Survival of the Fittingest

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 collaborative.

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:

  • If we designers don’t take a leadership position within the brand community, will we end up with no position at all?
  • Could we possibly go the way of typographers in the wake of the computer revolution?
  • Now that we’ve convinced business leaders that design is important, will it seem too important to leave to designers?
  • As advertising agencies search for life after Big Media, will they turn their hungry gaze on brand?
  • Is it written anywhere that design must exist as a standalone industry?

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?

About the Author: My favorite role is organizing creative collaboration within brand communities. I've been described as a brand coach, and my firm's knowledge base has been described as the "glue" that holds brands together. The three accomplishments that best illustrate my commitment to brand design are my ex-magazine CRITIQUE, my recent book THE BRAND GAP, and my upcoming book THE DICTIONARY OF BRAND, to be published by the AIGA. I'm a national board member, as well as a board member of the Center for Brand Experience. My fondest hope for the AIGA is that we can grow from a craft organization to craft+strategy organization, allowing us to take a leadership position in the design of business, government, and culture.