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Design vs. Designers

I found a recent Design Observer discussion about speculative financial arrangements for graphic design to be frustrating, largely because graphic designers’ ethics discussions tend to be tribal—why designers should do work for whatever/whoever is politically correct and not for evil (“correct” and “evil” defined by the person writing, of course)—or self-serving—the ethical imperative that the world should be as comfortable as possible for graphic designers. Come to think of it, the second is probably strictly tribal, too, since discussions like the one on DO tend to include a lot of rhetoric about heroic-but-put-upon graphic designers and the hegemony of the conspiracy of clients.

Anyway, one of the more interesting parts of the discussion was when Kenneth FitzGerald noted that “The mistake that designers constantly make is that an expressed advocacy of design… means a respect for designers. They can be—and often have been/are—mutually exclusive.” I’m wondering why that should surprise anyone. Ideals, things, or work aren’t always regarded the same way as the people who deal with them for a living. I suspect at least a few people reading this would claim respect for law (or Law) and contempt for attorneys and legislators, for instance.

Discussions of Ellen Lupton’s D.I.Y: Design It Yourself often center around its possible effects on designer wealth and respect on graphic designers. I don’t spend time on shoe design blogs but I bet someone is whining that John Fluevog encouraging customers to submit sketches of the shoes they’d want is detrimental to the legitimate interests of slipper stylists.

Andrew Blauvelt was the keynote speaker for the AIGA “Schools of Thoughts” conference in 2002. During the Q&A he used the phrase “the interests of graphic design” several times. I asked what that meant. He seemed stunned by the question. He answered as if he were addressing a slow child but despite that deference to my cognitive deficiencies I still am not sure what the phrase means (generally or to him.)

When the AIGA refers to “advancing the value of design,” that could be cynically interpreted to mean increasing the price of design services but the furtherance of “excellence in design as a broadly-defined discipline, strategic tool for business and cultural force” seems to be about design rather than designers. Where does design start and designers end (or vice versa)? Are the interests of designers and the interests of design the same? What do we do as designers that is to the detriment of design? (Or, to reverse the Christian cliché, can you love the sin but hate the sinner?)

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PUBLISHED ON Jun.18.2006 BY Gunnar Swanson
mario’s comment is:

The ethics of design have changed subtly over the years. The designer’s traditional ethics were rule-based. You only had to do the best work possible – professionally speaking – to be an ethical designer. It didn’t matter if the client was morally, ecologically or criminally accountable. If anyone complained, the designer could claim he only made the best logo possible; it wasn’t his fault that the client invaded Poland and killed six million people.

This kind of rule-based ethics (a deonthology) effectively protect and enforce a middleman’s position. In this frame, the designer remains neutral, while the ethical onus is cast on the client.

Nowadays, when everybody can design – thanks to desktop publishing, &c. – a middleman’s ethics seem increasingly inadequate and incomplete, even for designers.

In a way, the recent discussions about the designer as author reflect this change. While the concept of author is commonly held to be related to originality, genius, &c. it can also mean a sort of accountability, of responsibility. Therefore, when the designer is recast from a middleman to an author, this entails necessarily a change in ethics.

Probably you should check a Villém Flusser text called “The ethics of industrial design?”

On Jun.18.2006 at 07:37 PM
r agrayspace’s comment is:

Where does design start and designers end? (or vice versa)

You have had me pondering my response to this all morning, all the time knowing that I won't be able to hide behind jargon like “the interests of graphic design” or “advancing the value of design”. Your pursuance of specificity is as infuriating as it is challenging.

From my perspective, Graphic Design is in a period of transition (and has been for some time) from Craft Based Commodity (at least in the minds of those who purchase it) to a Process of Insight & Communication (at least in the minds of those who produce it well). As the true deliverable of graphic designers evolves from tangible formal applications (logos & brochures & websites) to intangible communicative ideas (strategic communication systems), won't the designer become less distinguishable from the design?

Less and less should we be seen as vendors of products but as partners in ideas. Products are produced by machines or institutions, but ideas come solely from people and that link between what "design is" and the "people who create it" is only going to become more inseparable.

Perhaps that is the true "interest of design", to increase the value of the DESIGNER by redefining graphic design as GRAPHIC DESIGN THINKING.

On Jun.19.2006 at 01:13 PM
Daniel Green’s comment is:

To follow up on r agrayspace's comments, perhaps designers need to think of their deliverables less in terms of nouns, and more in terms of verbs.

On Jun.19.2006 at 03:00 PM
vernacular’s comment is:

designers are just specialized users of a universal resource/language.

if design wants to keep any honest ambition of universality, then it has necessarily to transcend designers, otherwise no one would understand it or even find it useful.

On Jun.19.2006 at 04:58 PM
Tom B’s comment is:

I still find it strange that professional designers talk like this. '...redefinig graphic design as thinking'? - nonsense.

Of course thinking is crucial to the process of design, but do you seriously think someone's going to pay you to just think?

I'd love it if this were true, being paid to ponder - but it's not.

We get paid to sort stuff out, to get stuff done, and above all to produce stuff that the client can't produce without our help.

Trying to get more respect for our profession is one thing, but to try and sever our ties to what we actually do is just narcissistic.

How about redefining dentistry as thinking? I'd say my dentist is an excellent thinker, but I pay him to think about my teeth (the noun is what defines him as a dentist).

The difference between a dentist and a designer is that it's much more difficult to define the stuff (the noun) that a designer produces. It can be a logo, a brochure, a product, or a 'strategic communication system'. But whatever it is, it's still a thing, still a product (still a noun).

Design without product isn't design at all - it's just noise.

On Jun.19.2006 at 07:26 PM
Daniel Green’s comment is:


A growing amount of that product (that noun) can be produced with templates purchased on-line by low skilled workers. Yes, the results may be absolute crap, but for some applications (and in the eyes of some clients) it gets the job done.

We haven't seen off-shoring of graphic design yet, but I see no reason why it can't be done for low-level work, at least.

For designers to be relevant in the face of all that, we have to provide -- yes -- an absolutely fabulous end product, but much more than just an end product. We have to be willing to work on the front end of the thinking process, not just the back end. We (or people we work with) have to be able to articulate why a particular approach is the right one to take, as well as why a particular end-product is the right one to take. We have to be able to set up processes that ensure the successful management of complex projects. We have to be able to manage the interface with multiple constituents. We have to have the smarts to weave a project through regulatory barriers, technical barriers, and corporate committees. We have to be able to speak the language of our clientele, whether that be business, education, science, or whatever. And in the future, we may need to provide models for how our end product can be reused or recycled with minimal economic or environmental impact.

This isn’t meant to minimize the importance of the look and feel of the end product. We can’t forget to leverage our key strengths, which are in the visual/human interface realm.

(I don’t have a direct quote on this, but Michael Bierut once wrote something to the effect that if it was so easy to produce good looking design, why was there so much awful looking stuff out there? I can’t disagree.)

But from where I’m sitting, if we focus completely on our traditional role with the end-product, we will end up --- at best -- being a pair of hands to output someone else’s ideas...someone else’s thinking.

On Jun.20.2006 at 09:50 AM
Tom Michlig’s comment is:

I believe that Tom B. and Daniel Green's comments are symbolic of the polar ends of this discussion. And also symbolic of why this topic is so frustrating. Because both ends have merit.

I will say that Mr. Beirut's paraphrased quote has a flaw, in that he says "awful looking stuff". Awful to whom? Impossible to quantify. If something is merely good looking, it has been "decorated", but not designed. If it communicates effectively and is easy to use, especially in the face of constraints, it has been "designed".

I tend to think that the whole DIY design movement is refreshing. It brings some fresh perspectives to the table, first and foremost. And it gives those of us formally educated in design a wake up call to advance our craft further. Not only that, but the ease and speed of personal publishing these days makes it imperative that we can not only think, but produce as well.

On Jun.20.2006 at 10:56 AM
r agrayspace’s comment is:

NONSENSE!? I would urge you to rethink this position.

Capital D designers, i.e. those at the forefront of the profession HAVE to redefine what they do.

We cannot count on our typography, layout, and composition skills to take our profession into the future. As tools become more and more sophisticated, the craft of our profession is going make up a smaller and smaller percentage of what we are selling, of what people pay us for. Technology will completely replace craft. Count on it.

What we do is vastly different than what most designers did 50 years ago and I imagine it will be even more drastically different in the next 50. Realistically most formalism in design will probably be outsourced to India. :P

Personally I don't see myself as a graphic designer. I am a problem solver and critical thinker that uses graphic design as a means to an end. Those of us designers that choose to compete on the level of pure Graphic Design, are perhaps going to find themselves left behind.

Tom ultimately I am not talking about removing the product from WHAT WE DO but that over time the perception needs to change from what we traditionally know as our deliverables.

Those end product deliverables (logos, brochures, ads, websites, etc) are only a small percentage of WHAT THEY GET when the hire a designer to solve a BUSINESS problem through DESIGN THINKING.

I'll say it again, serving the interests of graphic design is to make the DESIGNER MORE INTEGRAL in what is perceived as DESIGN.

On Jun.20.2006 at 11:42 AM
Tom Michlig’s comment is:

There will always be craft involved, no matter the technology. Technology is a tool, and how you use that tool is considered your craft.

r agrayspace, beyond the "product deliverables", what exactly do businesses "get" when hiring a designer? This is an honest question because I'm truly interested in the answer.

On Jun.20.2006 at 12:43 PM
r agrayspace’s comment is:

Admittedly I am working through these ideas as I write them. I appreciate you probing for specificity and not letting me hide behind empty words. It is a good question and one that made me sit back and think, "OH SHIT!, what exactly DO I mean?"

How about the following as a list of things business GET when they hire and work with a designer:

• Define audiences and niche market opportunities
• How to say a message to a specific audience
• Compose solid and clear positioning
• Determining which messages are original in a market
• Defining actionable goals
• Defining the true nature and cause of a problem
• Define the intended message
• Define appropriate media applications
• Creative media applications
• Define desired and achievable results
• Strategize methods of market penetration
• Align business plans with marketing strategy
• Devise systematic approach to problem
• Strategize ways beyond media Identity can systematically live
• Design efficient business protocols & processes
• Research and anticipate market situation
• Naming
• Holistic creative ideas
• Research

Admittedly this list is not great, organized or complete. But the list represents things I do regularly to provide clients with exceptional solutions that have nothing to do perceptually with end deliverables such as logos. They are all part of a process that ensures success in a holistic manner and they are not things that most clients realize they need or that they are part of the process of designing anything well.

Which just happens to be related to one of my biggest arguments against spec work, (where this whole discussion originated from). How can you provide a solution to a problem without doing these intangible things? If designers are able elevate these things in the minds of the people who buy design, we solve some of the disconnect buyers have between DESIGN and DESIGNERS and possibly head off their penchant to think SPEC is a good idea for them or for designers. No?

On Jun.20.2006 at 02:27 PM
Mr. Frankie L’s comment is:

r agrayspace,

Your list is a good start for sure, but
how do those attributes differ from what a
"Marketing Specialist" claims to also do,
or somebody from Advertising?

The problem as we move away from formalism
is that we find our revamped niche overlapping
with other fields which already command the
respect we seek.

Furthermore, there seems to be more and
more hybridization – firms which do everything
from advertising to design – essentially the
entire brand experience.

Lastly, whenever we have these discussions,
I feel we tend to overlook the lack of client
parity in regards to how design is utilized.

My theory is that you will see increased
specialization in fields such as print, web, and
illustration. Even designers who specialize in
a specific industry..In conjunction, firms that
do A-Z will probably continue to prosper...

On Jun.20.2006 at 04:25 PM
Tom B’s comment is:

The problem with discussions like this is that we tend to mix up two completely different ideas and call them both 'design'

The first is 'design as done by designers'. This is what I do to make money. I have a set of skills and a bit of knowledge that clients pay me for.

The second is 'design as done by everyone'. This is something we all do - admitedly some do it better than others. It involves thinking, problem solving, being creative, making strategies etc.

Perhaps this post should be called 'Design vs. Design'

I do understand the need for graphic design to adapt in order to prosper, but I just don't understand the desire to leave it behind altogether.

To say 'I am a problem solver and critical thinker' surely is nonsense, because isn't everyone a problem solver and critical thinker (the second definition of design).

And, critically, who wants to pay for this?

I'd like to think that most of my clients are incredibly grateful for my problem solving and critical thinking. But I'm no fool: most clients like to pretend that they are the ones who do the real critical thinking - they solve the problems - I'm just a tool to get that done.

Succesful designers know how to manipulate this delicate balance - you let them think it's them; you make them look good. Deep down they know where the real innovation comes from, and they're thankful.

But to be so blatant about this, to shout from the rooftops 'Design is dead, long live Problem Solving and Critical Thinking', does nothing except break the spell.

The client is robbed of the feeling of being important and smart. Nobody wants to pay for someone else to come along and do their job better than they can.

The whole point of being a specialist is that a client feels comfortable shifting responsibility to you. 'I can't possibly do this,' they reason, 'so I'll give it to someone who can'.

But this doesn't work if you're a generalist.

If you think Design is on its last legs, then by all means change your career, go learn something else - but don't pretend to be a designer who doesn't do design

That's nonsense!

On Jun.20.2006 at 08:28 PM
vernacular’s comment is:

If you think Design is on its last legs, then by all means change your career, go learn something else - but don't pretend to be a designer who doesn't do design

isn't this the kind of tribal, love it or leave it, don't rock the boat, design discourse that the original post was complaining about?

On Jun.20.2006 at 10:00 PM
Tom B’s comment is:

I wasn't suggesting that people shouldn't rock the boat, or that they should just go away.

Only that it doesn't make sense to say 'I'm a designer' with one breath, but then to say 'I don't do design' with the next.

Maybe Design is on its last legs, and we're all going to have to either specialise or generalise. But then we'd all have to stop calling ourselves designers.

On Jun.21.2006 at 04:24 AM
r agrayspace’s comment is:


A couple of things. I am not advocating leaving any part of design behind. Our craft will always be a part of what we do. In fact I am advocating a broadening of the definition to include all the things we are already doing in order to alter the perception of why people hire designers. Maybe I am advocating a certain kind of generalization, I hadn't thought of it that way. I am not sure that is a bad thing.

I believe the future is going to require of designers more generalization when it comes to media and more specialization when it comes to markets. That is what I see clients asking for now.

I think you are holding on slavishly to a certain definition of DESIGN that for me is unbearably narrow. Everything I have been pontificating about what I would consider what I DO AS A DESIGNER. I never implicated that "I don't do design".

But drawing logos, setting type and combining with images to be printed or published on the web is only a small part of what we do. And I am merely suggesting that as the profession evolves we might not be able to always rely on craft to be our bread and butter.

What we are really talking about is evolving what it is that people think they are buying when they buy DESIGN. Spec work is the result of the perception that a logo or magazine design is a commodity. It is not. That is the problem we are faced with.

I am merely advocating a way, in the long run and in the BIG picture, that the profession can evolve ahead of the curve.

Also know that I am not battling you and telling anyone there is a wrong or right. I appreciated the skepticism.

On Jun.21.2006 at 07:53 AM
r agrayspace’s comment is:


A couple more things I just can't help myself react to.

To call the thinking and problem solving part of design "something that we all do" is way off the mark. If that were true why is there so much bad ineffective design? There is a large part of those who practice DESIGN that have nothing to with good strategy and critical thought and a whole to do with making things look good.

And yes I have clients in which the only way to make them choose a good idea is to let them believe it was theirs. This is a tactical solution for narrow clients but it is hardly a strategy I believe the profession should employ across the board. Manipulation is not going to take us into the future. Leadership will.

The clients/projects that do have significant impact on the future of our profession are people like Mr. Nussbaum and his new Design for Business magazine. And the fact that he doesn't get it enough to know that Spec is not ethical or a valuable part of DESIGN is disappointing.

All right I am done. For now. :)

On Jun.21.2006 at 08:05 AM
Mr. Frankie L’s comment is:

I'd like to know how does one take something
as intangible as "great thinking, problem solving"
and claim that on his/her resume, when this is
usually associated with people who have degrees in
Business and/or Marketing? They have stats and focus
group data to back up their claims. We just have
design annuals.

Just as in evolution/natural selection, when
you have more than one species competing in
similar niches, one has to either become a
specialist or become the apex predator.

On Jun.21.2006 at 10:37 AM
Tom B’s comment is:

r agrayspace

Okay, I think this is one of those cases where we're saying the same thing with different nuances.

Firstly, I'm really not defending as narrow a definition of design as you might think. I certainly don't think that design is only logos, brochures and such. In fact the list of activities you provided is all what I would consider design.

What I was protesting about is the attempt to become a general-purpose problem solver. This is what I consider nonsense. And to be fair, you did say 'I don't see myself as a graphic designer'. If someone asked you to solve problems to do with dentistry you'd be completely out of your depth, and so would the overwhelming majority of people.

Secondly, when I said that thinking and problem solving is 'something we all do', I didn't mean 'all designers', I meant everyone - designers and non-designers alike. Of course there are people who do it better than others - these are the people who tend to become designers in the first place.

I think that perhaps Design (as it is today) will dissapear. The skills we employ as designers will branch into two separate branches. Specialists will emerge with valuable skills to do particular tasks, and generalists will take their problems solving and thinking skills into the boardrooms of big business.

But neither of these positions will be recognisable as Design.

Maybe I'm just splitting hairs about terminology. But it seemed to me that you were trying to have it both ways - to let design evolve beyond recognition, and yet at the same time to cling on to the old structure.

To be as designer who doesn't do design.

On Jun.21.2006 at 11:50 AM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Spec work is the result of the perception that a logo or magazine design is a commodity.

This is not an advocacy of speculative work, just a correction:

Requests for spec work do not represent design as a commodity—just the opposite. A commodity is fungible. That’s the reason that exchanges can work. One metric ton of pork bellies is, for the most part, as good as the next metric ton of pork bellies.

If graphic design could be specified as a commodity then there would be no call for spec work. One “Category A Logo” would be worth the same as another, just like a thousand pound of number 9 coal is worth the same as another. Nobody says “Let me try out your tanker full of low sulfur crude and maybe I’ll buy it” because, as a commodity, it is interchangeable with another tanker full so its exchange value is not a big question

Comparison will find trivial difference in commodities but massive difference in graphic design. Buying graphic design isn’t like ordering a hundred kilos of Laotian opium where you need to make sure the quality and quantity match the order. It’s more like saying “I’d like to feel good” and having someone say “we’ll deliver an extract of some flowers that we really like.”

On Jun.21.2006 at 08:19 PM
Daniel Green’s comment is:

Interesting point, Gunnar.

Based on what little I know of economics, you’re correct in your definition of commodity. I’m not sure if I agree with how it applies to trends in graphic design, however.

We seem to agree that, in the process of commodification, one product or service is perceived to be essentially the same as another, thereby lowering its competitive market value. (I use the term perceived, because even raw commodities may have differences that go unnoticed. Raw milk, to me, is raw milk, but a diary farmer would probably beg to differ.)

I agree with you that -- unlike commodities -- there are massive differences in graphic design, which would by reason take it out of the realm of commodification. However, I question whether those differences are perceived by those who request spec work. Or, maybe the real problem is that those who request spec work have a sense that there are differences, but they have no way of quantifying those differences until they have options from three different firms in front of them to choose from.

Regardless of the reasons behind it, however, I can't help but feel that by lowering the competitive market value for design services, spec work starts us down the road to commodification. Instead of paying a flat rate for a bulk product, a client can pay nothing for a bulk of service.

On Jun.22.2006 at 12:21 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

the real problem is that those who request spec work have a sense that there are differences, but they have no way of quantifying those differences until they have options from three different firms in front of them to choose from.

Exactly. Certainly opportunism is a factor. (If you think someone really needs the work, you’re in a position of strength in a negotiation.) The impression that someone wants to do something and that money isn’t driving the desire to work is another. (A corollary of the “Why buy the cow?” cliché.) But insecurity has to be the most common driving feature. There’s no way to assure a good outcome or even to justly compare prices. Anyone would want a hedge on that.

how does one take something as intangible as "great thinking, problem solving" and claim that on his/her resume

This is the problem with the resolution of Robb’s comments and Tom’s challenge to them. Of course designers design something. A physical product or a plan for a physical product is at the heart of what we do. (Lorraine Wild’s “Macramé of Resistance” does a nice job of defending craft against different designer as modes.) But if our work does not embody something more and our process does not add other value, then there is no reason graphic design shouldn’t be treated like any other product and considered on the basis of a generic value/price ratio (like you’d buy a commodity.)

How does one tersely communicate “embodying more” and “other value”? I’d love to hear suggestions. If you can get someone’s attention for an analytical case study, that’s great, but most marketing messages need to be terse. Designers are quite adept at mimicry so when someone who had thought about brands said “branding,” everyone said “branding.” Then someone who’d thought about strategy said “strategic” and everyone said “strategic.” It’s clear that most graphic designers wouldn’t know branding or strategy if either bit them. That leaves a strategic designer sounding like Dr. Gonzo talking to the hitchhiker: “You can trust us. We’re not like the others.” It’s hard to make that one sound convincing.

On Jun.22.2006 at 01:43 PM
Daniel Green’s comment is:

If you can get someone’s attention for an analytical case study, that’s great, but most marketing messages need to be terse.

Sometimes, the circumstances are in your favor for a terse marketing message. I once created a logo, brochure, poster and t-shirt design for a new fund-raising soccer tournament for my son’s soccer booster club. It was determined that we would need 20-some teams to register to break even. On registration day, we had 46 teams (success), the t-shirts sold out in the first hour (more success), and we had a net profit of x-amount for the effort (major success).

On the other hand, some efforts are much harder to quantify. I once did a graphic identity for a community. The review committee loved it. They have it on their water tank. The village president sent me a box of candy. She told one of the company principals to give me a raise. Everyone was happy. But I don’t have any way of quantifying its success in a way that a business person may want to hear. (“You’ll be so happy with the project that you’ll want to send me a box of candy with my payment” just doesn’t have a reassuring ring to it.)

On Jun.22.2006 at 02:59 PM
smallchange54’s comment is:

All of my clients approach their projects on a broad spectrum of what exactly they expect me to deliver. Of course if they give me an idea at the onset, I try to figure out how to make it work (or improve it if need be). Other times I'm given a job and and freedom to explore it. Other clients prefer to do all the "thinking" and rarely ask me to contribute to the process (which often leaves me saying "what the heck am i here for if you're not going to ask for my help?").

Don't your clients often dictate exactly what they need from you, and isn't it true that sometimes we might WANT to deliver a well thought out project but do not have the freedom? Don't we all balance between being a designer delivering a job and the thinkers/planners we all want to be?

On Jul.07.2006 at 09:16 AM