Something I’ve been thinking a lot lately is how the value of design and design skills has changed over the past ten, or really even five, years—graphic design is much more accessible in the past both given the technology changes, but also new tools, like Canva, that provide basic design technology to anyone who needs it. I think Canva is great as a basic starter tool that can provide people with a starting point, or for resource-strapped organizations, a way to still have decent, customized design. But it’s not the same as having a professional graphic designer or agency research and create a piece for you or your organization.
However, one thing I have noticed over the years is more content about ‘how to make money as a graphic designer without the education,’ and similar topics, and I believe that has led to an increase in the dangerous thinking that design is easy. Sites like 99designs and fiverr perpetuate this idea, where you can get designs (and what is often really spec work) from designers at a fraction of the cost and the time. These are band-aids—not long term, thought-out solutions, that often lower the value of a professional designer or firm’s work.
There is a very big difference between design that looks good and design that is effective, which I think is a difference that many non-designers are not aware of. This is why many designers (myself included) are often handed the start of a project and asked to “make it pretty.” That request in itself shows that many people just want something that looks good, regardless of whether or not it’s effective. Just search ‘branding’ in Pinterest and a plethora of single page brand boards will show up, which yes, may be pretty, but do not provide any of the background or strategy. And although the designer may have that information, that’s not what people look for. People go to designers for “pretty,” not “effective.” And that lowers the value of truly good design.
“Design is having ‘a moment’.” – Stephen Gates
It’s great that the appreciation of design is much more widespread than ever before—as Stephen Gates says, “design is having ‘a moment’.” But much of that appreciation focuses on the end product, rather than the process—and I think that’s purely because many people do not understand everything that goes into a design. There’s a great quote that says “Design is for solving problems, not vetting solutions,” and I think that sums up a lot of what many designers run into now. Requests are frequently to vet a solution by “making it pretty,” rather than to solve an exact problem. Graphic design (or any design, really) will be most effective when it follows the creative process—that can vary from designer to designer or firm to firm, but the starting point of that process is research and information gathering—and the most important part of that is defining the problem.
This isn’t easy to do—this is why tools like design thinking (which has been turned into a buzzword) and process are so important. If you design something without defining the problem, researching the target market and competitive landscape, how can you define or determine success? If it looks good does it mean it’s “successful”? Not necessarily. Some of my favorite projects haven’t seen much ROI (again, that doesn’t mean it’s “bad design”—it’s just what happens when it comes to creativity and experimentation).
Furthermore, design is not something that happens quickly—some designers may execute faster than others, but that does not include time that needs to be dedicated to defining the problem, research, ideation, and concepting. In our current culture of instant gratification and efficiency, everything is measured on how much can be produced and how quickly. And it’s really easy to fall into this trap—it’s one I’m trying to slowly dig myself out of, this focus on pure output rather than following the process and producing something truly creative—and effective. But I think if more designers share their process and the value in it, and that sometimes quick execution will not lead to a successful, effective, or creative project, people will come to understand it.
A great starting resource for this is ‘The Strategic Designer‘ by David Holston, which I’m currently reading—it has a whole section on communicating the value of design to clients which I find particularly helpful.
TL;DR – Pretty design does not equal good design, and designers need to share their process and the importance of it to make their value known.
Disclaimer: these are my personal opinions and do not reflect the opinions of any of my current or former employers.