Once upon a time, we held the keys to the tools of the design process. No more.
Last month, after 30 days of typeface selections disguised as possible new corporate identity options, recently-installed Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer unveiled a final, new “logo” – complete with a video that pretended to show how it was all carefully drawn up with elaborate splines and vectors, and explained in a tidy Tumblr post about how fun the whole process had been.
To most people on the planet it was merely a passing news item, but within the graphic design community you’d have thought we’d each been personally Fedexed a ripe skunk covered with Super77: a squirming, odor-spewing of ball furry offensiveness we were simply unable to let go of. Comments sections of design blogs exploded with contempt. Erstwhile mild-mannered design purveyors swore like sailors. Typographers threatened to put out their own eyes. It created a minor (and industry-specific) social media maelstrom.So let's put aside, for the moment, the fact that it's awful. It is.
Let's also put aside for the moment, the fact that the "video" appears to take credit for Hermann Zapf's half-century-old typographic decisions. Yes, that’s despicable.Our industry did die a little bit that day, but for another reason, and not because someone did a lazy logo. Lazy logos alone don’t kill the design industry or we’d all be on display with the stegosaurs by now. Nor does it kill the companies that use them – the Google corporate ID is just as embarrassingly slapdash as Yahoo’s – bevels, clown colors and all. Yet Google’s brand is among the strongest on the planet. Tech is rife with visual dreck, and yet the money flows in unabated. But most of the time, at least you could blame one of us for the awfulness. If it were dreck, at least it was our dreck.
Mayer's post on the birth of Yahoo’s new ID is something new and different and potentially much scarier. At first blush, it’s just a cute, chirpy note about her “process” – “playing around” with Adobe Illustrator over a weekend and polling employees about serifs. But what it really says is, “Logos are just type. Anyone with a computer can do this. It's fun. Designers just cost us a lot of time and money.”Ladies and gentlemen of the design industry, Welcome To The DIY Era.
And it’s not just Yahoo, either. This is a whole new breed of client we’re dealing with, whose marketing degrees were earned with the completion of mock campaigns that did not include even mock designers. Their campaign theses were DIY’d, comps and all. Newly graduated, now they make real decisions for real brands. At my agency, we’ve seen it firsthand.For example, a new, young contact at a tech client, a company we’ve worked with for half a decade, suddenly presented us with his own layouts for an ad – to run in front of our design peers in an advertising publication. And he ran them. And they were not good.
Then, a Fortune 10 client of ours told us, in a completely separate event, “guys, if we have enough information to put a brief together, we'll simply do the work ourselves – this is now encouraged here, across the organization, across lines of business.”Later the same week, one of our sister company’s very bright research employees surprised me with a general knowledge of CS5 – he’d had a class in college called something like, “Visualization for Marketing Presentations 101” where he’d gotten an overview of and a smidgen of training in the graphing and typographic tools in Adobe Illustrator 5.5, and, therefore, the permission to use them in public. From a design perspective, that's like being partly trained to use an assault rifle.
Who let this happen? What amendment put such powerful weapons in the hands of the gloriously ill-suited?Well… it’s mostly our fault. Let’s face it. If our only raison d’etre is access to the “mystery” that is design software, we deserve the turmoil we get. The “crisis” the Macintosh wrought upon professional typesetters in the early 1990s, professional color separators in the mid 1990s and TV creators in the late 1990s, now threatens us. Consider our collective petard hoisted.
We used to hold the means of production hostage and, for access to those tools, clients had to hire us. Now they don’t. Not for logos. Not for collateral. Not for video. Because we’ve held these keys to the technical toolshed for so long, we’ve gotten a little lazy ourselves.In a lot of cases, we’ve gotten bad at delivering work quickly enough, proving its potential effectiveness, explaining the value of craft and championing the cultural effects of design. So bad, that client-side marketers – or, now apparently, even c-suite execs – increasingly buy that Adobe Suite and take matters into their own hands. This is the new reality.
Why? Is it really because it’s fun to see your words look a little like real typography at the tug of a pulldown menu? Maybe.
But if you ask them, it’s more that clients don't like working with some of us on a lot of days. On a lot of days, the Professional Design Industry comes off, to them, as a bunch of time-wasting, overpaid crybabies; we're not seen as data-driven. We're often inarticulate artists who make aesthetically pleasing but strategically questionable decisions. Some of us don't charge enough to command respect, while others charge laughable amounts for things like (just to pick on one) Arnell’sTropicana rebrand that required immediate undoing, or their ridiculously expansive Pepsi logo exploration book, which made our entire industry look like sucker's game.I’ve been at this job since Miami Vice was considered a design touchstone and more than at any other time in my career, we’ve had to constantly prove and re-prove the value of the profession.
If we can't make Adobe remotely disable their client-side copies of CS6 (can we?), what do we do? We have to be everything our clients think we're not: More collaborative. More articulate about things that matter. And much more willing to deliver work on a schedule that's in sync with the demands of business.One of our largest clients was kind enough to tell us outright: “We don’t need you to execute briefs. We need your unique insight, your speed, your strategy, your executional chops and your innovations. We need you (only) to be what we can’t be ourselves.”
Which, if you think about it, is what we all should want out of life, right?It’s really never been that our agency owns 45 Photoshop licenses, or that our art directors know how to change Illustrator’s kerning increments. More than ever, the software is as available as hammers at Home Depot. As an industry we have to remember, in times like these, that it’s not that we can build, it’s what we can build.
Scott C. Montgomery is a Partner at Bradley and Montgomery (BaM), an independent creative agency located in Santa Monica, Indianapolis and New York City. Because they deliver innovative, difficult and sometimes unusual projects to completion on accelerated schedules, they’ve been called “an agency with a sense of urgency.” They reside on the web at bamideas.com .