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Although design is one of the most profoundly powerful
disciplines in our modern information culture, its identity as a
profession is in a state of incoherent disarray verging on crisis.
The economic slowdown and tenuous world situation provide us an
opportunity to come together as designers to articulate and
organize our professional culture, to enhance our recognition and
prestige within the context of an increasingly design-reliant
information economy, and to wield our influence in ways that will
benefit humanity and the planet.
If we as a profession are to effectively employ our skills for
change in the world at large, we must first look to our own
affairs. Technological advances over the past century have
dramatically multiplied the quantity and nature of information
engaged with by human beings. In addition, the tools for
displaying, manipulating, distributing and interacting with this
information have become dramatically more sophisticated.
Every juncture of information creation, storage, retrieval,
distribution and use entails design. If we think about this, it is
clear that there should be no profession in higher demand than that
of the designer: the potential applications of design skills, and
the need for those skills to distinguish and empower any given
information commodity, are overwhelming.
Nevertheless, and even improbably, designers are currently a
divided, fractious lot, whose professional esteem is considerably
lower than it should be. Unlike other skilled professionals,
designers are viewed as outsiders of uncertain prestige, and are
frequently excluded from participation in business enterprises
except in a narrowly circumscribed, post hoc context. A
consideration of principles would suggest that a skilled designer
should be present throughout a development project, to facilitate
cohesion and effectiveness of planning and execution. Instead,
designers are often summoned to perform only limited, specific
tasks after managerial and fiscal specialists have already made
crucial decisions—often inefficiently with little or no depth to
their understanding of the dynamics of information and its
consequences. These problems all point to the need for us to
define, and to design, what is meant by “Design.”
This is not a new problem, and it has not persisted because of a
lack of effort to articulate what designers do, and to improve
their professional status. There have been many grand efforts in
the last few generations: from Moholy-Nagy who explored and
demonstrated the relationships among art, science and technology;
to Ray and Charles Eames who taught us how to integrate the
practice of design with social concerns and sound business values;
to Paul Rand whose taught us the power of clear thinking in problem
solving; to Jay Doblin who taught us the importance rule-based
design systems. Each added eloquence, clarity and commonality.
We thrive on change and our ability to project its effects in
the context of our work. And yet we are unable to build a viable
profession using these same principles. Appreciation and
understanding of structure are always necessary for a successful
design practice, yet we are unable build a structure for our own
profession. To some designers it feels like some kind of restraint,
a compromise. To others, staying focused and sticking with a set of
values in a design practice is counter-intuitive. This perpetuates
the lack of focus in our profession, even when compelling,
substantial answers exist.
There has clearly been a steady decline in the design profession
for over 30 years, and the source of that decline is the
profession's intractable stasis. We are unchanged professionals in
a changing professional climate: clutching at old idols while
failing to create new offerings, failing to reinvent and
reinvigorate the practice when needed, failing to inculcate a
professional culture that is accessible and fair.
In the 1960s and 1970s, designers pioneered ideas and
reconfigured their services in response to market needs and a
refreshingly energized zeitgeist. The Medium Was the Message,
Marshall McLuhan was viewed with lucrative respect as the guru of
the communications revolution and firms like Unimark, Doblin Group,
Landor, and Siegle and Gale distinguished themselves in the
emerging modern marketplace by reconfiguring their practice not
only with offerings, but also with specialists who were not
traditionally associated with design. Ethnographers, language
experts, cyberneticists, futurists and alternative media experts
were added to the mix. There was a constant pushing of the envelope
as to what a design practice ought to be. Great design programs and
institutions and best practices came out of that—and back then
design had a seat at the management table.
In the ensuing years, the deadening effect of social turmoil
followed by stagnation and, later, the sheer volume of work created
by waves of economic expansion engendered an environment of
complacency. Designers increasingly just scrubbed and buffed what
they already had for each successive project and client. They added
more bells and whistles as was required by their clients, and
chimed all the way to the bank. Yes, the medium in which we deliver
design has changed, but designers have offered few new insights or
value to clients.
Think about it. The way we run our businesses now is no
different than it was 30 years ago. It's like a fast-food take out
service: we get an order; we discuss the assignment; we go back to
our studios and perform our magic; we return to our clients with
three choices. Given the myriad delivery options, why is it three
choices? Why not 10? Why not just one? The most appropriate one?
The fundamental model of design consulting practice has lost its
relevance and become another revenue-focused exercise in
consumption. Case in point: Last year The New York Times Magazine
devoted an entire issue to “design.” Not one article among the 20
or so was devoted to graphic design or information design.
For all its discomfort, the current economic climate is a blessing.
It is a wake-up call to us as a profession to confront the inner
decline that has taken hold of us, which was masked by the
overcaffeinated economy. We are now faced with the issues we have
artfully managed to avoid dealing with for years—issues of destiny
and the future of ourselves and our profession; of relevance and
influence; of inventing new services and values in the business,
social and cultural realms.
Currently, we spend way too much time as professionals
explaining—often in contradictory terms—what it is that we do. The
value of design is defined in thousands of different conversations
in as many different individual vocabularies. While these views are
doubtless sincere, they would be much more valuable if they were
expressed in the context of a shared professional vocabulary and
ethos. If every physician made up his own set of definitions and
beliefs about anatomy and disease on an improvised basis, the
medical profession would still be in the Dark Ages. Yet the design
profession functions as if each individual designer is selling his
or her services in some sort of terminological vacuum, with nothing
more substantial than his or her personal charisma and taste to
serve as the foundation for vast edifices of public influence.
Our basic challenge is to professionalize the profession. The
slow economy, and the increasingly nasty atmosphere of the social
sphere, are incontestable signals that we need to stop sitting on
our hands, get our noses out of our institutional feedbags and our
emotions away from our personal melodramas, and start thinking long
and hard about what sort of world we want to live in, about what we
could be doing with our skills, about the causal relationship
between our personal integrity and the way we make our living.
Designers exercise immense unacknowledged control over the public
discourse; we need not be unanimous in our opinions and our aims to
begin exercising that control more purposefully, each in his or her
own way. A shared sense of seriousness and idealism, however
differently expressed, would go a long way toward remedying the
disjointed, undefined slackness of our professional culture, and
would unquestionably serve to enhance the prestige and influence of
Designers do have one thing in common: they agree that clients
don't understand us or appreciate our vision. We have been slow to
learn that we are part of that problem. We can design a chart that
explains what we want to communicate, but are miffed when clients
don't get it. We designers need to improve our communication skills
if we expect clients to pay us to solve their communication needs.
And face it: we are out of practice.
We must first agree on how to think about the purpose of design and
the strategies used to implement it. We are at the beginning of an
uncertain yet promising era, so there is no better time to
rearrange our priorities and change old ways of thinking. It's not
about “selling” the magic of design. It's not about designers per
se. It's about the fundamental phenomenon of design, which includes
many participants—and most of them aren't designers.
We need to position ourselves explicitly as participants with
our clients. There are two ways we can shift the way we converse
with our clients.
1) Apply our skills to solving essential problems.
We must create a shared, jointly owned sense of the value of
design. Truth is, designers are critical to many projects, but
entrenched professional boundaries tend to cause business and civic
leaders and others outside the design profession to treat designers
in a disadvantaged way (even though we're sometimes granted a
certain special “hipster” status).
One of the first things we have to do to correct these
perceptions is to connect our work, our skills and our abilities to
the challenges that are truly valuable, from an economic, social
and cultural perspective. In other words, not just focus on the
aesthetic value that we want to imbue all our work with, but look
at the larger task at hand and then figure out what we can bring to
Think of the types of projects we normally do: posters, CD
covers, advertisements, web pages. These are relatively worthwhile
projects, but their value is more enduring when they are done in
the context of problems that people truly value being solved. And
they are only a small part of the continuum of activities and
skills that we can bring to bear on solving truly valuable
problems, problems that affect the way we live and world we live
in. Begin in your own community. When you're forced to think in
terms of your own world, you begin to think of design artifacts as
components in solving larger socio-economic issues, not just as end
results. If we shift our thinking in this way, we'll shift our
values and our value considerably: we'll find ourselves in natural
revenue streams and cultural movements that spring from solving the
real problem, not merely producing a mundane deliverable.
This is an important responsibility for us to shoulder. If we
truly want to be valued, we must stop being insecure about our
talents, and overprotective of the mythical magic we try to sell
clients. We need to be more specific and clear about what it is we
actually do and get much more immersed in our clients' work and
needs as part of a team, not some phantom who comes, does something
cool and then leaves.
All designers must stop insulating themselves. Experienced
designers must share their knowledge, become teachers. Those who
are new to the profession must spend time learning essential crafts
such as typography and layout.
Each of us needs to begin practicing with real projects. Find a
problem in your community that you care about, pick a cause:
education, health, environment, politics, religion, art. Then use
your skills to help that cause reach a small or a large goal:
design posters, design events, give lectures. Many designers are
unaware of the power of the skills they sell—true understanding
comes from personal experience. Like any successful project, both
sides will win. Designers add something substantial to their
culture, their “clients” learn first-hand the value of design. What
we learn from the process of creating something that is personally
important to us should stay with us as we work with all
But all this will only be successful if we can also be more
articulate about the fundamental activities and process of design
and agree on them. That's the second method we'll use to shift the
2) Develop and institute an effective and clear professional
We speak with a thousand voices, and our clients hear a thousand
different renditions of what design is. We need to move away from
talking about the things we produce toward talking about what it is
that we actually do. If you ask a doctor, for instance, what he
does, he says I perform heart surgery or brain surgery. If you ask
a lawyer, she says I prosecute criminals or I litigate cases. They
describe their work as activities. But if you ask designers what
they do, most often the answer is a list of deliverables: annual
reports, brochures, websites or posters.
We describe our profession by tasks rather than by their
underlying ethos. This is so ingrained in our current makeup that
designers are truly vexed when asked to use a verb to describe what
he or she does. Our challenge is to describe that answer in a way
that can be shared and jointly owned by the design community and
the communities we serve, from business leaders to civic leaders,
artists to musicians.
If you now look at the context for activities—changing a
corporate culture, creating a new image for a museum, showcasing a
new artist—you realize there is an underlying process for solving
all of these challenges, one that involves many participants (and
not just designers). It's important to remember that we must
celebrate the craft of design, just as we learn to apply it in new
and thoughtful ways to new and important challenges.
Our goal with this shared process of designing is to articulate the
context in which we solve problems with our craft, our skills and
our abilities. And, if we get it right and learn to participate
gracefully, we'll be asked to be involved earlier—and more often—in
this fundamental process, which will prove a virtuous circle…
Over the past year, the American Institute of Graphic
Arts—currently the largest professional design organization— has
studied and refined what can be called pattern language. It's based
on case studies from successful work by many designers, and from
conversations with executives from, among others, Hewlett Packard,
Herman Miller and IBM. The design process has three phases with
four distinct steps in each phase (more detailed information is
available at www.aiga.org/designing).
1) Successful teams first define the problem they are trying to
solve—they articulate it, they give it boundaries (what's part of
the problem, what's outside our control). They call upon designers
to help cull, visualize and express that problem in human
terms—looking at it from many different views.
2) They then envision the end state. (If you've ever been part
of team that seemed lost, it's likely they skipped this step.)
Knowing what victory is becomes vital as you embark on the journey
of solving the problem. As designers, we can help prototype the end
state (through scenarios, models, journey maps, etcetera).
3) Next comes defining the approach by which victory will be
achieved. Once you know where you want to go (as defined in #2),
you need to create a map to get there. That map must be imprinted
in the minds and hearts of every participant along the way.
Designers can literally make the map real.
4) Inciting support—and then action. In some cases, not everyone
will want to make the journey with you. They'll need to be
inspired. Convinced. Cajoled. Educated. As designers, we call on
our skills as communicators to help them see why they should come
5) Once the band of gypsies, so to speak, is assembled, the next
task is to look at the work ahead and be smart about it. Often it
pays to take pause and seek insight that will enable the team to
prototype a solution. That means research. Designers can help
structure that research, and report its findings in an easily
6) Then comes prototyping a solution. That might mean physically
prototyping it; building it in miniature, or a one-off to see if it
will work. Or, it might mean prototyping a new customer
experience—a collection of moments that make up an experience. In
either case, designers play a critical role.
7) Delineating tough choices. A good prototype (or prototypes)
unearths all sorts of unexpected data and insights. And from that,
tough choices emerge. Should we include this feature, or that? What
if the solution costs more than people can afford? What if there
are down sides? Designers can make the choices evident.
8) When integral to the project, designers can help the team
work as a team. By helping them make choices, envisioning different
outcomes, seeing the “white space” between and connecting divergent
views and approaches.
9) Choosing the best solution. This is the culmination of many
steps of hard work. If we do our jobs right, we can often be the
pivotal voice in this stage, helping argue for the best overall
solution. We can visualize the case, see different sides of the
problem and lay out a path for making a commitment to a given
10) Once a solution is chosen, the next task is to ensure that
people—customers, constituents and employees—know about it. In a
traditional sense, this means marketing the idea. In a deeper
sense, it enables people to support the solution—be it a product,
ballot initiative or service.
11) Selling the solution. In most cases, an exchange of money or
time is involved— between seller and buyer, creator and
participant, sponsor and beneficiary. This process is greatly
helped by design, so that people know what they're buying and what
12) Learn quickly. The most effective teams, of course, are
those who enjoy learning. Strive. Improve. Designers can help take
the team back through the journey, recounting the steps where good
decisions (and bad ones) were made, and where and how the team can
act differently next time.
It is possible to relate the above design process, or pattern,
to business leaders, community leaders, design leaders, etc. Bear
in mind that this is nothing new—it's always been there, driven by
leaders of all professions acting intuitively in most cases. We are
simply acknowledging it and putting it in the context of a
professionalism to help our cause, our communities, our selves.
A final point too: it's an underlying process. It does not
preempt a designer's methodology. On the contrary, it is the
designer's responsibility to understand the role he or she plays,
and recognize their unique contribution at any particular stage,
and throughout the entire process. This removes the burden of
constantly having to explain, as Paul Saffo said, “what it is
exactly that you do.”
The above creates a valid forum for reaching a unified design
profession. Reading it isn't enough, applying two or three steps to
your practice isn't enough. It has to be embraced by the design
community as a legitimate first step toward professionalism. It is
only when designers begin to seriously converse with one another
about values and goals for their profession and then collectively
agree, that clients, educators and the general public will begin to
understand what designers do.
Most of us find change uncomfortable, if not traumatic; yet change
can be both exhilarating and desirable. Change tests our
convictions and calls into question our intentions and aspirations,
clearing a path for growth. It always requires that we make
choices—to choose between a reactive and an anticipatory course,
between being good and doing good, and between suffering change and
causing change. The resulting decisions shape our life and how we
look at it.
We've all experienced change, either as active or as passive
participants. Experience demonstrates that it's better to occupy
the driver's seat—even in a stressed-out, unprepared state with no
roadmaps or instruction manuals—than to be disengaged passengers
observing change passively, and at the mercy of the fates. Negative
change tends to have this passive quality (as walking into an
avalanche); positive change tends to be active and driven by the
individual (as winning a marathon). It's clear that a destination
dictated purely by the needs of business and technology will not
likely foster, or even allow, the finer things in life.
Designers ought to be aware of the difficult dynamics of change.
Design is, after all, the art of causing change to occur in
accordance with taste and intent. Information is its realm. Good
design combines aesthetics with pragmatism in a seamless blend that
produces an intended effect (be it to sell a product, to convey an
image or achieve some other deliberate end) while simultaneously
shaping and coloring the public sphere in subtle ways, infusing it
thereby with beauty, grace, elegance, verve and proportion.
Designers must combine passive and active change as they work to
employ their skills and vision in the context of clients'
requirements. Good design balances these forces, these dynamics, so
that neither party is dominant or compromised: instead, each
benefits the other through the harmonious synergy of effectiveness
and relevance. This balance requires sincerity, respect and
inspiration on the part of the designer, and an understanding on
the part of the client of what design is and can do.
As design establishes and defines itself as a profession, as the
role of designers is better understood and appreciated in the
culture at large, clients will be better able to use the services
of designers to define and achieve their goals. As this happens,
the influence of design professionals on every aspect of commercial
and public life will consolidate and grow. This influence will
increasingly extend even to the conceptual vocabulary and tenor of
people's thoughts, which are influenced—for better or worse, and
inevitably in ways that we cannot presently understand—by the
complex and compelling message forms that are generated by the
fusion of design and technology.
Change is, in itself, the stuff of design: it is the experience
of engagement with the inevitable. What design does is to put us in
the driver's seat—or, at a minimum, to enlist for us the services
of an expert driver. If we are dissatisfied with the present, it is
up to us to design a more desirable future. Nothing could be more
eminently possible, if we apply some imagination and resources to
the problem—if the present world does not suit thinking and feeling
human beings, it is up to designers to envision and create one that
Re-published with permission from Communication Arts,
Why do we need graphic design theory? Armstrong calls on the design community to meet the challenges of our time and keep the discourse alive.
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