Rutledge: The Thin PMS185 Line
Andy Rutledge, whose opinions I respect (but occasionally differ with) publishes a good rant about the introspective, award-chasing, client-indifferent nature of the AIGA mafia.
I’m not sure I agree with (or care about) some of the political stuff he mentions in this piece, but the crucial point is that there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the designer’s role. Instead of helping clients achieve measurable results — higher sales or greater market penetration or solving other business problems — they’re still focused on the decorative-arts, academic ivory tower end of things.
Rutledge is a user-experience designer, and I often ask the same question he does when there’s a decision to be made about a project: “What tangible benefit does this have for the client / their customers?”
Questions of ease of use, readability, and accessibility are also balanced by business judgements — the effectiveness of eye-tracking, heat-maps, effective promotional tools, mailing lists, e-coupons, conversion rates and so on.
I have met and interviewed lots of designers, many fresh out of school, who seem to have no understanding of what their role in business is.
In school, they’ll learn the Adobe Suite and Macromedia Flash, but instead of learning problem-solving, they’re encouraged to be self-expressive, to make unreadable posters and busy, clever little Flash sites as part of their portfolio projects, that take forever to load and require a working knowledge of the Myst series of games to navigate.
I’ve seen very few design school grads who had things like a solid “standards-y” xhtml/css site, traditional typographic projects like newspapers, books, manuals or brochures, or proper statistical tables, charts, infographics or plain old graphs in their portfolio.
So — if you come to me with rave-graphic T-shirts and dense, layered, “thornamental” poster designs, it may be impressive, but it isn’t going to help me decide to hire you.
Design schools need to teach information design, strong traditional techniques and more than a bit of business 101. After all, who’s going to be paying their graduates’ salaries but businesses, and how can they help them if they don’t understand how they work?
Rutledge mentions a kind of anti-business, leftist ideological perspective among designers. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I do know people, even some with successful design businesses of their own, who have a tenuous grasp of what marketing really is or how it works, beyond the fact that Adbusters told them it was sinful, and therefore they want to avoid sin…
Anti-business? I don’t think so. I also think Rutledge makes the fallacy of equating Republican with Business, like there are no Greens or Dems or Liberals who are millionaire businesspeople… The greater problem is perhaps indifference or condescension to the needs of business, stemming from misinformed counterculture thinking. From my persepctive, today’s generation is either apathetic to the ‘business is evil’ meme, or at best is engaged in trying to transform their clients’ businesses by introducing green / ethical solutions as part of their practice.
That said, in general, I agree that there’s a shocking lack of general business, political and economics knowledge among the design community. There’s a willingness to focus solely on small-picture, western-white-liberal-guilt issues or get tangled into The Big Idea, as Andrew Potter wrote recently for THIS’s 40th anniversary issue (scroll down for his bit, “small ideas”), vs. doing system-level thinking (is the root cause of global poverty Western overconsumption, or failed states, the World Bank and the IMF?)
That said, it’s always a two-way street. Businesses, for their part, need to understand the designer’s role, as was recently memorably phrased by Jeff Croft; “Bring me problems, not solutions.”
Even today, in 2006, companies still waste their own time and money by asking for “solutions” without even knowing what the original problem is; and the usual result is Flash intros that annoy and bore. (Today’s example: chaoshats.com. Whoever did that site really ought to hand the money back to their client, because no customer’s going to sit through a five-minute loading screen just to get to page one.)
December 6, 2006 3:38 PM