Thursday, November 17, 2011

What Is It that You Do Again?

“Designers like to play with shapes and colours.”
I had a really strong negative reaction when I read this statement in an article about differing perspectives between Information Architects and User Interface Designers. So much so that I wanted to quickly analyse why I should be so bothered by a seemingly innocuous and thoughtless throwaway line like that.

One of the downsides of defining my career as that of a graphic designer is that everyone I encounter has their own different take on what that is, what I can do and how I may be useful to them. (My current formal job title of ‘Brand Director’ also suffers from the same subjectivity.) Of course, in many ways job titles are not all that important, but it is always worth asking – as communications professionals – how well do we communicate what we do to our clients and to other interested parties.

When I look in at the web design world I observe a division of labour amongst specialisms: Information Architect, UI Designer, UX Designer and so forth. Then looking back at the world of the traditional, non-web, whatever-you-call-them-now, design and branding companies where I have worked, the convention has always been for more hierarchical titles: Junior Designer, Senior Designer, Design Director, Creative Director etc. So what is really being communicated is peopl’s experience level (and, by proxy, an indication of hourly rate). Different areas of expertise or specialisation are generally not acknowledged. Although that information can often be implicit such as where the company itself specialises, as with an FMCG packaging design consultancy. There are also a few intra-industry specialist titles like Artworker (remember those?) and Typographer (in the strict sense of a designer of typefaces) which would almost never get exposure to clients.

Two factors inspired my thinking on the lack of utility of titles within the graphic design sector. Firstly, some recent conversations I had with potential clients and other business people about their confusion when purchasing design services. Secondly, from observing that what I do best, and where I add most value, often seems to be some hybrid combination of the skills of Information Architects, UI Designers, UX Designers and Copywriters. (If I may co-opt some web design terminology into an offline context.) Perhaps that is what a graphic designer is these days; but I am not so sure...

To take just one example, I spent a lot of last month analysing, rewriting and designing an integrated system of complex application forms. I find this kind of all-absorbing, holistic design thinking challenge very rewarding. There are particular kinds of projects which can be most successful and efficient where one person is responsible for all of the language, the logical structure of the content and the visual expression. (I so wish there were many more of those projects.)

To resolve the optimal solution to this class of challenge is like playing Mr Spock’s four-dimensional chess: remembering the location of all the pieces on all the chess boards all the time (if you will forgive my use of such an uber-nerdy metaphor). Rewriting all of the language from the perspective of the applicant completing the forms, rather than of the bureaucrat processing them, was an exercise in tone and editorial choice. Deploying a visual cue or an affordance through typography allowed me to remove a line of instructions. Changing one of the design parameters might require me to rewrite some classes of text. Conversely, deciding on a global change to the language might force me to alter some aspect of the design. (Then repeat and iterate that multi-faceted and self-referential process for three weeks...)

Is it still appropriate to call this a graphic design project? To me it has become something a little more. Most graphic designers I have dealt with would be uncomfortable taking on the responsibility for rewriting, sub-editing and standardizing all of the text for a start.

Whatever this is, it is definitely a world away from “designers like to play with shapes and colours”.

For now, I think I am going have to live with my ongoing dissatisfaction with how to encapsulate what I do best. I don’t see myself handing out business cards that say: “Systematic, Analytic, Information-Savvy, Content-Sensitive, Word-Wrangler, Brand Consultant, and Graphic Designer”.