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.

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