Happy birthday, CA. You’re 60 years old!
For 40 or so of those years, most graphic designers did more or less the same thing. Sure, there were stylistic debates and regional differences. In 1980, a poster for a country music festival in Texas and a poster for a lecture on architecture at an Ivy League college could have been featured on the same page of the CA Design Annual. The two posters would have looked very different, but the two designers most likely had similar educations in art school or university art departments. Surely, both sketched their concepts on tissue, specified the type from a typesetter’s specimen book, received repro proofs, cut them out with an X-Acto knife and pasted them up on illustration board using a T-square and triangle.
In the past 20 years, things changed so rapidly, thoroughly and remarkably that any ten different designers in different cities, or even in the same office (or coworking space or airplane cabin), might be doing entirely different things. They could have graduated from institutions with different kinds of design programs, or not attended a design program at all. Successes are being achieved by self-taught designers who learned their craft via online platforms like LinkedIn Learning, where some courses are taught by Sean Adams, chair of the graphic design department at ArtCenter College of Design. High and low are not at war with each other, but part of a wide spectrum.
THE PROFESSION, EXPANDED
The way the public thinks about designers has changed too. When newsstand magazines do an issue or story about design, it’s almost always fashion or interior design. Or industrial and product design. But to those who do think about graphic design, it isn’t a rarified, ivory-tower profession like it was mid-last-century. When we close our eyes and imagine the designer of the present or future, it isn’t Paul Rand, solo, in suit and tie, consulting to the chief executive officer of Westinghouse. It’s more likely a group of diverse young individuals setting up the interior of a museum shop or working at flickering monitors on the skyscraper floor where MTV animations are created.
Graphic design has expanded way beyond print to include motion, sound, narrative, web, interactive, user interface—even performance, virtual reality, writing and theory. No one knows this better than Warren Lehrer. He earned his MFA in 1980, began teaching soon after, and is a founding faculty member of the Designer as Author program at New York’s School of Visual Arts and head of the graphic design program at Purchase College, State University of New York. “There used to be one unspoken presumption about the kind of work graphic designers do—corporate—and one narrow set of accepted aesthetic parameters—corporate modernist,” Lehrer recalls. “I never fit into those boxes, so I appreciated getting my hands on as many tools and methodologies as I could. Luckily, the usual conventions have been blown wide open. The best design educators I know are emphasizing meaning, storytelling, content, voice, metaphor, perspective, and the work’s potential impact on humans, communities and the planet. In addition to teaching craft and process, they help students discover what they care about and want to contribute to.”
For Lehrer and many others, the possibilities of authorship and entrepreneurship have opened up new opportunities, often necessitated by economic realities. With each financial meltdown—from the 1987 stock market crash, to 2000’s burst of the dot-com bubble, to 9/11, when everything came to a standstill for weeks and months, to the 2008 global financial crisis—more and more designers began researching market needs and developing products, writing books, opening online stores and getting their stuff in brick-and-mortar stores. “The embrace of design authorship also reflects the maturation of the field as well as an acknowledgement of our roots,” says Lehrer, who himself is the author and designer of books that are also performance pieces. “The pioneers of modern graphic design were poets, artists, inventors, revolutionaries. We’re coming full circle.”
SO, WHAT DO WE CALL OURSELVES NOW?
Still, it might seem like half the world doesn’t value graphic design as much as we’d like. Too many people, including potential clients, think they can do it all by themselves with a few keystrokes. Or that they can get it online for $5. Or that they can get us to do it cheap, cheap, cheap. Or that it’s a technical trade, given the way computer graphics has replaced auto shop for low achievers at many high schools. On the other hand, the whole world wants to be a brand. If the phrase “graphic design” never really caught on in the vernacular, the word “branding” surely did. Twenty years ago, brands were Sears and Coca-Cola and their ilk. Now Sears is in bankruptcy protection and sugary soft drinks are being debated in state senates and banned by school boards. But everybody and everything is a brand.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. “Contemporary culture is almost entirely composed of brands,” says Debbie Millman, chair of the Masters in Branding program at the School of Visual Arts and author of Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits. “Everything we consume—even the most basic commodities like water and salt—are brands,” she says. “Experiences are brands. People are brands. Brands are so persuasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched. Historically, brands were pushed down from the corporation to the people. But the equation has fiipped,” Millman explains. “Branding has become democratized, and the results are not commercially driven. #PinkPussyHat and #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo are brands that were created by the people for the people, not for financial gain. They, and many others, are being created to signify what people believe. The Pink Pussy Hat is proof positive that branding is not just a tool of capitalism. It can bring people together for the benefit of humanity.”
True, massive social transformations can materialize when an idea goes viral—something that would have been unthinkable even ten years ago, before Arab Spring became synonymous with internet activism. As brand strategist Marty Neumeier wrote in The Brand Gap: How to Bridge the Difference Between Business Strategy and Design: “A charismatic brand is any product, service or company”—now, let’s add concept or movement—“for which people believe there’s no substitute. Any brand can be charismatic, even yours.”
GRAPHIC DESIGN, DEMOCRATIZED
We’re all in favor of democracy and the kind of democratization Millman describes. Many of us, though, aren’t fans of the democratization that made design tools accessible to all. Heather McGowan, a “future of work” strategist based in Boston, credits the personal computer and software for making design so accessible that “just about anyone can create or attempt to create a digital design product—from a logo to a website to a movie or video game.” Are just-about-anyone’s products professionally designed? No, but to them, good enough. The deluge of ads pushing services like 99designs and Fiverr and platforms like Wix and Squarespace have helped this trend along immeasurably. This democratization, says McGowan, combined with instant global connectivity via social media, email and text meant that designers in first-world countries began competing with people in cheaper labor markets. “The atomization of digital design work—the precursor to total automation—exploded the massification of design services,” she contends, so that thousands of people could offer low-cost services online. “It also allowed more and more people to express themselves creatively, which is fantastic,” she adds, “but it has created a Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias in which people of low ability or talent have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their abilities as greater than they are.”
On the plus side, I must add, global connectivity has created a way for talented artists around the world, especially in Asia and Eastern Europe, to promote themselves and attract significant clients and projects. Some of the most interesting work on Behance, Instagram and stock sites is created in places like Ukraine and Romania.
Tony Cordero, head of creative at Liquid Agency in San Jose, California, frames things in even broader terms. “What we’re seeing is a recurring democratization of technology. It happened in the initial era of desktop publishing, when suddenly everyone with a Mac, fonts and a printer thought they could open a design shop. There will always be services like Fiverr,” he says, “which embrace technology to offer low-cost ways to get things done. But, as many buyers experience, those services focus on commoditizing production. Once you ask them to solve a design challenge and not execute a task, the system breaks. Those business are built on the premise of assembly”—and often imitation—“not ideation.”
WHAT’S REALLY CHANGED?
So, how do people of greater abilities and talents—whether trained in design school or self-taught—communicate their value in a huge global marketplace where online bidding and buying might be more the norm than the exception?
Ed Gold, author of three editions of The Business of Graphic Design and former chair of the Communications Design department at the University of Baltimore, has been to more design offices than most people on the planet. Gold estimates that in addition to running a large design department and teaching, he’s visited 50 to 60 firms and interviewed 100 designers.
He told me that he’s arrived at a surprising conclusion: Not much of real importance has changed at all.
“Sure, the tools we use have completely changed,” he says. “Design offices have gotten smaller. Most of us have reduced our staffs; the competition is far more widespread; many deliverables have shifted from print to electronic. But we’ve adapted to those changes, and some of them have helped us thrive. Our unique contribution to society has never changed,” he asserts. “We still have to create visual ideas that no one, including ourselves, ever thought of before, and we have to execute them in stunning and thought-provoking ways. And we can’t use the same solution twice. That makes our profession even more challenging, since most businesses find a process that works for them and repeat it over and over. Or they sell things other people have designed and made. All of which are reasons I believe that the people who practice our profession are so unbelievably special.”
“While everything we now call ‘the business of graphic design’ will change over the next 60 years,” Gold concludes, “I really doubt that the thinking part of our profession will ever change—assuming that we’re not under three feet of water by then. And assuming that we come up with more effective ways to advertise our abilities and talents to the public.”
Not everyone’s offices have gotten smaller, however. Dana Arnett, current AIGA president (Adams and Millman are former presidents) and founding partner of VSA Partners, with offices in Chicago, San Francisco and New York, has prospered by building a large, sustainable organization with fourteen partners and a staff of more than 150, including strategists, user experience architects and infrastructure engineers. “As content and channels continue to blur across devices and platforms, design is the great differentiator for making meaning in our media-rich society,” Arnett says. “This disruption is an avenue for designers to explore new pathways and methods for thinking, creating and generating value.” He encourages everyone to read the new AIGA Design Futures report (aiga.org/aiga-design-futures), which examines seven trends shaping the practice of design. “It’s intended to help all of us prepare for the changing demands of clients and the emerging opportunities for design influence,” he says.
STAYING USEFUL AND RELEVANT
In Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, best-selling author Yuval Noah Harari posits that over the next few decades, we humans will lose our economic usefulness. He points out that, for the most part, pilotless drones have already replaced soldiers fighting in the trenches. Robots and 3-D printers are replacing garment workers. Algorithms that know the position, speed and destination of every car on the road will navigate those roads more safely and with less stress for all of us—and put every Uber, Lyft and taxi driver out of business. Many travel agents, stockbrokers and medical diagnosticians are already obsolete. After all, who can search and analyze data and get answers faster and more accurately than IBM’s Watson?
So, what about us “creatives”? Will those of us who craft images and words to communicate messages be out of business too?
Hmm. Last October, the auction house Christie’s offered a painting—a portrait of a nobleman in a gilt frame—that had been created by an algorithm designed by a Paris-based collective of artists and machine learning researchers. How was it made? Well, after being fed a data set of 15,000 portraits painted between the 14th and 20th centuries, a “generator” made a new “old master” image. It sold for $432,500. With many more to come.
AI, or artificial intelligence, is also applying itself to writing. A New York Times story, “A.I. Is Beginning to Assist Novelists,” profiled an author who types in the beginnings of his thoughts and sentences—which his computer analyzes and finishes. The author is more than pleased by the “lovely language” and creativity of the computer’s work.
Last fall, Gmail started trying to finish my sentences. After a few frustrating hours, I turned that feature off, but I kind of like its suggested responses to emails, like “Great idea!” “Thanks for the tip!” and “That would be fun!”
The idea that everything we have come to value as craft, profession and passion will be no longer valid, and that we might become as irrelevant as a travel agent in a world with TripAdvisor, doesn’t sound like much fun. I can’t help remembering “The Future of Non-Productive Work” by Michael Harrington, a reading assigned in The Critical Essay, a class I took when I was a student at the University of California, Los Angeles. In the 1960s, Harrington predicted that when computers take over our jobs, everyone will get paid for butterfly watching and stamp collecting. That doesn’t sound so appealing, either. We love what we do.
Let’s make sure that the next generations of designers love what they do too. Jim Cross, who headed the Los Angeles office where some of the world’s most exquisite annual reports were designed, muses about his training and skills: “I was fortunate to have worked in the pre- as well as the post-computer eras,” he says. “I knew how to use chalk and markers to comp concepts crisply and freshly. My instructors taught me to indicate typefaces by sharpening a pencil based on the point size and whether the face was to be serif or sans serif. Because print was the medium I worked in, I knew how to paste up boards for reproduction and use overlays for what might be called layered art today.”
More importantly, Cross knew how to listen to clients to discern the essence of the company story, and then craft—and present and sell—a solution that eloquently expressed it.
“Much has changed, including the aesthetics,” he says. “Now it seems that the purpose of many pieces is to entertain, surprise or excite, sometimes at the expense of the audience, who can’t even remember the product or service. We’ve got to keep in mind what will remain constant through the years,” he asserts, “the ability to conceptualize and create work that communicates with clarity, strength and integrity.”
NEW PARADIGMS IN EDUCATION
How do you teach communicating with clarity, strength and integrity in an era when students need to learn how to use ever-more-complex software in order to get a job? Ina Saltz, an influential designer who’s been teaching at the City College of New York for eighteen years, is one of the educators committed to preparing young people for the future. “Students need to be ready to play a role that encompasses many nongraphic aspects: user experience, strategy and psychology, and business and leadership skills. They need to network, to leverage their social media skills to promote themselves and make themselves visible. Their portfolios, bios and resumes need to be on multiple platforms. It’s a tall order,” Saltz says, “and one way to make room for all the new essentials is to shift software training online, allowing time for more individualized classroom critiques.”
“For the first time, we have the tools that give us the luxury of time to think,” says Sean Adams. “As more of the work we do is automated by AI, templates and machine learning, clients will increasingly value our thinking. Anyone can download a nice template, but designers will always be needed to come up with smart, unexpected and at times provocative ideas.”
Futurist Heather McGowan has the most provocative idea ever. “We need to establish design training as foundational literacy for the entire workforce,” she says. “I don’t mean that everyone should be able to create desirable artifacts, but they need to learn the important skills of problem finding and framing, problem-solving through user-centric processes, propositional and iterative thinking through prototype testing, and expression through use of visuals and new media.”
Are we ready?
Nancy Lerner, principal of Otherwise Incorporated, a Chicago firm that serves artistic, civic, educational and social communities, answers, “Yes. Here, we pride ourselves on being versed in many different disciplines. We are all about issues, options, system shifts and possibilities.” Two-thirds of the creatives in Lerner’s office are under the age of 30, and she notes that many young designers see design as a vehicle for purpose and want to participate in broad movements for change. “Our job is to encourage and harness that yearning for meaning.”
That yearning was evident when I visited Parsons The New School in New York City last fall to speak to a class of second-career graphic designers. They were young professionals from all over the world whose undergraduate majors ranged from philosophy and political science to media studies and art history. They’d begun careers in coding, sports coaching, media buying and real estate marketing—and believe that graphic design offers them, and the world, more. The students’ aspirations—“We want to make a difference, and we want to be listened to”—were summed up in this comment by Vanessa Douglas, who’d worked in nonprofit management: “We’re not here for decoration. Let us help you!”
Just like “commercial artists” ultimately became “graphic designers,” the title “graphic designer,” for many, has morphed into “design thinker.”
Design Thinking, with initial caps, has been the subject of articles in publications from Harvard Business Review to The CEO Magazine and Entrepreneur. Marty Neumeier explains: “Design thinking caught fire in the business world because the same approach we designers use to address creative challenges can also be used to address business challenges: strategy formulation, decision making, business modeling, crisis management, even leadership itself. To address a deficiency in traditional business thinking—that business leaders can’t imagine what they don’t know—design thinking inserts a step called ‘making,’ which is what we creative people do for a living. We propose concepts that traditional thinkers can’t imagine. We sketch, prototype, document, test, explain. Our making skills change what clients know and what they do. We’re the key to their innovation.”
Whether design thinking is a buzzword or a true paradigm shift, the ripple effect is so big that august institutions of higher education are following the lead of IDEO, the company that started it all. A virtual course in Design Thinking has been posted online by Stanford University, free for all to access. Cornell Engineering School offers a Design Thinking Certificate “to help working professionals stand apart” via “the high-quality learning experience of an Ivy League institution.” Courses include Gathering User Emotions, Generating User-Centered Solutions, Design Prototyping, and Testing and Iteration. A similar program is offered by the EMERITUS Institute of Management in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management, Columbia Business School and Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.
This is serious business. And it goes way beyond posters and things printed on paper. Alas, many of those elegant annual reports don’t exist anymore; most public companies post their financial results online. But every manufacturing company wants to be the next OXO.
A NEW WILD WEST? OR OF REAL CONSEQUENCE TO THE WORLD?
“Today, we FInd ourselves back in the Wild West of design that we felt at the advent of the internet,” says Tony Cordero. “We need to keep sharpening our abilities and stay open to leveraging new tools, trends and solutions. We don’t know what the future will bring, but at our agency, we’re preparing by surrounding ourselves with critical thinkers who can solve problems in different creative ways and by forming partnerships that expand our skill sets into areas like virtual or augmented 3-D spaces.”
Phil Balagtas, founder of Speculative Futures, an international community of meetups, offers this optimistic set of possibilities: “We will need to play a distinctive role on a global scale. Governments and corporations will find value in a new kind of thinking through design. To be truly relevant, we will need to be part of preemptive planning for large-scale problems like climate change, natural disasters, rising populations, terrorism, disease and food production. We will retain our identity as experience designers, but we’ll need to anchor ourselves deeper into the operations of businesses so that institutions will employ our research, strategy and critical thinking skills.”
“If we learn how to truly examine and appraise what we do in a way that emphasizes relevance to the rest of the world, society will understand what design is and value its contributions in the same way art, music and architecture are valued,” says Khoi Vinh, principal designer at Adobe. “Then we’ll finally be able to explain what we do to our parents. Halleluyah!” On a more serious note, Vinh adds: “In truth, the future is already here. At our MAX conference last October, we previewed Project Aero, which lets designers create augmented-reality experiences from the work they do in Photoshop and Illustrator. And Adobe XD, our new UX/UI design tool, debuted the ability to prototype voice interactions alongside traditional tools for apps and websites—a huge game changer that instantly turns us into voice designers as well as visual designers. Right now, we’re actively helping our users translate the timeless principles of good design directly into new immersive technologies.”
“Thirty years ago, I assumed we’d all be wearing silver jumpsuits in 2019,” says Sean Adams. “I’m not good at predicting the future,” he admits, “but looking back, I’m endlessly surprised that what we do at its core is the same today as it was 60 years ago: we work with clients to determine an issue, address a specific audience, design a solution and execute it across multiple media. One of the most powerful, enduring symbols of the 1950s, William Golden’s CBS eye—which signified the company’s shift from radio to television—was applied to print and TV ads and promotional items. The breadth of media is different than the 1951 options, but we still use words, forms, colors and imagery to communicate ideas. Therefore, I suggest that we all wear silver jumpsuits as a sign of unity.”
Has anyone suggested that a sense of humor is also necessary for the profession’s long-term relevance? That wouldn’t be a bad idea. When Paul Rand consulted with the chief executive officers of Westinghouse and IBM, he surely employed humor as part of the arts of presentation and persuasion.
What will the pages of the CA Design Annual look like 2079? Even the wisest can only speculate. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, “Nobody can predict the changes we will witness in the future. Any particular scenario is likely to be far from the truth. Change itself is the only certainty.” ca