The True Cost of Bad Design - Fifth Letter
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The True Cost of Bad Design

I feel the need to begin with a warning to you, dear reader, as I climb onto my soapbox for a few minutes. I do so bearing an armload of lemons. I may even throw a few out of frustration. My desire, by the time we’re done, is to provide some lemonade in a glass that’s at a minimum half full.


(As a quick aside, I want to apologize in advance for referencing stories that may live behind paywalls. If they do, you’ll just have to either trust me or make a couple newspapers happy by subscribing to them digitally.)


First, some lemons. Our culture often treats design, at least graphic design, like the professional equivalent of scrapbooking: it’s an interesting distraction if you have the time. And if you’re really good at it, you just might make a few bucks! Hobby Lobby doesn’t sell Macs and Creative Suite, but some days I wonder if they haven’t at least considered it.


Case in point: A recent story about a firefighter, Ethan Richards, in my local newspaper here in Winston-Salem. Richards is, in his defense, somewhat of an innocent bystander in this story.


I’m not going to pretend for a moment that design saves lives like firefighters do. (Actually it does, but that’s another topic for another day.) I also won’t claim, as an outsider, to understand the specific culture of brotherhood found in professions like firefighters or the police.


The crux of the story is that Richards designed a new logo for our city’s fire department. You can read the story for yourself here.


The part of the article that stood out for me is as follows:


While at the Winston-Salem Fire Department, he was tinkering with the city’s logo around October 2015.


“I was just doodling, I didn’t think we should change it,” he said.


Long story short, the chief saw the artwork, thought differently, and here we are. The unintended takeaway from this article is that design is a hobby for tinkerers. Have some free time on your hands? Fire up some software and go for it!


Lest you think I’m an elite snob who feels great ideas only come from a few of the anointed ones, that’s not the case. I truly believe great ideas can come from anywhere. However, the department doesn’t have shade tree mechanics maintain their trucks when they get around to it. They don’t have random citizens at the ready with garden hose and ladder to help out when a neighbor’s home is engulfed in flames.


So why does that professionalism fall by the wayside when it comes to how the department presents itself?


Let’s switch gears and focus on someone who did go to school for design. But not just any school. The Basel School of Design in Switzerland, studying under Armin Hofmann, one of the pillars of Swiss graphic design.


Enter Henry Bertschmann.


There was a wonderful article about Mr. Bertschmann published in the Old Gray Lady herself, The New York Times, discussing how he has been overlooked by the fine art world while some of his contemporaries from ‘50s and ‘60s New York became famous.


He was also an amazing designer, working for consumer brands, airlines and publishers. Have a look at his incredible poster for American Airlines as one example.

Screen Shot 2018-01-12 at 4.28.50 PM

The problem I have is that, in spite of his education, pedigree and achievements, he apologizes for his career:


“I had to make money,” Mr. Bertschmann, 86, said one morning in late November as he sat at the dining table of his light-filled, art-filled apartment-studio near the South Street Seaport. And he did, working as a freelance graphic designer creating logos, packaging and advertising for brands like Pond’s cold cream and Bufferin. His success at his day job ensured that he wasn’t hungry, and while he has produced thousands (he has no idea how many thousands) of fine-art paintings, drawings and collages in wildly varied styles, he never persistently sought gallery representation.


The undercurrent of this article, or at least Mr. Bertschmann’s mindset, is that design is something utilitarian you fall back on when you can’t make ends meet as a fine artist.


It’s not like the difference between a portrait painter and a house painter. With design, we have to invest emotionally and cognitively, just like fine artists. We channel our wisdom and life experiences into intuitive solutions for clients that will make meaningful human connections with an audience. Plus we have to produce. On time. Consistently. And—good news!—it’s still possible to sketch, paint, print, sculpt and engage in any number of other creative outlets one wishes to pursue. (Quite often the fruits of these extracurricular labors inform or appear in the design work anyway.)


There’s a famous quote that states, “Never apologize for your art.” Folks, that includes design.


My last example comes from a regional university. In the interest of good manners, I won’t say which one. With a little online sleuthing you will likely be able to figure it out.


This institution revisited their logo and identity about a year-and-a-half ago with the installation of a new chancellor. The topic was front page news. They talked about how important a new logo was to the school and its alums. How it was central to their vision for the twenty-first century. And one of the core points of pride? How little was spent on the mark: $3,000. No, that’s not a typo.


Do colleges brag how little was spent on their football stadium? Their faculty? Their student union? No way. In fact, no one questions the emotional or financial value of these touchpoints being part of an enriching campus life, so why do it with your flagship artwork? After all, a student sees that on the envelope face or email heading of their acceptance letter. That’s a peak moment for sure.


So how do we turn these lemons into the promised lemonade?


There are some valuable takeaways here when it comes to perception in the marketplace. As designers we need to advocate for ourselves and our work. We need to applaud our abilities, not downplay them and certainly not apologize for them. And be quick to call bullshit when we’re not being paid what we’re worth. We’re professionals with years of experience. Let’s treat ourselves that way so others will do the same.


Clients have responsibilities as well. It’s their responsibility to themselves, their employees and their customers to be professional rather than knee-jerk. Set aside a realistic budget. Do a little bit of research. Our phones are always open for a quick call.


I want to do business (both as an entrepreneur and a consumer) with companies and organizations that understand when they invest in good design they invest in themselves. Their true, authentic selves. That takes research, discipline and insight. It also takes vision. It shows they expect a return. They aren’t afraid to grow and change. In short, they have a plan. Rolling out a plan takes time. And time is the one thing everyone has a finite amount of.


If you’re interested in a straightforward conversation about pricing and the value of design, begin by downloading our e-book on the subject. Once you’ve had a chance to review it, I’d love to meet over lemonade to discuss.


Elliot Strunk is the Ringleader of Fifth Letter. When not advocating for investing in good design, he’s quenching client thirst.