Speak UpA Former Division of UnderConsideration
The Archives, August 2002 – April 2009
advertise @ underconsideration
---Click here for full archive list or browse below
I’m a designer. I don’t sell logos.

One of my discomforts in life is telling people who aren’t designers; I am a designer, because this invariably will put me inside of an awkward position. Until I can simply claim that I am the designer, I’m going to have to make one of those choices, ‘Do I become the single reason they dislike people from England from this point onwards?’ or ‘Do I feign that shit-eating-grin of interest and empathy?’ You see, from the point where I venture out what it is I do for a modest and unreliable living, I am about to hear how someone related to my audience, by some dubious linkage needs a logo. ‘Oh wow ’ my sister in-law’s step-brother’s fiancee is a psychotherapist and needs a logo.’ There’s something wrong with that picture, as there is in the way people consider me as a designer.

If I were an architect, the person I was speaking to might ask, ‘Oh really, that’s fascinating ’ would I’ve seen any of your work?’ Or being a film director, the same might be asked. But if I’m a designer I’m asked for a logo. I’ve never been asked if ‘they’ would have seen my work. Sometimes I feel like saying ’ ‘yes, though you didn’t ask, the chances are you have used, seen or been part of my work many times in your life.’ Though that may skew their thinking that all people from England are odd and slightly boastful. More so, by this.

Part of the problem with the understanding of what ‘designers’ do or don’t do, is the way in which designers position it and sell it. I think it is my fault that people misunderstand what it exactly is I do, especially if I limit my description to simply design. Now I understand, that our definition of what we do for a living is biased to the context that we’re in, whether we’re talking amongst colleagues, family or friends. We may specifically use terms that people recognize in order to keep the conversation going. But I’m not concerned with dinner party conversations, no one invites me to theirs anymore, I’m concerned with the way we position ourselves as designers in order to get more work. And I think this comes down to, in part, by the definition of what we do.

For me, I like Herbert Simon’s, (the scientist) definition of design:

Everyone designs who devise courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. The intellectual activity that produces material artifacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a social welfare policy for a state.’

So in fact, the chances are, under this definition, the very people whom I lament telling I am a designer to, are themselves designers of sorts. Perhaps not professionally, but they do participate in design nonetheless. And with Simon’s definition I am forced to be more specific and detailed about what it is that I do all day, because everyone now participates in design.

Many members of my family were or are designers. My grandfather was a mathematician and worked with others to design computers. Their process of design was a particularly fraught one, being during wartime and with little previous experience to go on. My father works in design. In early XEROX PARC years, he designed and built interface elements that you’re using right now. He calls himself a designer today, but guess who had to ‘do’ his web site. My mother consulted in design, but never knew how to use Quark, Photoshop or illustrator. My Godfather invented and built programs that we, as designers, use daily. So if they all call themselves designers, then what am I?

One thing I think a lot of people can agree to, is that design is very much a part of something else. It fits within a context of things, the world, the desktop or on a page. Graphic design, for instance, can label a bottle, indicate an exit, brighten up a wall or bring personality to a magazine. Product design invariably satisfies a purpose within an environment or condition, like a chair in a living room, an OXO good-grips peeler and so on. And another thing that people are likely to agree to is, however broad, the style of design is extremely broad and peculiar to the person or persons dealing with it. The same ingredients used by a different designer would often produce incredibly different results.

With all that in agreement, why do people still think that they just want a logo? Well, I think that might be my fault. Sorry about that. You see, on my web site I put pretty photos of the finished design work that I’ve done. As I show a potential client my work, they look at the finished artwork; perhaps some marks on a white page, placed on the side of a wire-frame truck or two-dimensional illustration of a T-shirt. The client now thinks this is what I do. Make large format pieces of paper with marks and t-shirt designs. Sometimes they think I might design a ‘homepage’ or something. Freshen up a tired corporate look here, and ‘rebrand’ a logo over there with more ‘swoosh’. If this is all that I am perceived capable of, then it really must be my fault for not indicating this. Because I really do a lot more than design those elements, I create systems. Integrated ones at that, ones that fit within other systems, like organizational ones or business processes. It’s quite complicated you see, and that’s why I charge the big-bucks.

‘Design has become more complicated because of these convergences of objects, services, environments and technology, so that more and more design problems can only be solved by teams of people with different backgrounds who work together. The public image of a designer is still of a single individual who has the breadth and talent to solve the whole problem.’

Bill Moggridge, IDEO

Most of the time I don’t design alone. I have to work closely with my clients. I take them through a phased process, to bring about clarity and definition to the project and its goals. We set up measurements of success and I encourage as much participation in the concepting as possible. A lot of the time the project will involve different media and therefore require additional expertise, and thus the project needs a team. The process of design requires that all these people involved in the design project get together at the beginning. This is in order to participate in determining basically what will be the remaining 80% of the project’s costs. Its always within the first 20 % of a project that you determine the remaining costs (through schedule and scope). Unlike the AIGA’s inflated 12 step process to designing, which integrates everything but when to pee, there really are only three necessary (generic) stages to completing a design project. It starts with abstract idea of what needs to be tackled. Then moves to develop a concept of that abstract idea, and then the design of the thing. Whatever it may be. Most of the time what you’re doing isn’t design at all. You’re researching, talking, discussing, thinking or brainstorming. You’re articulating and defining unfocused, creative thinking and bringing it together for you to ‘do your magic’ with. Then you’re in fact crafting the results of that, in illustrating, laying out, spacing, nudging, printing, cutting up, or ‘photoshoping’. The final stage allows you to put into form or structure the product of your plans and work so far.

So although we try to conveniently describe what it is we do as simply design, we also tend to do a lot more than that. And I don’t think that is easily understood that according to my definition and as our clients perceive it, we could spend up to a third of a project doing anything but ‘design’. We actually provide services and goods. Because the result of the process we take delivers a product at the end. And while it is easier to simply display the result of the process, in all its beauty and execution of detail ’ it doesn’t quite do enough to indicate the process that was taken to achieve that.

When someone comes across something that isn’t designed well, they instinctively know it. It doesn’t do what it is supposed to. The door handle is impossible to use, the cupboard door opens the wrong way into the wall, or the remote control to the cable box is impossible to comprehend. And often, a mere mortal, non-designer might shake their head at this and exclaim that there obviously wasn’t a lot of thought put into that. This is my nirvana. It makes me ecstatic to hear this if only to illustrate the benefit in thinking before one embarks on creating something. Design is, after all, planning. Yet, I do also feel a little pity for the bad experience that person is having with the bad design that brought about my momentary experience of joy.

So there’s a problem in simplifying the description of what we do, it just isn’t adequate enough and the concept of what designers do doesn’t fit as comfortably as perhaps it did in the past. But then to be too precise could be diminishing, or boring. This is a conflict, one that requires some specific details and great supporting materials. Being a ‘designer’ I should be able to handle this.

So there are some important issues here that I, as a designer, need to communicate if I want to be considered for the type of work I want to do.

First off, I provide a service. As well as a product at the end of my ‘service’, but it’s the service provides that and without it clip-art is the only alternative. The service is a collaborative process, with both the client and all who are relevant to have input into the process. I don’t do it alone.

Secondly, the design I provide fits into a context of things, the world, the organization or the room. Whatever it is, it will be part of something else, and therefore I need to consider things outside of the end product. A logo isn’t just a logo, but part of an identity system that needs to be used and implemented in a particular way to truly mean something.

Finally, everyone designs, so I can’t simply call myself a designer. Because the fellow who cuts my hair is also a designer, and I don’t want to fall prey to people asking me to cut their hair. So I have to be specific about both the service I provide and the skill that I have.

I have found success with refusing to talk to someone about just a logo. I discuss with them instead, the system and integration of a branded image into their business functions. I like discussing the value gained, both in confidence and positioning, when looking at creating new marketing materials, and I like to work with people who understand that products and design fits into a world of things and stuff. Almost all of which has been designed.

I spent years working on just the strategic part of the design process. The research, analysis and definition of the scope and project at hand. I looked into all the ways it was possible to identify the measurable results from design and the glue that holds design and business together. I worked with the most difficult of clients, both small and huge organizations, to help them see the value in looking at design as a verb, a process and service, which could be integrated into their business activities. This strategic work could be nine-months long or days, whatever the length, it was the necessary amount of definition to proceed into creating concepts.

People enjoy working in a process where they actually get to have input. They learn how design doesn’t solve all problems, and where knowledge gained up front can greatly enhance the outcome of any creative endeavor. Sure, some clients may have no time or interest for it, and I simply don’t work with them. I’m not that talented that without their input I can still create something remarkable that satisfies the project’s end goals. I’m only interested in producing something that has the collective involvement with my client, where we define the problems and articulate the solution together, then embark on some kick ass concepts to finally design. It might sound like I used to work at Sapient. Sorry, I did, but break it down. It’s just a couple of people willing to plot something out and each performs their skill to craft something remarkable. They know its remarkable not only because it does what it’s supposed to, but because it has more value to it than that. Without a lot of remarkable things in your portfolio, no one really will want to know how you went about creating them.

If I feel that I am having a conversation with someone, which warrants it, I like to pull out the kitchen analogy. If you are to go to a kitchen store, you can buy particular elements ’ the sink, counter top or stove etc. Or you can take them up on their very expensive service, and they’ll design you a functional kitchen, to your specifications and place in all the elements that you need. In the same way, if you’re seeking to work with a designer, you can’t ask them simply for the elements, but it is necessary to ask them for the service that will provide the whole system. And when it is done, walking into your newly designed and installed kitchen, you will be filled with awe and pleasure from the results of the design.

I really liked Rudy Vanderlan’s positioning of graphic design, in the latest issue of ‘emigre’,

‘But what sets graphic design apart from many other professions is how it adds value beyond utility ad profits ’ how it differentiates and mediates our messages while enriching our visual culture.’

(page 11)

This is so true when people are asking you to ‘make it look cool’ or ‘freshen this up’, but every time this happens we have to ask, ‘what for?’. What are we making it look cool for? Why does it need freshening up? What is it that makes a client company discover that they need the services of a designer? Do they look at something that looks bad and say to themselves, ‘We need a designer to fix this?’ Probably. But why can’t we get them to say, ‘We want to improve what it is we do, and part of that will be to involve a designer with this initiative.’

To be able to consistently bring about that added value beyond utility and purpose, we need to initiate our process of design, determining what the results are going to be and in our own way, set about crafting that with a pen, copy of photoshop or some paints?

Design doesn’t always solve problems. Quite often it can create them, especially when the balance of planning and creation are off in some way. And in order to bring about clarity and definition to the concept of design, it is up to me as a designer to describe and articulate what it is we do that is so special. And more than simply pulling logos from my bottom.

So for now I am a designer. I specialize in graphic design and I help organizations improve parts of their business. I do this by helping them integrate new elements or systems of design into their companies. I don’t, however, sell logos.

What about you? What do you do?

Of possible interest:

The Design of Everyday Things, Donald Norman

Slorp’s Critique

Herbert Simon

Buy Emigre 64

Toothpicks and logos

The process of Designing - AIGA

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
ARCHIVE ID 1738 FILED UNDER Business Articles (Admin use only)
PUBLISHED ON Jun.19.2003 BY damien
Darrel’s comment is:

For starters, try using the term Graphic Designer. 'Designer' is a fairly generic term that applies to all sorts of people.

Adjectives go a long way in helping comprehension.

Herbert Simon's quote is great. And I completely agree with your statement that everyone is a designer. My biggest pet peeve is the fact that graphic, fashion, and interior designers all believe that they are entitled to the term 'designer' by itself.

As for complaining about the logo thing, well, I'd love just to sit around doing logos all day ;o)

On Jun.20.2003 at 09:40 AM
jonsel’s comment is:

I'll preface my comment by saying that I haven't read the full article yet, but I will today.

Now, I don't mind the logo thing. I do a fair amount of them and like it quite a bit. But what really drives me crazy, is that, because everyone now has a software program that offers "graphics", the first response I always get to "I'm a graphic designer" is, "Oh, that's with computers, right?" So I have to go into a long-winded description of what I do, etc. Tiring. It's only if I give them a concrete example do they begin to get it. And it helps if they've seen my work on a store shelf or in a commercial (which isn't too common).

On Jun.20.2003 at 10:47 AM
Damien’s comment is:

I greatly enjoy working on logo projects too. But I don't have a huge pile of them ready to sell at 20 bucks a pop, or three for the price of two. Which is often the assumption if someone hears that I'm some type of designer. Thats my complaint - not the activity of 'doing' them. Which I find funny - which is that we do logos, web sites and stuff.

I get the computer thing too. Especially when I say nothing of the tools I use, but I'm told that I'm "in computers".

I also don't really like specifying what type of design because I do get to work on a lot of different types of projects, ranging from product, web and print. So I'm still not satisfied with using "designer" without having the chance to really illustrate what it is I or others like me might do.

Thanks for reading/commenting.

On Jun.20.2003 at 11:07 AM
Tan’s comment is:

There are lots of professions out there that do not neatly fit into a description. Categories of scientists, physicians, and craftsmen, etc. We're not alone.

I've settled with the fact that graphic design is one of those elusive professions that defy conventional categorizations. And that's ok with me.

I personally don't care if people don't quite grasp the concept of what graphic design is. It keeps the profession a little mysterious. It also keeps the profession nimble and interpretative to a much larger audience.

Now if you want to discuss the definition amongst ourselves -- then that's a different story. Graphic designers should understand and appreciate the discipline and vernacular of our own profession.

I tell people at parties that I design things that are printed and visual. If they ask sarcastically, "Do you mean you designed the Eiffel Tower? Cause I can see that." To which I'd reply, "Yes, you ignoramous. I fucking designed the Eiffel Tower. Now leave me alone and go somewhere else."


On Jun.20.2003 at 11:23 AM
jonsel’s comment is:

Tan, you must be really popular at parties. "Hey everyone, avoid the sarcastic one in the corner...he thinks he's a 'designer'." ;-)

Damien, I know what you mean regarding friends who assume you must have a logo of some teeth for their dentist-friend. They'd be really excited to know it was done using computers.

I have found, in general, that those who assume I have a logo stockpile or don't understand what I do are not going to be future clients. This is probably shortsighted, but for the time I'll have to put in explaining everything, they aren't going to pay me enough money. They're best served by the logosfor20bucks.com guys.

On Jun.20.2003 at 01:10 PM
Tan’s comment is:

> Tan, you must be really popular at parties. "Hey everyone, avoid the sarcastic one in the corner...he thinks he's a 'designer'."

Yes, giggles and shits as they say.

I'll be honest, when people ask what I do, I sometimes make something up in response just to fuck with them. Most of the time they don't really want to know, and I really don't want to go into a 30 minute discertation about what graphic design is.

Think of all the fun you can have.

"Me, well you're not going to believe this, but I'm a forensic pathologist...Yes, like on CSI. In fact, I just did a gang shooting autopsy this morning where I had to peel the guy's head...what?...oh sorry, I thought you wanted to know."


"I'm a biomechanical engineer, and I work for a company that manufactures bionic body parts. Yes, like Steve Austin from The Six Million Dollar Man...No, it actually would cost much more....In fact, I have a prototype bionic part on me right now. Wanna guess where?....oh, sorry, I thought you wanted to know."

The possibilities are endless...

The irony is that as a designer, I know a little about so many industries that I can make up tons of credible bs.

On Jun.20.2003 at 02:08 PM
David’s comment is:

I love this chain of comments!

You guys crack me up!


On Sep.17.2003 at 05:14 PM
Manja’s comment is:

i think even the term "Graphic Designer" seems so generic. Even after telling the "ignoramuses" that, they still ask you dumb question like"...is that like doing brochures?"

Is that all we do?


Tan, you sound like a cool guy!

Keep up the spirit guys!

On Sep.24.2003 at 08:43 AM