Design Less, Think More

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 thing.

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 time frames.

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) 

About the Author:

Branding, web design, teaching, food, retail, color, design strategy, pop culture, @AIGAPittsburgh,  @AIGADesign,  @DesignInquiry, @CMUDesign.

Pittsburgh, PA ·