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The most frustrating aspect of the current climate is that
designers who want to advance their prospects are having a hard
time maintaining control of their fate. The issue is less about the
competitive advantage of one designer over another and more a
result of the overall economy. Still, AIGA believes that we must
all take advantage of the shift in the economy to prepare for the
new normal—which will not be anything like the old normal.
When we emerge from the Great Recession there will be
opportunities for designers, although the opportunities will be
much more substantial for those designers who are prepared to
create noticeable value for clients.
AIGA believes that one characteristic of the future will be an
acceleration in the growth and speed of information flows. The only
way to play a role in communicating in that environment will be for
adept professionals to develop the form in which messaging takes
place. It will also be crucial to quicken the pace of personal
learning, to always remain ahead of changes in technology and
In 2008, AIGA and Adobe partnered on a research project to define the
characteristics that a designer would require to be effective in
2015, so that both organizations could begin to prepare
designers and their tools for the demands of the future. This
moment, when the economy is undergoing massive change, may be the
most opportune time for designers to consider the trends and
competencies that emerged from that research, so that they can
ready themselves for the competitive challenges ahead.
Six major trends, and the challenges they pose for the
profession, emerged from our research. These trends define design's
role in a much broader, more strategic context than its roots,
which involved the creation of striking, engaging visualizations of
messages. Although visualization and excellence remain important,
they will be only one manifestation of a solution that may involve
many different forms, including intangibles such as strategy and
The trends that will influence the role of designers include the
following, in the order of importance identified in our surveys of
Designers must be able to draw on experience and knowledge from
a broad range of disciplines, including the social sciences and
humanities, in order to solve problems in a global, competitive
market of products and ideas.
As the contexts in which communication occurs become more
diverse, designers need to experience meta-disciplinary study as
well as train deeply in specific disciplines. They must understand
the social sciences and humanities in order to understand the
content they are asked to communicate, and they must understand how
to work collaboratively with other specialists.
Designers must address scale and complexity at the systems
level, even when designing individual components, and anticipate
problems and solutions rather than solving known problems.
Design problems are nested within increasingly complex social,
technological and economic systems and address people who vary in
their cognitive, physical and cultural behaviors and experiences.
The role of the designer is to manage this complexity, to construct
clear messages that reveal to people the diverse relationships that
make up information contexts and to deliver sustainable
communication products and practices to clients.
Messaging will shift from mass communication to more narrow
definitions of audiences, requiring designers to understand both
differences and likenesses in audiences and the growing need for
reconciliation of tension between globalization and cultural
The most effective means of communicating has shifted from broad
messages for large audiences to narrowly targeted messages for
specific audiences. This is the result of both media capabilities
(in terms of narrow-casting and mass customization of messages) and
also global dynamics. This trend demands a better understanding of
a variety of cultures, the value of ethnographic research,
sensitivity toward cultural perspectives and empathy.
Attention is a scarce resource in the information age, and the
attention economy involves communication design, information
design, experience design and service design.
The trend toward an “attention economy” encourages discussion of
what is currently driving clients' conception of form, the
attraction of business to design and the problems of designing for
a market that values the short-term “grab.”
Designers must change their idea of customers/users to
co-creators (mass customization) to coincide with the rise in
transparency of personal and professional lives (social networking,
This trend focuses on user-centered issues through a filter that
identifies appropriate methods for understanding people (for
example, the current movement toward ethnographic research, rather
than focus groups). It brings communication design closer to the
work of product designers (who really have the attention of
business) and the emerging area of service design. Social-advocacy
issues both emerge from this phenomenon and are empowered by
Designers must recognize that the pursuit of excellence involves
focusing clearly on human-centered design in an era of increasingly
limited resources, in which appropriateness is defined by careful
and necessary use of resources, simplicity, avoidance of the
extraneous and sensitivity to human conditions.
Popular, political and business forces are all coming to grips
with the challenges of working in a world of limited resources.
Designers, as those who use creativity to defeat habit in the
solutions they propose, must assume a leadership role in proposing
responsible uses of resources.?This involves both the traditional
concept of sustainability and also an understanding of appropriate
technology and resources for the uses proposed. Responsible
outcomes embody ethical issues, social need, global imperatives and
the unique contribution of design thinking.
Designers should begin to develop their own abilities in a
variety of ways, most of which deal not with the techniques of
design, but in the ability to bring context to the solving of
clients' problems. Among the competencies identified by thought
leaders in the profession and among educators are the
AIGA is convinced that designing will become one of the most
critical and valued contributions to the new economy and that the
future of design, the profession and appropriate compensation for
designers is bright. Yet the designers who benefit will be those
who can master the trends transforming the role of communication
design and can become part of the next cycle of innovation and the
design of experiences.
This essay originally appeared in the 2010AIGA|Aquent Survey of Design
Richard Grefé is the executive director of AIGA, the professional association for design. While guiding all of AIGA’s activities, his most significant contributions are in strategy, formulating new initiatives to enhance the competitive success of designers
and advocating the value of design to business, government and the public.
Whether you’re hiring a designer for your department, expanding your design studio or looking for a freelancer, AIGA is the place employers turn to first for qualified candidates. Here’s what you need to know.
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