Designers, Tear Down These Walls

Mark Busse – One Comment

The below opinion article was featured Applied Arts Magazine’s website in November 2010:

Design is in chaos, and leadership is sorely lacking.

It’s time for those with the ability to take the reins of power and haul the industry into the modern world.

So often I hear experienced design professionals tell younger designers to get involved or join the local chapter of a design association. Good advice, right? Of course it is.

Wait a minute. I’ve been heavily involved in our national design association for almost a decade now, and when I look at the best and brightest in our field, most of them are not even part of that community. Not only do the experienced among us generally not lend their time and energy as leaders, but most don’t even see the value of membership. What the deuce?

We all love to wax poetic about “back in the day” (a term I only now feel old enough to use), but it’s scary how much things have changed in the last 20 years. Another phrase I find myself using these days is “in the real world,” when talking to design students about the realities of what we deal with in our day-to-day profession. It occurs to me that I haven’t been giving my students the whole story about our industry. And it occurs to me that the opportunities for learning, networking and advancement via design associations aren’t what they used to be.

Enough of that. We need to tear down the walls of complacency and lead by example.

Times Are Changing

When I entered this profession, the designers I learned from illustrated with brushes and paint, drew typefaces by hand and set type on a Linotype machine. Looking back, it felt like at that moment (1989) everything began to suddenly change. I remember the fear and trepidation so many of us felt as we realized how much of our training was already obsolete. Thankfully, we brought with us new skills and perspectives as well as our classical training, and together with the established pros, we forged ahead, evolved, and kept the design community afloat.

But times are changing once again. And nobody likes change. It’s scary as hell. But change is a constant in the design field—like it or not.

Some say that Canada’s reputation as a leader in our field has waned. Many argue vehemently that design has radically evolved beyond “graphic,” with designers around the globe adopting a new perspective and identity. And yet despite all this, Canadian graphic design associations cling desperately to old paradigms, terminology and mandates.

It’s time we told the younger designers entering the highly competitive (and saturated) communication design industry the truth about what skills they’re going to need to thrive—or even survive.

Stop Whining

I’m guilty of it too, but really—let’s grow up. I’m about as sick of hearing about spec contests and crowd-sourcing as I am talking about it. And the debate over what we call ourselves and describe what we do? An important discussion, but god I’m bored of it.

Sure, we can stomp our feet in protest every time a government ministry engages in a practice we view as disrespectful, but have those that represent us adequately secured the attention of Canada’s federal government, educating and collaborating with them? Not so much. Have regional association chapters stepped in front of the various legislative assemblies in the provinces across Canada? Nope. Have we even reached out to our local boards of trade with the message of the value we bring to business through design? Not to my knowledge.

The reality is, the immaturity with which we’re viewed will never go away if all we do is whine about everything among ourselves, resorting to the equivalent of shooting spitballs from the sidelines. And seriously, do you think the best and brightest among us get caught up in discussions about what they call themselves? Or about the quality of typeface choices in James Cameron’s latest movie or how much they love or hate the latest logo designed by Peter Arnell? Of course not. Who cares? Are we artists or are we business strategists? Or perhaps both? Do we really even know anymore?

We need to start looking beyond the ivory tower of design. There are more issues at hand than the improper use of Trajan.

The Associations Are Failing Designers

It’s been an exciting few years in the design industry. But when I look at the broader industry and the leadership within its ranks, I am ashamed. The associations are bursting at the seams with young designers, but there is an embarrassingly low percentage of experienced, successful design professionals among our leadership ranks.

For the most part, Canada’s best designers don’t seem to understand the value of membership anymore, let alone feel compelled to step up and volunteer their expertise, intelligence, creativity and influence.

In this time of change, made worse by economic uncertainty and the threat of overseas competition (when I was in China last year, there were nearly one million students studying design—one million), we need brave leadership, now more than ever. We don’t need the status quo, and we certainly don’t need to cling to old ways of thinking, trying to rebuild cosmetic meaning in an industry that has fundamentally changed.

What we need is unity. Let’s be honest with ourselves, Canada’s national graphic design association isn’t really national at all. Until old differences are set aside and Ontario and Quebec properly join the leadership of this industry, we’re going to be burdened by fractured administration and provincial thinking. If we want to truly make change, we need to quit bickering and navel-gazing, band together and get to work.

There are a growing number of professionals in our field who believes that unless our national association radically alters its trajectory, the only answer is to form a new group. This is a risky approach that would mean discarding more than 50 years of history. But this is the design industry; old things die and new things are created in their place. I’m not sure it’s the right path, but at least somebody’s making an effort—and if things don’t change soon, I’ll be right there with them.

Designers Are Failing The Associations

Most of these well-known designers who have abandoned the associations have elevated themselves beyond the level of merely producing graphics. They’ve acquired business acumen, expanded their professional networks and accumulated significant influence. They’re too busy producing results for their clients to get caught up in issues that don’t seem to relate to them anymore. Few of these successful designers turn their attention, time and energy to leading the Canadian design industry forward.

To fix this, there needs to be constant change at the head of our national organization. There should be a number of candidates in the running for leadership positions. No one should be able to park in a position for years on end and win the same spot by default. Change is healthy for an organization, and I would argue it’s required to keep our broader industry evolving and moving forward.

We need leaders who won’t get caught up complaining about how little money the association has, but who will set in motion a plan to fix that. We need leaders who not only recognize the importance of getting our message in front of big business and government, but who have the experience doing this already—successfully. We need leaders who have evolved beyond graphic design.

So where are these leaders?

I suspect that most of the really influential designers in Canada have become distracted by the allure of fame. Many designers who could bring a lot to the table have opted instead to self-promote, pursuing speaking engagements at design conferences and/or publishing books of their ramblings or works, instead of giving back to their industry in its time of need. Many will offer their design services and create posters, reports, even websites for the promotional opportunities, but these often seem more in the service of exposure in their quest to become the next Sagmeister. Good for those who enjoy this kind of professional success and notoriety, but what about those who follow? Who will be their mentors?

So this is a call to those who have “arrived” and enjoyed success in their design careers. Instead of merely becoming opinion shapers worshipped by young designers, these leaders should step forward and use their experience, position and influence to create real, positive change.

Winners Don’t Make Excuses

By now, many of you are probably thinking, “He has a point. If we want things to improve, we need to put in the work. But I just don’t have the time.” Hogwash.

This issue has been on my mind a lot lately as I consider my own future as a volunteer leader within the Canadian design community. I too have struggled to find a balance between running my own busy design studio and serving on the executive board of my local design association chapter. I recently posted a thread to Facebook that read, “Why do most of Canada’s best and brightest senior designers refuse to serve their national professional association?” I wasn’t surprised by responses claiming successful designers are busy, sometimes timid and often even elitist, but seriously, give me a break. This is not the time for timidity or elitism.

I’m not negating the importance of family commitment or life balance, and we all understand the need to focus time and energy on work itself, but I asked why the upper tier of designers is absent. From my perspective, the people at the top of this game are always busy, but they’re also extremely efficient, tremendous problem solvers and often have deep resources.

The responses that resonated most with me were those centred around the confusion about the value of design associations, which seem to be run by the “old guard” (a term that makes me cringe), which has collectively lost a sense of the state of the industry. Many senior designers replied that they have little interest in lending their talents to a community that still calls themselves graphic designers—a term few of those at the top use any more. And finally, some argued that the way the design industry networks and supports itself has changed and become much more fluid, global and instant, using online tools such as Behance, Cargo Collective, LinkedIn, QBN and Motionographer.

Fine. Things have changed. We can all sit behind our computer screens and feel a sense of community via our Facebook pages or LinkedIn groups, but that’s not community. We need leadership. We need those who’ve come before us to guide and mentor us by sharing their tricks of the trade. We also need those who are enjoying success in the newer areas of expertise, such as interaction design, user experience design and brand design. They can bring to the table their unique experiences, so those who still think like graphic designers can look at the bigger picture and expand their ideas of what we do.

We need winners to put their hands up and say, “It’s my turn—allow me to help out for a while.” Just imagine how many new designers could be inspired to band together as a community if even 10 or 20 influential design leaders stepped forward to compete for a term on the executive board of our national design association?

I’m aware that my ideas don’t jibe with everyone’s point of view, but I believe in the power of design. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that a coalition of the best of the design industry can bring about radical positive change, once again positioning Canada as the bright North Star of design leadership it once was.

To do that, walls need to be broken down, and tough decisions made. It’s time to tell the next generation the truth about the mess we’re leaving them, and work with them to build a better future for us all.

Will you join me?