The Death of Design Professionalism, A Mixed Reaction

My first corporate job after getting my Bachelor’s was working as a Purchasing Agent for IBM as a full-time temporary employee. The purpose for having me on site was to provide temporary coverage in the purchasing agent role while the corporation reassigned, transferred, or laid off the full time employees who had miraculously managed to avoid IBM’s massive 1990’s layoffs.  My role was to be a corporate-sponsored bridge demolitionist, enabling the ultimate dismantling of the very corporate structure that employed me.  (Despite having every reason in the world to hate us, the full timers whose job functions we were allowing to be slowly destroyed harbored no overt ill will toward us. I can’t say I would have been as gracious in the reverse of the situation).

Ever since that time, I’ve adopted only one real hard and fast rule concerning my employment habits: never take a job whose ultimate goal is the destruction of that job itself.  I got to witness firsthand the human element affected by the dispassionate realignment of IBM’s internal business structures, and I never wanted to be in a similar position again. After reading a section of Negroponte’s 2003 article entitled Soft Architecture Machines I found myself reacting from a gut-level instinct with outright hostility. Let me explain.

Architecture and Design

The basic premise of the article surrounds the intention or desire to create an interactive technology which would essentially remove or reassign certain priorities in varying professions that traditionally rely on a “contracted expert” or “consultant” kind of model. Negroponte talked about Architecture, but he also used language broad enough to slam home for me when he wrote in broad strokes about professionalism in the world of Design.

The article spoke of what ultimately would severely lessen the role of the professional designer/architect by figuring out a way to create an interactive computer solution which would somehow make available the ‘expertise’ in creating the product (in Negroponte’s case, a house or domicile) and allow the final customer/end user to be able to harness those professional considerations to produce their own desired design. Negroponte immediately touched upon the idea that in order to being making a conceptual or algorythmic model of processing for the computer, we need to first evaluate the underlying component roles present when a professional architect does their thing.

I’m not buying it.

Not from a reaction point of thinking that it’s impossible, but more from the aspect of Pandora’s Box. Quite honestly, as a design professional myself, I look at the conceptual patterns and desires for empowerment of the individual in a subjective process such as design and I shudder away from it because I’m afraid. I’m scared that I’m once again back at IBM and now actively participating in the gradual disintegration of the very structure upon which up until now I’ve depended upon for my livelihood. It’s totally an emotional reaction, which doesn’t invalidate it but also doesn’t really give the ideas a fair shake.

I was slightly mollified by the notion that such a professional-replacing interface has yet to be successfully produced. I’m not surprised:  Aesthetics represents an extremely subjective arena of inquiry, even for only a theoretical model. The diehard professional in me likes to cling to the belief that the reason that I’m a graphic designer in the first place is because of the nebulous idea of ‘talent’. I persist in this emotional attachment even though I know full well that talent, if it even exists or is possible to quantify, only forms the barest minimum of the required skillsets that designers call into play. We are practiced after years and years of thinking visually, we have a corpus of experience behind us that informs us as to what kinds of solutions tend to be received by our clients as successful, and what sorts of things tend not to please the viewer. All of this comes from the accumulated experience of doing the job, however, so I really had to think… what, exactly, am I being paid for?

Damn you, Power Point!

Negroponte made another good point. He quotes Yona Friedman (1971), “With the elimination of the designer (the professional one) from the design process — by vulgarizing the ‘objective’ elements in the process, and by introducing a simply understood feedback concerning potential consequences of individual decisions on the whole  — the paternalistic character of the traditional design process will disappear.” (Emphasis mine). More simply phrased, if you give end users a way to begin to approach doing what the professional designers do, you will profoundly alter the role that the designers play. In Friedman’s way of thinking, you end up ultimately removing the professional from the model.

I have to say that I agree with Friedman, but only to a point. PowerPoint, to be precise. In my own professional experience, as PowerPoint has grown in acceptance among the general business world, the dialogue between my clients and I has also shifted. PowerPoint has given a tool to the non-designers which allows the formation of simple symbolic structures and gives a certain extremely limited degree of control over simple visual representations to those people who generally speaking can be assumed to have had no formal design or aesthetics training whatsoever.  The result of PowerPoint’s ubiquity on the culture of design professionals can be seen by the form that the client communication takes. Whereas prior to the saturation of the market with this “pseudo-design technology” my clients viewed me as a consultant and communicated with me by asking questions, nowadays my clients no longer ask me questions but instead tend to launch right into giving directives.

Gone are the days of the Dot-com boom when everyone knew that what made websites stand out and get results was how they looked. We were coming off of a time when everyone was discovering just how easy HTML coding was, and there were some pretty hideous examples of websites out there attempting to do business and generate revenue.  Back then, there was a certain mystique with which my clients would approach me. I was viewed as the keeper of a mystery, someone who did things with a computer that the average person didn’t know how to do.

Graphic Designers As the New Secretaries

Alas, with PowerPoint on every executive’s desktop, everyone feels like they’re an Art Director. My latest set of freelance assignments had less to do with producing top notch Creative material for various high-end agencies and clients, and was more of a stint being some Marketing professional’s secretary. Just like in days of old when executives dictated letters to their secretaries because they were the keepers of the keys to the typewriters, now I find myself being given several PowerPoint files and horribly amateur graphics and being told to “make them pretty.”

Gone is the aesthetic role of the professional designer in all but the highest positions, which are now surrounded by some of the most intense professional competition you’ll find. Here to stay, apparently, is a corporate culture which views graphic designers as ‘people who understand the computer’, not as ‘people who understand design’. That role, the role of one who understands design, is assigned mentally by each marketing executive whose .ppt files I have to translate magically into some other format or another to themselves.

 PowerPoint has definitely increased the user interaction between the marketing/account executive branches and the graphic designers and print specialists. I’m just not certain that opening up this profession to a level of user-direction like this is doing much in the way of helping the field of graphic design. In fact, I would personally argue from my own experiences that the graphic designer has been stripped even of the level of input into the overall process which could actually help the client achieve superlative results. Unless you feel like fighting for the right to make suggestions, graphic designers nowadays often find themselves wondering where this wonderful career is going to end up. I would be able to make a lot more money for myself as a designer if I were to kowtow to the growing trend and just try to sell my services as a secretary.  Perhaps in the future you’ll see the death of administrative assistants in favor of graphic designers assigned to various high level corporate functionaries. (Egads, let it not come to that!)

Variable Data Printing: Giving Negroponte a Fair Shake

I do have to concede, however, that my reaction to all of this is decidedly mixed. I can certainly think of some very positive possibilities that Negroponte touches on, even within the world of design professionals. However, the success is dependent upon the idea of only going so far down the garden path to user-driven experiences, and no farther. To illustrate what I mean, I’d like to point you to the field of Variable Data Printing, or VDP.

Variable Data Printing is something that is being offered in many places on the web which generated quite a bit of buzz a few years ago. Enough buzz that TracyLocke sent me for formal training to Boston to learn how to use a proprietary solution in the VDP industry, PageFlex.  What PageFlex does is allow you to create template forms that are posted online. End users come to your PageFlex-based site, and they can customize various aspects of the templates that you provide. The data on the page is Variable.

The real dream for VDP is that when it works well, it can completely simplify the ordering process. The proprietary server-software allows for the customization of the printed materials desired by the client, and the software not only generates the overall scheme of what is to be customized and what is to remain static, but it generates a high-resolution output file that can be handled in a few different ways, the most common of which involves being sent directly to a printer/output vendor who then immediately prints on demand the order and then ships it out.

Let’s think about this for a moment in terms of Negroponte. Looking at Variable Data Printing from Negroponte’s article, it becomes clear very quickly that the Pageflex solution (at least the one I was trained in, I confess I have not yet studied up on any new iterations of the software solution) doesn’t actually remove the design professional from the process. Instead it front-loads all of the design work because a designer is still needed to determine which kinds of templates will be offered, what aspects of them need to be customizeable, and every component piece needs to be aligned correctly and coded as user-selected variables.

Not an Exact Match

This doesn’t exactly work the way that Negroponte visualizes the ultimate non-professional solution. For one thing, it’s front-heavy, and the amount of variability is strictly controlled. I personally think that this is to its credit, however. By offering limited choices, professional and aesthetic standards can be maintained. What is needed, however, is some kind of AI algorhythm which understands the component pieces of the design process, or at the very least how the end user works.

In this case, the lack of Negroponte’s desired vision for a viable computer-based means for helping end users to make up their mind or extend their capacity for user input to cross into the professional design realms, this lack is not enough to make us abandon our hopes for PageFlex as an intermediary solution in the world of VDP. Instead, studying Negroponte’s proposed changes for the interaction model can be extrapolated by the designers of the template choices. One of the things that has always been limiting to non-design professionals is the fact that designers are partially being relied on for their imagination. It can be fairly straightforward to see things one way, but it can take an innovative and inventive design professional to be able to suggest solutions or options which not only weren’t explicitly called for in the project specifications, but also weren’t even imagined as possibilities.

To that end, the human component can be very adequately married within the PageFlex-type applications for VDP. However, what it requires is a broadening of the initial offerings of different templates and styles. Because not every user is going to be as skilled as another, there needs to be some level of variation which can allow those who require the hand-holding and slimmed down functionality that I, personally, always associate with Microsoft Products, as well as the talent-empowering robust and feature-rich interfaces that I have traditionally associated with Adobe products.

Still Yelling At the Folks in Marketing

The trouble with all of this is that these tools, being new avenues for how to go to business in the modern sense, need some form of evangelist or champion within any given organization who hopes to turn this product into a healthy return on investment. Because the tool is new, now, it lies outside the typical imagination of the folks who are usually responsible for getting the client to try (and pay for!) new technological advances: the marketing folks. That’s not to imply that marketing folks are unimaginitive, but rather that until someone has been exposed to not just the demo but also seen some practical applications in action, it doesn’t come up as an option.  That, then, is our role within the broader career field to come. We need to find a way to communicate the possibilities in meaningful fashion so that these new technologies can be put through their paces and the boundaries of the possible expanded for everyone.

Beyond what you can doodle with in PowerPoint.

Until that day, I retain my mixed feelings about Negroponte’s idea of stripping away the human professional from the design equation.  And I dread the concept of graphic designers ending up as the secretarial pool of the new millennium, seen not as guides to the world of visual aesthetics, but instead ‘tools’ themselves to compensate for the fact that most business executives don’t have a design eduction, but would really like to be able to tap into one as a form of internal advertising for attention to their projects and ideas.

Damn you, PowerPoint. Let’s hope tech like PageFlex can save the day.

Negroponte, N. (2003). Soft Architecture Machines (Selection). In Waldrip-Fruin & Montfort (Eds.), New Media Reader, Cambridge: MIT Press.


6 responses to “The Death of Design Professionalism, A Mixed Reaction

  1. exploringinteractivecommunication

    Nice comparing with the article.

  2. This was a solid read. It’s interesting…the more we read, both inside this class and out, the more the issue of “replacing humans with computers” arises. I’m just starting to get into this game, so I, like yourself, hopes that new technology will save the day, like you said. I also agree that their is an art to it, and that PowerPoint, or any other simplistic stand-in-program simply cannot suffice. The “new secretaries” concept…yikes! I sure as hell hope not, but it was interesting to read about your experiences in the past! I hope the industry doesn’t head in the wrong direction.

  3. I’m not a professional designer. I never have been and I don’t pretend to know how to do that service. My only experience with anything remotely designerish is the newspaper I did senior year in college that got me fired. I took pictures off my friends digital cameras, wrote fictitious articles around them and layed them out so it looked like a newspaper. The end result looked really good and I was complimented on it by everyone who saw it (except my boss’s boss).

    I was able to do this without knowledge because of the templates include in that particular software package. Don’t design/layout templates already cut the amount of work a designer does? Experience will always be able to make things better. An experience professional will always be able to do produce something better than me tweaking a template. Hasn’t the vast number of template options already empowered amateurs in design issues?

  4. And that’s a perfect perspective, Ryan.

    Generally speaking, ‘templates’ are seen as confining to designers. That doesn’t mean that we don’t use them when it’s appropriate, most commonly in direct mail houses. But there’s a difference between “conventions” which are particular to each medium of design (for example, a minipole sign usually includes an area toward the bottom right which is kept blank so that the store owner can hand-write in the price of what’s being sold), but templates are a different animal entirely.

    As a graphic designer, you sort of have to start either from a blank page (the most common), or by picking up a layered file which has already been created and repurposing it for some other use (called a ‘pick up’). The client depends upon your knowledge of how best to arrange the page elements particular to the message, tone, venue, product, purpose, etc.

    Templates are files where different elements are designed like variables to be switched out or customized for use. The structure of the template doesn’t change overall, just the variable areas. Templates are more like ‘Chinese Menus’: choose one background, one banner treatment, and one photo placement, and ta-da! you have a ________.

    The role of the designer when templates are involved is to -design- the template for end users to customize. All decisions on what can or can’t be changed is made at the front end of the template design process – by the time it hits the user it tends not to be supremely customizable beyond the initial variable parameters that the designer chose to put into the end-user’s control.

    At least, that’s how PageFlex works.

    Hope that helps to clarify. In design, the hardest version is the first version, because you’re starting from “nothing” (or from an assemblage of influences and inspirations that don’t directly equate).

  5. Thanks for the input on templates. I was refering to using templates to bypass a designer. Say I want to create a website. I see it has having three options: hire a designer, do it myself from scratch or use a template. If I choose to use a template doesn’t that already take work away from designers?

    But at the same time I can see templates creating a different type of work for design professionals. Someone has to create the templates don’t they? So I guess that I see templates has changing the type of work that a design does. Instead of dealing with customers to create something unique to them, don’t templates cause designers to spend time create flexible options that could be used in a variety of applications?

  6. Looking to hire someone with PageFlex experience to work on a project. Know anyone who’s interested in some extra work?

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