Welcome: New Designers

August 27, 2010

Next week is the start of a new semester in Communications Design, as is many other design programs across the country and around the world. Thousands of students are starting their design careers in classrooms, a little nervous, confused, and a little bit stressed out. On the other side of the coin they are excited, passionate and ready to go. One good thing about the academic calendar is that the fall semester is about new beginnings, rebirth and a clean slate. I thought that I would read to our sophomores these two quotes by Marty Neumeier, President of Neutron about the world that, as designers, we have to work in.

“Thanks to unprecedented marker clutter, differentiation is becoming the most powerful strategy in business and the primary beneficiary of innovation. So, if innovation drives differentiation, what drives innovation? The answer, hidden in plain sight, is design. Design contains the skills to identify possible futures, invent exciting products, build bridges to customers, crack wicked* problems, and more. The fact is, if you wanna innovate, you gotta design.”

* A wicked problem is a puzzle so persistent, pervasive, and slippery that it can seem insoluble.

This is the world you are designing for:

“… where customers control the company, jobs are avenues of self expression, the barriers to competition are out of control, strangers design your products, fewer features are better, advertising drives customers away, demographics are beside the point, whatever you sell you take back, and best practices are obsolete at birth; where meaning talks, money walks, and stability is fantasy; where talent trumps obedience, imagination beats knowledge, and empathy trounces logic.”

Now we are ready to start learning about design.


A couple of times a week I get something from my investment brokerage firm in a plain white envelope. Inside might be an annual or quarterly report, an addendum to an earlier report, changes to these reports and other materials directly related to my investments. Generally, I open the envelope and take the contents and flip through the pages of 1-column, 10 point text in long paragraphs broken up by some tabular matter. Sometimes paragraphs are set in ALL CAPS! Lately, when I pick up the mail and sort it, these mailings from the brokerage firm go directly into the paper recycling box.

Does anybody read this stuff? I take my investments seriously because Social Security might not be around much longer and these investments are all I have to live on for the years after I officially stop working. These mailings are unreadable, and I love to read. All the formatting of type and layout says, “Don’t read this shit and don’t worry about it because the lawyers, the brokers and accountants have taken care of everything.” Oh, yeah, this really makes me feel better to know that the ones that got us in this economic mess don’t really want us to understand what they are doing with our money and how well they are doing it.

Quite a few years ago I had a large insurance company as a client. I will not name them because since then I have found that most insurance companies behave in a similar manner. My design studio was contracted to the repackaging of a substantial disability product line, which to insurance companies, means lots and lots of paper and things to hold the paper.

I looked at of all their and their competitors previous packages and found them incomprehensible to anyone except maybe a seasoned sales agent. After reorganizing, color coding, and creating clear info graphics to aid in comprehension, I moved then to the text. Some well placed and well written heads and subheads helped to navigate the reams of information. I then read the body copy, many times, and created a brief summary or abstract to be placed at the beginning of each piece. Now if the average person were to be handed this brochure or folder, they could easily understand what was the main message without taking the vast amount of time needed to read the entire piece.

We were really proud of this because no other insurance corporation was as transparent and clear as these pieces were. Well, I found out why. When our comps were reviewed by the client, the legal department sent back a simple answer, a sticky note on the top of our comps that simply said, “NO!” So much for trying to make all this legalese mumbo-jumbo comprehensible and transparent for the sake of the end-user. I would venture to say that I am not the only designer that tried to change an industry bent on using customer ignorance to their advantage.

I still get this crap, I painfully try to understand them but then end up tossing them into recycling. At least in their next life they might be used to make something new where we are able see the truth.