Reclaiming the Role of Designers

by Andy Polaine on April 19, 2007

I wrote some thoughts about the life of a creative person for my students a while ago, and recently commented on Rick Poynor’s article about the Soul of Design. But Marian Bantjes’s essay, Untitled on Speak Up is one of the best essays about the erosion of the appreciate of design and creative skills within a business environment I have read.

Teaching is a strange mix of parenting, mentoring, joy and tedious admin. Teaching creative subjects, whether that’s writing, art, design or something digital is doubly so (and the admin is even more tedious). The joy of seeing my students develop as creative individuals is often tempered by both their expectations and the expectations of the work environment they will be shortly entering.

Bantjes’s essay is all very worth reading, but here are a few choice paragraphs:

The response of most designers is to downplay the active, creative part of their work in favour of the strategic, results-oriented, business-minded part. A scan through most design websites will reveal an emphasis on “forming partnerships,” “sound business objectives,” “industry leaders,” “distilling information,” “marketing communications,” “story telling,” and a great deal more that hints at “creativity” contained in a controlled and mindful environment (i.e. the back room, out of sight). But Graphic Design’s embarrassment of its artistic roots threatens to do away with the very thing that makes it unique and valuable. In this sense, the computer becomes the perfect icon for design today, as Design begins to look a lot like what everyone else does in the vast market of business consultancy. As designers increasingly promote themselves primarily as strategists, consultants and business-people first, they do so often by sacrificing the one thing they have that separates them from their clients: the ability to think and express ideas visually. And at some point, you have to wonder: if you look like them, and act like them, and talk like them, and think like them, and use the same tools as they do … well, what the hell would they need you for?

Don’t get me wrong. I would never argue that strategy is not an important part of design—it is certainly one of the most important—or that collaboration is not desirable, or that results are not necessary. These are all things that are integral parts of the design process and which separate designers from fine artists. But when I read about the lives of designers who practiced 20 to 40 years ago, I think about their approach and the environment that they necessarily brought their clients into: an environment totally foreign to the business person, full of pencil crayons and markers and a kind of mysterious magic of the other. Clients must have been very aware that they were buying something that they themselves did not possess and would never possess. It must have been a little frightening and a little thrilling for them.

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Ultimately, this is not about whether you draw, or what tools you use, but about how you think and express, and how willing you are to be forthcoming about the validity of that process—and the outcome—without trying to disguise it or hide it under layers of business rhetoric. The pencil crayons and the felt pens may be outdated as tools, but I would like to think that they are still relevant as metaphors. And I wish that designers would take back the power of the words “graphic” and “arts”, because as career definitions continue to blur, they might find it’s the most valuable asset they have.

I don’t want to get back to the cliché of the ‘precious designer/artist’, but I think Bantjes makes some powerful points worth thinking about.

[Thanks to Core77 for the link).

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