Dave McCourt thinks some thoughts...

The long term future of design

Posted in: Articles, Design, Ethics, Me

When I left University at 22 the world seemed a simple place with simple problems. Like many design graduates I thought I could change things through design and I was energised and optimistic about the prospect of putting things right. It was a surprise that many didn’t see the world through the same design spectacles that I did. Look everyone I don’t know if you know but design can sort this out and make it look great too. Why aren’t you doing it right now? Come one we can change this!

I’m now 36 and have been running Bananadesign for 10 years or so. In that time we’ve worked really hard and done some great work and worked with some great people. Design has transformed my life and given me opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise had – to be my own boss to have nice things, a nice house, and a comfortable life. A lot of this change has come about because of technology – Macs, software and broadband are all now easily affordable. A young designer today can set up with a laptop and some cheap-ish software (if they’re doing it legitimately) and a mobile – they don’t even need their own fixed workspace or internet connection as many coffee shops, business centres and libraries offer free wi-fi. It has been a democratising revolution and one which has had a lot of knock-on effects – some obvious and some unforseen. Many, who not so long ago would have been classed as ‘computer whizz-kids’, are now web-designers and by extension designers full stop (thanks to software like Adobe CS that can do web and print work in a single package). Having the necessary tools is seen by many as the same as knowing how to use them.

When I look at the future now I’m not optimistic and I’m not excited – in fact I’m quite worried. Worried for me and worried for design in general. Design has always struggled to define itself professionally – graphic (and web) design doesn’t have a single industry voice or association – partly because those that have set-up have been elitist, expensive and ineffectual, partly because designers don’t like to pigeonhole themselves and partly because there hasn’t been a clear leader in the association stakes. As a result of this ill-defined idea of design, design has been degraded and under-valued for many years. So much so that practices that undermine the very profession of design are norms to some new designers.

The business of design is changing. It is now rarely a consultative process where knowledge and skill is valued but is moving more to a competition-based, uncertain process so that design becomes a price driven commodity. A lot of this is due to the nature of business today – clients have to be seen to be getting ‘best value’, usually the cheapest, and to avoid risk at all costs. This is risk to their business but also risk to themselves – nobody wants to look bad if something goes wrong. This is one reason why free-pitching is taking off again, if you know what you are getting in advance (because the work has already been done before you’ve committed to it), there is no risk. What of the long term client–designer relationship, of trust and respect, of admiration for one another, of loyalty, of value?

Recently we’ve been going through a slow patch and this may be because the economy is in, or has just come out, of recession – depending on who you believe. I think fear of recession has certainly caused problems for a lot of our charity clients and there is indeed a lot of downward, bargaining pressure on fees – clients have been coming to us with fixed budgets for work that would normally cost more. But I also think there has been a change over the past few years.

Technology has certainly made things faster – faster to design, faster to proof, faster to send to the client. Efficiency is good of course but the side effect is that speed often creates poor planning and impatience which leads to pressure which leads to error and a loss of quality. The days of creative thinking time and experiment are disappearing and being replaced with getting things out of the door to meet ever shrinking deadlines. If you think of things we get fast we tend to value them less – burger and chips from McWhatever is not the same as a lovingly prepared home-made meal.

Design has moved in this direction and ended up de-valuing itself as it rushes to get the next job finished. As a result designers value their work less and so do clients. So technology has made design ‘easier’ and quicker and and by the law of unintended consequences, less worthwhile.

The internet has enabled designers to set-up anywhere and made possible a move away from the media-clusters of the big cities – location is now irrelevant. I had always thought that design in the UK would lose out to developing nations such as India in the way that call centres had. I’ve had my fair share of calls and emails offering website services from companies in Bangalore and I thought it would only be a matter of time before design would be offered too – it hasn’t yet on a large scale but maybe it will one day. In fact the threat to design practice in the UK didn’t come from just one country.

Crowdsourcing is the practice of sourcing design by competition and the internet has made this a global market. There are a number of websites that make money from offering this service, 99designs.com and crowdspring.com being the most well known. The process goes like this: a client uploads a brief, decides on a price they are prepared to pay and the websites advertise this project to their members. Members produce speculative work in the hope of winning and the client can chose one or more winning designs or none – the winner gets the fee and the client gets cut-price design. The crowdsource website gets a flat fee. The losers are the other designers (potentially lots of them) and the concept of design. The client controls the process, there is little or no dialogue and the design is chosen based on what wowed the client, rather than what is appropriate for their audience. The cut-price nature of crowdsourcing means designers try to cut corners by using free artwork from websites, by re-using their own work or worse. There have been a umber of examples online of flagrant copying of other designers work and of companies unknowingly having similar logos to others because designs had been re-used.

Eye magazine recently covered a conference in Germany called ‘Volkssport’, which describes this new crowdsourced world where design has become a ‘people’s sport. Crowdsourcing is open to all – professional designer and amateur alike but it is a world dominated by amateurs, students and part-timers. In fact as Mark Harbottle (co-founder of 99designs.com) says that: “It is a business model that depends on lower-paid amateurs using spare-time to solve problems”.

The arguments for crowdsourced design is that it is democratising, making a ‘snooty’ and expensive profession like design accessible to everyone. Wikipedia is a good example of crowdsourcing working well, although there are only 1,000 or so regularly active editors. There are few who would argue that making design available to all who want it is a bad thing, but the problem is that crowdsourcing results in a fundamental change of the design process from client–designer collaboration to low-cost commodity. It also shows design has little value. I don’t see this as part of the new economy of competition – it is essentially free-pitching, producing speculative work for free, that is enabled by the equality of the web. It has been argued that there has always been a ‘discount segment’ in graphic design (as of course there should be) and designers shouldn’t get too het up about this new more visible market. My concern is that in just the same way as the sub-prime mortgage crisis in America, the bottom end of the market, caused a global financial crisis, the same thing can happen here by bubbling up.

This isn’t just about worrying about my quality of life, although I am concerned for that but about the quality of the profession I love and am committed too. Design can make a change, it can make our lives easier and more enjoyable – it is worth something and it isn’t the same as washing up powder or cornflakes.

It may be that this is the tip of the iceberg for business in general and in the near future we’ll see more moves in this way. Would you be happy to crowdsource your accountancy or legal work online to strangers you’ve never met and have no relationship with? These could be considered snooty and expensive professions as well but design isn’t considered in the same league because of its inability to regulate and promote itself and educate clients about its worth. Part of this is because technology has also made design simple to produce for the non-designer: click, I’ve got a blog, click, I’ve designed an online greeting card, click, It looks better in Comic Sans. Designers may need to re-evaluate their roles and to concentrate on their core competences and it may well turn out that there will be fewer designers in the future – the amateur, part-timer and short-term designer are here to stay.

Laptop designers, free-pitching and crowdsourcing may not lead to a rapid downward spiral in design quality and practice but it might. All of these people and practices are taking advantage of a change in technology and economics and history tells us that is when big change happens.