brings up the relationship with the client — we are a service-based profession, remember? — the constant cry of practicing designers is that their client doesn’t get it. Well, the problem is that we don’t facilitate them getting it — mostly, because we keep talking in terms of finished products and deliverables as our contribution to their business. “Clients don’t know what they are buying” says Essex “they think they are buying the blob that’s on the piece of paper instead of buying what that blob will do to the people that see it. That’s the difference. Otherwise [clients] would realize how important [design] is.” Until we emphasize that graphic design is about collaboration with clients to find and implement the best solution possible we will be continually viewed as vendors and not counsels.
Finding concrete examples of effective “design” when talking about graphic design is harder than it should be. When trying to explain what we do (whether to our parents or the client sitting across the table) we fumble for “things” to point at and say “See? That is good design and it increased sales for them, we can do the same for you”. The latest AIGA brochure, What every business needs, includes images of Nike’s logo, FedEx’s shipping label and Amazon’s web site (although I don’t believe they are referring to its design) — all great examples. Perhaps, the only ones readily available for designers and understandable for clients. Essex mentioned Greenfield/Belser’s Nutrition Facts box, now found in every single consumable product in the US, he thinks it is one of the best designs of all time: “It’s organized, it’s considered and it functions; it sets a standard and it can be evaluated from box to box and package to package and it’s understandable — those are pretty high-praise items for something that is designed.” Lausen also pointed to another low-profile design undertaking: evacuation plans in buildings. About that, she says: “It’s one of those areas, it’s not glamorous nor fun and you have to deal with a lot of people who don’t want you there because you are going to cost them time and money but that’s unfortunate, as it is there where a lot of our power lives — in worlds that don’t want us.”
This dichotomy of design projects (cool, high visibility Nike logo vs. bland, low visibility evacuation plan) is part of what makes it so hard to define what graphic designers do. So how do we do it? Essex takes a humane approach as to how we should embark on our process of better explaining what we do and what graphic design entails: “Part of what we have to do is we need to know why we are doing what we are doing. That we are conscious of it and we accept it and we relish in the opportunity to do it and take pride in it — that’s where the power comes from, in that we first appreciate this ourselves. Where we miss out is in being reluctant to being outwardly passionate [about design].”
In the end, I am baffled about graphic design. Confused and tired, motivated and optimistic. Why is it so hard? Is it really so hard? Perhaps we are thinking too much or, worse, too little? Do we think too little of ourselves or, worse, too much? Answers to all these questions can be answered with both yes and no and I’m not lobbying for either specifically. Isn’t it time that we figure this out? Specially now that everybody seems optimistic about a (possible) rebounding economy and the trust (and challenge) that has been put on us (specifically by the AIGA) as both agents of social change and as leading architects of sustainable solutions for a troubled planet. I am absolutely not criticizing that statement, I am simply questioning if we are in reality ready to assume those lofty roles we strive for. Ultimately, it all lies in what each of us can and wants to do, yet without a common goal and a lack of understanding of what we offer as a profession, those goals seem ever harder to reach.