Dramatic stuff. What I’m actually talking about being dead is the business of graphic design.

No great new news there. Except that design is everywhere. And there in lies the problem, whilst design has become ubiquitous, so has the resource.

The irony of a very profession set up to differentiate, is that now design and designers struggle to stand apart and retain a premium for that they do. And whilst reasonable freelancers will keep busy, adding in the overheads of a company and scaling is becoming a non starter. It takes a very educated client to see the value of a design company over a freelancer who might be at least half the price.

There are over a quarter of a million designers in the UK, split between in house, design consultancies and freelance. And over half those studios have annual revenues of less than £50k a year. (Source Creative Review)

What’s more these ranks are being swelled in ridiculous numbers. According to Design Week In 2009/10 there were 173,000 students doing creative arts and design course. And that number is growing each year.

Conjuring up the design equivalent of the broom scene in Disney’s Fantasia, with the work force doubling in size each year, it’s not hard to see what the issues around supply and demand might be.

And whilst small specialists and the very top of the industry will always survive for those wanting the very best, or the very expert, for everybody else design has become a commodity and therefore commoditised.

What about the digital age? Well web design companies don’t fare much better. Type ‘web design’ into google and you will have 2 billion responses. Narrow it to your town and mine gave me 2 million search results. Clearly they’re not all designers, but a lot will be, and despite best efforts they will be largely undifferentiated. And when a client has legitimate alternatives to the offering of your firm, so your power and value in your relationships with the client diminishes.

And this story is being repeated across the creative professions. Again there is an irony that in the digital age the demand for creativity has never being higher, but also the supply is so huge that it is becoming disposable. A friend of mine (who runs a record label) put a post out last week saying that 25,000 new songs were uploaded by artists to Beatport, a digital music sales site… in a week…

Indeed the ease of distribution has become a commercial issue in its own right. Digital distribution has removed almost all barriers to entry to the market place. You just need a laptop and an internet connection and a modicum of talent and application, and you are ready to go. So anyone can create and distribute, which is a good thing, but making a business out of it is going to be significantly harder just to be heard above the noise.

Quality is obviously one differentiator. But true quality is hard, and is really, really time consuming. And whilst it might help you differentiate yourself above the average, the chances of getting paid for all that time are small. And even then the quality end of the design world is pretty congested too. I could point you to 50 really good agencies just of the top off head. All really good, and all with 49 other alternatives….

So, that’s the bad news.

The good news is that what lives, and is becoming more valuable and prescient than ever is design as a process.

I once wrote an article for Design Week in response to the question – what is design? And my simple definition was that design is a process that sets out to make things better.

Design thinking is becoming very popular as a tool for solving big problems, and is attracting a lot of attention, (and money), from business leaders to politicians alike.

And it is no wonder, the design process is a great way of tackling complex issues.
Setting out with a simple premise – lets make what we have better, good design always starts with a discovery process. What are the characteristics of the existing product/service/thing? What’s good and worth keeping and what could be improved? What other examples are there out there that might help our thinking? What are the resources and tools that we could use or might need to make it better?

Then the best bit, the ideation stage. The time to play. What could it be? What can we explore? What ideas can we generate?

Then rationalising these explorations against a set of design criteria we can start to iterate and refine. Version after version, with small steps until we have something great.

This process is now being used to design services, products, even countries. Agencies like IDEO survive and thrive on the value of this approach, to the point of using the design process to identify what products and services might actually be needed.

And two of the most admired (and most valuable) companies in the world, Apple and Google both have design thinking and process at the core of their DNA. The only difference being that Google exposes its customers to the process, with prototypes put out to the public for feedback before further refinement, whilst Apple
prefers to just expose its customers to the end result.

And before you think by value I only mean money. Check this out. Design at its most powerful — technology & creativity converging to save lives… The drinkable book

As Bruce Mau once said:
‘It’s not about the world of design, it’s about the design of the world’.

So designers. Rise up. Your time has come again.
Put down your mouse, it’s your thinking and your process we want…

Design well. Live long and prosper.

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