Graphic designers as strategic thinkers

Today's world demands more from us than decorating other people's ideas.

Recently, I responded to a question on GDF, a graphic design forum I help moderate. The question criticized do-it-yourself Internet websites, like Canva, threatening to make designers obsolete. Below is an edited version of my response.

Chess board


THE NATURE OF OUR PROFESSION has changed, is still changing and will continue to change for the foreseeable future. Designers specializing in one-off projects, like logos, flyers or banner ads, are finding it difficult to compete against lower-wage designers overseas, crowdsourcing, a glut of recent design graduates and the semi-automated, do-it-yourself services, like Canva and Wix. Going forward, this trend will only accelerate, which isn't necessarily a bad thing — with change comes opportunity.

Canva website screen capture
Canva website screen capture

There are increasingly fewer reasons why small business owners — the kind who think in terms of one-off projects — need to hire designers to do what they can do online for much cheaper. These clients, for better or worse, don't think in terms of award-winning, one-of-a-kind design — they just want their sales flyers or business cards to work and look reasonably nice. If they can get that done cheap, fast and to their satisfaction without the hassle of dealing with a designer, they'll do it.

In the past, the main reason these clients hired designers was because the services and do-it-yourself tools were not available. They, like most people, buy their clothes off the rack rather than hiring tailors. They pick and choose from sets of pre-made house plans instead of hiring architects. They don't hire interior designers — they piecemeal their furnishing together by thumbing through catalogs, visiting stores and shopping online.

So what if they're wearing the same shirt as 5,000 other people. It's irrelevant to them that they're sitting on the same sofa that sits in a hundred other homes and that their houses look much the same as half the other houses in their subdivisions? They care more about convenience and getting something that's good enough for the money they're willing to spend.

Now that Canva, 99Designs, Wix, Snappa, etc., exist, why would people who buy everything else off the shelf continue to hire designers to do the work they can also, essentially, buy off the shelf?

Moving forward

So where does all this leave professional designers? It leaves us playing a game where the ground rules have changed. Those who adapt to the new reality will do fine. Those who don't will fall by the wayside. Change is a constant, and this change isn't that different from what's happened to hundreds of other professions over the years.

Graphic designer
Graphic designer

Honestly, depending on small one-off clients with small one-off projects has never been a good way of earning steady money anyway. The work is erratic, the pay is typically low and the projects are usually so dissimilar that it makes designing them inefficient.

So how does an educated, skilled professional designer compete against Canva and others? That's easy to answer. You don't.

Instead, you shift focus to those things that these online services and crowdsourcing sites can't provide. You also work for clients who need more than Canva or Fiverr can provide.

A semi-savvy start-up might (or might not) get a serviceable logo from 99Designs, but it won't get them an integrated visual branding strategy that considers their target audience, competition and marketing challenges. Canva can produce a nice-looking banner ad, but it can't create a money-making ad strategy that intelligently leverages and plays off the brand equity built up from the company's previous marketing initiatives.

Planning to make a good living designing things that can be cheaply outsourced to lower-wage countries or handled via do-it-yourself software is a dead-end plan. Successful designers can no longer thrive with an outdated belief that their job is mostly about making ordinary things look nice.

Designers need to think past small-time clients and one-off projects. They need to think in terms of the profession as it exists today and what it will likely be tomorrow. They need to build their careers with these things in mind and with an eye toward catering to those savvy clients that actually need strategic solutions to difficult business problems. To thrive in this business, graphic designers must become visual strategists who work with others to solve real problems. The days of building a career by simply decorating other people's ideas is gone.

Cory Maylett

Cory Maylett

I'm a proponent of developing practical solutions to communication problems through good design. My career has included newspapers, magazines, books, websites, corporate branding and typefaces.