Whatever happened to Graphic Design?

September 30, 2010 | Author:

Not long ago, a colleague asked me “Who stole my profession?” He was bemoaning what had happened to the career we had chosen, one to which we have both devoted our entire lives. Graphic Design has changed as much, or more than just about any other role in business. In fact, it’s hard to know how to advise young graduates who come to us with their freshly downloaded degree in Graphic Design since the job is about so much more than it used to be. Almost ten years ago, I wrote about the changes I saw happening in an article titled: “The Strategic Designer Becomes a Key Part in Management Decision Making” – Boston Business Journal, May 24, 2002. The pace of change has only accelerated since then.

To understand the role of the designer today, it’s important to understand where we’ve come from.

The 60s
Our profession has had an identity crisis for years. In the 60’s, it was called Commercial Art and its practitioners were Commercial Artists. It was an accurate description of the role, but to some, it seemed an oxymoron. “True artists” believed that art and commerce could not coexist and, in fact, Commercial Artists were nothing more than uninspired artists who had sold their creative souls to the corporate devil. By the time the 70s rolled around, Commercial Art had been replaced by a less offensive term, Graphic Design.

The 70s.
Nobody really knew what the term meant.  “Graphic Design? You mean you design graphics? What kind of graphics?”  But at least it was no longer called commercial art. As the 80’s progressed, companies developed an understanding of what graphic design was — the artful combination of words and images to communicate messages, primarily intended for reproduction by offset printing. Designers worked with many skilled tradesmen to accomplish their work, including typesetters, photographers, illustrators, photo retouchers, proofreaders, paste-up artists, printers and finishers.

The 80s
With the advent of the personal computer, the world changed. With each successive software upgrade, tasks which once had required talented and practiced artisans were being performed on the computer by the designer. Entire trades disappeared, one after another — typesetters. photo retouchers. paste-up artists, pre-press persons (strippers). While the graphic designer took on more and more responsibilities, the term was at the same time being devalued. In an article written by Sandra Cirincione in “For Women First” magazine called “Best Jobs for the Nineties-No College Degree Required”, she recommended a career in Graphic Design because “it’s highly creative”. For training,  readers could “Investigate night courses offered at local universities and technical schools.” She even added, Training is available at many computer stores.” OUCH!!! As perceptions of Graphic Designers lowered, highly capable firms looked to separate themselves from the term. Needing to better communicate the breadth and value of the services they offered, they chose instead to call themselves a Marketing Communications Firm or a Communications Design Firm.

The 90s
The changes brought about by the computer were nothing compared to the impact caused by the emergence of the World Wide Web (or the “information superhighway”, as Al Gore liked to call it). Designers had taken on more and more roles over the years and when it was determined that every company MUST have a Website, business again turned to designers. The perception of designers within the executive office was beginning to change. No longer were they seen merely as window dressing. Business leaders were starting to see that designers had skills they could use to benefit the bottom line. To call yourself a graphic designer would invite the question… “Oh, you design Websites?”

The decade gave birth to a second sea-change for business, almost as powerful as the advent of the Web — Branding. Branding was nothing new, but the practice had been more common in consumer marketing and larger B2B companies. The Web had leveled the playing field and now even small and mid-size companies were beginning to understand the importance of clear and consistent communication. Libraries filled with books about branding. Evangelists spoke to everyone who would listen about the value of a brand. Everyone and his brother was suddenly offering Branding as a service, and each developed their own convenient definition of the term. To corporate identity firms, branding was all about the logo. Printers would claim that branding meant consistent, high quality literature. To a writer, branding was an elevator pitch and a tagline. And Web firms seemed to believe that branding began at the home page and ended at the contact page.  So much was changing — the demands of the new technology the expectations of the business world. As the ultimate generalist, designers were again the ones best postioned to take on the expanded role. No longer just Graphic Design, now it’s Strategic Design.

The 2000s
Advances in technology continued to change the communications industry, and continued to steamroll over the talented people who had served it. Photographers and illustrators sold their collections to stock photo agencies and nearly insured the demise of their trade. Printing presses came to a halt as companies had less and less need for large inventories of literature. The dot com meltdown and the resulting recession forced companies to find new and less expensive ways to communicate with their customers. Email marketing emerged an inexpensive alternative to expensive and time consuming direct mail. Search Engine Optimization became the rage and corporations brought more and more of their marcom needs in-house. Working with no marketing budgets, marketing specialists were asked to produce corporate literature and print them on their ink jet printers as concerns about quality and effectiveness became a thing of the past. The 2009 economic meltdown corresponded with a rapidly evolving Social Media to add to the culture of FREE. And again, smart designers evolved to become trusted advisors on how best to navigate this new world.

Graphic Designers who have weathered the rollercoaster of change in the past 30 years are the ones who understood their fundamental value to business — their ability to apply creative problem solving skills to a wide range of business problems. In fact, the creative process used to develop strategic solutions for business today is the same process that has been used by designers for years to solve a wide range of communications challenges. Now the process has a name — Design Thinking. (defined in Wikipedia as a process for practical, creative resolution of problems or issues that looks for an improved future result.) The term, coined by David Kelley of IDEO, is now part of business lexicon. The impact that Design Thinking can have on business is exactly what I wrote about in that 2002 Boston Business Journal article.

To my colleague who wondered what happened to Graphic Design, it’s not gone. It just goes by a new name — Design Thinking.