In Praise of the Design Underdog

The rant continues from Over Design, in all its crudeness…

At one time, graphic design was about as sexy as chimney sweeping. It was messy, unglamorous, and quite labor intensive, even as technology afforded the profession new tools and enhanced methods of production over time. It was truly an art, a craft, and a science all in one. Those who chose the path of the designer likely did so out of sheer necessity and market demand, as graphic arts and printing services went hand-in-hand, although there were probably those innately drawn to graphic design work as well. There was no fame or fortune in it — just a job, really — and if one got to flex their artistic and creative skills while doing it, all the better.

More recently, the designer’s skillset and toolset have been radically simplified and consolidated thanks to the computer, so there’s less craft involved. Without the burden of rubber cement and proportion wheels, designers could produce more work faster and were thus freed up to explore the more self-expressive side of graphic design work. So began the rise of design culture — design by and for designers — and the emergence of design as a lifestyle.

Becoming a designer these days is essentially a socialization process. To really make it in design, you need to start by going to the right school, following a legacy system of design education (that is, become a student of so-and-so who studied under so-and-so, ad nauseum), and really designing yourself from head to toe with the right specs, the right wardrobe, the right gadgets, and the right social life. Once you graduate, you can plug right into the professional network that your design school affords you. From there you ply your trade among the top shops, producing killer, award-winning “creative” for deep-pocketed clients. You gradually ascend the ranks, annual after annual, conference after conference, until you find yourself feeding into the very system that made you, spawning the next generation of aspiring designers.

Of course, it’s unfair to make such sweeping generalizations about designers according to some chic urban design stereotype popularized by the design press. The spectrum of designers is far more diverse than that. I want to shift the focus away from the spotlight of design culture and specifically focus on the unsung designer who carries on the tradition and the spirit of the early designers, quietly toiling away in the shadows: the design underdog.

Here is a short profile of the design underdog:

  • Went to a non-design school to study design and gain exposure to a broad range of disciplines and intellectual pursuits
  • Learns the tools and techniques of design inside and out, often spending long hours at the computer mastering key commands and shortcuts
  • Loves typography, but disinterested in fonts (there is a difference)
  • Loves design history, but bored by design celebrity (also a difference there)
  • Irritated by “show and tell” design lectures and the schmoozing that goes with them
  • Tends to work in lesser-known agencies, in-house design departments, and print shops
  • Delights in challenging work that has impact and practical value, even if it might never grace the pages of a design annual
  • Works long hours to get the client presentation done right while others just get the job done and go home
  • More interested in client recognition than peer recognition through design competitions
  • Often spends more time trying to understand a problem and what the client needs than on the graphic design of the solution and whether it will look cool
  • Makes little to no effort to assume the designer look (often can’t afford it or the workplace doesn’t call for it)

Design underdogs do the dirty work of figuring stuff out, making things work. They see the job through from start to finish. They put the client first, and reflect that commitment in every aspect of their work. They keep trying until they nail it — even if it means occasional late nights or skipping some social event. They care above all about doing the work right.

The point here isn’t to just shift the spotlight to the underdogs and place them on a pedestal for all their hard work and dedication while spiting everyone else. Not at all. It’s that, on some level, all designers should aspire to be the underdogs. If design is now a navel-gazing profession that sees the world through itself, then it’s time we invert that model and see ourselves as the world sees us and use that perspective to frame our work and our role in the world. The public perception of design should be less glossy and superficial, more textured and deep. The value of design should be that it doesn’t just make you look better — it helps you live better and do better as a human being, organization, or society. Designers’ priority should be to deliver on that promise.

More to come in the next post: The Boundaries of Design

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