Passions were ignited with the release of Squarespace Logo, a tool that enables small businesses to easily design a logo with a simple drag-and-drop interface. This was echoed when Tailor Brands built a competing tool for making free logos and Canva built their own logo generator. Many were similarly concerned upon the announcement of The Grid, a tool that is purported to automate web layouts and designs.
Some designers propose that these tools devalue the skills they have spent their professional careers developing and worry that clients will no longer value visual design when significant portions of it become automated. While discussing the phenomenon of free logo design, Sacha Greif of Sidebar.io and Discover Meteor raises one potential argument about where this mindset could originate:
I think a lot of the objections to that tool can be summed up as: "we think our clients are too dumb to distinguish between a free 5-minute[s] logo builder and professional design services…Which means that either A) you're wrong, and you need to stop thinking that just because someone isn't a designer automatically means they have the IQ of a potato or B) you're right, and you need better clients.
Greif gets at part of the issue. It is to be expected that designers have to educate their clients, in the same way that doctors educate their patients. Clients hiring designers ostensibly do not have expert design IQ—otherwise why hire a designer in the first place? Any particular client could have a range of experience in design whether in design theory or in their understanding of good technical execution, but ultimately they hire a designer to bolster their capabilities.
Either way, most clients understand that a well-designed brand and product are of immense value, but do not necessarily understand the value of the design process itself. Clients can be expected to be experts in their own field, but cannot be expected to be so in the area of design. It is therefore important we discuss this gap in expertise on the part of the client, because a compromised design does no good for a client or their customers. It is in everyone's interest that designers maintain the integrity of their work.
The never ending stream of snarky comments on the new tool that helps anyone create simple 'logos' made my heart sink. What is it with the design community so quickly lashing out at other creators?
The truth is that in the long term, for many if not most designers, Squarespace Logo, The Grid and similar tools that automate design are a threat. They are certainly not immediate threat, but still a sign of things to come.
Even the most acclaimed designers can face pushback from clients about their judgement. Consider that the esteemed Paul Rand was expected by Steve Jobs to provide him with multiple options for the NeXT logo. Rand was forced to convince Jobs that one option would suffice. In other words, he had to convince Jobs of the integrity of his process and judgement. The apocryphal story of Paula Scher and the Citi logo is similarly illuminating. Scher had to persuade Citi to use a logo that she had drawn on a napkin in mere seconds. Her logo has since proven itself to be an iconic mark.
It can take years, decades or even a lifetime before even the best designers stop receiving improper challenges to their process. This will continue to be the case as long as design is a balancing act of subjectivity and objectivity. What made Rand and Scher better able to argue the value of their process and output was not only their high status, but also crucially that they had a repertoire of valid responses to client feedback in their back pockets. This confidence in their work and, more importantly, in their process rightly inspired the trust of Apple and Citi, their respective clients.
It appears that many of those complaining about cheap and automated solutions do not have the vocabulary to assert their design expertise in the context of client relations. When clients say 'my nephew could do that job in 20 minutes' these designers may not be equipped with a good response to that assertion.
Getting such pushback from clients is not just a struggle for designers lacking in expertise. Ever since the artificial constraint of flat OS platforms like iOS 7, established designers like Ged Maheux, the cofounder of the Iconfactory, have been experiencing significant flack: "Clients will push back and say 'why is this costing so much if it took so little time?'" Maheux has a response:
You're distilling down the design, you're getting to the essence of the icon, which is a good thing. It's a really good thing. There's nothing to hide behind. You can't hide behind textures and effects and cool perspective. You have to communicate, and that means that you have to think about what you design before you do it, and that takes time. The final render can be a 20 minute job. It's now more of an exercise in branding than it has been before.
I disagree that what icon designers were doing in the past was "hiding" or not communicating. And the prior work of the Iconfactory was just as much, if not more, an exercise in branding than it is post-flat design. But of course these are the words of Maheux, someone seasoned in client services, with over 20 years of experience making icons for projects up to and including the icon sets that make up operating systems. He is someone who is now, more than ever, told his services are overpriced for their value.
Maheux, like his predecessors Rand and Scher, is prepared with a response to tough clients who challenge his process. Unfortunately due to the flat design movement, the icon design industry has experienced a palpable sense of loss in the past few years. It heavily contrasts with what Maheux's colleague at the Iconfactory, Corey Marion, had to say about prospects for the icon design industry in 2001: "A lot of jobs creating fewer icons that take more time." Back then, it must have been inconceivable that in a decade's time clients would be so forcefully urging icon designers to slash prices.
While Iconfactory had previously been responsible for crafting system icons for both Windows XP and Windows Vista, now icon design is such a low priority for Microsoft, and the industry at large, that they decided to produce their Windows 10 icon designs internally. The icons have since been leaked, and describing them as an affront to icon design could only be considered generous. Thus the apologists now hear their cue:
Microsoft isn’t thinking about icons or aesthetics right now. The company is focused on putting in all the top features insiders are requesting, it’s focusing on Universal Apps that could potentially be a game changer if implemented correctly. The beautifying comes later.
After receiving many inquiries into whether the Iconfactory was responsible for the hideous Windows 10 beta icons, Maheux wrote a press release to clear the air. Not wanting to have the Iconfactory's name further tarnished by association, he answered the question of whether the Iconfactory had designed the icons. His answer was: "Nope."
It should be unsurprising that clients both large and small react with hostility towards visual designers after the emergence of flat design. Anyone with their eyes open will recognize that material costs for producing design continue to shrink towards almost zero once a designer has a computer, a subscription to a visual design program and a few drawing implements. Additionally, the cost of labor for producing designs remains relatively low compared to development. Clients are not stupid: they understand that a significant value-add that allows visual designers to charge a premium is that they offer visually sophisticated products.
These sophisticated designs, by their very nature, require significant expertise in aesthetic technique. Since the beginnings of graphic design, expressive designs have been highly desired by clients who wish to display a quality visual brand as an indicator of their company's health and status. The artificial constraints that OS makers have imposed through flat design have utterly demolished this synergy between designers and clients and have instead produced an antagonism. As Maheux points out, with flat design, clients are often absolutely right when they estimate that the design will be "a 20 minute job." The problem for designers is that most of these 20 minute jobs hardly require an expert to produce.
Some designers believe they are immune to the impact of flat design. They argue that because they focus on what they believe to be more structural design elements like typography and grids, they are protected. However, even though grids themselves are often only implicit, they absolutely do fall under the purview of visual design, as does typography. When overt graphical elements suffer, many potential clients are not sufficiently informed to value subtler design elements like typography and grids. Accordingly, when budgets tighten for visual design as a whole, it tends to affect most design practitioners, as many visual designers are generalists, particularly when it comes to UI design.
During the early 1990s, there was a sense of alarmism in the field of print design as digital publishing tools and home computers were becoming increasingly widespread. Print designers had to move to a new medium and increase their technical rendering abilities to keep up with the capabilities of the computer. The bar was raised significantly for what qualified as a competitive skill set in producing visual designs.
Today designers are not required to improve their aesthetic capabilities to keep up, but instead to renounce them entirely and instead focus exclusively on implementation. It should come as a surprise to no one that clients will not pay for what is simply not there.
Khoi Vinh recently wrote an instructive article entitled "Is Design Bound to Get Cheaper?" in which he expresses concern that the design industry will increasingly suffer from outsourcing and globalization. Vinh notes the rock-bottom prices that design assets are offered for on sites like Envato and Creative Market and alludes to the threat of cheap foreign labor available on marketplaces like 99designs. Vinh predicts diminished prospects for professional designers when implementation of prepackaged design becomes a plug and play matter. He points out that for many companies today, the calculus of whether to hire a designer goes as follows:
You could argue that this kind of product, in which aesthetics are entirely divorced from utility, is ideal for an arrangement in which lower-wage workers deliver highly polished but functionally meaningless work. A corollary to that would be the assertion that truly in-depth, purpose-driven design will always need to be done in Western markets. Personally, I don’t buy that argument—it seems inevitable to me that the sale value of design work will trend down over time.
Prior to flat design, visual design was approached holistically as a key part of an ongoing strategy, and accordingly commanded relatively high compensation and respect as a functionally integral aspect of product design. With the commoditization of visual design, low wages are made to appear ideal for an aesthetic practice that is now seen as largely superfluous. It is entirely understandable that companies have a hard time seeing the value of paying a visual design specialist when they could just hire a front end developer who would most likely work from a modular, preset CSS style guide. Better yet when it comes to native development, a developer can just use the default styling. The result is that the practice of visual design is moving further from the drawing board, a place where expertise is sorely needed.
Whether it takes another ten or twenty or thirty years, as technology further shrinks the world and other markets shore up their ability to produce substantive designers, it’s my bet that the world at large will catch up with the cozy, affluent market that Western designers enjoy today. The clock of globalization is ticking for us.
It is hardly the only possibility that the rest of the world will catch up with Western salaries. It is equally, if not more, likely that compensation for design in the West will fall to match the rest of the world, except at the largest of companies that can afford boutique pricing and solutions. In the short to mid-term, the industry will consolidate, converging around a few big winners while the middle of the market implodes. If commoditization can happen in the app development industry, it most certainly can happen in the design industry.
In his book, How They Got There, Vinh explains "Once I came to accept that career certainty is now a thing of the past (if it ever existed), I came to a new appreciation for the beauty of career uncertainty" (12). It should be a troubling sign for the industry when a designer with Vinh’s experience feels that careers in design are bound to become increasingly insecure. Vinh himself may not have a hard time finding employment, but he is sympathetic to the issues that industry designers may come to face. In his book, Vinh and those he interviews provide insights that often fail to be addressed when it comes to discussions about a field in flux.
Automated tools and outsourcing are not going away, nor should they. It would be ignorant to argue in favor of banning tools that simplify the design process in this way. In fact, when put in the hands of a professional designer, these tools and services can sometimes be quite useful. Ultimately, one must simply recognize this competition for what it provides non-specialists: generic, undifferentiated and often shoddily-made solutions.
Forming a connection between flat design and the economic forces of automation and globalization may seem a strange juxtaposition. It is true that the two are not themselves related, but the quality of design they inspire is quite similar. Moreover, the expectations they set for what qualifies as good design in the minds of clients are similar. Clients cannot be blamed for drawing improper conclusions about the value of design when it is commoditized.
It is not clear what the future of visual design holds. What is clear is that the industry is experiencing a significant amount of turbulence. One would hope that design educators and industry leaders would respond to moments of uncertainty like these as opportunities for education, rather than equivocation. They could offer colleagues the language to confidently and respectfully engage clients who question their design process in the face of subpar, automated and cheap solutions. We could help inexperienced and veteran designers alike educate clients about the difference between cookie-cutter design and the custom-tailored solutions that professional design practitioners offer. One part of this strategy would involve moving towards encouraging designs that are more visually stimulating than the designs operating system makers offer. More generally, this would involve imparting subtle strategies for communicating design's importance to clients. None of this will stop automation or globalization, but it is still a worthy effort to undertake.
Unfortunately, instead of taking a proactive approach to these important matters, what many industry leaders have chosen to do is tell their fellow visual designers to self-sabotage and embrace these changes because they posit these are not threats to anyone but an amateur. On the other hand, if flat design were not a threat to any segment in the design industry, then why has there been so much handwringing about it? Ignoring the major aesthetic and usability implications, why does flat design remain to this day such a compelling topic for discussion when it comes to the business side of design? Upon further examination, the adoption of flat design has caused a profound shift, and it is unwise for designers to ignore it.
We must ask ourselves what it says when many industry leaders are as optimistic as ever about the prospects for the visual design industry in the face of credible threats, both internal and external. It may seem strange, but there is an obvious explanation for why so few leaders seem interested in providing substantive analysis of these shifts. I will explore this explanation in the conclusion to Fall of the Designer.