Graphic design is dead! Long live the graphic designer!

March 12, 2017 | Published by | Leave your thoughts

Looking out at the design/development landscape over the past 30 years since I have started my own career, I might say that it certainly seems the graphic design profession has finally died. Why might I say that?

I remember sitting at a drafting table, doing layout work with artboards, galleys of type and beeswax. We produced corporate newsletters, direct mail and annual reports — all with a great deal of handicraft. We produced awesome illustrations — by hand. We worked with professional photographers who used film! We worked with color separators, and keyliners. Typesetters. Printers.

There was nothing sweeter-smelling than a newly printed masterpiece! It was awesome; just like being in kindergarten and being paid for it! And, we got paid a good bit too. Certainly, enough to justify the long hours of work.

But, very soon things began to change. “Desktop publishing” displaced typesetters, printers, separators, keyliners, strippers (no, not THAT kind!)  and graphic artists. More and more of the tasks of production — from type to photo-editing and separation — became centered in this box on my desk that would “bomb” from time to time. Usually in the middle of working on something critical with a firm deadline. And the profession became a commodity.

Then, soon again, the Internet revolution heated up, and designers like me began to learn coding, talking with fancy terms like “information architecture” and designing for interactivity. We stopped drawing for a living. Businesses stopped producing newsletters (the “bread and butter” of many design studios like mine), and built websites. More and more of the “graphic” part of design was subsumed to the browser wars and only lived a brief life on a screen. And the profession became even more of a commodity.

And then — again — everything changed. Ten years ago, the iPhone and smartphones arrived. More and more of the content that was designed had to incorporate the wide variety of mobile devices and a chaos of different screen resolutions. The “graphic” part of design was subsumed to the “Flat 2.0” look (thank you, Microsoft…) or “material design.” Design aesthetic decisions were being determined, not by the beauty and craft of the designers, the cleverness of a memorable concept, or the emotional appeal of a good brand, but by the ever-atomized requirements of ever-changing technology.

And now, we have new sea-changes afoot with the Internet of Things (IoT)!

Does anyone really need a graphic designer anymore?

If anyone hires one these days, it’s typically to the least bidder, bidding projects against “free” logo design services or who-knows-whom in Pakistan. Or, design has become part of a larger skillset that most designers, like myself, have called “User Experience” or “User Interface” (UX/UI) design. We are part artist, part psychologist, part human factors engineer and part coder. We work in scrums in agile processes.

We are at once more than artists, and a lot less too.

So what’s the point? Why even say I am a “graphic designer” anymore?

The issue I think will become more apparent as time goes on. Sure, hyper-minimalist websites that can respond to everything from a laptop, tablet, phone or smart watch are de rigueur today. And they are (sometimes) eminently usable as interfaces and even (sometimes) elegant. But who is going to care? How is one brand different from the next? Where is the appeal to the emotions — to the soul — of a human being.

We are not automatons. We are not just “users” of technology. We are people, with real needs, wants, emotions, spirituality and motivations. We are starved for human connection. And our easy-to-use technology is too easily a poor counterfeit for connection.

It gets real old, real fast. (Just ask any teenager or Millennial who once spent hours on Facebook, who nowadays do most of their socializing on SnapChat or Instagram.)

To have a brand that people empathize with, to connect with, is to have a brand that empathizes with people. It is to connect with them at that emotional level that appeals to a sense of (dare I say it) beauty and curiosity. It fits into their life and makes an impact — it also feels more like a work of art than a functional interface. It appeals much more to the emotions than the mind.

If your brand doesn’t do that, it will not make that connection. It will just get shouted-down by the many, many other voices and apps and websites and whatever that looks like every other whatever out there.

And that, friends, is the new challenge for visual artists in the renaissance-of-the-week world in which we live and work.

Graphic design may well be dead; long live the graphic designer!

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This post was written by jcwretlind

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