The Design Letters, Vol. 2

ghandi-learn-as-if-youll-live-foreverDesign is not dead.

Design will never die.

However, some design careers–and the careers of some individuals–will.

I’ve found myself writing again to the always-excellent Jarrod Drysdale. It speaks very well of a design or creative professional (or any team member) when their reflections on value creation cause others to examine and clarify their own. Bad ideas and lazy or wishful thinking about product and marketing, to borrow a metaphor from church, “are like a beard–you have to shave it off fresh every day.” It helps to have someone around who can stimulate and crystallize one’s thoughts.

It took another couple of Jarrod’s emails, and an article from UX Magazine (Is Web Design Dead?) to fully form my thoughts. And now I begin to see the answers to the questions, including the one  that was What is design worth? Can anyone do it? Can anyone do without it? Who is a designer? What counts as “creative” work?

I’ve got some answers.


I hope this finds you well. In our earlier correspondence I mentioned that turnkey solutions and customer ability to observe design patterns created a two way market that no longer involved design professionals. One example is web design…

Web design is not totally dead of course. No design idiom ever completely commoditizes; just look at furniture. Customers with real money to spend will spend it on non-commodity design talent. That’s why I enjoyed your article on productized consulting so much. It rebuilds the bridge from scarcity mentality towards design back to high-value-added service relationships.

But “margins”—insofar as that term can be clumsily applied to a consultant—for “average” designers go down precipitously when clients think they know what they want and have market substitutes that encourage this thinking. Thus, it very quickly pays not to be average in a mature market. The question for a designer (customer) is not that of the “death” (obfuscating triviality) per se of design. The question is whether the designer has (designer, design thyself!) positioned and refined (praxis) their professional creative ethos to fit with the business opportunities they seek.

On that mundane, pecuniary note: it is important to remember at this point that design consulting is (borrowing an image from speechwriting, one of my areas of responsibility) using one’s own mind to speak in someone else’s voice. It is a highly reflective, interpersonally intimate, and necessarily self-denying act. That explains the borderline violent experiences that we have all had with achieving acceptable [to ourselves and others] creative results.

Design, be it web, graphic, print, mobile, or other, will never die. But it will never stand still. And like any profession, those practicing it must first be honest with themselves about what they want to get out of it, what they are willing to give of themselves to get it, and whether or not that profession can truly provide it. On the last of those points at least, designers are lucky. After all, design can do the impossible.


Design continues to evolve.

Demand for design services currently emphasize some media and methods (and messages) over others, but it would be shortsighted to say that the current landscape will remain forever. A heavily price-elastic demand for certain kinds of design (e.g. web, more cheaply, for now) can be either a disruption to the established creative professional, or it can be an opportunity to change what is on offer. We can either create things that people pay for need, or we can create what we want to create. I am only saying that two are not necessarily the same, and each comes with different risks. Reality does not often obey our personal desires.

Creativity has assimilated into other professions and product spaces. Design thinking pervades every commercial and organizational experience. But not everyone is truly a (good) designer. It is up to all of us whether or not we are, and in what context that the market will bear.


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