The most common method of evaluating design is judging how well it matches current design trends.
This tendency causes all kinds of issues both for designers and our clients; we suffer for our fashion.
Businesses pay for expensive redesigns every year or two, many seeing it as the cost of doing business. And designers are trapped in a perpetual search for the latest styles, because if we don’t keep up, we won’t get hired.
Clients and designers both are trapped in an endless cycle of design waste.
We work in stark contrast to the classic design we admire. We all regard the work of famous designers like Dieter Rams or Charles and Ray Eames as timeless. We buy the standards manual reproductions on Kickstarter. I own an out-of-print Lubalin book and the U&lc book myself.
We all want to do work of that caliber, but today’s design product is anything but timeless—a modern design might be forgotten in months, not even years.
I don’t even attempt to create the kind of classic design I love. And neither do most designers.
How many of us are brave enough to try to make a living while using only 2 typefaces like Vignelli? It seems impossible today.
This reveals a double standard in the design value system: we do love timeless design, but we behave the opposite way; we perpetuate the idea that design is disposable.
The design industry is certainly much larger than it was in the heyday of Rams or the Eames’ (although measuring the number of professional designers is difficult, this assumption feels safe).
And because the industry is so large, perhaps designers have become so fervent about design trends because we’re attempting to carve out our own niches by becoming trendsetters. Being the person who starts a new design trend must feel great, and I’m sure many designers are chasing that thrill.
But our dependence on trend has a serious downside: design might not be as valuable as it used to be.
For example, if you can forget the automatic opinion that anything you designed more than 6 months ago is out-dated, a design that remains effective for a business for 5 years is—on paper—more valuable than a design that will be replaced after only a year.
We designers are constantly pitching redesigns so our clients can have the latest trends, and while it feels like we’re keeping busy, this practice is damaging. We’re making less money per client and cycling through clients while rarely getting to see the results of the designs we deliver.
We designers are both perpetrators and victims of the cycle of redesign. We revere classic design but don’t dare try to create it ourselves because that would break the foundation we’ve used to build our livelihoods.
However there is a way to end the cycle of design waste and produce the classic design we love. It requires taking a stance and changing the way we talk about and practice design—not altering the actual designs we produce, but changing the way we engage clients and others we work with.
We’ve already started; the UX and design thinking movements are such a stance. We designers as a group agreed that design is about more that aesthetics, and that design decisions are business decisions and design is for other people.
But already, the dreams of user experience design and design thinking are being diluted. UX has simply become a general synonym for design in many circles. And design thinking is frequently a pipe dream; getting access and influence with the leadership of a big company is often impossible. Top-down design just isn’t happening the way we hope.
That’s not even considering the very real truth that many designers might not want to separate themselves from design trends.
But, if you’re one of those designers, you have no right to complain about design becoming devalued when you cling to your trends.
Trends are what devalue design.
We designers have a choice. We can choose design trends. Or, we can keep pushing the message we began with the UX and design thinking movements.
We can suffer no fashion instead of suffering for fashion. We can make effective design instead of trendy design. We can make the right design—dare I say the kind we might even be proud to show the next generation in 20 years. We can teach that the things we call trends are just design patterns that in many cases have existed for decades (I’m doing this by building a library of visual design patterns).
To be clear, design patterns will always wax and wane in popularity to some extent. This is unavoidable, and I’m not suggesting you change the way you create design.
However our obsession with design trend popularity is unhealthy because it dominates every discussion about design.
The change we need to make is in which aspects of design we value and how we communicate that to non-designers.
Regardless of which techniques are popular, we can work to create value and profit through design and show our clients that design is more than a look and feel but an integral part of creating a business.
We can carve out more respect for ourselves by talking about the value of design, so that when our clients think of our work, they know it’s more than fashion
Design's Iron Fist is a collection of essays with advice for both design learners and professional designers. It's been featured as one of the best free design books by the Creative Bloq and the AIGA.
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