Design is dead, long live design thinking

Columnist Will Novosedlik shares his thoughts on reviving a dying design industry.

My career as a designer ended 18 years ago. By that I mean I stopped earning my living by designing visual communications all day long and replaced it with the more supportive roles of getting business, managing client relationships and providing guidance to the younger designers in my employ. As a partner in a growing firm, this was both a necessity and a responsibility. And truth be told, I couldn’t keep my design skills as sharp and current as the talent we hired to keep us at the top of the market. So I swallowed hard and moved on.
Some folks would lament such a development. Others would ignore it and slip into middle-aged mediocrity. In my case it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened because it forced me to find other avenues for the passion that I still had about design, communications and branding. I could now stand back and examine the business I was in, its role in society and culture, and its effectiveness in the marketplace, which led me to write and publish, and ultimately, to play executive roles in completely different businesses. In short, it was transformative.
Having laboured outside the studio for so long, as both a client and a consultant, I often find that design is still misunderstood and undervalued, both by clients and by related creative disciplines. In the case of the latter, it alarms me that advertising people still regard design as a poor second cousin, or as mere window-dressing in comparison to the “conceptual” force of advertising. This myopic view is the byproduct of their persistent obsession with the brevity of the headline and the 30-second spot, bolstered by the historically huge cost of mass media. Well, we all know where that’s going.
Sadly clients share a similar perspective. This is far more damaging, and, coupled with the paucity of head offices in this country, has significantly impacted the health of the design industry over the last decade.
Allow me to illustrate. I’m told that, outside of New York and Boston, Toronto is home to more designers than any other place in North America. That should mean that the industry is growing. But I’m also told that half those designers are freelancers. Gone or greatly reduced are the 40- to 50-person firms that dominated the landscape back in the ’80s and ’90s. Of the firms that are left, the average number of employees is more apt to be four or five at many of these shops. The raw number of practitioners may be growing, but from a structural perspective, the industry has been shrinking.
If you view, as I do, that design has a strategic role to play, then designers need to be working with the C-suite. The lack of head offices in a branch plant economy like Canada’s means there aren’t enough C-suites to support a growing design industry.
At the same time, schools are churning out scads of graduates. These grads are entering an oversaturated market with few firms that are able to absorb them, thus depriving raw recruits of the mentorship that is crucial to their development. Forced to freelance, they flood the market with too little experience and too much competition. This in turn deflates fees, increases the client’s buying power and devalues the industry as a whole. Not a pretty picture.
Likewise, attempts to change client perception through professional certification have failed dismally. The Registered Graphic Designers of Canada, for instance, has had absolutely no impact on the business community. Designers would be wise to spend their hard-earned money elsewhere.
Then there is, of course, the impact of technology. Visual communications design is a byproduct of print culture; thus its legacy is tied to a dying medium. But design principles are universal. Good design thinking results in positive and enriching experiences in any medium. Happily, this idea is just beginning to catch on in the digital world, where experience designers are highly valued and sought after.
Despite all this doom and gloom, there is reason to hope. In the ’90s, top firms tried to convince clients that what they did was vitally strategic. They did not succeed for the most part. Had they hired business strategists, anthropologists, researchers and ethnographers, they might have. This is now beginning to happen at firms like Toronto-based Idea Couture and San Francisco-based Ideo. These firms stoke the fires of innovation that clients so desperately need these days in order to compete.
The “design thinking” that fuels those fires may not only save design but save business as well. The old model is dead. Long live the new model.

Will Novosedlik has worked on brands both as a consultant and as a client in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. He can be reached at novosedlik@gmail.com.