I am carrying baggage.
Almost 15 years ago my flatmate, who was then studying a degree in Corporate Communication, showed me some desktop publishing that he had been doing for his course. They were looking at layout, typography and presentation to teach better communication skills. At the time I was in my first few years as a fledgling designer and I remember thinking, ‘What is he doing? Surely that is a Design Skill‘. I think he also asked me my opinion on layout and copy as I was the professional. Suddenly I was struck at how blurry the lines between design and other disciplines was becoming… but most of all I thought ‘fuck you buddy, that’s my job’.
I like to believe I have grown up a bit and that I now have a more balanced understanding of a designers role. I just watched Ian Anderson say the words ‘I am a problem solver, I’m an ideas person’ in a KickStarter movie drumming up funding for a tDR movie. We (designers) all define ourselves differently, and the definitions are widening. If we are sensible we understand that the tools of Graphic Design have become democratised and even my Mum and Dad can use Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. As Milton Glaser once said;
Computers are to design as microwaves are to cooking.
So as access to the tools that my generation felt defined their Design Skills have increasingly found their way into the hands of anyone with a computer we have begun to search for new definitions. We can specialise in a sector or a discipline, we can become craftsmen of a style or we can leak into other disciplines expanding our remits. Is this scary? A little. Is it frustrating? A little. Most of all, for me, it shows something else. With more people understanding and having an opinion on design, coupled with a low barrier to entry, the definition of graphic designer as a commercial craftsman is being eroded by a thin layer of understanding.
I spend a lot of my time with marketing departments and most of them, like my old flatmate, studied courses that understood that powerful communication comes with an understanding of how to deliver the message. So marketeers have had to understand and form opinions on graphic design. For the businesses that employ them it is seen as part of their role to be able to input into the design and justify their decisions to hire a specific designer internally, but where should their input stop? Is there a point where a marketeer should simply trust the expertise of the designer they have engaged? Is it inherent on the designer to justify their work completely to satisfy the commission? With more education the latter is inevitable but the former is unlikely due to the stakes involved. No one wants to lose their job over a piece of direct mail.
The best marketing professional and designer relationships I have seen have been based on trust. However these are few and far between as marketing departments have high turnover and agencies are often the casualty of transition. To get to this level of trust the agency must prove itself and this means making the marketing department look good by doing good work, efficiently and economically. There is a lot of carrot dangling involved in the early stages of this process and it takes commitment on both sides to make the relationship work. The greatest challenge to this relationship is the boundary defined by designer and marketeer. Too much influence by the marketeer and the designer will feel their work is being diluted and will lose interest. Too little justification by the designer and the marketeer will feel exposed. At this fledgling stage most relationships die. Thanks for the opportunity but let’s just stay friends.
They die because the relationship is not equal. The marketeer has been trained to step over and understand design. They can tell the designer what they want in increasingly technical terminology. They know enough to justify their opinion and not be simply lead by the designers advice. This knowledge gives them the power to exert control over the relationship. Meanwhile the designer is busy trying to justify, sometimes the most abstract of decisions.
Aside: Now, before we all get a little caught up, I do believe that good design should be based on good practice, understanding and explainable rational. You should have a justifiable reason for making any key decision in your work. I am just saying that reading your design from top left to bottom right justifying every placement and decision is pointless. Read Mike Monteiro’s insight on presenting your work in the excellent Design Is A Job.
The challenge is that most marketeers have a thinly spread layer of understanding. This is a good thing. It means that the designer is (hopefully) not dealing solely with personal preference. It is also a problem, as some marketeers are very enthusiastic. They want to be part of the design. They know the tools, they know the parlance and they want to own the solution. It makes sense really, designers are all super cool, right? Actually it really makes sense because it is their butt on the line and by investing in the design they help avoid abtraction from the core brief. However often this thin spread of knowledge can be the slow death of the craft of design because it means that the design has two masters, the marketeer pulling from their design knowledge and the designer pulling from theirs. The marketeer, in defending their contribution to the relationship, feels it necessary to bring to bear their thin spread knowledge and as the client can nudge decisions using this. The designer must justify their contribution without appearing stubborn or alienating the marketeers knowledge. The initial trust begins to be undermined as the designer feels pushed around and the marketeer feels that they are making all of the decisions.
The solution is better briefing from the marketeer that builds better understanding of a problem by the designer. The reality is that marketing teams are best placed to explain the problem and challenge the solution with the singular focus of the organisation. While a good design agency is best utilised for their problem solving and abstraction from the organisation, taking a macro view of a problem and seeing new opportunities. A good designer will be able to underpin a solution with research and understanding ensuring that the marketeer does not feel the need to bring their personal knowledge to direct the solution.
Perhaps if more courses and businesses focussed on this vital symbiosis as opposed to championing thin veneers of knowledge that obscure the problem we might see more innovative solutions solved by great commercial design craft.