pen-nibs-articles

In a provocative article, the top customer marketing guy from Logoworks suggests that design might be too important for designers. Which isn’t really surprising because Logoworks..

Generally spend the Sunday a.m. reading design news with a cup of java and puppies curled at my feet. While doing so this weekend, I stumbled upon this – Design: Too Important to Leave to Designers? Reading the provocative title, a couple thoughts came instantly to mind – ‘Dentistry: Too Important to Leave to Dentists‘ or ‘Accounting: Too Important to Leave to Accountants‘ and how they’d be equally dopey. In any case, had a hunch that the person penning the piece might have an axe to grind with designers in general, so perhaps a little more investigation was in order…

Thinking “outside the box?”

Apparently, this was an extrapolation of a recent article in Business Week entitled Are Designers the enemy of Design? In all fairness, the Business Week article was a transcript of a speech made by Bruce Nussbaum to students at Parson’s New School of Design. The speech was designed to be provocative (despite the title, it wasn’t a hating on designers screed) and was meant to challenge the next generation of designers to think – using the most tired descriptor imaginable – ‘outside the box’ – and an interesting read that touches on all the hot-button issues facing all the the multi-disciplined design communities of today. But back to the piece penned by Rob Marsh on his farily decent Brand Story blog. Marsh has a series if impressive credentials including, it should be noted, acting as the current VP of Customer Experiences at Logoworks. At the very least, his opinion deserves a looksee…

“Great talents who understand that non-functional design is called art, not design. Exceptional artists who love to help clients create things they can’t do on their own (at a price that makes sense). Designers who are more interested in the needs of their clients (including sometimes making the logo bigger), than their own needs for aesthetics.”

Fair enough. Many professionals agree that design isn’t art (though the debate continues to rage on) – graphic designers are helping sell condoms, pet food, health food, pizza and other life staples – and there’s only room for so much capital ‘A’ art to be crow barred into a package, or in this context, a logo. That’s the sacrifice that artists make when they decide to become commercial designers, as opposed to the ‘fine artist’ species. It was a bridge I had to cross many years ago when I had to decide between a roof over the kid’s heads, or a life in a drafty loft, surrounded by half-finished canvases, albeit with my self-proclaimed integrity intact. And while “exceptional artists” certainly do “help clients create things that can’t do on their own” (that’s pretty much the designer part) I might be tempted to argue that aesthetics are sometimes pivotal to the ‘clients needs’. Take a look at your average strip-mall. Probably 90% of the designs and logos featured on the overhang light-boxes don’t have any aesthetics at all – how many of these bad designs are a result of some well-intentioned designer throwing in the towel to a client’s misguided direction, aesthetics and resulting effectiveness be damned? Probably a decent chunk.

“Almost every day, I see designers who treat their customers like morons, or think their clients don’t know anything about their own customers, or the needs of their own businesses. I’ve read comments by designers who have argued that if an entrepreneur can’t afford an expensive logo created by a “professional” designer, they shouldn’t be allowed to start a business. And I’ve read a “Client Code of Ethics” written by designers about how clients should act when working with them.”

Yikes – every day? Where, at the office? Treating someone like a moron is one thing. Offering design solutions, ideas and directions that clients may not want to hear is not treating a client like a moron. It is performing the task that the client originally hired the designer to do – to flesh out whatever concepts the client might have into a finished design that makes sense, has longevity, and can encapsulate the client’s company into a visual mark. If is part of the value that a designer brings with them.

Clients & designers.

I don’t know one decent designer who feels that the client should be excluded from the logo design process. That would be a silly notion – everyone wants to have input in their design work, from logos on up – and the client’s participation is a pivotal part of the process itself.

“Designers tend to put a great deal of importance into logos, rather then viewing them as Frankensteined graphics that can be manipulated like digital tinker-toys.”

I would have thought that this would go without saying. In almost every aspect, the client is an expert in the industry/business or product that will be the focus of said logo or design. On the other hand, isn’t the client coming to us, the designers, for our expertise in our field? All too often I see great logos butchered into mediocrity, or worse, because a client wants to tinker. This kinda thing:

“Move this bit over here, make that bit bigger and flip it around.”

Designers tend to put a great deal of importance into logos, rather then viewing them as Frankensteined graphics that can be manipulated like digital tinker-toys.

Pixel pushers or designers?

On some level, Marsh seems to believe that designers are merely design software experts, a pair of pixel-pushing hands who’s only function is to act as a conduit between the client and monitor. Let me stretch a metaphor for a second – when I use the services of a professional, a dentist let’s say, I utilize them for their expertise. I go to them with a basic premise. “This tooth hurts” or “I would like my teeth whiter.” And then I pretty well leave it up to them. Of course, if they make a huge error – say, work on the wrong tooth, or the wrong side of my mouth, I squawk. Loudly. But I do not micro-manage the job at hand.

Experts are experts for a reason.

Technically speaking, all the tools that my mechanic uses are available to me at the local hardware store. I could, with a manual some YouTube videos and a little perseverance, change my own brakes. However, as I have no desire for the little pads that stop my motorcycle to give out at 70 mph on the highway when that dude in the Honda Civic decides to anchor up in front of me, I leave it to someone who knows what they’re doing. Doesn’t mean that I abdicate all the chores – I change my oil (no brainer) and clean my bike all sparkly on weekends. My mechanic isn’t treating me as an idiot. He’s doing what I’ve tasked him to do. And here’s where the integrity stuff comes in. If I ask my mechanic to do something is stupid or dangerous, he will flat-out refuse to do it. I may threaten him with the “I’ll take my business elsewhere if you don’t” – a circle-firing-squad standoff that if the mechanic has any stones, will see me doing just that.

It’s their dime.

Marsh’s underlying position could be translated as ‘do whatever they want – it’s their dime’ – which, considering the day-to-day realities of running a business (and the fact that no-ones wiped out at 70 mph because their logo gave out) is fair enough. Stated this way, I’d probably agree – it is a reality of working with clients in any field. However, trying to gussy it up as the road to better design – that’s another thing entirely. At the risk of sounding snobbish – sometimes the designer does know best – a statement that you’d seldom hear if dealing with other professional fields where such sentiments usually go without saying.

Why is design any different?

The client is king. But can they be art director?

I’d also argue that taking a bit from one conceptual design and shoe-horning it into another design is not ‘being part of the process’. It’s playing art director. And the client as an art director can be an extraordinarily bad thing. That doesn’t mean that I believe the client is a ‘moron’. Far from it. Most clients I deal with are incredibly intelligent and brave people who are experts in their field (that’s why they launching their own corporate empires in the first place). They may not know squat about design. It takes a designer with conviction, integrity and confidence in their abilities (usually come by as a result of a few years in the trenches) to take that stance, without, one supposes, treating the client like a ‘moron’ as is witnessed by Mr. Marsh on a daily basis. It’s easier to say ‘sure, I’ll add that swoosh to your logo‘ or ‘hey, you know you’re right – a light bulb is a unique visual for an idea’ or ‘hey, that palm tree from concept #1 would look great with that rocket ship in concept #8.’ Is that in the client’s best interest?

Probably not.

Is it in the client’s best interest for the designer to act only as a pair of hands and simply as a design software administrator? I’d argue no to that as well. This isn’t snobbishness or arrogance. It’s not what designers are supposed to do, and it’s certainly not why the client hired a designer – someone with experience, skills and talent – in the first place. Presumably they want someone to ‘guide’ them past the pitfalls of any logo design process. And any designer that ignores that function is, at the end of the day, doing a disservice to his/her client.

And while Marsh may know of some designers who have voiced the opinion that “anyone that can’t afford a ‘professional designer’ shouldn’t be in business in the first place”, this is certainly not an opinion that I hold, I’ve seen, nor is it a design community credo. I’ve stated many times (but will state it again) – if a small business owner cannot ‘afford’ to develop a decent identity they should forgo the entire process entirely rather than settle for a bad one – focusing on developing their company until such times as they’re not so light in the pocket book and have a variety of options, rather than options that are dictated by price tag alone.

I’d also argue that if a small start-up outfit can’t afford to work with a designer with some decent skills and talents, they shouldn’t settle for a half-baked solution that due to lack of budget, will ‘have to do’. That includes, by the way, the $49 clip-artish logos that Mr. Marsh’s company sell under the Instalogo and Logomaker mastheads, where the designer and client interaction has been disposed with entirely in lieu of a Flash-driven whiz-bang logo generator. As we’re talking about effective design, I’d argue that these are, despite the glowing descriptions on the aforementioned sites, extraordinarily bad ways for any business, particularly cash-strapped ones, to try and cobble together a brand identity using the rejected designs from the logo mother ship. Neither of these solutions fall into ‘helping the client design stuff that they can’t’ category – more like Anything For A Buck Incorporated – and a facet of Marsh’s company about which he’s strangely silent.

And if we’re talking about the client taking charge of their design, why stop there? We can even forgo the $49 clip art logo from Logoworks’ love-child web sites and advise clients to scribble out a rudimentary logo in Paint or Photoshop. After all, and according to some, designing logos is easy with just a couple of colored pencils. Alas, we’re not arguing for that much design ‘democracy’ – that would put Mr. Marsh’s company (and mine) out of business. It would also lead to some extremely large headaches for the client.

Regarding the ‘Client Code of Ethics‘ I’ve been unable to find such a beast (even using the formidable resources of Google). The closest thing I could find was an almost tongue-in-cheek piece called Care and Feeding of A Designer which outlines ways that clients can develop an ongoing relationship with a designer and step-by-step how to

“..know what a designer is and isn’t, and how the industry works, you can communicate more effectively with your designer, shorten the time lines and cost of your projects, and make life a lot easier on both you and them.”

Not a terribly bad thing. Ironically enough, this is featured on Duct Tape Marketing, a ‘partner’ site of Logoworks that also features blogs from LW staffers. While performing my Google search I did, on the other hand, run into a heap of design-based ‘Code of Ethics’ features aimed at the designer. These well-intentioned lists were attempts at universalizing ethical ways to deal with clients and very similar to other professional industries. Again, not a terribly bad thing and quite different than the cynical version that Mr. Marsh tells us about. Alas, despite a few platitudes here-and-there (he tells us of designers who “don’t suck”), Marsh seems to have a fairly grim view of designers in general. Which is odd, because his business sells services by them, to customers of his.

“The value of design is not determined by the price charged by the designer (great design is available at all price points). The quality of design is not determined by years of experience (or advertising agencies would be filled with 65 year olds, rather than 20 year olds). The acceptability of design is not determined by where you get it (you can get great graphic design at Landor as well as Logoworks).”

Strangely enough, Logoworks’ entire marketing is based on the perceived ‘value’ of what you get for your design dollar with LW (ie: more ‘value’ than anyone else. In the entire design community.) Read their copy. On all their web sites. Value, at least according to their own promo is determined exactly by what clients pay. Which is all fine and dandy. And, in the purist terms, he is correct – just because someone pays $80 grand to Landor does not necessarily mean that their logo has more value (though, I should point out that folks paying $80 grand to Landor are getting a lot more than just a logo, so comparing the two is apples and oranges in the first place.) I must admit to being perplexed by the statement that ‘experience’ has nothing to do with the ‘quality’ of the design. I don’t necessarily disagree with the point being made (fresh blood – new ideas and all that), but have to scratch my head when I read Marsh’s company’s web site promo copy –

“A quality logo starts with a quality logo designer. At Logoworks, we work with only highly qualified and experienced logo designers. Our designers come from top design schools and careers.”

LW seems to put some fairly hefty weight to the premise that quality of design is somehow affected by the experience level of the designer. Marsh & Co. seem to realize that their potential clients have, at the very least, the perception that experienced designers are very much a part of the equation when it comes to hiring someone to produce ‘quality design’. Of course. That’s why all online sites, including mine, feature extensive logo design portfolios that showcase that experience in the most graphic way. It’s a point that LW make over and over –

“And since each of our graphic designers are specialists in logo design, you’ll get a higher quality logo design at a better price.”

So, according to Marsh’s own company, ‘experience’ (that would be the specialist part) and ‘value’ (that would be the better price part) are very much part of the equation. Which once again, is all fair enough. It is, however, completely at odds with what he’s arguing on his blog.

It’s not the tools.

The reason people use designers to create effective logo design is not because of the software they use. I can download a copy of Quick Books – that does not make me an accountant. I can have a quill pen – that does not make me William Shakespeare. While professional designers do have a vastly superior understanding of the software involved (and the limitations thereof,) it remains a tool, a small part of the equation. It is because of the experience, training and natural talent that top-notch designers posses. They have a different way of looking at things that cannot be written as a javascript or Flash action script and it’s certainly not to be found in a bunch of useless clip art. Most designers I know do what they do because they love it and try to steer the client in a direction that they, with all conviction, believe is the right road. It’s not treating the client like a ‘moron’. It’s, at the risk of waxing poetic, giving the client a result that’s formulated through years of experience, training and a natural ‘eye’. Marsh seems to want to devalue those skills, experience and training into an ‘anyone can design logos‘ proposition, which he’s entitled to do.

It is, however, quite opposite from the marketing thrust of the company he works for.

Footnote:

I’d like to thank Rob for passing by and leaving a comment – alas, I nuked it, quite by accident, when cleaning up some comment spam that had got through the filters. Here’s the gist – Rob thought I had misconstrued what he had written. He’d like to respond, but not sure if he has the time due to the time being used up in the Logoworks acquisition by Hewlett Packard. He was nice enough to thank me for the ‘links and traffic’. Think that pretty well covers it. Gawd, I hate spammers….