Extremes in Design Practice

I've worked my whole career within a design environment that was expected to yield product revenue as a result of customers realizing substantial direct business benefit from using the product. While I regularly celebrate the increasing importance of design in all aspects of society, I worry about two particular trends that I'm seeing that are less positive for the discipline.

One trend involves the use of design to simply attract more eyeballs. Startup companies know that they need great design, particularly visual design, to initially make them interesting to early adopter eyeballs, then to investors in order to be seen by even more eyeballs, and finally to have enough eyeballs to be sufficiently interesting to companies like Facebook, Google, and Yahoo! in order to acquire them. The latter companies, in turn, are simply interested in increasing the number of eyeballs staring at the digital properties they own so that they can sell advertising that will motivate some of the people attached to those eyeballs to buy actual products. I worry how sustainable this direction is with so much of design concentrated on essentially the advertising business. Of course these large companies do other things too that are of direct substantive value but the vast majority of their revenue comes solely from selling advertising. The role of design in advertising has a long history too but it is the redirection of product design into serving the needs of advertising that is unhealthy for the discipline in my view. 

Another trend could actually be considered to be the opposite to this one and that is the competitive direct selling of design services on a massive scale online. Online sites are emerging which claim to have a quarter of a million designers signed up and who compete with one another for design work projects. This isn't conceptually a bad thing in that it would seem to provide a ready marketplace for designers to make a living without having to first be hired into design firms. However, what worries me about this trend is the potential cheapening or commoditization of the discipline's work. Just like huge big box department stores who maniacle drive down prices to the point where suppliers end up with razor thin profit margins and have to do everything they can to reduce costs, this trend in design services similarly may well lead to driving lower prices and reducing costs.

I think we need to balance these two trends with an additional direction which involves companies who produce actual products realizing the importance of great design to their success. The effective leveraging of design by these companies is also happening and will yield real business and personal value for their customers and users. We must remember that it is these companies who are the advertisers that sustain the first category mentioned above and we need both for a healthy ecosystem for commerce and design.