gun to head

I’ve been working in my professional career for over 4 and a half years now. To most people that’s probably considered not very long. But I can still remember a time when I was a recent graduate just entering the work force. I was all doey-eyed and idealistic. And man, has the ‘real world’ of privatized corporations and public sector bureaucracy crushed my soul.

I always thought of myself as a creative and an artist. I mean, reading books and academic literature about theses topics; I fit the descriptions.

I had this expectation that if I pursued interests in art, creativity and design, I could provide some real cultural value to the world and feel fulfilled.

But the longer I’ve worked in my career, I’ve realized the ‘real world’ doesn’t hold the same values as I do. Much of the artistic and creative endeavours that I adore are often commoditized.

But let me back up and provide some much needed context for my thoughts…

My own personal story

In one of my first jobs, I was hired as a multimedia designer. It was my job to help make graphics, build websites and edit videos. With my background in multimedia and copywriting this seemed awesome.

But what I soon realized was that my bosses wanted me to administratively manage design related projects being outsourced to external freelancers and agencies, rather than produce them myself. These business owners felt it was more productive and cost efficient to outsource design work for as cheaply as possible, with services like 99Designs and UpWork, rather than have the work done in-house.

I remember one time, a graphical HTML email layout needed to be created. At that point, I had never designed and coded one before. It seemed like a new challenge and I wanted to do it for no other reason than I had a passion to learn and to create. But my boss wanted me to outsource the work to someone online in the Philippines for “$5 an hour and a bag of rice.” (He was being sarcastic about the bag of rice). My boss thought my time was better spent managing this outsourced freelancer, who was only going to make edits to a pre-made template that fit our needs, than giving me the opportunity to try new work and to grow.

I begged and pleaded for my boss to let me do it and eventually got my boss to break (he was actually a pretty stand up guy after all, and I understand he was only trying to run the most lean business possible), but that’s when I started to realize how much little value business owners give to design work. And experiences like this happened over and over again even when I moved onto other jobs.

And maybe you’ve experienced this too, where you have design skills but your client or boss is asking you to outsource the work to someone, or even groups of people, online for faster and cheaper than it would take if you had done the work yourself.

In an article of How Magazine, titled “An Irreversible Movement,” by David C. Baker, he said:

Design is or (soon will be) approaching commodity status, but the management of the design process is difficult, misunderstood, and undervalued.

As a young professional in the beginning of my career, I was watching this happen right before my eyes. The very work I loved doing was commercially becoming less and less valuable.

But I’m getting ahead of myself again and need to back up and answer the question…

What is a Commodity?

And to answer this I’ve pulled together a few definitions from online dictionaries.

  • Commodity: a physical substance, such as food, grains, and metals, which is interchangeable with another product of the same type.
  • Commodity: a good or service whose wide availability typically leads to smaller profit margins and diminishes the importance of factors (as brand name) other than price.
  • Commodity: a good for which there is demand, but which is supplied without qualitative differentiation across a market.

So there are some related ideas above. And I think I can adequately define a commodity as a good and/or service where there is little difference in quality across a market and where the buying decision comes down to price and price alone.

Keep this in mind as I go along. So the next question becomes…

What is Design?

This is another question that needs to be address, but defining design is a topic that on its own can take several posts. So I’ll keep it simple and straight forward.

To me, design is a planned solution to a problem.

When we’re talking about graphic design and visual communication, the problem is naturally one of communicating a message to an audience visually. When we talk about web design we add in solving problems of usability and other technical concerns.

Rarely if ever is there a single solution to a design problem.

I think part of a designer’s job is deciding the best, or most appropriate, solution to a problem. This then implies that there is more than one solution to any given problem. And if there can be multiple solutions to a problem, this then implies that some solutions are of higher quality than others. And if designers can judge the quality of a solution, then the quality of design varies across a market.

On the other hand, is there truly a best solution? I mean, you and I could come up with a different design for any client, but does that necessarily mean your design is better than mine or mine better than yours? In order to answer that I think we need to judge a solution based on its application of creativity.

So now we have to ask ourselves…

What is Creativity?

Here are some more definitions I came across to explain what creativity is and what role it plays in design:

  • Creativity is the ability to generate innovative ideas and manifest them from thought into reality. The process involves original thinking and then producing.
  • Creativity is the ability to produce something new through imaginative skill, whether a new solution to a problem, a new method or device, or a new artistic object or form.

We’re getting a collection of buzzwords here: innovative, original, new, imaginative, artistic. These are not words to describe a commodity. These words hint at qualitative differences, and in my definition of commodity above, I stated that commodities don’t show qualitative differences from solution to solution in a market.

I think creativity plays a crucial part in design.

I would argue that despite what we were told growing up in school, we don’t all possess significant creativity. Few people have true creativity and even fewer people are skilled at employing it.

I mean its true, anyone can make something, and anyone can make something up, and in this mundane sense everyone is creative.

But in a design-relevant definition of creativity, one must have the capacity to think differently, see differently, and make connections and perceive relationships in a way others would miss.

The point I want to make thus far is that I believe that design, or any of the other arts, is intrinsically separate from any notion of commoditization.

And yet, I’m personally experiencing an ever increasing transformation of design into a commodity in my career.

Now onto the hard-hitting questions…

Do Clients Value Design?

On some level they must, otherwise, why would our clients hire us, right? But if you search any small business forum it won’t take you long to find many people expressing opinions that design isn’t important, especially on the web. There’s a common thought that design isn’t necessary.

Personally, I think people are referring to design aesthetics when they say this, and to most people design and design aesthetics are one in the same. They’re not differentiating design and art. They point to examples like Craig’s List to show that you don’t need design to be successful. Personally I think there’s a lot more design in Craig’s List than people give it credit for. Aesthetics? No. Design? Yes.

Often I hear business owners claim content trumps design. And it’s true. Most people will put up with a very bad design if they feel the content is worth the effort.

However, from what I can tell most people don’t see the value in design. You and I do, but we’re designers. We think design matters and equate code to poetry. The best designs are often unnoticed to those not in the profession. It’s only when design gets in the way that people realize it’s impact. Bad designs stand out to the average user. Good design is seamless and unnoticed.

If the average person doesn’t see value in design, if they don’t see the difference between good and bad design, then what is the criteria for their buying decision? Likely price. If people don’t see the value of your services and can’t see the difference in what you offer as compared to the next designer aren’t they viewing you and design in general as a commodity? I would argue yes, and this is what I’ve been witnessing for years now.

It’s even possible that this has been happening for decades, it’s just that I haven’t been in my career long enough to be aware of it.

Designers have been commoditized

Let me ask you something.

If things like design patterns and design templates and website themes are the tools our clients ask us to use in our work, doesn’t that lead design down the path of commoditization? If we’re all using the same WordPress themes doesn’t that lead to a sameness in our websites?

If more and more designers use the same stock photography, videography and freely available icons, patterns and textures aren’t we commoditizing design? Aren’t we participating in the very act that is devaluing the craftsmanship of our work?

Globalization and the internet has allowed everything to be outsourced or done cheaper. Every part of the design process can be sent to someone who works for less than you do. Outsourcing to reduce costs leads design toward commodity status.

If the market doesn’t see the value in design and can’t see those differences in quality then they are commoditizing design. As tools are developed that enable anyone to create a design (good or bad) the supply of design increases. People start to buy on price alone, which leads many designers to compete based solely on price, which again leads us down a commodity path.

Some concluding thoughts

Can design be commoditized? I think the answer is yes, based on how the market views design.

Is design a commodity? No, it shouldn’t as there are always present differences in quality from design to design.

Design itself will never be a commodity, but the profession of design can be commoditized.

So what can you and I do about it? Because as far as I can tell, with today’s market and technology, commoditization is the direction this profession is going in.

To be honest, I don’t know what we should do about it. I’m still young (only 27 years old at the time of writing this) and probably haven’t lived long enough or acquired enough life experience to know what to do yet.

But I’ve always had a punk, anti-establishment streak in me. Perhaps on some subconscious level when I decided to quit my 9-5 job and start working independently I was symbolically turning my back against the normalcy of commoditized design so that I could create the kinds of work that truly matter to me.

And maybe, just maybe, somewhere along this journey I’d find some other like minded folks who share the same values as me. I think if we don’t want our profession to become a commodity that’s purchased for the lowest price we should do what we can to consistently improve our skills and knowledge to create better and better designs. I believe it’s hugely important to work on our own personal projects beyond just the client work we need to do to feed and shelter ourselves.

Ultimately quitting my job and taking on the world alone was an exercise in pursuing personal endeavours. We should never use price as a selling point and by example show others that good design outperforms bad design with measurable results.

What do you think? Do you think design is a commodity? Has it been or can it be commoditized?

John Cerpnjak

John Cerpnjak

John Cerpnjak is a Digital Marketing Consultant with specific skills in copywriting and design. Originally from Oakville, he now operates from Liberty Village in Toronto. John received his honours bachelor's degree in Multimedia and Communication Studies from McMaster University in 2011. He also received a post-graduate certificate from Humber College for Advertising Copywriting in 2013. Currently, John works with small to medium size business owners consulting on all matters of lead generation and customer acquisition. Having a deep respect for the Liberal Arts and Humanities, John keeps up with current affairs and is often critiquing his media consumption. John is an avid snowboarder and art enthusiast. He has an insatiable love for 90's grunge and alternative rock as well as comic book superheroes.
John Cerpnjak

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