The future of design is not design. The future of design is embracing change.
To take it further: I see design's real opportunity in this coming decade is to step up and acknowledge that design has always been an agent of change. It just took this long for interactive, as a communication medium, to mature enough to make that change visible to the eye.
There. I said it. And while we're at it...
Down with the tyranny of the professional designer! Down with their superiority complex in the face of a world full of 1 billion dreadfully designed web pages! Down with their PMS swatch books, organized by hue on their desks! Down with their eloquent pronounciation of obscure typeface names from minute foundries run by hotshot typographers in their late twenties who insist on spending at least a year on each Bodoni revival to ensure its legibility at 4 points!
I could go on, but I think you get the point. (And the sarcasm. I'm still working on my Bodoni revival as well...)
Design is a professional practice and a business discipline. It requires an enormous breadth of knowledge in aesthetics and an gigantic amount of thought to fulfill well. It requires an awareness of psychology and visual poetry. It thrives off foresight and insight as well as the willpower necessary to weather the stormy seas that come with large, challenging projects. That's all apparent to us, there on the front lines.
We've developed a fairly exclusive lingo and professional language to talk about design. However, the tools that we use are becoming increasingly democratic. We can't rest on our Photoshop and our Illustrator skillz anymore. Our discipline needs to evolve out of our tools and into the effect of our thinking.
In twenty years, I expect that most people will have on their desktop computer the kind of affordable access to the tools necessary to render, print, publish, upload, or animate the necessary materials to do good design work without a professional designer at arm's reach. Eventually, the so-called ivory tower where design theory is housed will be rocked by its inability to function in a business context. And hasn't this always been the struggle?
I've worked at too many agencies where students straight out of school come into meetings with extraordinary ideas and compelling thinking that have no relationship whatsoever to the business problems at hand. I was one of those kids at one point (though I got an English degree with a focus in design and art history, not a design BFA), and I have fond memories of being doe-eyed in the midst of a crew of hunters busy polishing their guns before they set off to find some conceptual game to take down, slaughter, and present -- freshly cooked in layout stew -- to their hungry clients.
Design school today, in my mind's eye, is a tall building manufactured in the Bauhaus period, with perfectly placed windows that conform to a densely spaced grid, creating a pleasing sense of order. Within said building, each room is bursting with all sorts of ideas, pictures, words, images, and theories just yearning to shake the world to its bones. Some of my happiest days I was knee deep in collage clippings, huffing rubber cement, designing typefaces made of fruit I photocopied and hand-colored lovingly on posterboard.
Then reality happens. We intern and apprentice and learn the ropes and that idealism gets smacked out of us by reality. Business meetings happen. Clients ask us what we do. We have to codify what we do, put ourselves in a box, show the power of design in the work but be professional in the interim. We stumble over how to sell ourselves without sounding too visionary:
We solve business problems. We're passionate. We create implementations of ideas. We create influence, belief, understanding, results. We have a proprietary process. We ensures your success. We inspire decisions. We change behavior. Anyone can come up with an idea -- we just come up with better ideas. We create compelling brands. Brand experiences. Brand propositions. Meaningful brands. Increase brand value. We create meaningful experiences. Design can be a powerful force of change.
Does any of this sound familiar? I just went and looked at some agency websites and typed in phrases that I saw on their "About Us" pages. We're specialists in differentiation, right? Then why do our descriptions of what we do say the same thing, over and over and over again?
It seems like we always latch onto the most recent buzzwords and trends (experiential branding! Web 2.0!) instead of looking inward, at what design really excels at in a business context. It's not creating influence or belief or understanding. It's creating change. It always boils down to change. None of this wussy "design can be a powerful force of change" that I saw on a leading design firm's Web site. Design is the force of change. We can own it, today. Interactive has the ability to spread ideas like a gasoline leak that's caught fire. With social media in play, it only takes hours, if not minutes, to get a meme rolling. We can watch the bloom of it, organically -- observe the change happening in real time. The old guard still doesn't quite understand this, but when they do, we're so in business. Whole battles of opinion will play out like watching the Wimbledon tournament compressed into two minutes flat.
I have fond memories of the early to mid-90s, when it became standard business practice for businesses to realize that they absolutely needed a Web site. Your design firm would declare a competency in Web design and people would beat down your door to give you their business. I worked at agencies where we had no portfolio in Web site design and clients would be practically throwing projects at us. On the fly, we'd be creating code and learning Flash and generally falling all over the place, trying to learn what the heck we were doing. We were all tyros. There wasn't much need to differentiate ourselves. We were all in it together.
Accelerate. Five years later, everyone knows the technology. Now the best thinking wins the work. You fall out of the game or you try harder.
Another few years pass, along with a number of influential publications on the 360-degree brand. Experiential branding becomes the rage (agencies love it because it makes it easier to sell more services bundled within one company). Then social media/Web 2.0 strikes the market like a meteor. Oh wait, now we don't just sell ideas... we need to prove that we know how to speak to people online, in the car, on billboards, in the bathroom, in direct mail. The traditional communications disciplines of sales, marketing, public relations, etc. are converging on themselves like a reversal of the big bang.
This trend is not going to stop, as interactive has become the big bad beast that's overwhelmed all other disciplines. It will become the hub of the wheel, and all other disciplines will become the spokes radiating from it.
This puts us in a new space with our clients. In the past, clients came to us understanding what they wanted to change, and we would use design to try to make that happen. As we continue to mature design as a discipline, bolstering it with our learnings in research, anthropology, economics, psychology, sociology, and so on, companies will retain us to promote change separate of projects.
We will manage the brand experience, come up with tactical ideas and strategies to ensure their sales numbers were met, but first and foremost, we will be agents of change. Awareness, understanding, belief, action, reaction, sales, all rolled into one. We will not answer RFPs for tactical campaign work. We will be hired across all disciplines (not just advertising and traditional marketing) to effect change enterprise-wide across organizations. We will speak up regarding business process, customer service, inter-office dynamics -- you name it, it influences the brand, so it falls within our domain. Tactical marketing will always be in our arsenal but we'll be digging way deeper into our toolbox than sending out postcards.
I don't imagine this like the current retainer relationships major agencies have as agency of record. We would be tasked to serve the customer first and the company second -- since, if you think about it, the customer owns the company anyways.
We will differentiate ourselves from the dilettantes and homebodies because we will be bringing value to our client relationships as mavens of change. We will differentiate our agencies by creating our own methods of fostering change. There isn't just one way to do it right. The market will always prove that out.
We will have evolved our discipline enough to be trusted to take initiative when necessary. Ideally, we will function within companies as in-house groups and orbiting consultancies that provide the drive necessary to keep business growth happening (looking good to shareholders) and creating meaningful relationships with customers (fostering the love of customers).
Are designers really equipped to take on this challenge? No way. We will likely have to huddle together and gain the resources to pay it off in the long term. This is consistent with every other growth spurt in the design community -- we seem to hoover up whatever we need from any other discipline when it suits our needs. But the large agencies will get there quickly and stand on the vanguard until we all catch up. Our agency staff won't be designers and production artists and developers and account people. Start seeing a huge diversity of people that you'd never think would pass through the halls of a creative agency.
In ten years, we won't discover we're out of work because of 50DollarLogos.com. We'll be busy as hell. It's just that we won't be creating logos and websites and videos. We'll be creating change. We will be hired to be agents of change. The logos just happen as a result of that.
And I can't wait for that day to arrive.