Bitter Designers and Where We Need To Go

The recent Smashing Magazine post “Designers, ‘Hacks’ and Professionalism: Are We Our Own Worst Enemy?” is an interesting one. I urge you to read it. It brings up several different issues but one that struck a chord with me was the whole feeling about the commoditization of design.

With sites like 99designs.com which leverage design contests and with logos coming to istockphoto.com the apparent cheapening of the graphic design profession is unrelenting. On one hand I understand the ‘world going to hell in a handbasket’ sort of view, but the pragmatist in me tries to step back and see how this is not unique and not at all unexpected.

There is the sentiment that any fool with some graphics software and half a brain can hang his shingle out as a “designer”. Whether they will be successful or not is another matter entirely. There is also the view that design work becomes undervalued and commoditized when clients see that they can get an acceptable logo for $50.00 instead of the $1000.00 the top grade designer may want to charge. Do you want to buy your shoes at Payless or head over to Gucci? Well if the buyer can’t tell the difference (which is the designer’s job to describe), then hell yes I’d expect him to head over to Payless. This is not ideal, but completely expected.

It can be a difficult rationalization. Why should graphic design escape the same sort of trend as desktop publishing, journalism, writing or photography for that matter? What makes graphic designers so unique?

We have seen photography flourish as of late and yet there are still great photographers – in fact I’d say many more of them. Is the photography business as lucrative as it once was? I’d think not. Photographers have to work harder, be more creative and up their quality to survive. I find it great that so many more people are interested in photography – if I was a professional photographer I think I’d probably hate it.

And so it is with graphic design. I love the fact that design concepts start to enter the mainstream. It is no longer a black art. Sure, it would be more romantic if it was, but it’s not. Is it hurting things for professional graphic designers? Sure. But again, I value the proliferation of skills over the health of an industry.

Granted I am not a professional graphic designer nor am I a professional photographer. It’s easy for me to hold these views. And since I’m a shit programmer by any measure, I could just as easily say the same thing for programmers as well (and writers and desktop publishers). Progress and technology lower the bar. That enables more people to participate. I think that’s a good thing, but that dilutes the market for those who’ve been in the pool the longest. I feel bad for them. Sincerely I do.

I am lucky in a way that in my own profession (structural engineering) there is greater liability. When I design a structure I am legally responsible for that design and its performance over the life of the building. This affords us signficantly more protection against the democratization of structural engineering (ha – now there’s a far-fetched idea). This sort of liability is rarely there for software designers, and probably even more rare for graphic designers. I don’t see that changing.

So where is the positive in all of this for our little FOSS corner over here? We already have a community built around voluntary contribution and knowledge sharing. We can take this time to weep about passing industries and shrinking job markets, or we can take a bunch of people who are already part of the Libre Software community and who are passionate and eager about design and teach ourselves great things so we can create even better things.

I think the first step is to admit we have a lot to learn. And perhaps we should just take that statement as fact since we may be the worst people to judge our own skill levels (as John Cleese put so well). Many would also say quite rightly that as far as design goes, Libre-land has nowhere to go but up. So let’s start climbing.

Some things to chew on in no specific order:

We need to learn to provide quality criticism, how to accept it and how to use it. No more ‘put up or shut up’ nonsense. Listen to criticism, evaluate it, discuss it, elevate it.

We need to stop thinking we know everything about design when we clearly don’t. We are smart. We can learn these things.

We need to encourage designers**, but hammer on basic design concepts. Audience, goals, colour, flow, etc.

We need to treat design seriously right from the start of our projects and stop treating it as a suit of clothes.

We need to look at the ‘why’ of good design going on outside of FOSS land. Why is something good? What is the concept at work? Not copying, not being unique for the sake of uniqueness. Let’s try to understand the ‘why’ of good design and apply that.

** I am conflicted about design contests. I understand the problems with them – if you don’t, I highly recommend reading this post. But I still think there needs to be a viable way for those eager to build their design skills to work on meaningful things. If you have ideas in this regard, let’s hear them and get a proper discussion going.

2 thoughts on “Bitter Designers and Where We Need To Go

  1. When I read articles like this one (and there have been many over the past few years) I do tend to agree with them on most accounts. But we in the FOSS world need to stop treating design like we do programming. A dev will start coding a project, put it up on Git, and sit back and wait for the masses to contribute. Projects need to be proactive from the beginning by going out and seeking quality designers. Also, I want devs to stop looking at themselves as coders, and more as project managers.

    -Chris

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