Darwin introduced the idea that a
species either adapts to change or it’s replaced by a better-suited
species. Evolutionary law is quite clear on this point: adapt or die.
Since then we’ve learned that the same law applies to business, as
well as to the sub-species known as design. One could argue that the
only reason our industry exists today is that we evolved from commercial
artists to graphic designers, which kicked us up a notch from
advertising handymen to visual communicators. In the natural course of
things, many members of our species didn’t make it; they were soon
replaced by newer-thinking, better-suited practitioners.
Change comes in fits and starts, and in 1984 our industry faced
another challenge: the advent of the personal computer. Like the
asteroid that fell on the Yucatan to speed the demise of the dinosaur,
the computer landed on the design industry to end the reign of the
Bauhaus designer—the era in which hand skills were paramount and
practitioners were considered artists. Predictably, the first response
to this crisis was divided. Some embraced it (“change is opportunity”),
some denied it (“the computer is just a pencil”), and others raised the
alarm (“desktop publishers will steal our jobs!”). Many in the latter
two groups took the shift to technology as an exit cue, while many in
first group not only survived but thrived.
Now, only 20 years later, the climate is changing again, but this
time the change is not only technological but sociological: it’s the
rise of the network economy. Quietly, inexorably, the focus of business
is shifting from individual work to collaborative work. While this may
sound fairly benign, what it means is that everything we know is wrong,
or at least insufficient to the task. Darwin introduced “survival of the
fittest”. What the network economy is suggesting is “survival of the
fittingest”. In other words, those who fit the requirements of the
network live, and those who don’t die. The reality shows got it right. Survivor, American Idol, and The Apprentice are acknowledgments of the new reality.
How does this affect design?
For starters, it means that our lionizing of the lone genius (just
run your finger down the index of any design history book) is beginning
to seem quaint and uninspiring in the context of collaboration.
Tomorrow’s design history books aren’t likely to be dominated by
individuals, but by teams, firms, projects, campaigns, and movements.
Next, it means that our people skills will need to advance to a new
level of sophistication. Fortunately, most designers are social
creatures by nature. But we’ll have to listen better, proceed more
thoughtfully, and consider the feelings of others as we learn to add
value in a creative network.
Finally, the “priesthood” of design—those who believe that the
creative process should remain a black box to clients, colleagues, and
the uninitiated—will give way to a culture of openness and transparency.
“Because it works” will no longer suffice as a design rationale.
Instead, creative discussions will revolve around what the audience
thinks and needs. The priesthood may persist in some form, but its ranks
will continue to shrink. Celebrity designers, for example, will still
inspire us and entertain us, but these flamboyant solo acts will be
regarded more as sideshows than the main event. The main event will be
The business value of collaboration is not just better design but
better brands. I hesitate to use the B-word in the presence of
traditional designers (“branding—aren’t we over that yet?”), but there’s
no other word to describe the activity that will soon engage most of
us. Brand is part and parcel of the network economy. It’s not only the
playing field, but the ball, the rules, and the crowd shouting in the
stands. Want a seat at the business table? Learn the language of brand.
It’s the common ground between design and business.
Naturally, other disciplines are clamoring for a seat at the table.
People from product design, research, advertising, and business
consulting are pinning on their name tags and pulling up chairs. Fair
enough. Most brands are too large and too complex to be managed by a
single person or firm anyway—they require the efforts of a community of
specialists working in concert. Like building a cathedral in
15th-century Florence or making a movie in 21st-century Hollywood, it
takes a village to build a brand.
I personally find this energizing. Still, here are the questions that keep me up at night:
The answers to these questions may turn out to be much more
interesting than yes or no. I’m starting to envision a future with
designers learning brand, consultants learning design, and clients
placing a higher value on both. I’m seeing educational institutions
bringing the worlds of design and business together to launch a
generation of brand stewards. Under their guidance I see a rich
community of specialists, working inside and outside the organization,
collaborating in a vibrant network to build exciting brands.
It’s 2010. Where do you fit?
Young Creative Agency, a new design education organization in New Orleans, is headed to San Francisco May 26-27, 2015. There, its mission to pay at-risk high school students a fair wage to learn and practice design will compete against other finalists
in Teach For America's Social Innovation Award.
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