We designers too often sell ourselves as practitioners of software. And we fear that once the secret is out, we will no longer be able to useful to our clients. Our magic will be gone. Clients will learn the secrets of design, and no longer need designers. It’s as if the designers are afraid of a client getting ahold of InDesign and being able to do it all themselves. This is hogwash.
This misconception is mostly the fault of designers ourselves. We use software. We rely on it. And, unfortunately we occasionally slip into thinking that our profession is based upon software. Worse, we allow our clients to think so.
There are no secrets in design.
Without even going into vastly important client service and communication skills required to be a designer1, there are vast sets of technical knowledge that go beyond knowing how software works.
There are types of ink that should be used in certain applications. Some papers hold up better to embossing than others. One CMS may be better suited for a certain website than another. Typography should have hierarchy that makes writing easier to parse. Color can evoke a mood. The lower case letter e should tuck nicely into an uppercase letter T in the word Teresa.
None of these things are secrets. But applying these things takes skill. And often it takes experience. I’ve been in the business long enough now to watch it happen. I’ve seen young designers hone their skills and improve. They are not learning new secrets. They’re not learning new software. They are, indeed, sharpening the skills needed to apply their knowledge.
The field of design is a trade and a craft. It’s applying a set of skills. There is no magic tied up in software that will do the work for you.
But what about the snazzy new design software?
The things software does these days is amazing. Let’s be honest. You can go to SquareSpace (or any other of the dozens of build-it-yourself services out there) and have a pretty site built inexpensively, and no need for a designer. There are stock photo sites galore, so photos and illustrations are yours for the downloading, and you never need to hire a photographer or illustrator.
This happens on the print side of design as well. There are over-night logo shops all over the web. Paula Scher even designed some fill-in-the-blank stationery that could be downloaded from HP.
I would argue that if you’re on a super tight budget, that some of these services may even be the best bet for a client (well, the HP templates are stretching things—no, I wouldn’t recommend those). Or better yet, if a client has a limited budget, why not recommend them to build the site themselves on the cheap and pay a designer to design a decent logo? When their business picks up, maybe they will remember you as the designer who gave them solid advice and hire you to design their website.
I know designers who are intimidated by the fact that these things are now possible. And it is intimidating. But a designer should not be be intimidated. A designer is not a button pusher. If you allow yourself to become one, you will be inevitably replaced by software. Remember it takes skills to design, and designing requires more skills than operating software.
But what is a designer to do?
Don’t deny these things are happening. Software is getting very sophisticated. These days, you can not only take photos with your cell phones, but you can color correct and do touch up on them as well—on your cell phone. A pro may scoff, but the potential is there.
Sell yourself for what you are. A designer. Your skill lies not in knowing where the saturation slider in Photoshop is, your skill lies in knowing when and how far to slide it. Your skill lies not in how to create a few pages of html that look good on an iPhone, your skill lies in making sure the typeface is appropriate to the content.
Everyone has Helvetica on their machine, but not everybody knows when Helvetica is the right choice. Everyone can make a logo on the top of the page as big as they like, but not everyone knows when the logo is too big on the page. Anyone can turn on a WordPress site, but not everybody knows that the homepage of their site is no place press releases.
Ultimately, this is what you do as a designer. The software just helps. The skills a designer practices are not using software, they are just made easier by software.
Talking to people and explaining why you’re making a particular choice to a client is a major part of design. ↩