Monday, October 29, 2012

The Coming Graphic Design Storm

I am writing this during the beginning of one of the biggest storms I've every experienced on the mid-Atlantic coast. If you are seeing this article, I was able to publish before the power was supposed to go out due to hurricane Sandy's scheduled arrival.

Anyway, this got me thinking about the course of graphic design as an industry. Having spent over 25 years in the industry, and having had conversations with many different graphic designers recently, I see that graphic design is headed for a split history. What I mean by that is that the industry is headed in two directions at the same time.

In one direction, organizations are increasingly seeing graphic design as a commodity that occurs at the end of a strategic process. For them graphic design is only useful in making an idea a visual reality. There is no value other than an expenditure to transform the hard work of development into a real product. In this way, the objective is to find the lowest bidder with the prettiest approach.

The other direction is a diversified, strategic realization. In other words, graphic design is more than a beauty contest, but a strategic business strategy. If you want to compete with Apple, you can try to do so on price — which most do. The other approach is on design — which most avoid or simply copy. Apple has such a strong design philosophy that it makes it extremely difficult to compete with them, other than price. And quite frankly, who really wants to compete on price alone?

As a result, especially in the tech industries, many see graphic design through the lens of a diversified approach to solving business problems. What this means is that graphic designers are seen as having a unique customer understanding in all sorts of visual communication — from website user experiences to multimedia brand connections. Of course not all graphic designers have the same skill sets, but that's the beauty of this understanding. Now, graphic designers of all kinds, and their clients, see the power of collaboration, unique skill-sets, and the designer's ability to visualize from the customer's perspective as an advantage in creating a cohesive plan of attack. No longer are one-size-fits-all design solutions getting businesses that visual strategic advantage.

What does this all mean?

Well, this means that there is incredible opportunity for all sorts of visual designers — especially web and interactive designers — to enhance organizations' strategic advantage. However, there still exists a communication gap. It's true that the graphic design industry is partly at fault for failing to communicate this to other industries, but I wouldn't entirely place the blame on the industry. I think that those other industries are just not listening. And when they are ready to listen, they are doing so because they are already in trouble. That's partly human nature, and partly because it's just too easy to rely on what you've done in the past. It's hard to not see marketing communication — especially graphic design — as an expenditure, rather than as a strategic partnership. But, the businesses that get it, tend to fair much better.

1. What the AIGA has to say about this.
2. The Design Council's take.

Photo courtesy cohdra or

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