Creativity Agency

Designers – sorry, but you’re not (just) designers anymore

By Dickon Laws | Global head of innovation

Ogilvy UK


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July 6, 2022 | 7 min read

From the goods economy to the creator economy, with rapidly evolving tools, the forces at work on designers are many. Dickon Laws, global head of innovation for Ogilvy Experience, tells us how designers need to evolve their focus in 2022.

What’s impacting design trends at the moment?​ I’m not sure you can answer that without first appreciating that the role of a designer is changing, let alone the way they design and create.

‘I’m a designer’: has that phrase ever been more confusing?

No. You are no longer just a designer. You’re a designer, developer, technologist, strategist, evangelist, creative team, producer...

A robot hand reaching out

Must designers in 2022 resist the pull toward a mechanization of their discipline? / Possessed Photography via Unsplash

What used to be the standard ‘designer’ prefixes (fashion, graphics, product, interior) were already confusing. When you add in the multitude of specialisms that now lie inside the design domain (service design, UX design, industrial design, interaction design), things get even foggier.

In the era of ‘the designer-maker’ (where proofs of concept, prototypes and unabstracted ideas are tools that demonstrate value, win hearts and minds and reduce development risk), designers are being forced to evolve further away from their specialist base skills, and into hybrids of many different crafts.

Steve Jobs’ famed quote “design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works” doesn’t go far enough to define the new pressures shaping the design community.

How it looks, how it feels, how it reacts, how it behaves, how it thinks... all these things are now the remit of the new ‘designer-maker’ archetype.

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The need for near-real-time everything

In my global innovation role, I’m aware that I’m part of the forces encouraging this transformation.

While I work for a large, networked organization with an acute focus on creative excellence, my world is built on the same culture as the startup community – modest budgets, intense growth demands and a need to be ‘first’ (or as close as possible) to capture the all-important competitive advantage.

This cocktail of constraints means I must look for extreme ‘multi-hatters’: those competent and confident in wielding the skillsets to try something new, with emerging technologies, while making sure the need for speed doesn’t compromise usability, aesthetic or product impact.

For many who have worked tirelessly on refining their craft and put in the hours to gain formal credentials, I know this is frustrating. But in this melting pot of challenges, perfection often gives way to progress. Brave experimenters have to supersede risk-averse specialists.

The viable and the beautiful

Under these conditions, the viable is the new beautiful. Lean is the new perfect. Agile has become the new complete. I know we can scale and revisit the rougher edges later, so I’m OK with triaging things that limit learning and deliver value-driven user benefits.

This is about a new breed of ‘makers’ who are happiest being in the vanguard of design v the rear-guard of scaled production.

There’s still a huge amount of value in being part of the larger group of people ready to scale something up. But now the front line is often shaping the trend for how those resources need to work.

John Maeda, author of How To Speak Machine, talks about how the demands on designers have changed due to the speed of technology and the expectations from stakeholders, investors and end-users on the quality of the products in the era of the “temple of tech.”

“Micro-improvements for computational products are constantly refreshed on a schedule as rapid as by-the-second, by-the-day or by-the-month, where the metric of quality is more often about how often it changes than about maintaining an unchanging product that pretends to be timelessly perfect,” says Maeda.

“For the [digital designer], waking up each morning and asking yourself how you can lower your high standards is an odd way to get started,” Maeda goes on. “You must accept that you’re not going to be drawing upon what you learned from browsing the latest art of design exhibition in London, Paris or New York, but instead clocking your time card into the world of MVPs – minimum viable products.”

All design does not currently sit well under these definitions.

Work that requires the highest degree of aesthetic impact and offers the least flexibility for iteration (mediums such as print, TV, film or fashion) needs time to finesse and perfect.

But in an era where brands are defined not just by their messages and their aesthetic, but by their service, reactivity and the way they empower customers, the criteria for what makes a modern designer valuable has been reshaped.

Humans or machines?

There is however a strong counter-argument to this position.

As my colleague Lynn Maharas, director of creative technology at Ogilvy North America, puts it, “are the pressures of business in an ever-increasing digital-first world pushing designers to reprogram themselves into ‘makers’ in a way that’s less human and more machine? Do less, think in tiny iterative processes, dream smaller and repeat the process on the project.”

Maharas is concerned that this trend is steering the design community too close to ‘the science’ of design, data-driven and technologically enabled at the expense of ‘the art’ of the craft.

“Perhaps we are getting closer to behaving as machines than we ever thought possible,” Maharas states. “I for one hope I will be able to see the line, ever so faint, that separates me from my digital self, and I pray the temptation to cross over will evade me.”

Empathy has long been the secret weapon of brilliant design, especially in the digital age. Understanding and empathizing with the end-user or audience for a product or service has rarely led to a poor solution. What’s happening now is that technology is allowing designers to both understand needs in ‘real-time’ and use their tools to create solutions at an equal velocity.

It’s a fine balance to maintain. Creativity and design should never be automated. That leads us down a path of colorless solutions. A race to the bottom of distinctiveness that is the foundation of a valueless brand.

Designers may need to be technologists and many other things in the modern era. But they also need to be human.

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