Are Graphic Designers Stupid?

A portion of the public* thinks graphic designers are stupid. What else can be the rationale for offers we are presented?

*at least here in the US

What is your procedure when hiring a service professional? Imagine approaching a plumber, “I have a leak that needs to be fixed ASAP, I think it would be really good practice for you, you’ll be parking your truck in my driveway, which is great advertising, I’ll tell all my friends what a great job you did, no, I won’t actually pay you but I will be super appreciative, it’s a win-win, what do you say?” You wouldn’t even consider such a plan, yet every graphic designer is familiar with this kind of nonsense.

I offer an incomplete list of offers in lieu of payment graphic designers receive: This will be good exposure for you; You get to do what you love; It’s good practice; It will lead to more jobs in the future; I’ll refer you to my friends; You can use it in your portfolio; and finally the tease of real payment: I’ll solicit several designs from various designers, but only pay for the one I like.

Why is this behavior so commonly directed toward graphic designers? While the assertion that public perception of designers as stupid or naive is hyperbolic, there is something going on here. Perhaps the problem lies not necessarily with how designers are perceived, but with their work. The work itself is undervalued and misunderstood. Is it the often intangible nature of the work? You can’t touch a logo. Or is it that the work product can belie the time, effort and expertise necessary to craft it?

It is worth noting undervaluation of design is not universal. The delineation often falls along economic lines. For example, small or new businesses cutting corners find little use for graphic design. Economics may exacerbate the issue, but it is not the cause.

There are other factors to consider in this conundrum. An obvious issue and one often discussed with discomfiture amongst designers are low cost and crowdsourced design providers. How high can public perception of a service or product be when it is offered for $5.00? The evolution to an all-digital workflow, the democratization of tools also affects perception. How useful can graphic design be if a 12-year-old can apparently become proficient?

I have heard the argument that the newness of the profession is a factor. But, there are newer professions that don’t suffer these issues. Continuing the analogy, indoor plumbing wasn’t ubiquitous in the US until after 1930. It may be more correct that inscrutableness is more of a concern than newness. What percentage of people can differentiate good design from bad?

All these individual issues stem from an education problem. Where and when are we taught that design in general or graphic design specifically has value? Graphic designers talk about the need to educate clients at least as often as complaining about crowdsourcing. Turning people on to the value of design, one at a time is not a waste, but certainly can’t keep pace, and does nothing to address the underlying causes. I personally advocate educating clients and the public about the virtues of design and designers, but I don’t think a bottom-up, grassroots approach is the only direction we should exploring, we need systemic changes to how design and taught and implemented.

There are countries where the public valuation is higher and design is embraced. Culturally what is different? A different value system, different priorities, are they smarter, savvier? I believe the secret lies in the number of organizations and governments that promote the value of design* If governments pay for design and innovation and it is taught in schools, it invariably changes public perception. We don’t do much of those things here, sometimes the opposite.

* E.g.: Innovation UK, Design Council, Behavioural Design Lab/Insights Team, Government Digital Service in UK, Sitra and Helsinki design lab in Finland, MindLab in Denmark.

A local municipality recently had a to deal with a tumult related to the possible racist overtones of the town seal, used on the police cruisers, letterhead, and other ephemera. The Mayor did not seek the advice of professionals, instead, he held a contest to find a new, free and less racist seal. This exemplifies not only indifference but is active ignorance about what design is and how it is best applied. When multiplied across the nation at various level of government these kinds of incidents contribute the notion that designers, or at least what they do is stupid.

We can see the problem but how can it be ameliorated? The current political climate in this country does not seem receptive to addressing a nuanced and seemingly art-related topic. But we should still be trying. I believe the professional organizations that do exist in the US need to be encouraged by their membership to take more of a leadership role in this direction. It may have veered into cliche, but voting still matters. The next time a politician seeks out your vote, ask what their position on design and innovation is. They won’t know what is important to you until you tell them.