20-odd years is a long time by any standards, particularly in one career.
But 22 years is precisely how long I’ve been working as a graphic designer. Sure, it may not be my job title any more – and I wear a lot more hats these days – but I still consider it at the core of what I do, and it’s still what I put down as my occupation on forms.
So what is it about graphic design that has managed to hold my interest and enthusiasm for this long?
Simple – variety. By which, I think I mean…
Although what I do hasn’t fundamentally changed per se – problem solving and generating ideas are still the name of the game – the platforms and tools have changed more than I could have imagined way back at university in 1995.
I started my career right at the beginning of the digital revolution. Traditional repro houses and the manual hand-laid artwork processes had been superceded by Mac’s and fledgling DTP software. Email had just started being used as a means of communication, not as a marketing tool. The internet was still dial-up for most people. Websites were about, sure, but a lot of businesses didn’t really know why they needed them.
Graphic design was still largely focused on print – corporate ID, brochures, DM, packaging, and ‘traditional’ advertising in magazines or outdoor.
Did someone say ADSL?
Then the internet got faster. Which meant our tools got faster too. Image searching was now keyword-based rather than looking through a paper catalogue. Artwork got sent over ISDN or FTP, rather than physically posted (or couriered) on a SyQuest or CD-Rom.
More importantly websites suddenly became big business – for every business. So graphic designers had a new challenge – interface design.
In these early days experimentation was king. There were some truly horrible things out there back then – but there was also something cool about the sheer volume of different ideas out there.
The internet looked different. Very different.
There was more variety. And visually that’s somewhat lacking in today’s digital universe of lookalike apps, themes, templates and patterns.
Whilst I applaud the fact that the world probably looks ‘better designed’ today than it did back then, I feel like the value of design has got a little lost.
Canva lets anyone ‘design’ pretty much anything – from a logo to a colour scheme to a brochure to an animated banner. Choose a template, amend to you liking, publish.
I hate to say it, but I get why people like this. Because whilst it’s easy to make it look awful, with a bit of common sense and a keen eye you can end up with a respectable looking design for very little effort and cost. Great for small businesses – and for the ‘creative’ Gen Z types it’s perfect. Everyone can be a ‘designer’.
And now there’s AI
JP Morgan have already bought into Persado to start writing their ‘creative’ ad copy. Google translate started off awful. But thanks to machine learning it now produces pretty respectable results in most languages. So it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that AI-driven design is only just around the corner. After all, most of what designers are taught – the golden ratio, typographic rules, colour theory, image composition – can likely be reduced to rules as lines of code.
It’s already started – thegrid.io may currently be in limbo (awaiting V3), but their cloud based website builder used AI to create custom websites from the content you wanted on it. It largely got panned by critics, but you know that the technology will catch up.
What about social media?
The game really changed in the last five to ten years. Social media got monetised. Brands became aware of the power of these platforms, and the platforms themselves took advantage of that. Advertising on these channels is now big business.
In the early days, the advertising was much like the traditional ad channels. Campaigns would be modified to suit social. Today, it’s the other way around. Social is king.
But the biggest change has been in the targeting and measurement of campaigns. We can now not only specify what audience we want to target, but we can also see their behaviours. And more importantly we can see what is or isn’t working.
So whilst it often goes against the idea of “the perfect execution”, we as designers must recognise that in order to have an ad which performs better, we’re going to need to get used to changing our designs. A lot.
Subjective post-rationalisation as to why you made certain design choices does not stand a chance against the cold hard data of click-through engagement. Because if blue works, then blue is what we’ll give them.
So, what’s next for designers?
Well, the incredible pace of change – and the resulting need for incredible pace – means that new tools are being created to enable us mere mortals to keep up with demand. We are expected to do more in less time than ever.
Which means that automating (or at least speeding up) previously laborious production tasks is a necessity. Whether it’s cutting out images from a background in 5 seconds (see remove.bg) or resizing a layout for multiple formats or sizes (Adobe had this covered with ‘liquid layouts’ back in 2012). All of which means we can produce better quality output, fast.
And as for bemoaning the standardisation of design, well that’s always been a popular topic among the creative fraternity. To think that designers have always been truly ‘original’ is a mistake. Copying, borrowing, being inspired-by, plagiarising. Whatever you call it, artists of all kinds have been doing it since the dawn of recorded history. The romans copied the greeks, 1980s housing developers copied the tudors, Arial copied Helvetica, etc etc. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and all that.
I doubt very much if (intentionally or not) I’ve ever produced anything truly ‘unique’. But I’m totally comfortable with that, and hope that in my own way I at least made it that bit different, or hopefully even better, than the original source of inspiration.
I also have to remind myself that as media and formats mature, so patterns and best practices emerge. Which is why most apps and websites look pretty similar to each other today. The devil is in the detail – which is where designers like me can add that extra ‘je ne sais quoi’.
As for the robots…
I look forward to seeing what’s next… and to getting my teeth into it. How can I complement these new technologies? How might I give them purpose or direction?
I hope that when it comes down to it, I’ll still do what I’ve always done…
Which is to solve problems by thinking ‘outside the box’ – to take an insight and turn it into a big idea. Helping create and craft beautiful visuals alongside my talented team mates.
And most importantly, together we aim to produce work which resonates with people.
Because for the time being at least, designing for humans is still best done by humans.
Gavin Grissett, Deputy Creative Director (and graphic designer)
*Apologies for the lack of actual ‘graphic design’ in this post by the way. Shall we call it ‘design thinking’ instead?