The Fall of the Designer.
I write this as I sit at work right now. Of course many of you reading this will immediately ask; â€œHow on earth do you have time to write an essay when surely you have work to do?â€ or â€œIs it not completely unprofessional to waste your employerâ€™s time and money by writing instead of working and actually earning your keep?â€. My answers to these well-placed questions are;
-I have time because as a department, we are in a holding pattern for a few hours until some internal issues get resolved, then, rest assured we will be busy enough with our respective projects.
-It is wholly unprofessional and I make no excuses for it. I fully accept the fact that I am being a naughty employee.
Now onto the point of this article. I am writing to report to you from the front lines of the design profession that there are a few of us that are in serious danger of being eliminated. Phased-out. Becoming extinct.
Some of you, no doubt, have jobs with companies where you are asked to fire up your creativity every day and are recognized for it. You work in offices with multi-colored walls, brand new equipment loaded with the latest software, well designed desks that compliment the Aeron Chair in which you now sit. For you, work isnâ€™t a job, itâ€™s the 8+ hours a day that you get to blast your music in your headphones while sipping the $4 latte you purchased in the downtown coffee house two blocks from your office. Itâ€™s also where you get to meet with your clients and â€œWowâ€ them with your mad talent and presentation skills. They sit in awe as you guide them down the path that you as a team have worked out for them. You know exactly what they should be producing and how it should look and they have every confidence in your judgement. You are the rock stars that make it happen for them and they are all too happy to fork over that payment after you have invoiced them. You are on the cutting edge of design and next month ID magazine is going to be in to interview you and your team for a front-page article. Life is indeed good for you.
Unfortunately most of us donâ€™t have those jobs. Of course we almost all thought we would while we were still cutting our teeth in school. We went to the conferences and listened to guest speakers tell us how grand the life of a designer will be. We read the magazines and had lengthy discussions amongst ourselves about the philosophy of design. We came to view ourselves as above the unwashed, design-illiterate masses; after all, we were designers (or at least we were going to be).
Then we graduated.
In an instant, we were free to find that dream job we had been preparing for. I myself was certain that I would find a top-paying job in downtown Chicago or New York. I would live in a trendy downtown loft, wear designer clothes, only go to the best nightclubs, and be surrounded by only the coolest people. My office would also be in an incredibly well designed building in a happening, urban neighborhood and come with a great view. The people I worked with would be designers like myself, they would appreciate good design and we would truly be a team. I envisioned late nights doing incredibly great work for only the best clients. Nike, Microsoft, LG would all be begging for our services. We would be the gods of our industry and our lives would be blessed.
Of course these grand notions were entirely unrealistic and I acknowledge my own part in my utter disappointment. I am a creative person. My imagination shifts into overdrive in no time at all so that it take no great amount of prodding before my expectations are built to the size of cathedrals. But it was no help to have professors, guest speakers, fellow students and others offering false visions of what to expect. One half my fault, one half the fault of those that should have been intellectually honest enough with us to give us a realistic idea of the profession.
We all learned very quickly that our dream job would not just fall in our lap as we had thought. â€œOkay.â€, we thought, â€œWe have to hustle and pay some dues first. But that dream job is just around the corner. We just know it.â€
Five years later, the horrible truth stares me in the face. Not only am I not working with the kind of company I had envisioned, Iâ€™m not even in the same industry. To help clarify, I offer this bit of personal information: I went to school to be an industrial designer. I now work as a senior designer with a major manufacturer of POP signage and displays. In school, they barely even mentioned the POP industry. We were fed a constant diet of pure product design except for one class our senior year. And that class was not given any real degree of respect or concern by either the students or the staff. The attitude was that we happened to be in a geographic location that was very big in the POP industry and as such, a few of the graduates would probably have to settle for their first job being at a display company so they might as well give us an introduction to it. But not to fear, most of us would surely get entry level positions with a respectable deign firm and we would be on our way. Reality would prove differently.
After graduation, only a handful of us went into product design. The market was saturated with ID graduates and there was a very limited supply of positions available. Thus, when the music stopped playing, only a handful found seats, the rest of us, were left to twist in the wind. I was not one of the lucky few.
Instead, after opening up the options to include POP and exhibit design, I was lucky enough to land almost immediately at a huge POP company in the area I went to school. I was to be one of the chumps after all. I reconciled that it would be a temporary move. The good stuff would come, I just have to bide my time and build my portfolio. In the mean time, I was working with other designers, though I was definitely the â€œkidâ€. The rest of the team had been working for 20+ years and they all had families. It was obvious that none of them had any real passion for the job. It was a paycheck, their real interest lie outside of work. Being the team-player that I am, I thrive on the energy and enthusiasm of others. In order to maintain my own drive, I need to be surrounded by others with the same passion. It took only months for that starry-eyed rookie to begin fading into the same shade of complacent grey that permeated the entire department.
I knew I had to get out of there. My resume was updated and polished. My portfolio was reformatted and now included professional work. I posted my stuff on Coroflot and began sending out cover letters, resumes, and sample portfolios to those design houses that I dreamed of working at. I assumed that it would be a snap to at least get an interview lined up. If nothing else, I could make that initial contact and impress them enough to keep me in mind for future positions. However, the most I could generate was one phone interview. And to put it mildly, it didnâ€™t go well. Not that I donâ€™t speak well or have any trouble presenting myself. The trouble was in the fact that in the six months I had been working at â€œCompany Aâ€, I hadnâ€™t done anything along the lines of 3D modeling on the computer. It simply wasnâ€™t required. Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop were not only sufficient for the projects we did, they were and still are they best way to generate the renderings that we presented to the clients. Unfortunately for me, this design director only wanted people with strong 3D modeling skills. It didnâ€™t matter that I could draw like the wind or that I was exceptionally talented at putting presentations together and actually presenting ideas to others. Because I wasnâ€™t a computer-monkey, he had no interest. This was very disturbing as we had been told all through school that companies really didnâ€™t care of you could bang out a flawless Alias model or not just as long as you could draw and design well. On top of this, the reports that were coming in from people in the field all told a similar story. 3D modeling was the number one function they performed and traditional drawing and design skills were slowly ebbing in importance.
Thus I found myself in quite a predicament, I couldnâ€™t get a premier job unless I built up a strong knowledge and portfolio of 3D modeling, but then I had to question whether or not I would want the job anymore as I find using the computer for modeling to be very boring and tedious. So my best option was to give up on my initial dreams of what being a professional designer would be like and evaluate my options. The conclusion I reached was that although the POP industry wasnâ€™t nearly as interesting as traditional product design would have been, it certainly had some advantages. For one, although the designer took some basic direction from the client contact and then from the in-house sales rep, we were usually set loose to design. We had a certain amount of freedom that many people we knew in the product design field didnâ€™t experience. Secondly, given that by my very nature I hate tedious detail and am more of a â€œbroad brushstrokesâ€ person, the projects I worked on had very quick lead times which meant that there was only so much detail I was required to get into. For the most part I could dream up concept after concept and be done after only a couple of days before I moved on to the next project. Things didnâ€™t get too stale. That is, until youâ€™ve done the same type of project for the same customer for the eighth time.
After two years of working in POP, it came to a point where every single design brief was the same. It was always some nitwit with a marketing degree who wanted the latest, most awesome design using the latest, most awesome technology but only had the budget for the same, tired, junk that they usually buy from us. And so it began.
At first we could comfort ourselves with the fact that at least they were interested in seeing new design directions and loved to see how far we could push their brand and their â€œlookâ€. As a team, we produced some incredible ideas for these guys. But over time we began to get project requests that not only included a written brief, but also came with a rough scribble or two of what the client had in mind. This is where the dynamic forever changed. The clients started getting the notion that they could and should take a piece of the design process away from the designers and keep it for themselves. In the beginning we could find solace by observing how awful the ideas were. Then, after the clients got a bit more savvy and actually began suggesting designs that werenâ€™t too bad (by that I mean that while there was nothing unique or innovative about the design and was entirely typical and uninspired, it would still fit their needs nonetheless), we could at least look down on how poor the drawings and scribbles were.
Enter the ad agency.
We were used to working alongside a clients ad agency quite harmoniously. After all, a successful marketing campaign is waged on many fronts. Ad agencies tended to handle artwork, printed advertisements, logos etc. We could base our designs off what they were doing and thereby tie everything together. But at some point, the ad agencies convinced the customer that they could handle the design of the POP materials as well as the traditional media and artwork. That might have been okay had the agencies come to us for design work. However, what they did is go to their graphic designers (both outside and in-house) to come up with displays and signage. Once the graphic designers came up with a few illustrations, we would then get them and determine how to produce them. Now before I continue my little story, allow me to say that I hold absolutely no ill-will to graphic designers. They are some of my very best friends in the whole wide world. However, talent in one field does not equal talent in another. It kills me to get these â€œrenderingsâ€ from the graphic design houses and to see that these designers have no idea of how to address the third dimension. They basically come up with a 2D graphic and then put inane callouts and notes on the sketches. I wouldnâ€™t go to Taco Bell for a cheeseburger, so why are the ad agencies going to graphic design houses for industrial design? I think I know the answer and it has nothing to do with the graphic designers.
The answer is that some account executive either at the ad agency level or at the graphic design house itself has determined that one area of design is just like another so why go to different places when the designers over here are willing to do it all? That is part one. Part two is because most POP companies are manufacturers and offer design services as a perk to our customers. The way these companies make money is by manufacturing the display or sign, not by designing it. However, most times, the customers have the courtesy to allow the first run of a project to the company that designs it. So if an agency can get the design done on the outside, they can then shop it around and get the lowest price every time.
Being a free-market capitalist, I canâ€™t really fault them for that. But it still leaves us in this particular nook of the industry to question our future. As it stands right now, I am at the third company I have worked for and each one has been the same. All the veterans spin yarns of what it was like not ten years before I graduated. They were the driving force behind a project, sales, engineering, purchasing would all defer to the judgment of the designer (to a certain extent of course). The designers were high-up on the totem pole and one could realistically expect the opportunity to move into the upper echelons of management. In the relatively short amount of time Iâ€™ve been working professionally, Iâ€™ve seen the shift in focus from design-based, to price-based. And when that happens, sales and engineering become much more valuable than design.
On a typical day, I will get a project handed to me, and there will most likely be a design already done, the most Iâ€™m needed for is to produce an exploded view with maybe a few callouts of size, materials, etc. Maybe 20% of the time I will do some actual creative design work, but mostly not. So that leaves me and most other designers in my field in this very precarious position. We are obviously being squeezed out of where we were, so how do we adapt? We have three choices:
- Get out of the POP industry altogether and hope that there is a place for us somewhere.
- Find a gig as a designer with a graphic design firm or ad agency
- Given we are already halfway there, why not just make the full switch to becoming engineers?
I donâ€™t have much confidence in any of these choices. But I do know that at least in my field, the role of a designer is not what it once was and market forces being what they are, I donâ€™t know that it will ever recover.
Now Iâ€™m sure that many if not all of you will determine very quickly that I am bitter and jaded and that is the cause of my woes. I would simply like to point out that it has been my experience that the most bitter and jaded are the very ones who started off being the biggest dreamers and the most optimistic. But as Newton advised us â€œWhat goes up must come downâ€ and I believe that the higher one flies, the harder one hits the ground.
I truly hope that the rest of you in the design world are faring better than this lot. It truly looks as though we are going to lose this ground, I ask that the rest of you fight like hell to hang onto yours.
Your brother in design,
â€œKSB Sky Arrowâ€