Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Has Design just been through a 'Lost Decade'?

If you have been following media coverage of the current recession you probably have heard the term 'the Lost Decade'. This refers to the notion that the current recession has erased any gains in employment and economic growth that the past decade had created. And, as a bonus, the past ten years marks the first time when investment income (using standard averages) has actually contracted over a ten year period. The reasons for all of this are beyond the subject of this blog, but in summary, the dollar just ain't what it used to be. For anyone in a creative profession, we have certainly seen rising unemployment, Client focus on cost instead of quality, and the globalization of many industries. Has Design been through a "Lost Decade" and if so, how can we rebuild and re-brand?

Our economy constantly cycles through a series of 'boom' and 'bust' periods. Those of you may remember the 'dot com' boom of the 90's where companies were setting up shop overnight with furniture made of plastic and bright colors on every wall. Industrial buildings that had been occupied by printing companies where converting into 'loft office suites' practically overnight. While all this seemed good for the economy, that printing shop was probably forced out of business and the work went elsewhere. I recently looked at a bunch of books at my local Barnes and Noble to discovered that they were all printed in China. Madison Avenue may still be where advertising dollars are spent, but the work of those graphic artists often gets produced in other places for less money.

I experienced a similar phenomenon when I owned a Design firm that did a lot of Hospitality Design work. We would spend weeks designing a set of guestroom furniture only to have to wait months for prototypes of the designs to come back from the Chinese factory. I remember our pieces also being held up in Customs once for almost two weeks alone. Now don't get me wrong. I'm not dissing on China here. There are many good quality products that are made by hard working people there. The trend that I'm interested in is whether or not we have made progress as Designers due to the economic trends that have affected our business. Globalization is obviously one such trend.

Another trend that we have to consider is the value of our dollar. Our clients love to spend fewer and fewer of these things, even though they are worth less and less each year. When my Graphic Designer told me that our new stationary and business cards would cost over $7,000 to produce, I will admit that I flinched a little. But then I remembered that a business card may be the only piece of my company that a prospective client ever gets to touch. I knew I had made the right decision the day I took a bunch of letters down to the Post Office and the clerk said that I had the coolest envelopes that she had ever seen. (for more on our stationary design see Ty Mattson's blog at http://mattsoncreative.com/blog/category/brand-identity/ ) That being said, I don't think Client's think about Design in this way. Most companies market themselves as though Design were a service that needs to be rendered, not a mark of success like Fashion. In Fashion, there is a huge difference between Old Navy and Gucci. Unfortunately, most people do not see design this way. They will go for the Old Navy prices all day long. As Designers, we need to give our clients a good value for the money that they spend and also help them create return on that investment. Then perhaps our Clients will see Design as a vehicle that can generate business for them.

Lastly, I would like to briefly talk about the Internet. Ten years ago, the Internet was slower, uglier, and used primarily for e-mail. Today, the Internet is unavoidable. I wish I could say that it has made it easier to get work. It hasn't. Instead, we are now overwhelmed by information. A Google search for 'graphic designer nyc' will yield about 25.5 Million results. Seriously. In the old days, there was a book or a professional society you could turn to find a qualified professional. Today, anyone with the ability to point and click can set up a website with images that may or may not reflect their work. People have businesses selling stock images just to help other businesses make their collateral look legitimate. If you don't the time or money to hire a real photographer, you can buy a stock image for $1. Is this helping photographers? Maybe. But just like everything else, it's one step forward, two steps back.

So, given the current realities, how can we move design forward? I have come up with three easy steps, and if all Designers adopt them, I guarantee the respective professions will be better off. Here they are, in no particular order:

1- Volunteer your services to create great Design opportunities. Whether you are in Interior Designer or a Graphics wizard, there are many people and/or organizations that could use the help of a qualified professional. They don't always have the budget so this is your opportunity to get a foot in the door by volunteering your services. Charities are also a great place to help. And here's the best part: you get to pick the Client. Not only will you be excited by choosing something or someone that you like, but you will also feel good about the work. And while it may not pay money, it will create a great piece for your portfolio and potentially lead to other paying gigs.

2- Don't compromise quality - If you have a Client that wants to work with you (for one reason or another) don't jeopardize that relationship by allowing them to demand cheap work. The only thing worse than giving in to a Client's cheapness is getting blamed for how crappy something looks after they see the result. If you're going to be associated with it, make sure you want to be associated with it. Even if it means sticking to your guns in a tough spot. Remember that one compromise leads to another and eventually you're shopping at Walmart.

3- Help your peers - One of the problems I have with Architects is that (professionally) they all see each other as competitors. They compete for work, they compete to get the best consultants, and they compete for fees. What they don't realize is that they're killing the profession. I took another approach. I decided to befriend a bunch of really good architects and I sometime throw work their way. I do this because it helps me out. Not every client is a great fit. Not every project is one that I am interested in. If I can't make the Client happy (because I don't like them or their project) then I'm not going to be doing anyone any good. In turn, I create a relationship with a colleague that can have other benefits. Maybe they will refer work to me. Maybe they will let me plot at their office when my plotter dies at 5:00 on a Friday. Either way, we're all in this together. It is better to be a small office that does great work, than a big office that just churns out the same crap all the time.

Has the last decade been lost? In many ways, it has. Salaries and positions have been shed. The Internet has given everyone a voice and they're all screaming at the same time. Fortunately, we now have the tools and the experience to avoid a collapse similar to the one we just experienced. Working together, we can lead our profession into a new Renaissance and spur unexpected growth for all creatives. Dare to dream.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Power of the Plan - some tips on getting things done..

Today I realized that it's been over a month since my last post. I guess I could blame it on having a newborn in the house or working day and night to finish our latest project. But simply put, my problem is organization. While I have the best of intentions to accomplish everything I set out to do, I often fall short and realize that I need to re-think how the parts of my life are organized. In short, I need a better plan. Now don't get the wrong idea. I am not saying that I am disorganized or inefficient. I own a 2 person company that needs to do the work of 12. In today's economy, you cannot get ahead by replicating the status quo. You have to find a way to be better. Hence, the PLAN.

Today I want to talk about THE PLAN, not just as a component of a set of architectural documents, but as a metaphor for universal organization. You may be familiar with LeCorbusier's quote, 'The Plan is the Generator'. When I first heard this quote in college, I didn't really get it. Almost two decades later, these five little words impact almost everything I do. Today, I hope to describe how you can be more effective by analyzing the steps in making a great plan. As you will see, these steps hold true for both the architectural document and the notion about getting things done.

Step 1 - What do you want?

When I first think about designing anything, I ask myself what I am trying to accomplish. I say, "Self - what's the big idea here?" After I do this, I then make a written list of all of my goals in as much detail as possible. For example, if I were designing a house, I might develop a program that lists all of the spaces that I want to be in the house and I might assign them a value. It might say something like "Master Bedroom - 200 SF, Master Bathroom - 80 SF, Laundry Room - 40 SF" and so on. If I were thinking of developing a print ad for Pocono Modern, I would make a list of all the sentiments and feelings that I want the ad to get across. I might even write a list of words or adjectives that would help me brainstorm later on. Make no mistake, this step is crucial to carrying out a plan. You have to know what you are trying to do before you can figure out how to do it. And while this sounds very simple, you would be surprised how many times I have seen colleagues staring at a blank screen or a blank piece of paper claiming that they don't know where to start.

Step 2 - Know your limits

In my experience, the two big limits in this country are time and money. It seems that every task somehow involves at least one of these two things. Your partner may want you install a new closet system in your guest bedroom (which seems simple enough), but he or she may want it done by next weekend when their parents are coming to stay. Often things that seem simple are complicated by the availability of these resources. There are of course other limitations, but for the purpose of this piece, we will just call these limitations the 'X Factor'. Fill in the blank for whatever your 'X' is. Once you know what you want to do, you have to consider what the potential limits or road blocks are so that you can factor them into your plan. I have seen many graphic designers come up with incredible ideas for things like invitations and stationary only to find out that the designer was thinking Letterpress and the Client was thinking Kinko's. In short, know your limits before wasting your time on a plan.

Step 3- Small steps.

When you are starting any new endeavor, it's very easy to get overwhelmed. When I start to put together a plan, I go back to the small parts of my program and work on each piece by piece. For example, I never just sit down and draw a floor plan of a house and say, "This is how it should be." What I do is start by designing each room how I would want it to be and then make smaller tweaks later on when the spaces get connected. In short, I break down the larger tasks into smaller ones so that there is an underlying rationale to the bigger plan. More often than not, examining the smaller details forces you to think about things that you would have not considered if you were focusing only on the big picture. I once worked with an Interior Designer who wanted pocket doors everywhere. I still remember the puzzled look on his face when I told him that all the walls would need to be twice as thick to do this. When he didn't understand why, I asked him where the wiring for all the switches would go. He said, "In the walls!". I then asked him where the pocket doors would go. He said "In the walls!". To make a long story short, the Client didn't want to spend more money and lose double the space. I think the Designer ended up in the walls of that project, but it just illustrates how you should work small and consider the details.

Step 4 - Connect the dots

Once you have put in the time of figuring out all the details, now it's time to piece your plan together. Of course, no plan ever comes together perfectly, but I find it's much easier to tweak some smaller items than sit there trying to solve everything at once. If you've heard the saying 'the whole is worth more than the sum of the parts', then it should be said that a good plan is based on the sum of the research. Once you go to implement your plan, you will certainly appreciate having done the bulk of the work beforehand.

Whether you are designing a house or figuring out how to buy a new car, a good plan is essential. If you are starting out in the world of Design, I hope that you will consider this post when trying to make a strong impression at a new job or on a new project. There will always be plenty of people to sit around a table and criticize an idea or an approach, but a man (or woman) with a plan is a valuable asset to any team. As for me, I will try to plan more blog writing time into my future days.