Monday, March 03, 2008

"Can You Do It?" is The Wrong Question

Someone just said to me that they don't know how to play the piano. This made me think, "Is that really true? All they have to do is sit down and bang on the piano keys. My daughters do this all the time. They play the piano without knowing a single song, taking a single lesson, or reading a lick of music. They sit down and, BOOM!, they are playing the piano."

Obviously this person really meant that they can not play the piano well. This is a different issue. They can play it, but no one will want to pay to hear them. There is nothing unique enough about banging the piano keys, that someone would say, "I know I can't do that," or say, "That piano playing is beautiful. I know I can't produce that myself. I think it is worth paying to hear it , see it, and be entertained by it."

However, I rarely hear someone say, "I can't design anything, even if someone threatened me." or say, "Wow! That design is so beautiful! I could never produce anything like that myself. I would definitely pay someone to do that for me." It is true that I talk to people from time to time who say these types of things. But it is usually because they have either tried to do design themselves or have too much at stake not to hire someone.

But people are saying these things less and less.

Why is that?

I see two main reasons why this is so. The design industry and computer utilization.

The field of design has altered from a craft/skill-base to a commodity-based system. In the past most designers had the ability to draw and illustrate. It was a necessity, because that was the only way to express a complex idea visually for both the client and printer. Even the skill to create mock-ups and mechanicals was an art. However, some designers came out of school without a business sense or the ability to communicate outside the visual realm.

This led to a vacuum that developed during the rise of computer graphic design. Because the computer took over the job of expressing complex ideas in a visual manner— and do so faster and in more quantity—ideas have less value than when it was dependent on craftsmanship. Now ideas can be expressed without the ability to draw or illustrate. And since designers didn't have good business or communication skills, outside the visual expression of complex problem solving, they became valued on quantity rather than quality of ideas. The faster the better. The cheapest the more sought after.

The rise of the computer also gave the impression that idea generation was easy. Since the computer and software was sold with the intent of garnering market share, and many people wanted the ability to create their own marketing materials, computer and software makers appealed to this demand. So they led the public to believe that the computer, with expensive software, and a few good templates would give them the ability to design without the expense of a designer.

This impression led to the advent of the wannabe. These are people in various careers who either want to make extra money, or think it is an easy gig to design. This is the natural consequence of believing the myth that the computer and software can make anyone a good designer. And these people are getting paid because—as I said before—the value is in quantity, speed, and cost. And these people could care less about the client's needs or the erosion to the graphic design industry. They want the job, and the clients want it cheap.

Times. They are a Changin'

But this is changing. Why? As Thomas Friedman put it, "the world is flattening." Competition from all over the world is squeezing businesses. And not just for designers—everybody. This is due to the rise of the internet.

The ability to connect our computers to other computers around the world has opened up competition in a whole new way. Now it is no longer good enough to design it yourself. Sometimes the only thing that differentiates your product or service from someone else's is a combination of good communication and visual acuity. Businesses from Proctor and Gamble to Apple Incorporated, Google to understand that their business stands or falls on how they consider visual design in their business strategy (whether industrial, marketing, or structural design). Even Harvard Business school understands that the role of design is critical to success in today's marketplace.

The smaller companies are slowly starting to realize this. But it is high time to recognize that no matter how much times can change, there are some things that will never change. Quality will always trump quantity in the end.


  1. Anonymous1:16 PM

    Good points. I know small businesses are guilty of trying to do everything on their own as a means to save money. However, I believe they are slowly coming around to realizing they get what they pay for and in some instances they do need to spend money to stand out.

  2. I agree that businesses are starting to get it. But they tend not to be the really small businesses, certain non-profits, and educational institutions.

    Although, in some quarters that may be changing, but much slower.


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