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Come on, designers. Step up

Posted by: Helen Walters on December 28, 2009

Recently, a two-page article in the Times of London caught my eye. Not because its thesis was staggeringly original, but rather because it made my blood boil. Here’s the gist: designers charge a fortune for a logo tweak (in this case, 12,000 pounds (just over $19,000) to update the mark of the National Health Service for its 60th anniversary celebrations). Moral outrage promptly ensues from taxpayers/consumers who can’t believe their money would be wasted so profligately (do also see the comments on that story) and who conclude by questioning the value of design itself. Tory MP Greg Hands is quoted in the piece, saying: “Modern graphic design packages surely allow anyone with an average brain to design something as good as, or better than, what we see in front of us here.”

And the thing is, they do. My blood didn’t boil in support of designers, despite having written about the industry for years now, and despite believing with every fiber of my being that good design really does matter and really can make a difference to a company’s bottom line. And despite the fact that this argument is superficial and doesn’t acknowledge the true scope of the design process. But what stuns me is that apparently no designer has been able to put up a spirited defense to stop the naysayers once and for all. If design is, as designers like to make out, so important and critical (and difficult and expensive), then why do stories like this crop up with tedious regularity? And as the “modern graphic design packages” Hands refers to continue to improve, why should companies fork out hefty fees to design consultancies? In an era when crowdsourcing is shaking out to provide an alternative creative option for businesses of any size, and a time when companies as large and influential as Google get to show a blase disregard for design by instead focusing on technology and speed of use, designers need to step up and fight back and prove their craft is not a twentieth century anachronism. Who is making the case for the value of design? More importantly, how do you know who’s listening? Because right now, I don’t hear you and nor, it seems, do many others.

Reader Comments

Dick Margulis

December 28, 2009 11:11 AM

Sturgeon's Law ("ninety percent of everything is crap") applies to graphic design as much as it does to any other field. A design only matters if it matters. And that is most likely to be the case if the the practitioner who created it is one of ten percent (give or take) whose work is consistently effective at solving problems and adding value.

Graphic design attracts a lot of people with artistic imagination who see it as a field where they can earn a good living while they pursue their artistic passions on the side (a phenomenon mirrored on the writing side by novelists earning their living as bad technical writers). That is, they are not emotionally and analytically predisposed to be passionate about design, even if they talk a good game at a cocktail party or client meeting.

In addition, the right-brain genius that we celebrate for its creative innovation is married to a left-brain analytic genius (needed to contextualize a design in terms of the business problem it is solving) in only a few rare individuals. The graphic design field is flooded with lopsided right-brainers who don't necessarily understand what problem they're trying to solve and can't necessarily articulate their solution. (Yeah, that's a nasty slur of a generalization, but it's based on decades of experience trying communicate in English with designers.)

So it's no surprise that the problem you've described is one of long standing and will probably with us for all time.

Dave Mason

December 28, 2009 11:33 AM

Does design really still need to be defended? Apparently it is so ubiquitous that the average person not only knows what it is, but believes that they can do it better than most professionals. Anyone with an above average brain knows this is not the case. More importantly, its value is set by the market (you get what you pay for) and clients for whom design does play a key role seem to possess far above average brains.

Design is no different from any other profession where the visible 'product' may appear to be simple (ie writing, criticism, government, acting, etc.) but the process by which it is achieved is essentially invisible. Given that the client in this case was a government bureaucracy, I can only imagine the endless meetings and pointless revisions based on important opinions involved in determining the outcome of the project. And seriously, 12,000 pounds hasn't been "a fortune" since The Beatles played Shea Stadium.

But this software-replacing-human thinking/skill idea is big! Pilotless airliners! Automated heart replacement kiosks at the mall! And once software that can govern effectively (an obviously simple task currently performed by grossly overpaid consultants) is readily available, surely anyone with an average brain could do a better job.


December 28, 2009 11:51 AM

I do custom hand painted pinstriping on cars with a brush. It is an old style of applying artistic designs on vehicles and other surfaces. This style of artwork dates back to Roman chariots (ornamentation as is was referred to back then). Most of my work is on custom cars, antiques and hot rods, etc. It is a skill that takes many years to perfect. Not counting building a loyal clientele plus, perfroming my talent in front of people at car shows. Most of my customers appreciate what I do and they pay my prices. When a potential customer does complain about my prices I just hand them the brush and say, "here's the brush, you do it". Works everytime.

Dan Saffer

December 28, 2009 1:00 PM

I hate to say it, but $19,000 for a new idenity system (or even just a logo) is a bargain. Landor or a branding agency would (and do) charge 10x that.

That aside, the case for design in this instance is a simple one: a modern design promises a modern service. Customers (in this case patients) can and should expect the kind of quality that is reflected in the logo. The logo is a promise to the customers and a standard for the employees to live up to.

Well worth $19,000.

Helen Walters

December 28, 2009 1:17 PM

Thanks so much for the thoughtful comments. Dave/Dan, I take your point that the fees in question weren't actually astronomical, but I don't know that this really helps. Clearly the case for design *does* need to be made, or this argument wouldn't be wheeled out time and again. Defensive postures don't help. Wouldn't it be smarter, more inclusive and more helpful to inform the masses rather than merely write them off as stupid? Dick, I find your take on the state of the community is somewhat depressing, I'll confess. I do know tons of designers who are truly passionate about problem-solving, but then again, most of them seem to work at the edges of the industry rather than at the corporate heart. Perhaps that is part of the problem? And Dan, do you think anyone outside of the design community sees the NHS60 logo as a modern design promising a modern service? Or do you think they see it as the old logo with the number 60 after it? This is all great food for thought. Thanks again, all, for taking the time to comment.

Noah Raford

December 28, 2009 1:22 PM

Lots of people are making the market case. Just look at the Stanford D-School or Apple's continually rising market share.

To argue the negative, I think the reason designers aren't stepping up is because our market value (and sense of self) is often dependent upon the notion that we have access to some ineffable quality called "design", which renders our opinions and services godly and elite, whilst others don't and are therefore stupid and banal.

I can't tell you how many conversations I've had with other architects and designers who completely dismiss contrary arguments from critics just because "they're not a designer".

Psychologists call this "expectation bias", hereby we look for and select data which confirms our pre-existing expectations and ignore or discount data that does not.

This attitude is a recipe for competitive disaster, and that, I believe, is what is behind designer's lack of coherent response to this very valid critique.

Mark Roudebush

December 28, 2009 1:44 PM

Unfortunately the socialization of technology leaves many with the illusion that the tool is the skill.

Those that are less savvy about design and the impact design has on business are left with the old “well I could have done that” feeling. However building a brand or even accounting for the considerations that are involved with evolving an existing brand, take time and knowledge that extends past the skills of opening up a “Modern graphic design package”. The logo reflects the company’s service and the experience their customers will have with their products or services as Dan mentioned. This logo is only one visual representation however of this brand and should not be reduced to something someone whips up while playing with a software package. But then again, it’s a representation of the company so have what you have.


December 28, 2009 1:52 PM

There's so much more that goes into an identity then just a couple "logo tweaks." Logos, or marks, are like a coat of arms in modern business. If successful, it is the sole identifier of a small local business all the way to a multinational corporation. For that reason, you can't simply just recreate or completely face lift an established entities' identity. This is the primary difference of evolutionary and revolutionary redesigns. The example in the article in question, is evolutionary. It's true that even a design student or some random artist, can completely erase and create a nice logo for any company, but subtly elevating an established companies primary identifier is far more challenging. If you change the look and feel too drastically you become unfamiliar to your consumer base, however, on the same hand staying identically the same, in the case of many brands means you end up looking dated in the shadow of your competitors.

To further this issue, simply lumping all "design" together only speaks to the shortcomings of the original author. There are so many specialized areas in the design field across practically every product or service that consumers use and love. This design area, as mentioned in an above comment is "branding," and the price is a steal for the National Health Service considering the magnitude of how many people interface with this mark. Having the group in charge of National Health look dated and amateurish does not promote confidence. On top of that, I highly doubt they just handed over a new logo and that was it, I'm sure there are new guidelines covering usage subjects like scale and color (so some marketing guy doesn't decide to make it florescent green because it's his favorite color), to likely business and celebration collateral: stationery, cards, banners etc.

People are quick to critically judge professions(amongst many other things) they know nothing about. It's not just design, ask a doctor.

Steve Price

December 28, 2009 1:55 PM

I couldn't agree with you more, as much as it pains me too. Designers have only themselves to blame, and whilst I wrote about the exact same article with scorn for the laziness of the journalist, I can only lay the blame firmly at our feet.

There is value in good design, problem is how to prove it. Some say it's in the 'pudding', others (like me) prefer to prove it with actions and not words, and this I define as Good Design Thinking. Meaning that most of us have to go beyond the visual dilema presented to us by the client and delve further in to discovering roots of that problem. For me, this means learning about my clients business from top to bottom, exploring and developing discussions with the client so that their involvement is right upfront, and not tacked on at the end (which can inevitably encourage them to request changes because they've had no other opportunity).

This stems to the almost mystical nuture that some have given to our business. As if, by magic, our AD/CD's go away and conjure these concepts like wizards. problem is we all know what the real wizard of Oz looked like.

trying to define the value for a new client whose not familiar or sure as to why to part with the money is a grey area and one that cannot easily be defined by something tangible. In more recent years online advertising and site tracking has helped prove that good planning and strategy can have a positive and valuable effect.

With the actual design the significance is less obvious to those who aren't educated. And that is the key word; education. Where some have shrouded the process with mystery others choose complicated words and diagrams to bamboozle their clients in to submission via embarrassment.

I personally encourage as much dialogue with clients and for them to ask questions. More importantly the questions they consider to be 'stupid' - these are typically the ones that concern them the most and can often unearth the real root of the problem.

You get what you pay for, this much we all know. But unless you tell them what they are getting for their buck/pound how can they compare.

Dave Mason

December 28, 2009 2:27 PM

At a time when "design thinking" is fast becoming top of the charts in business buzzword bingo, it's hard to imagine that the case for design has not been made to those it matters to most.

I'm not sure I recall hearing too many complaints about Apple or BMW or P&G (or any of the other design-smart organizations out there) spending too much on design, or reading too much criticism of their return on investment.

While I agree that the relatively low fees in this case were not germane to the issue (they were referred to as 'a fortune'), isn't it most likely that arguments like this are wheeled out time and time again because of the public nature of the client, funding and complainant?

And finally, I don't believe for a second that "the masses" are stupid, don't know what good design is, or don't instinctively know how to value it. Apparently neither does Steve Jobs.

Bill Bradbury

December 28, 2009 5:15 PM

This argument is not a new one. And what infuriates me about designers is that we are often not of the character to state a simple fact. What you are paying for is not someone who is a master of the software used to create something. You are paying for the knowledge, experience and creative skill of a professional who works in the industry. Software does not have that, nor does any lay person with the latest copy of CS4 and a DVD of "cool effects".

Would you like to crowd source surgery? Car repair? Cooking? Legal services? All of the tools and know how are available, and to a certain extent you could fake a bit of those tasks and maybe get away with something passable. If this is what you want, then you get what you pay for.

Geoff Louw

December 29, 2009 12:20 AM

Greg Hands sounds like a real philistine - it's a bit like saying that anyone with a pencil can draw a picture that someone would want to hang on their wall.

What a load of rubbish, he's obviously never had to design a logo before, and doesn't have a clue what he's talking about.


December 29, 2009 12:30 AM

A good reporter would have investigated the subject before making ignorant statements in regards to a subject that she clearly has no understanding of.

Had she interviewed the design firm and the people in charge of approving the project prior to writing her story, she would have realized that the price in question is actually justifiable by the time and effort put into the project.

She would also have learned that a logo is not designed by a computer software, but by the brains of all the people involved in the design process. She would then be able to educate her readers that there is a lot of research and concept development that happens prior to sitting in front of the computer. The computer is simply a tool such as a pencil or a paint brush.

Sure, there is more to design than what I’m saying here and some of the people who have responded to this article have made some excellent points. But I think the question should be “Why aren’t reporters researching their subjects?” instead of why designers are not defending their trade. Perhaps if they did their research we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Geoff Louw

December 29, 2009 12:52 AM

Please excuse the double post, but people like Greg Hands really annoy me.

I'd like to ask what skills he actually has? He's a politician, what does he actually do to justify the enormous amounts of money he earns? Give speeches? Make stupid comments about designers? What?

What does he actually make or produce, why are British taxpayers paying enormous amounts of money to people like that?

Geoff Louw

December 29, 2009 4:49 AM

Grrrr. And another thing...

Of course design is important, and not in some esoteric way. Go into any business and look around. They all use graphic design at some stage, whether it's a logo, ad, poster, business card or whatever. Is it because they can afford the luxury? No, its because they absolutely have to have it in order to look good to their customers. If they didn't have it, they'd have less (or no) customers.

So design is very, very important to business and the world in general. Surely even an ignorant MP can see that.

AND...12,000 Pounds is cheap: it took 10 days of a design company's resources to come up with the logo. 1,200 Pounds per day doesn't sound like a lot to me, they're paying salaries and office rent. Did they actually make a profit? How much does Greg Hands earn, and what does he do for it?

Sean McGrath

December 29, 2009 1:29 PM

Did anyone yet mention that the "value" of any design is ultimately determined and controlled more by the client (and their own worthiness and "value") that it is the designer?

First, to assign the total project cost as the value of the single and final deliverable is naive and inappropriate: I highly doubt, in this case, that only one concept was presented, and based on my own experience as a designer I'd further venture to guess that the selected logo was significantly altered / watered-down / merged with other ideas / passed around for collective input and therefore subject to too many personal and subjective opinions / and forcibly made less "valuable".

I don't mean to embody the laissez-faire attitude that Helen criticizes, but this type of "outrage" is nothing new, we hear it all the time. The best we can do, as always, is hope to educate our clients, let alone the general public, about the true (non-monetary) value of design.

Helen Walters

December 30, 2009 7:46 AM

Again, thanks all for taking the time to post such thoughtful comments. There seems to be a divide here, between those who acknowledge that designers occasionally exhibit something of an attitude problem and those who wish to brush off the naysayers as simply not understanding or not being qualified to comment.

As I see it, there are two problems with the latter strategy. Firstly, yes, the creative process is time-consuming and challenging and can involve lots of meetings and mock-ups and layers of bureaucracy and sometimes, sadly, the eventual dilution of an idea. That's all true, but it's also beside the point. That's the job, not an excuse. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, but blaming the client for failed work is a horrible tactic. Yes, some clients will make bad decisions, and sometimes it must be maddening not to be able to persuade them to take a certain route. But, as others have said here, a large part of the process is education; explaining why a piece of design or branding is smart and appropriate. If you can't do that, more often than not you only have yourself to blame for the resulting bad work (and you'll continue to see more irritating articles like the one that sparked off this whole debate).

Secondly, the wonderful thing about design and branding is that they have to exist in the crowded streetscape of real life. That's precisely what can make them so energizing. It’s inspiring to see something that breaks through the clutter to make an impact on our image-saturated eyeballs. And that's what qualifies everyone from everywhere to have an opinion. You might not like it, but writing off laypeople (or clients) for daring to air a view, however ill-informed, strikes me as both arrogant and doomed to provide a Pyrrhic victory at best.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the defensiveness. As a journalist in 2010, I have witnessed the ground beneath my feet start to tremble as the world I thought I knew begins to shatter. I know that these days my competitors are hardly those working within the confines of the traditional publishing industry. Rather, those attracting the eyeballs of readers in our networked age are the bloggers or the industry experts with a day job who also happen to have a way with words -- and who now have an easy outlet for them. But here's the thing. As far as I can see, not only do talented amateurs have every right to pose a threat to my formerly protected world, they’re doing so with a sense of experimentation, innovation and energy that can be brilliantly bewitching. Do I think that there’s still a place for journalistic skills and talent? Of course I do. But the onus is on me to prove it. And treating newcomers with a sniff, a sneer and a cold shoulder seems like a spectacularly short-sighted tactic. There's a real correlation to design here, and designers can’t afford to take that tack, either.

So the answer 'They Just Are' to the question of why design or branding are valuable and worth investing is is about as helpful as a chocolate teapot. Sure they matter. Now, as many have argued here, get evangelizing, and get educating. And get off your high horse and prove it. Please.

'Folletto' Davide Casali

December 30, 2009 6:36 PM

Helen, at first your writing got me angry, because it seemed comparing designers to software.
That's not right, but I think that anybody already knows it. A good designer is good regardless of what uses, exactly like a journalist is good regardless his/her usage of a pen or a typewriter or a computer.

Your comments are quite provocative, just on the edge of flame if this was a forum, but for me that edge is a good thing for a journalist.

My answer is quite simple, but also quite hard. And that's interesting

It's hard because "design" means unfortunately many things by itself, and more if you consider different fields.
I reduce the topic here to "graphic design" or "logo design".

It's simple because there's no obvious answer to your question, I think. So: it's simple because there's no answer.

It's something like asking "why that logo appeals me more than that?" or "why that book is good?" or "why that object feels good?"


A few lines on a surface. Hardly a math able to define it numerically exists.

When you have to judge it you can just use external metrics, like success or money. Or qualitative metrics, and here you can find the role of the reviewers.

So the only answer are success stories.

And as you know the hard part is convincing someone that a specific design is worthy.

...but this is talking about the result. ;)

Design isn't just doing it. Isn't just skill to use a pencil or Illustrator to draw something.

It's the process behind it.

A good design process, in extreme synthesis, tells you to see, analyze, try, test, try again, test, refine, etc. Doing that will assure you results for a cheap price comparing to releasing products randomly to the market and seeing them fail.

That is what Google does (it isn't true that "Google get to show a blase disregard for design by instead focusing on technology and speed of use"), that's what IDEO does. And many, many other good companies.

This is so true that you'll hear many senior designers telling to young ones: "you're NOT an artist!".

Also, don't forget that there are also bad designers and bad companies. So, sometimes, also "designers" will fail.

Design: skill, feel and PROCESS.

The person will show the skill.
The peoples will feel the design.
The companies will see the process.

Well, in some ways I hope to have answered, but I know I didn't give you a straight, simple answer.

Design Professor

December 30, 2009 6:42 PM

There are a lot of overlapping issues here and, frankly, this post is painting a bit with a wide brush about an issue created by uninformed and politically motivated people painting with a wide brush.
I think in this case, as is often the case, "design" has been confused with "art" and "style" by those wanting a low cost identity redo.
In an age when military contractors continue to get sweet fat contracts worth billions of dollars, I am incredulous that anyone would balk at the common and everyday task of hiring a design firm to refresh an old identity.
A design solution, NOT style, may mean keeping things the way they are or changing them to meet new times, media, and cultural shifts (maybe the alternative is using visual solutions from the ancient world?) But the PROCESS to arrive at a good design solution where client and designer are all happy takes time and/or effort, research, ideation, presentation, and production.
I pay my gas, electric, doctor, computer company, dog kennel and many other services and manufacturers the same as I pay the many taxes to local, state, and federal services. I appreciate and expect good design. But often we get junky fast design often done in house by local and state governments. Think Florida ballot design earlier this decade for an example of where paying a designer to review the typesetting would have been worth $19 million, let alone $19,000 or maybe even $1900 if all local election officials were required to have a qualified designer with publication design and typesetting design experience check the ballots before they are implemented.
Any 4th year graphic design BFA student would have pointed out that shifting across the spine would be confusing and lead to incorrect votes.
But local government design can get worse: having a competition for a new logo! Nothing good or useful or well designed ever comes out of that.
Maybe we should have a competition to design our military weapons systems. May the best 12th grader's design win.

Janne Ryan

December 31, 2009 12:25 AM

Design does matter. It is about the way we think and the way we frame that thinking. It is more than a logo, although that done well can immediately call up a product or person. It takes a real understanding of our culture - the big and niche parts of a culture - to liberate good design. Often it is in the private spaces of our thoughts rather than out there for everyone to see. So it is about order and structure within. Very powerful, very influential if done right. If you want more of this about of approaching design go to By Design, the national design show on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation It can be downloaded from our site or through iTunes. Janne Ryan, producer, By Design


December 31, 2009 10:14 AM

I've noticed that people only ever comment when they think they could have done the job themselves. Notice no-one says 'brain surgery! It's only drilling a hole and slicing a bit of soft tissue" or even "Plumbing! Surely that's only spotting a leak and bending a pipe".

Design is NOT the end result, it is the process. The process involves years of expertise, hours of time and constant discussion. It is NOT the logo, it is what led to the logo.

"Harry Potter! Anyone could just write the words and get that published!"

Simon Nisbett

January 4, 2010 3:08 PM

Sad, pointless, waste-of-space article. "Step up" yourself and write something worth reading rather than just attempting to wind people up.

Darryl Jonckheere

January 4, 2010 4:27 PM

Just what exactly are we [designers] supposed to be defending here?

The questionable billing practices and seemingly unprofessional behaviour of one supposed graphic designer in an isolated, albeit high profile case?

Over-charging clients for services rendered is not a phenomenon limited to the creative design profession. This practice is quite prevalent in the legal and pharmaceutical industries and typically involves much greater amounts of money, causing this particular story to seem somewhat trivial.

To be clear, I am not condoning the designer's actions. The government clearly paid out far more than the actual scope of the services provided in this case. Nevertheless on behalf of all reputable designers, I would like to say the value of design is alive and well and certainly does not need to be defended if it is wielded in the hands of a competent professional.

The argument for running out and purchasing the latest "modern graphic design package" is but a knee-jerk reaction and natural response to a client-designer relationship clearly gone sour. It's almost like saying, "I really don't like these Adidas football shoes, think I'll go out and buy some rubber and foam sheets and fabricate my own" -by all means go ahead if you're feeling confident in your abilities. It might work, but almost certainly your amateurish looking shoe mash-up will be crude looking and do more damage to your heels (and your personal reputation as an athlete) more than you would expect.

To paraphrase Bruce Mau, creativity is not device dependent nor will software application XYZ help you magically realize a compelling and well thought out design solution. Software is often used as a creative crutch for those who lack conceptual thinking and idea generation talent. Moreover, it is not a viable substitute for critical design expertise and relevant experience and good old fashion open communication with the client.

Finally, the argument for utilizing crowd sourcing as a practical, mutually beneficial technique for eliciting creative services is quite absurd and offensive. This approach not only undermines the integrity of the design profession as a whole, it yields mediocre, unfocused results. The old adage, "you get what you pay for" in the end is the simple truth.

Helen Walters

January 4, 2010 8:20 PM

Again, thanks for all the comments. This is a really worthy discussion. I would like to emphasize that my original post came from a place of respect and desire to have a genuine discussion about this issue, not from some wish to flame or incite. Anyway, I understand it's a personal, emotional issue, but thanks to those who took the time to write really thoughtful responses. I also just came across this link, written by anthropologist Grant McCracken. Grant touches on many of the same issues I was belaboring here so I'd highly recommend taking a look if this discussion's been of interest.

Peter Evans-Greenwood

January 4, 2010 8:20 PM

Is this just another case of the demystification of the high priests? Claiming that the price is justified by some magic behind the curtain, as Dave Mason seems to, just doesn't work in today's transparent business environment. The design profession needs to define its value in terms of something that clients find tangible. In this case the client (the UK public) doesn't think that the result (a new logo) has enough to justify the £12,000 price tag.

Reality TV has removed the mystique from a number of professions by providing us with a glimpse behind the curtain. Remember the unemployed 20 year old in the U.S. who was using internet chat rooms to provide medical advice under and assumed identity, based on knowledge gleaned from a diet of reality TV? He was only caught when he owned up. The experts also agreed that his advice was also sound (he was careful, though, to avoid and/or refer on complex issues).

Acquiring the black arts of a profession used to create instant respect, but today we've seen the occult rituals behind the curtain and believe that anyone can learn them. Even ourselves.

Design is no different from other professions; most (but not all) design work is just the application of some basic knowledge, skills and tools, easily acquired from the internet. Creating a cheesy brandmark for the local copy store needs nothing more. It's the design version of an internet chat room combined with reality TV.

This democratisation of professional knowledge is creating intense margin pressure for professionals. What used to rare (basic design/IT/medical/construction/... knowledge and tooling) is now freely available. Members of the professions are finding it difficult to compete with the eager amateur for, as Dick Margulis points out with Sturgeon's Law, the 90% of everything which is easy and where crap is good enough.

It's that the 10%, the hard stuff, that matters. If I had a runny nose then the chat room advice might suffice. For something more serious, like a bullet wound, then I personally would want to see the experts.

The UK public seems to think that a (to them) logo redesign does not require any of the design black arts, or justify an expense of £12,000. It's hard to disagree with this position. While it might be a small invoice, it appears to deliver even less value

If the design consultancies want to protect their margins then they have to provide more value. The challenge for design, as a profession, is to clearly articulate what this 10% looks like, and the outcome the profession and provide. Design's impact on the mobile phone (aka, the iPhone) is a great example of where this 10% might live. The NHS seems to be an example of where the 10% is absent.



Brenda Sanderson

January 4, 2010 10:37 PM

Helen, I'll neither admonish nor applaud whether the two digits that sparked this discussion were worth the price. Its simply a question of where the money was spent. If you asked the public, the health care providers, or even the designers, whether they preferred to rework the identity or redesign the healthcare experience, I am guessing that they would have invested the design dollars differently.

Dave Mason

January 5, 2010 11:37 AM

Great discussion. There are a number of issues here, but from where I sit (25 years into a design career), I feel absolutely no need to defend design.

The successful designers I know seem to spend the majority of their time/energy finding and working with clients who value what they have to offer, because ultimately, good design produced for respected organizations (financially/ethically successful organizations) is the best argument for the value of design.

These designers 'prove it' every day through their work. Should the audience for which the work was created recognize and value it (returning the investment to the organization), and the organization's competitors and aspiring competitors recognize it and attempt to emulate it, the market for design expands. And now that B-schools have discovered the strategic advantage of design, the next generation of design-smart business leaders may emerge even more predisposed to invest in it.

As a point of clarification relating to a comment by Mr. Evans-Greenwood about my somehow claiming "that the price is justified by some magic behind the curtain." I never implied there was any magic, just an often unseen and money-consuming process not revealed by the so-called transparent business environment. Consequently when it comes to judging the value of someone else's work, opinions are not necessarily burdened by facts.

The flap around the NHS project seems to be about the perceived value of 'the work' relative to the notion that a non-designer equipped with software could have been paid much less to produce a similar solution. That may be possible under some circumstances, but what exactly was 'the work' in this case and why did it cost what it cost?

As a side note, what did it really cost? Despite the 'transparent business environment' the focus is on the fees paid to the designers, with no accounting for the salaries and other costs associated with the NHS personnel equally responsible for this apparent travesty.

In my experience the majority of design budgets are consumed during a process (meetings, development, presentations, reviews, re-designs, re-presentations, re-reviews etc.) that can range from the sublime to the ridiculous depending on the client. Typically the cost of creating digital files of the agreed upon solution is relatively minor in comparison.

Any fool can look at a finished creative work - logo, building, movie, whatever - and pass immediate judgement on its success/value while in complete ignorance of the facts behind its creation.

We can only hope that the same fool will one day - despite their best efforts to educate their client/boss or staunchly defend their unique capabilities - have one or more of their own carefully thought out/elegantly appropriate solutions rejected in favor of a decision-by-committee Frankenstein, stitched together from the dismembered remains of horrible ideas floated by demanding and unsophisticated bill-payers.

The fool will then be forced to decide whether to walk away (and be accused of having an attitude problem) or do their best to see the project through to completion (only to be accused of doing sub-standard work.)

Even the biggest of fools might agree that it would be absurd to discount whatever fees (or salary) they earned legitimately through grudging participation in an unnecessarily long, convoluted or beyond their control process because the monster they were unlucky enough to co-create turned out to be so unpleasant. As Helen said, that's the job.

The NHS work may or may not be sub-standard from a pure design standpoint. The funds may or may not have been better spent elsewhere to improve the organization. But it is naive in the extreme to criticize anyone for doing the work or charging fees for it without a complete understanding of the process.

As for the software vs brain discussion: we may be on the verge of a breakthrough in this area, but until non-designers can simply hit the creativity button on the design machine and out-imagine Jonathan Ive or Yves Behar or Santiago Calatrava, I think the general consensus has to be that the music is not yet in the piano.

Christian Jensen

January 5, 2010 12:28 PM

What's this 'Step up' business?

Design doesn't need to 'step up'... they just need to keep doing good work - the rest will sort itself out.

Time and time again, the free market has, and will continue to state clearly, and with their dollars, that good communications design is not only valuable, but essential to organizations, particularly one's with a public face.

Example? Coca-Cola and Pepsi's Leadership do not hire a friends nephew who is 'almost finished art school', or hold design competitions, in order to save money. That would be absurd. They understand that a professionally run organization depends on professional services, period. The work on this logo probably costs less than a divorce lawyers fees.

Chris Figat

January 5, 2010 5:53 PM

“Modern graphic design packages surely allow anyone with an average brain to design something as good as, or better than, what we see in front of us here.”

Just like modern cookware allows anyone to create a gourmet meal?

Not to defend these particular designers' actions, but there are plenty of clients out there who are able to see the value in good design and are willing to pay for it. You'll notice they're also often the ones whose businesses are thriving, both large (Apple, Target, etc.) and small.

Peter Evans-Greenwood

January 5, 2010 7:49 PM

Re: the value of design.

Value is defined by the purchaser, not the producer. If the consumer feels that the price is above value, then they will not purchase. We can use the cost of inputs to defend a price that is under attack (and most astute buyers will question the price--after they have decided to buy--to try and get the best deal possible), but we cannot use these costs to define value.

Clearly the purchaser (many public commentator), in this instance, don't see a lot of value in the new NHS logo. If we want to address the critisim, then we need to communitate the value and benefits a new logo brings. Focusing on cost when the purchaser doesn't see the value just makes the design profession look like a sheltered workshop. If, in this instance, we think the value brought be NHS's new logo doesn't warrent the price asked, then we should say so.

For me, the NHS's logo looks like the result of a heavy and inefficent bureaucracy, and the public was gibbed. I understand why is cost so much, and I don't think the price was justified.

Re: software vs brain discussion:

Any software developed to automate (or atleast simplify) design is not competing with Jonathan Ive, or any of the other 10% (or perhaps 5%) of designers who fit on the small side of Sturgeon's Law. It's replacing the 90% (or is it 95%) of jobbing designers who fall on the other side of the law.

This is what software does: it captures the easily formalized knowledge and refies it in a solution that can be used by all, leaving the tactit knowledge to the experts. And it does this incrementally and constantly in a darwinian process that is constantly eroding the experts terratory.

Coke and Pepsi are large multi-nationals, where the services of the 10% still matter. Of more interest to us is the bulk of the market, the small to medium business that represent the majority of the jobbing designers' clients. Many SMB companies have less demanding requirements, and they are finding that the music is in the piano.



Steven Almond

January 8, 2010 6:13 AM

Most design is utter rubbish. And I'm a designer. Just because something can be created in a certain way doesn't mean it should be or is even a viable option. This seems to be missed by 90% of designers who create by forcefully fusing random themes together.

This design mentality seem to even be championed and celebrated by much design related media.

So often the design which goes ahead is the one which is presented the loudest. Blagging is rife, and it is a polluting disease which is spreading.

I have felt for some time now that design is in serious trouble in Britain. As a few torch bearing hypocritical "celeb" designers lead each new wave of graduates into believing it's ok to produce a giant heap of elitist design junk.


January 10, 2010 1:53 PM


I feel I must point out something missing from your original exploration of the issue: design is not the artifact, it is the process. In other words, the client isn't paying so much for the logo as for the design process (time, expertise, staff resources, etc.) that went into creating it.

Admittedly, the design industry hasn't done a good job of communicating this - largely, I think, because it's very time-consuming to do so and often clients/prospects still don't get it. So it's often easier (and cheaper - this is a business after all) to simply move on to those who do get it. This creates a divide between those that understand the value designbrings to a business and those that believe their cat could do a better job if they just downloaded a copy of Photoshop.

Should we take the time/effort to improve this state of affairs? I'm not sure. Maybe I read too much Seth Godin, but I do wonder if the free/crowdsourcing/ad-supported everything movement hasn't already won; we all expect everything to be free at some level. Or that we can DIY our way through anything by watching a YouTube video. Then again, maybe we'll have a backlash and resurgence of craftsmanship and professional services. To that end I'll just keep doing what I do as best I can and provide value to my clients through design.

Bill Buxton

January 13, 2010 6:22 PM

So, since the comments to your post are so narrowly constrained, I was thinking that one might want to broaden the discussion. But seriously folks ... there is a strong whiff of the "who needs professionals?" and the "age of the amateur" movements underlying much of this. Think of the parallels with "who needs professional journalists in the age of the Internet and bloggers (and by the way, I know a 5-year old who can write as well as Danté)".

Having played on both teams in the tool vs designer debate, one could reasonably ask why Pixar still employs animators, artists and designers of almost all persuasions, despite having the best tools available in the industry, and employing perhaps the most expert users on the planet of those tools?

Ditto with George Lucas, who I characterize the cheapest money pincher in the film industry: he is so cheap that he will spare no expense to save money. And part of doing so is to buy or build the best technology, and to employ the best creative staff possible. Again, the people who build the tools are not the ones who use them – any more than Stradivarius is known for being a great violinist.

By the way -- buried in the back of my mind is the notion that I once read of a study that claimed that the majority of men who watch NFL believe that if they just went into training for a bit that they could do just as well as the bums they are watching on TV. I tried to find some semblance of evidence that anything even resembling that actually exists -- and failed. But even if it is one of my delusions, if it is even remotely true, then we have some insight into the strength of the kinds of delusions (w.r.t. our own abilities) that we are confronted with in this conversation.

Finally, my response to the "everyone is a designer" in the corporate setting, is this: if you are willing to have your CFO swap jobs with your CTO, and have your VP of HR swap with your VP Legal, then I understand why you might think that any of them could occupy the job of CDO. Now if you won't do the other switches, but still think that anyone, regardless of training, can do the CDO job, then (a) you are telling me that you don't believe that design is a distinct profession, so back up that belief and fire every designer in your organization, or explain yourself, and (b) explain to me why Apple Computer is still in business – and, yes, you can check their share price prior to Jobs coming back (and note: the ONLY innovation in the bondo blue iMac that saved the company was superficial styling. There was NOTHING new in the internals of that machine. The true design didn't come until the iPod.)

Bill Buxton, Principal Scientist, Microsoft Research

Steve Price

January 13, 2010 7:15 PM

I've already had my twenty cents, or eighteen-pence worth, but all bow to the legend, the might, the contextual herald that is Bill Buxton.

James Greenfield

January 14, 2010 1:04 PM

website logo design

January 21, 2010 5:58 AM

Your blog is pretty good and impressed me a lot. This article along with the images is quite in-depth and gives a good overview of the topic.


February 4, 2010 12:55 AM

The outcome of design does not always fit precisely into the business language. It often serves the abstract boundaries that critique, question and inspire the foundational frameworks and strategies that drive critical thinking and assessments that all cultures of profit must generate to be credible in evolving markets. This net result is difficult to quantify, but a progressive design team influences how the company thinks.

Therefore, the value of design must encompass the impact to organizational culture as well as the bottom line. Companies that achieve market leadership understand the intangible gifts creativity infuses throughout every facet of operations and even every employee. Good design has many benefits, but the one often overlooked is it’s ability to inspire a culture of creativity.

When was the last time you witnessed creativity? How did that inspire you?

lino molina

February 5, 2010 10:19 AM

desing is balance.thanks

Jurgen Oskamp

March 30, 2010 6:24 PM

I got a déjà vu feeling here. I remember an article, 20 years ago or something in a British Design magazine, saying an outrageous amount of mony was paid to change the BP logo font from standard to italic. It doesn't say so much about the designers, but about the companies that are crazy enough to pay such amounts of money. Some companies just want to pay huge amounts to famous designers, or design studios because such a famous name just looks more fancy. Some companies also think they get better design that way. It is just the same like that bottle of very expensive wine. The wine in the bottle isn't any better than any other good wine, but it MUST taste better because I paid a lot for it.

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What comes next? The Bloomberg Businessweek Innovation and Design blog chronicles new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.

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