Friday, March 30, 2007

Why I'm Not A Graphic Designer

A graphic design blog cites the "if it ain't broken, don't fix it" rule and identifies this "update" to the Dairy Queen logo as taking the crown for "the least broken with the worst fixin'." Unfortunately, they are so right. The new logo is less legibile, less distinctive, less clearly identifiable from a distance, utterly disregards the simplicity and cohesiveness of the original, and contains colors which make no sense and operate solely as visual noise.

And the real problem is that these are technical terms. These will all directly correlate to weaker performance. Every one of these flaws means that people will be less certain what logo they're looking at. In that drive-by split-second where you might have seen the logo out of the corner of your eye and wanted some kind of ice-cream-like processed sweet goo, legibility, consistency, distinctiveness, all these things translate into sales.

I love doing graphic design, but I hate talking to graphic design clients, and the reason is that they always assume they know as much about graphic design as I do. This always makes me wonder why they don't just do it themselves. In Europe graphic design is a respected field, but here in America, the idea that a graphic designer has technical constraints to work within is completely foreign. The idea that a graphic designer is doing work with any technical dimension at all is totally unheard of, and this is why American graphic design is so incredibly bad.

Graphic designers are generally thought of as people who make stuff pretty, and their job is to make executives happy. But if you have a background in graphic design, if you've read things like Robert Bringhurst's Elements of Typographic Style, you know that graphic design is simply a technical and artistic field which American culture mishandles for some unknown reason. Good graphic design, in this country, is seen by many companies as an indulgent luxury, rather than something with genuine usefulness. (I myself am guilty of falling into this trap; take a look at my portfolio site and you'll see that I love design, and yet you'd never guess it from reading my blog.)

A little while ago I posted about how both working from home and deprecating Internet Explorer appear to be luxuries but are in fact powerful competitive advantages. With good graphic design, we have again a thing which companies generally regard as a luxury. But maybe there's a pattern here. Could it in fact be a powerful competitive advantage?

Of course it is. And this makes me wonder why I'm not a graphic designer. For years I've believed that the reason I'm not a graphic designer is because programming and graphic design are equally creative fields, but programmers are given the respect they deserve and designers aren't. As long as your code meets or exceeds requirements, people will be happy with it; whereas your graphic design can meet or exceed requirements, and you're still expected to jump through hoops. But making your design worse just to satisfy the client will in fact cost the client money in lost sales. (Don't believe me? Ask Zune. User experience is design too.)

I think the real reason I'm not a graphic designer is because I never figured out how to communicate this to my clients.

(The other reason, of course, is that it's hard to be two things at the same time, but that's another post.)


  1. An interesting read there.

    Graphic designers also have to be teachers, informing our clients of what is best for them. The designer of your featured logo certainly didn't do that.

    I think many professions also include teaching. Programming too if you deal with clients.

  2. Very much so; in fact that gives me an excuse to plug one of my own posts:

    The Business Case For Firefox

    OK, enough of that. I think truthfully teaching the client is essential for anyone doing any kind of client work; for some reason, though, I've always found it easier to get clients to listen when working as a programmer. For some reason it seems people accept the idea that a programmer knows something they don't far more readily than they do the idea that a designer knows something they don't. I wish I knew the exact solution.

  3. Hmmmm, interesting.

    Well, thankfully my current clients appreciate what I do for them. I know what you mean about those thinking they know just as much however.

    Par for the course.

  4. It doesn't hurt that you're in Scotland. As far as I can tell graphic designers really only have this issue here in the States.

  5. I am actually in the process of getting my degree in Graphic Design and have had to deal with a teacher who wants things to look "pretty" even though I was informe din the first week of college that simplicity and legibillity are two of the best qualities a logo can have.

    I have hated the redesign of Dairy Queen for quite a while now and am glad I am not the only one upset at the poor quality. You make wonderful points, all of which I agree with, and I have to say that if one does not want to help a client sell their product or comunicate their idea then one shouldn't be a Graphic Designer.

  6. While your comments on the DQ logo are all valid points. I would strongly disagree with your insight on American Design. How is it possible to judge an entire country's design capability? If your employer doesn't treat you with the respect you deserve, maybe you don't deserve the respect. Or find a different employer if you do. Or maybe move out of the Adult film capital of the world and further down into Orange County. IMO it has a much larger demand for creative talent and the most of the design community gets the respect it deserves. I'm sure I'm not the only one who's seen incredibly bad design in Europe. Just walk around Amsterdam for a day and you can see more bad design than pretty much anywhere else. So I guess what I'm trying to say is don't be so quick to judge an entire country on your few simple observations of a couple bad logos. There's many of us who work incredibly hard and study the masters of design that take offense to your ignorant comments on American Design

  7. I cannot agree enough. The idea of a graphic designer is never what it truly is. I guess it really depends on the path of jobs that your graphic design career takes you. In the end I find it is never truly appriciated at all and feels like there is nothing to show for it because it always gets changed by someone later. It's truly sad that I spent 2 years of my life learning the trade and feel this way about it. Your blog states it exactly as it is. Thanks for the refreshing perspective that I think everyone should know.

  8. Hi Giles,
    for not being a graphic designer you sure possess an aptitude for nailing the dilemma right on the head. In my circle we call it, "Saving the client from themselves." I think what it boils down to is ignorance and arrogance. Oftentimes it is the fault of the client, not the designer, for the deployment of poor design (i.e., Microsoft), because many business owners and CEOs, like parents, think regardless of their lack of parenting skills (or marketing/brand savvy) they still know best because they created it. Even when their actions prove unsafe, abusive, or negligent. In addition to mounting frustrations towards the client-end, the U.S. is fueled solely on Capitalism and consumerism. Though this indeed is what fuels design on the scale it does as well, this has led to the formation of design institutions whose focus is to make money, not produce good designers. I can't tell you the number of portfolios I review on a monthly basis from 2-year design school graduates which look as though they were produced in a high-school art class. Little or no understanding of typography, gestalt principles, color theory or art history. Graphic Design is not a career which caters to the lazy. Every competent designer understands they must spend hours learning, updating, and stretching his/her cerebral boundaries because in the end, graphic design must make sense and provide the public something intellectually substantial and aesthetically persuasive.
    With that said, I have no doubts the DQ fiasco was executed on the whim of some CMO whose understanding of brand identity was limited to the one article on 'Logo Design made easy' they were forced to read while earning their MBA.


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