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Thoughts on the Design Industry

I've been focused on a theme lately regarding design and the state of the design world/business/community. It amazes me how different it has become since I began practicing it in the 1980s, but how in some ways it has remained the same. I thought I'd capture these thoughts here, for myself and for others in the design field.

MiquelriusMy thinking has been spurred and impacted through reading Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat, listening to The Prepared Mind podcasts with Chris Gee, reading various design-oriented blogs, and reflections on my own career as a designer.


One of the surprising books of the year for me has been The World is Flat, which I picked up as an audiobook from a free Audible card (scored at the Palmsource DevCon). I'm interested in globalization and how it might effect me, the world around me and especially my son, but wasn't prepared for its focus on design.

One of the examples midway through the book shared the challenges of an older designer who had to continuously re-invent himself to keep from becoming a “just another designer.” The entire book takes a broad view of how global the economy is becoming. It also challenges Americans to be ready to compete on a global basis. I feel fortunate to work within a global company with colleagues around the world — it's exposed me to a global way of thinking about design which I'd probably never have experienced in a local design firm.

I have this sense that graphic designers don't fully grasp just how global and commotodized design has become — there is a reason LogoWorks exists and does well! They're taking advantage of the global market for talent and the internet to make their business work. No longer do I have to compete with only other Milwaukee or US designers — competition now comes from Asia, Eastern Europe. It's coming from anyplace where design talent can reach the net.

1001.jpgWhat does this mean? I must strive to continually improve my work and process. I must seek to establish my design skills as being different. What I offer must be special compared to what other designers are offering or I just become one of the design masses.

What is my difference? I love to sketch concepts with a real pencil on real paper and share those sketches with customers. I enjoy working collaboratively with customers, and involve them in the process. I'm not afraid to defend my ideas or honestly tell a customer “that idea stinks” when I think it does. I strive to treat customers as friends and colleagues rather than “just another client”. I love blogging about the process any my thoughts on design.

If you're a designer, what are your stand out qualities that separate you from the rest?

The Designer Glut

While working today I listened to the latest Prepared Mind podcast, with Chris Gee and Von Glitschka, as they covered a range of design topics. Most interesting to me was the discussion of a glut of designers in the market right now, with so many schools churning out graduates year after year.

Worse yet, many of the students graduating from a college or university are poorly skilled and often completely unprepared for the profession they wish to join. When I graduated back in 1989 from technical school, I was one of the fortunate ones. I worked hard to land a part-time position as a student designer for the college I attended, while completing school. It was hard work to do this, but because of this position, I was able to do real projects, work with real clients and real budgets. By the time I graduated, my portfolio was well stocked and I had some practical preparation for working in a fast-paced design studio.

I've often looked back and wondered how the lives of students who didn't have this opportunity would have changed, had the curriculum included some kind of “real-world” lab where the studio environment was replicated. I hope something like this exists at my alma mater, and at larger design schools — but even so, trying to “recreate” a studio setting is still a simulation. It just cannot compare to the real deal.

How I as a practicing designer work to prepare students entering the field? I'm seriously considering visiting my old tech school and giving a guest lecture, just to tell students what they need to be ready for.

Career Reflection

What I value most from my years at Milwaukee Area Technical College were the challenges to think and develop creative solutions as a key to a project's success. When I came through the commercial art program, a majority of the teachers had real-world experience and a passion for design. I always enjoyed being challenged in lectures and critiques of our work. Our teachers were tough, but looking back, that's what improved me the most.

Because the school was a tech college, there were a fair share of students who came because they “could draw” or “didn't know what else to do” but there were also a group of students who really cranked hard to put out their best work. It wasn't hard to spot who the passionate designers were, and these were the ones who I know have become successful designers.

I feel fortunate to have come through when drawing was still at the core of the design work. I think because of this, I learned to express myself through sketching, one of the most freeing and flowing ways to work. One of my concerns about schooling now is a heavier emphasis on computer skills for designers. Of course these are important, but I know how tempting it is to get lost in the power of the machine, before really hammering out a great concept.

I hope that sketching and concepting are still emphasized at my school and other design schools. In my mind, design is all wrapped up in this initial concept phase — get it right and the project flows — skip it and risk a patched-together solution with no solid, cohesive reason for being. Skip the concept phase and you get a corpse with flashy makeup.

The Upshot

In a nutshell, the design world is changing. It has been changing immensely in just the past 5 to 10 years, and I often wonder if practicing designers really grasp the shift happening around them. It is so easy to focus on your latest cool whiz-bang design, the cool black or gray designer's outfit you're sporting, or the trendy office space you may work in.

The real question is, how do designers become leaders? How do we share our talents for making sense and beauty out of fuzzy, complex and difficult situations? How do we make our services key to the projects we're working on — not the window dressing, but the core?

These challenge me and excite me. If you're a designer, what do you think about these questions? Are you scared about the future or optimistic? Non-designers, what do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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Reader Comments (8)

I wouldn't say that I have a very optimistic view of the future. I think it's time for American designers to give up and start delivering pizza's.

At least design is still fun...
October 16, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterCollin Yeadon
Collin, I'm not so pessimisitic I guess -- yes designers have let their field become a bit commodotized over the past few years and need to get better about knowing business, but I think in this challenge there is some opportunity.

I think also that the challenge is going to be tough -- it won;t be easy to become leaders which business people look up to until we can relate to business people in a business approach. It means a shift for designers, but in the long run, also means we grow as a profession from just being "the graphics guys and gals" to real leaders.
October 16, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMike Rohde
Mike - I really like your sketches and design drawings- I could envision you publishing a book on Logo design or How to do book for young design students. Your blog communicates your enthusiasm for your profession and seems to reflect your designer lifestyle.I especially like your cafe' sketches which have reminded me how important it is draw. -Robert
October 17, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterRobert
Robert, thanks for the kind words!

I hadn't considered a book, but that would be kind of interesting... Logo Design Process, with a bunch of sketches and final artwork. Hmmm... :-)
October 18, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMike Rohde
Its all about challenges and changes, as the world evolves with new technology, so does the designing world.
October 19, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterDr Matrix
Dr Matrix, you are right on!
October 19, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMike Rohde
Personally, I welcome the commoditization of design as it will define a true line between professional and amateur designer.
October 21, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Schutzsmith
I believe that commoditization certainly helps designers who are distinctive, and makes it harder for run of the mill designers. But this was exactly the point Thomas Friedman had in The World is Flat: that unless you are proactively making your work and services distinctive, you will fade into the mass.
October 22, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMike Rohde

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