Designers: Continual evolution of skills is essential

I’m a member of a few groups on Linkedin that I watch and often ignore, but one recent thread has compelled me into a rare opinion piece/blog.

The question — or concern for many — is, how can a designer be expected to do everything in the “Graphics” field from print design to HTML coding, from animation to advertising? In my opinion there are two reasons why we must have, at the very least, a working knowledge of the areas that overlap out own.

Firstly there is the economics. In the west, unless I’m off the beat, we’re fighting to come out of a recession and for a client and employer every penny counts. Banks have cut off access to much of the funding that might have seen them through a quiet, or cashflow weak, few months or quarters and so ever-more-so they are watching their spending like hawks. We all know in this industry how marketing budgets are the first to be cut when the big R rears its ugly head. Why pay for an agency or employee who can only do you a printed brochure and another who will build your website and a third who will do your advertising campaign when you can get one to handle all three? Whereas this thinking was once the realm of the big agency — which seems to still operate this way — for whom the big clients with big budgets go to; it is now the case that small to medium sized companies are seeking this kind of one-stop-shop offer too but at the price point they can afford. Can a smaller design agency therefore afford not to be able to offer clients everything under one roof?

What seems to have been the way around this of late has been to supplement your own skills with those of freelancers, where you might bring in a copywriter and a developer to deliver on a larger website, it now seems these freelancers are being squeezed into having to be able to do more than just their core skill set. Agencies are asking their annual report team to (also) deliver the online version of the report, to save on outsourcing, to keep the cashflow within the company — and ultimately ensure the job security of those employees. Which begs the question: How can you complain about  being asked to do more than your personal core skills when your employer is doing it to ensure they can still pay you?

Secondly there is the industry itself. Since it began it’s changed. Once designers used a paint brush like Toulouse Lautrec and type was hand drawn. Once designers had a handful of typefaces to select depending on what the printers had bought. They had to learn to use Letraset. They had to embrace the Mac. The bottom line? It’s evolving, it always has and it always will.

What seems to be the problem for many at the moment is that they didn’t see this evolution as applicable to them. They started designing or taking their degree when Macs we’re becoming the norm, when older designers were coming to terms with this new tool in their design arsenal. They had the jump on those older designers. They had the luxury of youth and an appetite to learn Photoshop 2 and Pagemaker, they picked up Quark and it was easy to learn it. They revelled in the new technology as the MTV generation and didn’t see that the older established designers were fighting to keep up with them — but they did, eventually. They spent their first few years in the industry cutting their teeth and learning that the client wants one thing and often needs another, all lessons that you just don’t learn in college. And then it seems they stopped thinking that had to keep learning. That they had done enough to be a proficient design in one area of the industry.

Perhaps they worked at a big agency and this wasn’t required? I know the same happened to me. I moved from a print agency, where I produced Annual Reports, to a digital agency at the height of the Dotcom boom. I spent 4 years with them designing websites, producing animated intro’s (so 1999!) and yet never getting any print projects despite asking for them and being more than capable of doing them. But is that a valid excuse for not knowing about print process? or web design? or SEO? or how to produce an exhibition stand?

These mid-30’s and early 40’s designers (alas) must learn to learn again. To seek out the knowledge online about each area that they feel short in — and in this day and age there’s so much information freely available online that there is little excuse for not finding it — and learn.

Ultimately they need to evolve and keep on evolving, for our industry will never stand still and our clients will eventually be forced to embrace every new channel that their customers use to access their brands. So unless you want another designer with the right knowledge to do the work the client needs it’s time to restart your education.

Leave a Reply