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Editor's note: The author is on the board of DesignInquiry,
an educational nonprofit that organizes team-based gatherings to
research design issues.
After attending my first DesignInquiry in 2004, I returned to my
life and career in Chicago—a city filled with design firms, ad
shops, countless billboards and advertising—and was overwhelmed by
what I saw. Having spent a week in Maine exploring my own
relationship to design, it was a shock to emerge from introspective
consideration to a world plastered with so much…stuff. Not that I
wasn't completely immersed in design during my time at
DesignInquiry, but this was something else. This was not immersion.
This was an assault.
That assault comes at the price of distinction. If everyone is
screaming, who can be heard? And when I think about the amount of
money spent on design (and, in turn, media placement for said
work), I can't help but conclude that design in service of commerce
is mostly failing. But I don't think that failure is a bad
The past decade has brought many changes in the way design is
disseminated. Self-publishing is easy, thanks to blogs and DIY book
sites like LuLu and Blurb; the tools used to create websites are
available at little to no cost; and until the recent demise of
Google Print Ads, an individual could place an ad in a major
newspaper at rates competitive with businesses that spend
million-dollar ad budgets.
The emerging tools to create design artifacts are within reach
of nearly everyone. And as design proliferates—good or bad, amateur
or professional, large or small-scale—it might be time to think
harder about where we put our efforts as designers.
Outside of my life as a graphic designer, my partner James and I
own two retail bakeries. This is a local small business, and
because of my involvement there's little design overhead for our
business. We can create business cards, websites, menus, signage,
T-shirts and more without spending a dime on the design. In this
respect, our small business is fairly uncommon.
But while I can provide all of these design services at no cost
to the bakeries, we have found that our most effective form of
designed media is our email newsletter. Once a month, for the cost
of less than a dozen of most of the items we sell, we can reach a
wide mailing list of entirely self-identified customers who want to
know what's happening in our stores.
So I spend time making templates for the email blast, updating
them occasionally with seasonal graphics and making minor changes.
But then my partner James creates the email newsletter, adding all
the content without my involvement. This is hardly a revolutionary
occurrence; James is no technological Luddite but he's not exactly
well versed in HTML and CSS or the standards that make email
successful across email clients and web-based viewing.
Like James, many of my clients now use content management
systems and email campaign management sites to maintain their
websites and email communication with customers. Clients who are
comfortable using Microsoft Word or Gmail can add, edit and delete
content in their electronic media quickly and easily. Mostly gone
are the days of requests for designers to make content changes
because clients can now do it themselves. And while coding is still
very much a part of my work process—my design process—a lot of work
goes in on the front end as I prepare a client website or email
blast template. When all is said and done, I empower my clients to
do it themselves. And I “design less.”
Relinquishing some of that control allows me to concentrate on
bigger issues for my clients, and technological advancements free
me up to think about design more. I can put more effort into
thinking (strategy!) and my design time becomes more effective.
As the barrier to tools for creating designed objects continues
to lower, this is what distinguishes graphic designers from someone
sitting at home with a computer and the latest copy of Adobe
Creative Suite. It is about thinking, planning, strategy and ideas.
It is those ideas, and that strategy, that allow our concepts to be
heard in a sea of voices.
As I asked my peers if they felt their workday was increasingly
about thinking and less about designing, the sentiment rang true:
the majority spend most of their day doing everything but
designing. One peer sees this happening across the board, even with
junior members of her studio's team, citing that budgetary
pressures demand that the work be on-target, often within shorter
The design work we do, of course, remains valuable. How the
finished product looks is as important as ever. But the design
process requires that we take into account all the variables that
affect how our work is received. How we think about design, how we
plan for design and the ideas behind the work are the foundation
for its success. We know that time spent brainstorming,
researching, planning and evaluating is time well spent.
With this in mind, I'm happy to design less.
Photo credit: “Highest in Customer Satisfaction” by katherineofchicago (Flickr)
Branding, web design, teaching, food, retail, color, design strategy, pop culture, @AIGAPittsburgh, @AIGADesign, @DesignInquiry, @CMUDesign.Pittsburgh, PA · http://www.andrewtwigg.com
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