Last week we began our creative industry Interview Series by asking three of Australia’s most prominent design experts and practitioners "why are there are no super-wealthy design agency owners?". In part two, we ask Andrew Ashton, Grant Davidson and David Ansett another provocative question about their corner of the creative industry.
What have designers done wrong as a sector to be so poorly valued by clients?
“I don’t agree with the question’s premise,” says Grant Davidson. “I think it’s like any product or service: some people hold some in high regard and those people appreciate the value. Others don’t.
“Even putting that aside, I think overall there is an increasing and growing appreciation for the value of design. I [recently] saw a McKinsey article [headlined] “Making design a business priority”. When McKinsey [says] ‘companies who place design at the centre of their organisation perform better’… These are messages going out to a database of very practical, business-savvy companies and people within organisations,” says Davidson.
“I think that is a massive statement that there’s not just an appreciation that design’s nice and adds a bit of aesthetic value, but [that] design adds enormous value to business.”
For Andrew Ashton, however, our question rings true and he says it comes down to several factors, one of the most important being a preoccupation with being a designer and making design.
“Because as a sector we’re so driven by – and this is a generalisation of course – awards, being on-trend and attending the right gigs and having the right clients, we’re not really asking those big questions about our practice and perception.
“A lot has been lost in the cut and thrust of being the right designer – with matching beard, or top knot, making the right pastel shaped graphiques, using the right photographic stylist and looking good in the socials. With all this design theatre in the air waves, backed by a lack of quality messaging about the difference creativity brings to communication and engagement, it’s hard for clients who are seeking more than a look to trust the service we offer.”
Ashton mentions the word “narcissism”. But this isn’t an off-hand swipe; there’s no personal spite in his language. He’s talking, in part, about an insularity he’s noticed in the sector. Above all, he wants to see designers reconnect with the community at large.
“Designers are gazing at their work and talking to each other more than ever, but while we’ve wandered off in one corner, looking, talking and hanging out with ourselves, the rest of the world’s moved on,” explains Ashton.
“It seems we haven’t shaped and changed our practice to meet the needs of a changing client and a user of design. While we’re caught up in our graphic gymnastics, the other eighty percent of the world is engaging with the benefits of creative thinking and asking “Why should I pay professionals for creative services when I can jump online, get some knowledge, download a creative software package and potentially do it myself?”
“Good design is valued because it generates a return and a difference to a business"
David Ansett says that there is, and has long been, a problem with clients poorly valuing those who work within the sector, but has differing views on what has degraded designers’ reputations.
“I don’t blame the clients; I blame generations of uncommercial design agency owners.”
“I wonder sometimes whether Darren from Bewitched had been a graphic designer and not an adman whether everything would have been different,” he jokes before using advertising firms as a point of reference. “The advertising industry is older. [It] has always seen itself as directly correlating to sales. [It] has evolved into a very commercially savvy, client profit-oriented model.”
Design, on the other hand, says Ansett, is burdened by a historical inability to demonstrate the value of its service to the businesses for which it seeks to work.
“The design industry is trying to play catch-up and a few people are doing some interesting things, trying to teach these designers how to act more like businesspeople, but my sense is the damage is done.
In Davidson’s view, damage is really only done by poor designers. Excellent designers, he says, are extremely highly valued by clients.
“Good design is valued because it generates a return and a difference to a business".
“Our very first client… we were doing the newsletter for BHP’s steel division. We did that every month… and then desktop publishing came in. And they said ‘Sorry guys – we’re going to do it from now on.’
“But it was only a few editions of the newsletter later that they came back and said ‘Ours just don’t look like what you did.’ What they realised was, yes, you can have the equipment and maybe someone with the technical abilities to drive the equipment, but without the experience and the finesse it doesn’t translate.”
Ashton believes designers, in some ways, have been “our own worst enemy” but agrees with Davidson’s idea that distinctions should be made between good designers, who work by a strong guiding philosophy and can demonstrate a clear benefit for their client, and poor designers.
“Some agencies get it right and they have good repeat business for many, many years. Whereas some creatives rely too heavily on creative gimmicks and you just can’t get away with that anymore.
“People, in essence, want to save money. They’re saying ‘I’m not sure that your point of difference will achieve what I need to do so I might as well just do it myself.’
“A lot of people go into [famed architect] Frank Gehry’s practice and say ‘I believe in the ethos of how you create your work, and I want you to bring this manifestation of practice to my project.’ Everyone can run computer programmes now, but no one can replicate the magic that people like Marc Newson Ai Weiwei, Jeff Koons, or Lady GaGa bring to the simple act of creating something and putting it to an audience.”
Next week we ask Andrew, David and Grant our final question:
As a creative industry, why are we so poor at innovation?
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