This post first appeared on Erika’s blog and represents her personal thinking on the design industry’s own positioning
Gone are the days where our output was about the aesthetics. The democratisation of design via Macs and recessions has seen to that. What has emerged is an industry which is analytical and objectives-focused: grown up, you might say.
Whilst it’s sad that we are no longer commercially valued purely on creativity, it’s enormously satisfying to have moved to a position of being able to work along CEO’s on deep seated business issues, to design processes that create widespread corporate or community change: and then to deploy something beautiful to carry the thought.
Design, as a ‘thing’, is not about graphics: it’s about them and everything that surrounds them – the whole agency team, strategic processes, their application and analysis.
So what’s the problem?
Practitioners in the design industry, as a rule, undervalue themselves. Not all of them. There are some really ballsy agency heads. But the general mood tends to underconfident.
There’s no logical reason for this: most agencies I encounter have grown into powerful thinkers, advisors and change makers. Perhaps it’s embedded in our DNA: to change our skills from artist to transformer takes hard work but has happened, to change our sense of self is harder.
But this is why it’s a problem. If we don’t value ourselves, it’s that bit harder for clients to do so. And the more we display signals of lack of confidence – accepting late payment, pitching our work free, bearing the brunt of project delays – the less we present ourselves as authoritative and professional.
And how safe will that make clients feel, when they really need our expertise?
Take solicitors, doctors, accountants. They’re drafted in when someone has a problem. It’s generally accepted that they will be in a stronger position to resolve that problem than the client. There’s rarely any question of them resolving it in order to win the business, or whether their time should be paid.
What interests me is how these professions have set the bar, and what we can learn from it.
Of course they each have lengthy professional educations, without which they are not allowed to work. Similarly, they are members of industry bodies, which give their customers a level of protection as well as supporting practitioners. There are grades and obligations: these things not only give their members the necessary skills, but also give customers a sense of security.
Perhaps what my industry needs is a similar base level requirement.
I’d say that on a more immediate level we also need to grow some balls. I’ve heard it said at industry round tables that agencies feel ‘powerless’. Some procurement processes are reliant upon this, and start relationships off on such an uneven footing that no agency would ever be able to scramble back up to an equal, never mind advisory, status.
Agencies have to work hard on their positioning, on making their offer clear. Blair Enns, author of Win Without Pitching, is an advocate of this and everything he speaks is good, plain common sense.
No agency worth its salt would let a client get away without robust and clear positioning: yet so often agencies neglect to look inwards.
If we devalue ourselves, it’s literal: we drive down opportunities and profitability, not just for ourselves but for the industry as a whole. And if that’s the lead we give, then so will everyone else.
Britain’s design industry is the best in the world. British businesses make for some of the best clients any agency could wish for. So for their sake and ours, it’s high time for a little pride in the real value we bring to the economy.
Blog Post written by Erika Clegg