The State of Design, Today

23 April, 2023
The term describing the phenomenon of giving shape to hypothetical possibilities that solve problems, is a term that is a lot more complex in its nature. From the top of my head, some of the design branches out there include industrial design, graphic design, game design, sound design, web design, user interface design, interior design, and lighting design. If your work involves designing digital artefacts, you're likely to come across the nuances of the industry.

Some practitioners will be referred to as human-centred designers, experience designers, information designers, interaction designers, social designers, sustainable designers, product designers or even more peculiar front-end designers, creative designers, and screen designers. Just in case anyone out there wasn't confused enough about what designers do, practitioners decided to invent the ideology known as design thinking. So what's with all the titles? And how are they different? Well, it's complicated.

The discipline of design is in constant change, as it is defined by the current global issues it addresses. In the digital space, new paradigms are dominated by new technologies. If we take a look at graphic designers and their practice, they used analogue tools in their endeavour – pen and paper, maybe a ruler, some ink, a typesetter. Once the computer came about, they leveraged the machine's capability to carry out bulky actions a lot faster, so some slowly transitioned towards digital design. Today, the world is defined by markets. Markets are flooded with products. Designers tend to be adaptable to the given environmental circumstances (a common attribute for design thinkers) so many have shifted focus to designing digital products. We're living in the Product Design era.

Throughout their existence, designers have willingly or unwillingly been reinventing themselves to stay relevant, and although the disparity between the discipline of design and art is significant, one could argue in favour of artists having a better track record of not letting themselves be influenced by the latest life trends in order to retain their genius. As creative and gifted as they are, designers face an identity problem by acting in response to situations, rather than creating or controlling them proactively.

Product Designers benefit from a proliferation of products available, and a scarcity of individuals equipped with the requisite expertise to construct them. But for how long? And what then for designers? Many will move into managerial roles as they will get promoted, some will become educators while others will become consultants or agency owners. Let's look at some of the common design journeys on the professional landscape.

For many, the path often starts with a role that involves designing interfaces, either as a UI designer or visual designer. These profiles are production focused and often have little business focus. Others enter the profession as researchers and their main tool is empathy. As the practice becomes more commodified, practitioners transition into more strategic roles, where they seek to create more impact. They often shift attention to either project management, UX research or strategy. I have yet to come across designers being interested in the practice of leadership unless it involves a promotion of some kind, as well as a salary bump. That's surprising because design is a practice focused on cultivating human lives, just as leadership is. But designers tend to be more concerned with the nuts and bolts of the artefacts that they're busy conceptualising and not as much with the epistemological aspect of the practice. Until more recently, at least.

Some never seek leadership or managerial roles as they're happy practising. While acknowledging the acceptability of the current situation, it is worth considering the need for enhanced representation of design profiles in senior leadership positions within organizations. Who can we consider the allies of designers and who is willing to champion the cause of the creative teams during times of impending workforce reductions?

Those mid-level individuals that are more visually inclined tend to become Creative Directors. The UX and strategy folks that are more versatile usually find their way to becoming impact players and take on roles that are not as design-focused but are more growth-oriented, such as product ownership roles or even sales. Another common path is the design thinking one. Organisations will often mislabel design thinkers and consider them UX designers or researchers of some kind. Ah yes, organisations. That's where the reality hits and where professionals become cognizant of the various manners in which their job titles and skillsets are evaluated, different to the idealistic portrayal of the design practice found in specialised literature.

Very few transition to business roles and if they do, then it's most often by starting their agency. That seems like an obvious call – after many years in the industry, some get to master the profession and have the resources to run several projects simultaneously, as a firm. That's a big job in itself and involves being able to:

– communicate with clients and understand their needs. This means dealing with several stakeholders and being amenable to their interests and goals;

– execute design work to match the clients' needs and expectations;

– guide and cultivate junior designers through the execution process (optional);

– operate within the client's budgets to garner profit;

– navigate lots of occurring challenges along the way;

– perform all the above while on several projects, while staying sane.

The design agency market is a very competitive one, yet a pretty healthy one. The total number of agencies in the world is unknown, however, the design agency market in the U.S. is estimated at US$65 billion in 2022. China, the world's second-largest economy, is forecasted to reach a market size of US$55.5 billion by 2030. Among other noteworthy geographic markets are Japan and Canada, each forecast to grow at 3.4% CAGR (compound annual growth rate) over the 2022-2030 period. Within Europe, Germany is forecasted to grow at approximately 3.1% CAGR.(1) More on business in Europe in a future article.

The global market size is projected to reach US$ 718710 million by 2026, from US$ 593840 million in 2020.(2) These numbers are a good reason to be optimistic if you're the owner of a design agency. The cake is still big enough for lots of design practitioners out there, but for how long? And what then? And what about the creative aspect of design, the sweet spot that makes a lot of people interested in the field in the first place? As we live in times where everything is turned into data and the emphasis is on the rational, is there and will there be any room left for creativity?

Designers care about making a positive difference in the world. They're constantly on the lookout for opportunities to be impactful, except they're not very good at shedding light on the "how". Denmark, a country renowned for exporting high-quality design products (and also where I happen to live), has delved into this issue. According to a 2021 study conducted by the Danish Design Center, agencies in Denmark encounter difficulties in articulating how their work generates value. The report is in danish, but here are some highlights:

– the majority of the respondents' work for clients who are private companies, and most of the business is local rather than international;

– agencies tend to offer various different types of services: implementation of new products and services but also of new business models as well as user research, among others;

– agencies lack personnel possessing competencies in digitalisation or business acumen;

– among the foremost impediments encountered by agencies are the clients' reluctance to allocate adequate resources to design, alongside their prolonged decision-making processes, followed by perpetual reorganizations;

– 30% of the respondents concluded that they're inefficient in rendering visible the value that is generated through their work.(3)

On a personal level, I feel that we designers don't seem to have too many options when it comes to what our practice looks like. It seems like the more our skills become commodified, the more we have to start looking elsewhere to stay relevant.

However, I do think that the creative values that we were thought in school need get back into the culture. Not just our culture, but the culture of the organisations that we're part of. I also think that we're capable of reestablishing those values, but only if we're willing to make an effort in preserving the design practice on a holistic level. And that is what I intend to do, both through my writing but also through my work.