Design: the it profession

Everybody seems to be talking about it these days. Business magazines are recognizing that something’s up. Fast Company recently devoted an entire issue to it, and so did Wired magazine (though it was referenced by various names). Culture publications are falling all over themselves touting it. There’s an idea, an ideal that’s currently tripping the hot circuit among the Joe Schmoes, illuminati and literati.

Allegiance is its consequence. Control is its pseudonym. It commands respect, it draws gobs of attention and yet it remains unfathomable among those outside of its practice. Its name is almost underwhelming, yet it amounts to “power.” We know it simply as design. Simply put, design is control, power – go juice or kryptonite in most human endeavors. Do it right or fall on your face.

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

— Percy Bysshe Shelley

Despite the apparently awesome power wielded by the effects of design, the second-tier business world seems to be exceedingly distrustful and standoffish when dealing with the idea of or process involved with design (which could easily explain why they’re second-tier). Sad, for if ever there were a business component to embrace, it’s design. Truly, if ever there was a group of professionals that business should seek to befriend, it is designers. But with the current discovery of design by the popular media, this situation may be changing for the better.

Wow, design!

In the past few months I’ve come across several articles, even entire magazine issues, devoted to how cool it is to be in the design profession these days. Admittedly, these articles come mostly from design community publications. One or two of them have even had a hint of desperation in them; seeming to blow the design horn in feigned bravado. But the overall tone in the recent deluge of “wow, design!” buzz has had the ring of truth. Optimism seems to have replaced the dark outlook so prevalent in our industry just a few years ago.

Art and industry are my puppets. Blessings and curses flow from my mouse, brush, and gradient tool. Wireframes dance to my tune and so, in turn, do the fortunes of my clients – and theirs!

And there’s good reason for this because, as we designers know, design can make a huge difference in user/viewer experience across a wide spectrum of endeavors. It is perhaps the consequential and tangible ingredient in product and brand appeal (beyond actual product quality and usefulness). In the business world, this is known as “mindshare” or “buy in.” It’s worth more than its weight in gold. Marketers will lie, cheat and steal for it. Motion picture studios live and die by it. Automotive corporations devote obtuse percentages of their annual budgets in quests for it.

The top competitors in these and other industries have long understood how design fits into their business aims and how it affects their bottom lines. It seems these days that larger and larger segments of business and culture are getting hip to the design factor in success. About time, I’d say.

Why Now?

Well, I’m no expert. In fact I’m rather biased, being a member of the design profession. Surely this current buzz is not the result of my peers and me having stirred up design to a critical mass. No, definitely not.

Actually, I believe the real reason lies with the fact that our world at-large is now widely dependent on our collective interconnectivity. This relatively new and ever-expanding media soup brings to light a host of usability, attention-sustaining and form/function issues that we’ve never before experienced so vividly and been so dependent upon. Almost every aspect of our daily lives is affected or facilitated by some sort of media-driven process where design becomes a critical factor.

Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

By now we’ve endured the gamut of usability and interest-enhancing experiences, from horrible to excellent, and continue to do so on a daily basis. The difference between the low end and high end of this spectrum is largely governed by design. Bad design = bad experience, good design = good experience, to put not too fine a point on it. For this and for other reasons, designers are indeed powerful – the good ones as well as the bad ones.

So at the risk of merely sounding like an echo of so many recent articles, I have to agree that it totally rocks to be in the design profession these days. Art and industry are my puppets. Blessings and curses flow from my mouse, brush, and gradient tool. Wireframes dance to my tune and so, in turn, do the fortunes of my clients – and theirs! The world is my enchilada. Sweet.

So it would seem that the new buzzword for designers should be responsibility. We hold so much power over the world, whether it is widely recognized or not, that we have an overreaching obligation to exercise our endeavors with caution, wisdom, and restraint. In fact, aside from the fact that we risk harming individuals, businesses or entire industries by a casual approach to design, I’d say we have a significant obligation to future generations of designers. If we abuse the power of design or by our example teach the business world to hold our skills cheap, we could hamstring those who come after us. No kidding, think back to how hard it was to gain trust from a client in the early post–dotcom bust era. Not fun, boys and girls.

Okay, that was a serious moment just now, but it has now passed. The point of this article was to tout the total coolness of being a designer these days. And it is totally cool.

what now?

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This is the personal soap box and playground of Andy Rutledge, principal and chief design strategist at UNIT. A sampling of some of my previous Web design work can be found in my portfolio site.

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