Design as a commodity versus design as a service.

Back in March 29, 2012, David C. Baker, owner of the design consultancy Re Courses, co-wrote an article with Debbie Millman, president of Sterling Brands, entitled: Crowd-sourcing Design: Pro or Con? In the article written for HOW Design, the authors discussed the current view of “design as a commodity”, I paraphrase, “Clients see little value in design. What they value is problem-solving; design (in most cases) is viewed merely as a means to an end. Design is seen as a commodity. Whereas the value of design is what it facilitates—not the process itself. “

Drive thru – design

Business people who purchase “cheap design” by using speculative designers and or crowd-sourcing platforms generally treat design as a commodity. Why? Because that’s the way they see it. They don’t see the difference in design between agencies and thus consider it as a mere commodity. The fact is that what they are really viewing as a commodity is only the ability to use design platforms.  “Hey surely anyone with access to Photoshop can quickly slap together a logo?” Today it seems design is viewed as little more than “original clip art” that fills an immediate need, there is no long-term thought involved. This is somewhat akin to the fast food, drive thru window. There are some definite benefits to going through a drive-thru window at KFC or McDonald’s. One can pick up a meal that is fast and pretty cheap. Whilst this way of eating “fills a hole,”as a quick way to satiate one’s hunger, it’s unsustainable. The accelerated and “automated” food purchasing experience has a number of well proven negative health impacts.

So, just as fast food has its drawbacks, so too does fast, cheap and crowd-sourced design, speculative work (free work). Competition driven crowd-sourced design diminishes the true economic value of the contribution experienced designers make toward client’s objectives.

Most of the business people utilizing cheap design sources have no idea about the process of design or its potential contribution to positioning and strategy. They see design as a commodity.

The misunderstood value

The management of the design process is where the real value lies. This is also the piece that is most misunderstood and undervalued. Design that delivers results is an outcome of a proven collaborative process between a client and the designer. Effective design stems from the design team having a clear knowledge of the client’s goals, their needs and their competitive situation. To provide an organization or a product with a unique voice, both research and strategy is essential.  Due to the speculative nature of crowd-sourcing and design competitions, the lack of time and effort invested typically results in a lightweight appraisal of the issues and motives driving the need for the design. Also because of the risky nature of the work very little time, thoughtful consideration of alternatives, testing and energy can be invested in the design itself. This often results in a shallow design architecture which falls way short of its required outcomes.

The temporary nature of crowd-sourced design

One of the side-effects of using cheaper, crowd-sourcing design options is the temporary relationships that ensue between the designer and client.  Once again because of the speculative nature of the work, a non-committal relationship  is formed between client and designer often resulting in inconsistent and unsustainable messaging.  Whereas in a more traditional designer/client relationship, a deep connection is formed between all parties invested in the performance of the design. When design is just a commodity there need be no relationship.

What are you really paying for?

One of the gifts of grace is the spirit of discernment, the eyes which not only detect hidden treasure, but hidden foes.” John Henry Jowett

The question: So where is the the real value of design? If design is a commodity then what should clients be paying for?  The answer: UNDERSTANDING! Only from deep understanding can true discernment emerge. Discernment encompasses in-depth understanding, insight, perspicacity and judgement.

The designer/design company must understand their client’s business at a profound level. They must have in-depth knowledge of the competition, their category, their market space, preferences, trends, strengths, weaknesses, and most importantly why their clients customers should even care about them and their products. Because if the client’s customers don’t “get” what makes the company or the product uniquely special and why they should bother, then they cannot develop an emotional connection to the product or to the brand.  Where there is no emotional connection there can be no sale. The greatest product in the world sitting on a shelf , never being bought and tried, will die right there!

In-Depth Understanding

One of the greatest values an experienced graphic designer/ design house provides is the ability and the resources to successfully translate an in-depth understanding of the client’s business and their products into an accurate visual expression. A visual expression which will cut across all touch points with impact. This process is called INTEGRATED STRATEGIC DESIGN.

To effectively create a bridge of understanding between the client company and its target market comes down to the design team’s understanding and discerning ability to…

  • ask the right questions
  • push the client for authenticity
  • validate the responses
  • ensure no gaps in understanding or differences in thinking
  • provide consistent messaging tailored to a specific target market
  • provide direction and guidance built on strategy

Graphic design sweatshops, speculators and crowd-sourcing websites pretend this “little detail” of deep understanding has no real value. These operators have built their business model on clients believing a “logo” or a pack on shelf is only meant to fill an empty space. As long as it looks “pretty” no discernment is required. Since when was pretty ever a determinant of effective?

In depth discernment and understanding is a service.

The ability to translate the client’s business and their products into an accurate visual expression is where the real value of strategic design lies. Integrated strategic design requires customization, experience, expertise, knowledge and know-how. Integrated strategic design demands that design is viewed as a valuable and crucial service, not a product. In depth discernment and understanding is a service. It’s this service that cannot be commoditized.