War in the Studio

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Creatives dish on the battle with commoditization

Calling Orson Welles. Remember him? Seems like the battle to end all battles in the fight against commoditization is forcing today’s creatives into a new war of the worlds. And it has been getting ugly.

While the contemporary feud between the digital and physical realms involves fewer aliens, it poses similar threats. This time, professional designers are being forced to charge higher fees than all of those do-it-yourself websites because of the superior work they can provide.

And as the battle rages on, designers are starting to ask if, in an ever-digitizing world where price often rules, they can still overcome their online counterparts and prove victorious.

“People have the ability to go online and order graphic design for really cheap or even to make their own website,” says Loryn O’Donnell, an adjunct design professor at University of Texas Arlington, president of AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) Dallas-Fort Worth, and owner of the graphic design firm Lo & Co. “With the way that the internet works, commoditization is bound to happen.”

Meaghan Dee believes that is a problem. “[Commoditization] is decreasing the value of graphic design,” says Dee, an assistant professor and chair of the graphic design program at Virginia Tech and co-chair of the AIGA Design Educators Community. “You write an estimate for someone and they go, ‘Why should I pay you this when my friend said he could do it for $50,’ or ‘There’s this website I saw that can do it for $90.’”

Dee says lower prices can persuade individuals to pursue more generalized, templated options that focus solely on aesthetics and leave professionals behind. She estimates that only about one in five potential clients stay with her after the price talk, but argues that they were the ones who made the smart financial choice.

In her experience, opting to work with an actual graphic designer proves more economically savvy in the long run. “It’s hard to get that across to the general public. A logo done well is about more than the aesthetics; it’s about understanding the company and what it is they are wanting to convey.”

It is about effectively communicating with a client’s customers to better serve their needs and increase revenue. Dee says that while logo generators and website templates can make something look pretty, the ornamented appearance of company graphics is not sufficient to make a business successful.

More than just looks

Truth be told, cheap, automated options don’t allow for the advancement of unique, personalized business strategies and brand development. “Part of the problem [with commoditization] is that it’s just [about] looks,” O’Donnell says. “Design isn’t just about looking good, it’s problem solving. Real design work necessitates an application of research and expertise to find a precise solution.”

“Design isn’t just about looking good, it’s problem solving.
Real design work necessitates an application of research and expertise to find a precise solution.”
— Loryn O’Donnell, Lo & Co.

Those are things that preprogrammed code in a graphic-generator website cannot offer. So too are user studies and contextualization—two other design essentials that Dee says set professionals apart. “[Graphic design] really has to be about our human ability to see the bigger picture, see the context in which something is being applied. If you’re just looking at form [as cheaper web options are,] you can make all sorts of mistakes like cultural appropriation, or ripping somebody off, or not really thinking if it looks like somebody else’s logo, or sending the wrong message.”

And, as you know, that is bad for business.

Dee warns that while the cheaper options commoditizing the graphic design landscape might temporarily suffice, they will not really go the distance. There is no good substitute for a custom design, she says.

O’Donnell sees it exactly the same way. For her, shopping for a design is like buying furniture. “You can always purchase really cheap, mass-produced items and build them yourself, and for a moment, it will be good enough. It does its job decently, but it will always feel a bit generic. It’s not the best solution for your precise living room—the final construction always feels just a bit wonky, and in time you start noticing that same cheap furniture in many other places.”

That’s good news for graphic designers. Because of all the issues that accompany cheap, churned-out designs, the size of the commoditization problem can be controlled. “If your graphic design work is not providing a deeper level of work than can be acquired online, then yes, commoditization of design is going to be a huge problem for you,” O’Donnell says. “But if design professionals continue to offer what a computer can’t, they have a chance to remain lucrative in the industry.”

For example, the majority of O’Donnell’s clients already had websites before they sought out her professional expertise and services, but did so because their existing generic sites didn’t perform as they hoped. Thus, she suggests that company leaders will still turn to true designers to achieve success despite the popularity and appeal of cheap graphic options.

“Almost all new clients today have already turned away from the nearly free options,” she says. “They’ve already checked out their other options before they contacted you…[and are] ready to buckle down with a strategist to take their design from decent to great.”

“[Graphic design] really has to be about our human ability
to see the bigger picture, see the context in
which something is being applied.”
— Meaghan Dee, Assistant Professor, Virginia Tech

While there are clients who are looking to do that, what they want is really all over the place. Dee says some clients have a vision that they just need someone to execute, while others really do want a design professional’s help shaping, adjusting or enhancing their company’s image.

So, how can graphic designers get the other individuals—the ones entranced by a cheaper price-tag who think of design as mere aesthetics—to keep from fleeing the professional realm?

The key is to explain your process. “Educate yourself in empathy and understand the unique audience for each specific product and company you work with,” O’Donnell says. “The rise of great design has created a world in which decent design is a gamble. The call to design solutions with purpose isn’t just a luxury; it makes or breaks otherwise solid business concepts every day.”