Thoughts | The Changing Value of Design

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.

Event Recap | Personal Branding

This past week I attended “Standing Out: Branding That’s Personal,” a panel discussion presented by AIGA DC, which I was really looking forward to. The panel was diverse in terms of background and experience, so I was expecting a lot of different insights on how to stand out in the design market, which is currently much more competitive and saturated than ever before. I ended up most enjoying the insights from the moderator, Victor Nguyen-Long, but the conversation itself focused mostly on the importance of authenticity, honesty, and how to take advantage of the social media platform algorithms.

Anyone with experience in branding and brand strategy knows that authenticity and honesty are things that must be kept in mind when designing and building a brand, so that was not surprising. There were a good amount of cliches thrown around on this topic, such as “If you stand for nothing you’ll fall for anything,” rather than tips for how to stand out when everyone is striving for the same thing. The panelists emphasized the importance of sharing on social media—some said that sharing should be curated, while others said that even the most mundane parts of every day life should be shared to better connect with your audience. It was interesting to hear the different perspectives, but it just made me think about how everyone is shouting into the void that is the Internet, trying to get noticed. There are still other ways to build your brand besides social media, which I feel was left out from the discussion.

Brandon Groce, a brand strategist, provided some interesting tidbits on taking advantage of certain social media algorithms (and focusing on one platform and doing it really well)—but does trying to game the algorithm system mean that the more interesting small or new brands (who may not be as socially savvy) may not bubble up to the top? I guess the key takeaway is that after you’ve designed your brand, you have to maximize social media in order to continue building it.

I think this event was a good first step in terms of discussions around branding, but it only scratched the surface.

Disclaimer: these are my personal opinions and do not reflect the opinions of my current or former employers.

Thoughts | Remote Work

As someone who is fortunate enough to work from home regularly, I have developed a process for making my remote work time as productive as it can be, but also being responsive enough so that my presence is not missed. A few things that I do that I have found to be effective:
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Photo from Unsplash
  • Keep the same hours. Just because your environment has changed does not mean your routine has to. This is also important so that your colleagues can reach you and collaborate with you while you are remote.
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Photo from Unsplash
  • Set a goal—or goals—for the day. Know ahead of time what you are going to work on so that you can start off the day with focused energy, rather than bouncing between tasks. I use my remote days to work on large projects that I know I need to spend concentrated, uninterrupted time on, or projects that are part of a larger goal that needs to be kept moving forward. I highly recommend using a tool like the Productivity Planner, where you write down your top five tasks for each day and track how much time it takes you to complete them.
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Photo from Unsplash
  • Be responsive. Your colleagues will still need to communicate with you even if you’re not physically there. Make sure that you are responsive to requests, and if you need uninterrupted time, let your team members know that there will be blocks of time when you are unavailable (via a Slack status or calendar block).
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My workspace.
  • Have a dedicated space. When I work from home, I work from my home office so that I have everything I need and minimal distractions. Set up your space so that you have to focus—keep clutter minimal and remove anything you know will distract you from your work.
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Photo from Unsplash
  • Move around! Make sure you’re still stretching or walking around and not just sitting at your desk all day. This will give you more energy and a much needed break from the screen.