Rita Sue Siegel, an important thinker and writer about all things Design, contributes a column to Communication Arts, the bible of the design community, in which she discusses the topic “What Else can you do with a Design Education?”, an article that I found very topical and open-minded to the role of designers in the world at large. I wrote her a letter in response which is (apparently) going to be running in the next issue of CA (May/June 2010). Here’s a link to her article on the CA site and below is my letter.
I read with pleasure you article “What Else can you do with a Design Education” in the latest CommArts. I run a 5-person studio in Western Mass.that provides branding, strategy and design services and consulting to our region. Your article hit a chord in me as it seemed very prescient to what is happening in our small business.
We’ve been in business for 15 years, and historically always defined ourselves as “Graphic Designers”, even though we typically handled the A-Z of design and marketing services for our diverse customer base of cultural institutions, retail, manufacturing and artisans. We’ve always done all the media – print, web, video, etc. (we’re kind of geeky that way) but in the last year and a half we’ve seen an interesting transformation in how our clients are using our services and how we ourselves are defining those services. The transformation has been, in part, fueled by the economic downturn and the necessary scrambling to find a foothold in a changing market, but also by an internal review and development process that we undertook with a business consultant starting about 2 years ago.
The transformation has been seen most markedly in the way that our clients have been turning to us to consult with them from a design-process point of view on issues relating to their internal culture, their articulation of innovation and creativity, and the strategic use of language and inter-personal communication. Your phrase “Is it really that important for you to design an artifact, or would a systems solution give you satisfaction?” really sums up what has been happening in our business.
Which makes me wonder if it is a chicken or egg thing, i.e., in reviewing our own processes and goals, have we articulated a new “product” – the role of designer as business consultant, or, has business somehow grasped that designers can provide more value than simply “ink on paper”?
I’d have to conclude that in our case, a proactive shift in our internal message and how we speak to customers about what we are doing and what we want to be doing has been primarily responsible for the change. We’re still deeply in the midst of it – its actually a bit mysterious as we work to define “what” it is that we are bringing to the table, but I think you hit the nail on the head by challenging designers and the design education community to think outside the box.
From my point of view, creativity is a muscle – the more you work it, the stronger it gets. Design as a profession revolves around creativity as a core value, and as such we practice it daily, and have developed different techniques to engage creativity actively and predictably. There is a lot of discussion in the business world about the role of innovation and creativity, but not a lot of active awareness of “how” to bring these actions into being in an organization. I think that the design community would serve itself well to focus some light on the idea that design can be process driven, that creativity can be vigorously pursued, and that innovation is a language, and like all languages, can be taught to others so they can achieve a degree of fluency.
One tool that has really served us well in this space over the last year has been creating a well-defined and efficient design process to our branding work. We’ve developed a number of short exercises that we take our clients through in helping to define their values, vision and identity and we involve them in the creative process by breaking down the steps of developing their new collateral, packaging, website and other media in a “toolkit” of elements. We find that involving them throughout the process and delivering a system approach to their brand and message is far more effective than simply showing up with a finished product. A system has flexibility where a product does not. It also means that our clients tend to want to invest in long-term relationships with us, opening the door to alternate work where the question isn’t “Can you make us a brochure?” but “Can you help us grow out business?”.
Anyway, I just thought I would let you know that I appreciated your article. So much of the “design” writing in CommArts is hand-wringing and “design is dead” navel-gazing. I didn’t go to a design school (I’m and English major) so I always find the high-level design-speak a little bizarre. I think Design can and will thrive if it helps itself – realizing that our product is not a pretty thing, but the unlocking of the mystery box of creativity for others.