What can designers do to improve their prospects?

Filed Under: Tools and Resources

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 information.

Trends that will influence the practice of design

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 experiences.

The trends that will influence the role of designers include the following, in the order of importance identified in our surveys of designers:

Wide and deep: meta-disciplinary study and practice

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.

Expanded scope: scale and complexity of design problems

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.

Targeted messages: a narrow definition of audiences

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 identity.

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.

Break through: an attention economy

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.”

Sharing experiences: a co-creation model

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, blogging, etc.).

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 it.

Responsible outcomes: focusing on sustainability

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.

The competencies that designers will need in this newly defined world

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 following:

  • A broad understanding of issues related to the cognitive, social, cultural, technological and economic contexts for design
  • An understanding of how systems behave and aspects that contribute to sustainable products, strategies and practices
  • Management and communication skills necessary to function productively in large interdisciplinary teams and “flat” organizational structures
  • Ability to solve communication problems including identifying the problem, researching, analysis, solution generating, prototyping, user testing and outcome evaluation
  • Ability to respond to audience contexts, recognizing physical, cognitive, cultural and social human factors that shape design decisions
  • Ability to work in a global environment with an understanding of cultural preservation
  • Ability to create and develop visual responses to communication problems, including understanding of hierarchy, typography, aesthetics, composition and construction of meaningful images
  • Ability to construct verbal arguments for solutions that address diverse users/audiences, lifespan issues and business/organizational operations
  • Understanding of nested items including cause and effect; ability to develop project-evaluation criteria that account for audience and context
  • Understanding of and ability to utilize tools and technology
  • Ability to collaborate productively in large interdisciplinary teams
  • Ability to be flexible, nimble and dynamic in practice
  • Understanding of ethics in practice

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 Salaries.

About the Author: Richard Grefé is the director emeritus of AIGA, the professional association for design, the oldest and largest professional association of designers in the United States representing the interests of 27,000 designers working in a variety of communication media and dimensions, ranging from type and book designers to new media and experience designers. AIGA, o ver twenty years under Ric’s aegis, has become a leading advocate for the value of designing, as a way of thinking and as a means of creating strategic value for business, the civic realm and social change. Currently he is teaching “Human-centered designn for social change” at Wesleyan University. Ric earned a BA from Dartmouth College in economics, worked in intelligence in Asia, reported from the Bronx County Courthouse for AP, wrote for Time magazine on business and the economy and then earned an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business. Following an early career in urban design and public policy consulting, Ric managed the association responsible for strategic planning and legislative advocacy for public television and led a think tank on the future of public television and radio in Washington.