I’ve been mulling the future of design for the past few days, as I’ve had a few brief but turbulent encounters with clients around cost and deliverables. Most of my worries have been around this incredible rapid race to the bottom. Every day I receive emails from (semi-legitimate or real) companies in India, Russian, or Romania that, in essence, are offering web design and/or development services for $8.00 per hour or less. I fully understand that, in this race, everyone is hungry, everyone need to make money and that developed countries (e.g. Canada) has an inordinate leg up on against developing countries.
Where it gets incredibly messy and grotesque, in my opinion, is on sites like 99designs.com. There, clients don’t need to argue with designers to provide a lower price for high quality service. That’s simply the modus operandi. Clients go to 99 because they only want to pay that amount and, from my observations, it looks like they’re all getting a good deal. The designs are competent, the quality is quite high, and the timing may be on. But what’s missing is that inexplicable construct which comes with truly great design – a personality, a spirit of assurance or a logic that escapes the traditional. Does this mean that only well-heeled and monetarily blessed individuals and organizations can afford enlightened or unique design? It does. And the reality is that this is how design (and aesthetic production more generally) has always worked. Because nearly anyone with a computer today can be a knowledge or culture worker (or both), the playing field is level. The same goes with video editors, journalists, and programmers. But, because this has happened so quickly, we still don’t have mechanisms to rule out what is merely good from what is great.
Sites like Haystack, recently launched by 37signals, make an attempt at helping people choose a design firm that matches their requirements. But their model, where some agencies and designers can pay for an elevated position on the site, belie and undermine their intention. Taking money from companies that may or may not be better at communicating prospective client needs and showcasing those companies is not a useful proposition. Instead, Haystack takes the 99designs.com model and turns it around; the wealthiest and most marketing-focused design firms are provided leverage in the competition. In this way (and in this way only), I believe that the latter is, ethically, on more solid ground; 99designs.com, at least, honestly allows multiple entities to compete for a given (albeit low) amount of business.
What is missing here, in this novel short-sighted design context, is the relationship. I’ve always said that, for my little company, the relationship is everything. The auctioning or advertising of services (two sides of the same ugly coin) won’t buy long-term design, unique imagery, or usable and accessible production. In this supposedly “democratic” connectedness, it’s not connection that buys good design, as nearly everyone has that. Rather, and simply, the best design today stems from relationships and the unfolding of solutions through dialogue and time.