The Dark Side of Design

Last week, in a galaxy far, far away, I went over to the dark side of design. You know the dark side…where design is driven by clients who need it fast and cheap. Where multitudes of designer droids bid for projects they have no passion for or interest in other than to churn out the next money making hipster logo in less than an hour. Where the connection between heart and design has grown cold. I took a walk on this side of design, and made some startling discoveries.

First, let me tell you why I did it, especially after writing so much about the evils of the dark side. I was fed up. Tired of clients who don’t appreciate what I do. Disgusted with the paltry sum designers are paid for hours of heart wrenching work. I just wanted to give people what they are clamoring for—meaningless design. Fluff as my friend Paul calls it.

What I did was bid on logo and identity system design projects through an online service. These services are not bad, but you do feel like you’re in a lowest-bidder-wins meat market. Potential clients post a project request for a logo, brochure or whatever. Designers duel with each other to provide the fastest, cheapest design to the client. So, I spent about an hour or two per bid developing a logo or set of logo concepts based on the name of the client’s company. Sometimes it was obvious what the company did (like Betty’s Real Estate), and at other times I had to guess (like Spoons…a restaurant?). It didn’t matter. The point was to produce form without meaning, like the U-Pick online logo services. I’d say, “Here. I’ve already done the work for you. If you like what you see, you can purchase it.” I know, yucky spec work. Unprofessional? Humiliating. Heartless! Yes, all of the above, but here’s what I discovered.

Time and money does not necessarily equal creativity. For two hours of work per bid, I produced some surprisingly good logos/identity systems. The execution wasn’t well polished, but the general ideas were solid. I’d say that for concept and form, I was 70% of the way there. Some businesses call it rapid prototyping, others call it a fail-forward-fast strategy. I call it survival in the design bidding wars. Unfortunately, this strategy often leads to design devoid of depth, which leads to my second discovery:

People want design that connects with the heart, even if they don’t know it. On one bid, I sent a complete identity system (the client supplied the logo) without even knowing what the company was about. They loved the design, but eventually awarded the project to another designer. Curious, I asked why. Here’s what the client said: “The decision was based on the fact that unlike the other bidders, the vendor I went with actually asked about the nature of my business-who my clients were, what market I was trying to target. This was a huge factor for me for acceptance because everyone else seemed to just want to design a card around a logo—she designed a card around my business and my clients.” Stunning! I discovered clients are people just like us! They have dreams, aspirations, vision, and even a heart. Yet, it’s the last sentence of the client’s response that caught my eye and led to my most profound revelation:

Clients aren’t the problem, we are. Yes, designers have created the dark side of design by giving people what they don’t want—soulless design. I suspect that the marketing and advertising folks are somehow in league with us as well, but largely we’ve chosen our own path. Driven by deadlines, bosses, bills and our own inner Darth Vaders, we trade our soul, one heartless project at a time for a paycheck, a pat on the back or a quick fix. At our worst we crank out more logos than hair on a Wookie. We come up with more one liner ad campaigns than Hans Solo. We create a universe of dark design.

At our best, we reach for something more Powerful, knowing that what the world needs is design that reconnects people with themselves and others in deep and meaningful ways. No more fluff. No more dark side of design. I’m designing in the Light. May THE Force be with you.

3 Responses to “The Dark Side of Design”

  1. Frank McClung

    A follow up note. Just received a phone call this afternoon from a prospective client who contacted me many months ago for a project. There interested in pursuing it now. I’m beginning to realized that we don’t have to be a slave to instant, passionless design. God can provide meaningful, passionate design work.

  2. Margaret

    Nicely said (and congrats on the new project). My encounter with the “Dark Side” was actually as a client; I was a graphics production artist posting print jobs (4/c postcards, custom albums, etc) online for bid. The experience taught me that it (blind bidding) was no way to guaruntee return on investment if you’re the client, but also how much can be salvaged if you have a good relationship with your supplier (whether an illustrator, printer, etc). I’ve since left the job for one I’m much more qualified for and am back doing design. But my brush with the Dark Side taught me what I’ll need to provide clients with in the future , issues to be on the lookout for, and the importance of giving your convictions the strong sell.
    PS- Looking forward to purchasing a renew New Orleans tee as well.

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