4 Vital Tips for Surviving an Industry where Good Design is Abundant

Good design and designers everywhere, just browse the Internet and you will see.
From the comfort of your laptop you can consume the hottest cars, furniture, digital cameras, laptops or mobile phones etc. Sure there are some great designs, but the rest of the majority are getting pretty good. Moreover where there is good design, there are also good designers.
The ease of the Internet has ushered in a new era where it is easy for good designers to shine. The pervasive Internet has allowed designers their moment of glory by giving them a level of exposure unheard of in the past. Just look at the myriad of portfolio sites out there such as Behance or Coroflot and you can quickly see who the good designers are.
The great thing about this is the overall level of design will continual to improve. Designers will continue to push each other, with each great piece of work setting a benchmark by which another designer can aspire to beat.
Unfortunately, there is a flip side to this story. I foresee a time where good design will become ubiquitous or even, I day say, expected. A number of industries are already demanding this. In addition, if you consider the number of aspiring designers (You are 14, and sketching cars?) wanting to get into design, or the large volumes of design graduates the schools are churning out, the competition for work, projects and even jobs will become harder and harder.
Scott Belsky calls this phenomenon Creative Meritocracy.

Imagine a world where the best ideas have the best chance to succeed. No more favoritism that places the wrong people on creative projects. Cut out the middlemen that arbitrarily recommend cost-efficient talent over the most deserving talent. Forget the corporate nepotism that appoints leaders based on relationships over merit. Every individual, team, and industry would benefit from a world where the most talented people got the most opportunity.

While I think Scott’s view on corporate nepotism a little over zealous, (I know of cases, but I don’t think it is as rife in the design industry as he thinks) I concur with his belief that Creative Meritocracy is something that has arisen from the openness created by the internet and has created a level playing field where the best talents can rise to the top.
And indeed it has.
But what does this mean to a designer like you and me? On one hand good design or talent is becoming more visible and better understood, but on the other, it is most likely that designers will have to struggle in a hyper-competitive industry.
So how do we get ahead? Surprisingly the old school principles still apply. The Internet changes things, but not everything.

1) Have great articulation skills

I did not use “communication skills” because that is really the end result of what we want. It is not so much what we communicate is how we communicate. Talk long enough and people will eventually understand what you mean. What I’m looking at instead is the ability to get a point across quickly, convincingly and succinctly, in other words, to articulate.
Articulation is often used in the context of words or the ability to speak well. In design this needs to also extend into presentation skills. This can include how you layout your presentation boards, picking choice angles to present the best aspects of the design, or crafting your pitch etc.
It is necessary to not only come up with a good design but also present it well.

2) Able to understand the true value of their designs

While aesthetics is an important factor, Design is not about making something look good. Design or designing is where problems get solved, and this is where the value of design resides. Therefore it is important for designers to constantly remember their design briefs and to ensure that their designs fulfill or achieve those objectives. We are not designing in a vacuum!
In concept and student work, the objective of a design is pretty straightforward. However in commercial circumstances, objectives are often varied and multi-fold. For example, does your design solve an environmental problem? Is the design supposed to make the business money? Perhaps it is about increasing brand awareness, or maybe it is about increasing market share? Worst still, it could be all of the above!
In time to come commercially aware designers will be more in demand, if they are not already.

3) Ability to explain what we do and how we do it

At a recent client meeting, my suspicions of a competitive bid were confirmed. Quickly appraising the situation, I sat down with the client and went through in detail what our strengths were, what we were going to do for them and how we were going to do it (i.e. the design process).
I found out at the end of the meeting that my clients were very happy with our pitch. Our other competitor had a more branded design process but did not spend the time to explain to my clients what it meant to them.
The designer who can explain the design process or what he does in a simple and effective manner is going to win the day. Designers today have a far wider influence than before, therefore the context of how a design is created matters more than ever.

Build Great Relationships

I was talking to a friend the other day and he recounted an experience meeting with the head of Kartell. Let’s call him Mr. Kartell, shall we?
My friend is pretty entrepreneurial and had prepared a portfolio of furniture designs to show Mr. Kartell, in an off chance that he might want to produce one.
Mr. Kartell took a look at the designs, commented that the designs were great and even shared what he liked about them. However, as quickly as it started, he went back to consuming his dinner.
Unperturbed, my friend asked if Mr. Kartell would be interested to produce any of his designs. Mr. Kartell declined the offer.
When probed he replied, “Good design is abundant, but good relationships not so much”. Good design is all around (not surprising by now right?), and good design is also something the designers Kartell works with are also able to do.
However, the designers he has worked with, some of which for many years, have an added advantage of having built up a great relationship with him and the company. It would be a big challenge, requiring both time and money, to build a relationship from scratch with a new designer. Most designers forget this and thinking that a good design will stand on its own. But a design is only part of the story; there is still a business to run and more work to be done down stream.
Who knows if the story is true, but if we take the story at face value, we can see that building great relationships between designer and client, or even between designers is very important. When all else is equal (or even when it is not), this is the key deciding factor between you and your competition.
While this point seems contrary to Creative Meritocracy, building relationships is actually not about favoritism or nepotism but about practicality. Building a good relationship means both parties understand each other well, how they work, and each other’s expectations of what needs to be done. From a business point of view this means less fuss and getting the work done quickly and efficiently.
But believe you me; this is still a tentative hold. Relationships need to be maintained, because the moment someone comes around bigger, better, faster, cheaper etc. it could be downhill from there.
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What about you? Do you notice it getting harder to compete with other designers for work, jobs and projects? If that is the case, how do you make a difference? I would love to hear your thoughts?

4 Comments
  • Marc Rapp

    January 6, 2011 at 11:14 pm Reply

    Nice article! I would say that, at the least in my experience, *good* design only exists in contrast to something else. Put another way, good design begets good design. If good design is a trend, it should be expected that it will be exceeded by another style or technique.
    Even *bad* design can still be considered good or effective communication, as long as it remains consistent and true to it’s intent. The industrial world exhibits the same process. It’s good in contrast to what was previously considered good. Otherwise, it’s all mundane.
    Your 3 points are great. I these could apply to almost all creative endeavors.

  • Flávio Yamamoto

    March 4, 2011 at 1:37 am Reply

    Here in Brazil, but i think that is the same equation in the rest of the world, have a lot of designers wich copy the international design, mainly the european design.
    Somehow, its easy to be a better designer than the others, but some companies prefer designers with greater expertise in computer programs and little aesthetic knowledge, theoretical and others unfortunately.
    In short, it’s a competitive environment and as some say, “Do not you just be good. You must be the best!”
    (Sorry for my english. I know that is horrible!)

  • Brian

    March 7, 2011 at 10:29 am Reply

    @Marc: So nice to hear from you again! Indeed in many cases this would apply to all design disciplines. I like your term good design begets good design. Thanks for taking the time to leave your feedback.
    @Flavio: Your English is fine and I understood you 100%! This is the problem when the industry focuses on technical skills. While technical skills are important, there are more things that make up a good designer. Focus on this to rise above the rest. Good luck!

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