The Perception of Value in the Design Firm is Changing

I was recently involved in a discussion on the perception of the erosion of the value of design. To begin, I think that perception that the value that the “value is eroding” is incomplete, but reflects a shifting value of design from one sector (of productivity, utility) to another (say, creative thinking)… So, instead of lamenting a negative perception, designers need to learn to thrive with counter-balanced positives.

The democratization of what and who can design is one thing. Creating printed and electronic communications one way or another has become more and more ubiquitous than ever before. And while this has clearly made changes to the dynamics of the work, the scope of projects designers have received, I think that the craftsmanship, creativity and dedication are things that those same designers continually bring to the table (a must) and those designers need to continually broadcast that value, while noting it can’t be paid for with open-ended contests.

Perhaps, there is an intrinsic misunderstanding about the value of design — and visuals generally — in an “open-source” world perhaps exacerbated by the ad industry, or even the notion of free television.

Last year The Baltimore Sun reported Ikea’s shift to the font Verdana from Futura in its catalogs. Their reasoning for doing so was to have a closer visual relationship with their print and online presences with Verdana being a font widely available on the web while Futura is presumably less so. The furniture manufacturer goes on to report that they were switching their print pieces to match their web pieces.

Subsequently, an unscientific Baltimore Sun website poll found that 80% of people voted “who cares” with 15% saying “keep Futura” and 3% saying “use Verdana”. I came away from this read thinking was: “the things [designers] do ‘under the hood—like making typographic choices that match the spirit of the company or communication’, may make little difference to the casual observer.”

But, I think with the democratization of things, the vigilance designers need to exhibit to the work (of building professional communications, client relationships and communicating them effectively) is even more important. These days, nearly everyone starts a business, makes a statement, starts a group etc. Products are really better than ever in the history of human civilization. In the past, brand loyalty might have meant you didn’t get the nasty tomatoes or you didn’t drive a lemon whereas today, it means more a customized connection to the way YOU, the consumer (or business), lives life or expresses your independence. That ability to be a really good fit is something that people can and will pay for whether it’s breakthrough products like an iPhone or a Porsche 911 or the services of some of your fine establishments.

This gets to the notion of payment. I was just reading an article on adage.com about hourly fees getting smaller. And the premise of the article is “who cares?” The article (http://adage.com/smallagency/post?article_id=138750) goes on to say that there is an increase creative compensation models, like value billing and other forms of incentive compensation. Since ad agencies traditionally have relied on media costs to pay for creative and account management, even they, with media shifts to internet and so on, have to rethink the cost of design aspects as CP+B did badly. I think that to Bo’s point the landscape is shifting and we have to take heed to it. over the past fifteen years, that vaulted iTunes (and others) devastated the music industry. Further the movie industry has had to absorb the blow of the DVD market.

Design does play a role in all this and we have to work to communicate how.

Additionally, a major concern identified by a Baltimore professor, recently, is that the loose adherence to “rules” brought about by the diversity of designers, etc., in the industry and low barriers to entry in the field create a work process that has been crowd-sourced. His point was to do the certification route. While we’ve had that discussion amongst the chapters (I’m not committed either way), part of the tension of this dynamic is that the spec-work website actually CAN exist and actually CAN make somebody money (I guess). By contrast, short of forming a union, amplifying the talking points for using the diversity of design firms that develop solutions, not just deliverables is my thinking on Rustand’s excerpt and is the response to the crowd-sourced, commodity market.

While it may be a hard sell, I think it’s valid (if not, the only reasonable direction) for us as an organization to continue to support exceptional work for reasonable compensation, further promote the understanding of rights in the work, and perhaps do more to communicate a professional process that does so much more than just come up with deliverables at the end of the day. I had a recent project where the logo design discussion was so rich because I was able to confront the companies’ divergent views of what the logo should do amongst themselves in a way a guy on a computer in Dubai couldn’t.

By contrast, the alternative is the overhanging tension created within the framework of a large discount company who can sell “everything for less” in good ways (increases of technology that eliminate system-wide waste) and bad ways (allegations of under-paying overtime, incomplete health benefits, lower worker satisfaction by comparison to similar firms, etc.)

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