Is Design Still a Job?

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Web Designers (and perhaps digital designers in general) must ask themselves this question from time to time. Yes, there are tons of restaurant sites to redesign. Yes, there are designers out there charging 4-5 figures per project. Yes, you can basically do the same template site (don’t tell the client that) and cut down on your time, upping your $/hr. Yes, your technical skills are valuable and no the stakeholders/business owners couldn’t do it themselves—at least you don’t think they could.

That’s all true, but perhaps that’s all beside the point. What the internet has done since its explosive growth in the mid-90’s is disrupt and disintermediate.

disrupt (v)

1.to cause disorder or turmoil in:

2.to destroy, usually temporarily, the normal continuance or unity of;interrupt:

3.to break apart:

4.Business. to radically change (an industry, business strategy, etc.) by introducing a new product or service that creates a new market:

disintermediate (v)

to attempt to do away with intermediary entities between two primary market forces; to eliminate the middleman

In the same way that Amazon.com slaughtered retailers, there are some amazing online tools that seek to do away with you, the designer. But you probably already knew that, since you use them all the time.

“But why?” you must be thinking, “What have I ever done? I’m sensitive. I listen. I rock at round rects and drop shadows. I follow all the latest Digital Design trends. I’m even on the iOS 9 Beta program and I contribute to Git monthly!”

I know, I know. You’re an angel with an Illustrator fetish. But you’re also the new middleman.

Do you think stakeholders want to deal with you? It’s hard enough to talk about design (as a layman). It’s frustrating for business owners to wait for your mockups and sift through the ‘creative process’ when they’d rather just do it themselves.

Oh you don’t think they can? Don’t be so sure. Anyone born after 1990 is pretty much Web native. If you client is in this age range, trust me, they get online design patterns. They get Facebook. They get flat design. What they don’t get is why you’re still charging $10,000 for something he could do on Tumblr in an afternoon.

Argue all you want about your design sense. Most likely, as a designer, it won’t be appreciated. Maybe you should be a digital artist, instead?

There are a few main things working against you as a digital designer / UI designer / UX designer / experience architect / pixel crafter:

1. Pretty doesn’t matter.

Businesses don’t hire you to make their site look cool or pretty. If thats what you do, you’re overcharging. Businesses exist to serve customers, not their owners’ egos. Looking cool is mostly bullshit if you’re copying Facebook’s latest design, or Google’s latest design. Admit it, you want your site to ‘match’ something from some Silicon Valley giant and look familiar. What matters is conversions. Part of the reason ‘simple and clean’ web design took over is because it converted. Less crap on the screen and fewer buttons, meant more visitors clicked the call to action buttons. That’s it.

Sadly, all the groovy graphics on your Dribbble account don’t mean much because they don’t convert. If they don’t make the stakeholders money, why the hell are they paying you?

2. Design patterns are getting ubiquitous.

Here’s the next problem. Most of what you claim to be ‘great design’ is already ubiquitous. It’s ubiquitous because Facebook has 1.4 billion users and we are 20 years into the Internet Age. What web users are doing when they load a new website is look for familiar structures called ‘design patterns’. Is there a company logo at the top left? Is there a navigation bar with a sign up button somewhere at the top right? Is the contact info somewhere at the bottom of the page?  If there’s no hover effects, how do I know what’s a button and what isn’t?

Experienced web users (I’ll wait while you update your Linkedin Profile) already know this stuff, even if they’re not geeky enough to verbalize it. So why are you charging for a ‘design sense’ when literally everyone in the Western Hemisphere knows this stuff?

What if you want to get creative and start having horizontally scrolling pages (groovy!) and buttons that only appear after a 20 second opacity transition effect? What if you want the page to load in Russian because it looks “cool” and force North American users to click the language tab, just to show how metropolitan you are? All of that crap is funny (for a few minutes) until you realize it’s actually terrible design because your users are expecting something familiar. What you think of as ‘creative design ideation’ is mostly just a set of established design patterns. In fact, some of the patterns are so ubiquitous that your CMS will not let you mess them up.

Are you still sure your clients can do this themselves?

3. The tools are getting better.

Finally, the techical reason you might be overcharging clients. The tools at your (and their) disposal are amazing. Years ago Adobe Creative Suite was considered the vital tools of the trade (whether it was digital or print design). The tools were so incredible obtuse, so bafflingly complex to use that no client would dare undertake a web, print, or logo design. Every pixel of that interface seemed intentionally designed to frustrate users, and insulate the prestigious few who could understand it, in much the same way that lawyers and doctors use language (vernacular, if you will) so opaque, no patient would dare question his or her counsel. Again, whether it’s conscious or subconscious, it’s a great business model.

Then the infighting began. Design-on-design crime, if you will. Designers outside of Adobe started throwing Molotov cocktails at Designers inside Adobe. They started burning burning and sharing CD’s. They starting downloading pirated copies (“after all”, they thought, “what design student can justify spending $500 just to learn how to use the thing?”). They started sharing ID codes to and cracks to get around Adobe’s digital protection layers. All of it worked. All of it.

As bandwidth increased (early 2000’s) enough that downloading a 3GB file was a piece of cake, Adobe was forced into a corner: sooner or later this business model would have to break, and they’d be forced into some kind of subscription service. Too many users were paying nothing for years of unrestricted use of Adobe software. By the late 2000’s development was well underway, and in 2014 the first version of Adobe Creative Cloud was released. Pricing started around $10/mo and went all the way up to $80/mo indefinitely for legal use of the software. In fact, Adobe Creative Cloud is technically brilliant, but many designers were appalled that they were now being asked to pay for something on an ongoing basis (which they would be using on an ongoing basis, ahem).

Around that same time, some wonderful Adobe alternatives were released for dirt-cheap, that are not only affordable, but eschew the wretched Adobe Interface that made it so difficult for business owners do ‘do it themselves’.

Desktop Tools

Sketch ($50) is a beautiful and dirt-cheap alternative to Illustrator/Photoshop for Digital Designers. For any Mockup or App/Web Design work, this app is gorgeous, has a modern UI, includes all the layers and built in effects of Photoshop. Oh yeah, and it exports PSD files.

Pixelmator ($35) is a beautiful photo-editing application. It just oozes OS X goodness, and of course does everything you’d ever want Photoshop to do.

Affinity Designer and Photo (both $60) are beautiful modern alternatives to Illustrator and Photoshop. Are you noticing a pattern here?

WordPress

This site is built on WordPress. WordPress rocks. It has a bajillion themes (the free ones mostly stink, but the paid ones can be more than sufficient for a basic small business site). Your boss and client have also heard of WordPress and could pay someone on Elance 250 bucks to make a WP site without touching PHP.

SquareSpace

Here comes the good stuff. Squarespace (you’ve heard of them if you’ve listened to a podcast in the last five years) is very big and very liquid. They provide service and turnkey design sense, and all the backend stuff your clients will ever need for a few bucks a month. Starving Graphic Design majors may not be able to afford that but your clients sure can.

Webflow

Webflow not only makes WordPress look like Mario Paint (Google it, kids), it does responsive and fluid design beautifully. It is web native. It exports all the HTML/CSS/JS you’ll ever need to make a downright sexy website without touching any of the aforementioned Desktop tools.

It’s gorgeous, and it’s about to launch a CMS module, meaning it’s about to go up against premium WordPress functionality. It may not be mainstream, but the technology is right there. Throwing gorgeous websites together in a couple hours.

Conclusion

I’m not suggesting you quit your job or lower your rates. Let’s go back to basics. A designer’s job is to solve problems under technological, financial and time constraints. Anyone who doesn’t have those three isn’t really a designer, he/she is an artist. Design is valuable because it solves problems. As I’ve pointed out here, the technical tools are becoming less and less of a problem. The design side is still very hard for the average small business owner, but design patterns (read: copying) tend to cover this, barring any ghastly color combinations or font choices. Things like Squarespace won’t even let you make disgusting typography choices.

So what’s left?  Plenty. Amazon.com didn’t destroy the retail market, it disrupted it. It killed bad retailers and pushed good ones to be even better. What’s easy to disrupt is the technical stuff. What’s hard to disrupt is the soft stuff. People skills. User research. Emotion. Underpromising and overdelivering. Personal networks.

Design is still a job, but it’s not you hunched over a Macbook playing with color combinations all night. That stuff doesn’t actually matter as much as how you can use this ‘web design’ or ‘identity design’ contract to help the client make money. Prove to them that you have done the homework, UX research, which has led to your design choices. Take advantage of the aforementioned tools to finish projects ahead of that pesky deadline. Offer a discounted rate if your clients can refer you to others. Play up the emotional side of business in the same way that your client uses emotions to close his/her customers. If you can’t do that, you may as well be disrupted.


Recommended Reading: “Design is a Job” by Mike Monteiro.

Try this Instead of ApplePay

touchIDbanner

First we had credit cards, then debit cards and bank cards. They seemed to fuel consumption for a good 50 years. Consumer spending went up as the velocity of money exploded with these innovations.

Then about 5-10 years ago, we heard that somewhere in Japan/Korea, you could pay for everything with your phone, using something called NFC(near-field communications). It sounded like paradise. The bank would be able to track any activity on the device, allowing users to retract any payment (if you lost your phone, etc.).

But NFC wasn’t taking off in the West. It wouldn’t for a very long time. Google introduced Google Wallet in 2011, then proceeded to integrate it into a few Google services. Late last year, Apple introduced ApplePay, which would work with its latest fingerprint technology called TouchID. The technology worked pretty much as advertised, allowing users to authorize and secure various aspects of the phones functionality via fingerprint. The most basic of these functions was unlocking the phone. Commenters and pundits dreamt up scenarios where 3rd parties (apps/websites) could actually use TouchID, and people started to go giddy. The 1-click Amazon button became 1-touch. Authorizing app downloads would just be a touch away. No more passwords.

Okay, so we got a little delirious.

I actually have no problem with ApplePay, yet. I haven’t used it, other than downloading apps on my phone. I’ve never used it in a store, probably because I live in Canada (it should arrive in a few months). Although I have no experience with ApplePay, reports from down south are very impressive, for which I applaud Apple. The technology sounds life-changing. The problem is, people are already terrible at spending money, and this is just going to make it worse.

The average credit card debt level for American households is over $15,000 mostly because we’ve successfully turned our money into chips in a casino: since the money is invisible, we don’t feel bad (over)spending it. I fear that ApplePay (and similar services) are just going to exacerbate this (fun and addictive) problem.

My solution? Going cash only.

A few years ago I lived in China, which was predominantly a cash-based system. Everywhere you looked, people were lined up outside ATMs to collect their salaries, to withdraw cash, to pay for apartment rent, whatever. Some Chinese would carry big bags full of cash around, rather than set up an automatic transfer plan with their employer/landlord. They did actually have bank cards, but often employers would pay people with huge manila envelopes of cash. It was ridiculously inefficient. If you made anything close to a middle-class salary, you were wads of cash around. Yes, they have pickpockets in China.

For all the flaws in the Chinese system (most of which could be solved by introducing a 1000RMB note) at least it made you touch your money. The Chinese made it a pain in the butt to get a real credit card (ironically, going to the bank and borrowing thousands for the purposes of speculative investment, amazingly, is still a piece of cake in the Middle Kingdom) thus promoting savings. For all its flaws, the Chinese financial system is strong because Chinese families tend to save a lot of money. 

ChineseYuan

So I’m stealing that idea. Here’s what I do. Every Sunday I do my finances and I track things like cash, receivables, credit card bills, etc. One of the things I track is liquidity: the sum of all the accounts, cash and receivables I have. I know how much I owe and how much I’m owed.

Every Monday I take out some cash at the ATM. That wad of cash will be my pocket money for the week. When I go out to eat, I spend that. When I pick up groceries, I spend that. For larger purchases, I can use a bank card, but I try to avoid touching it. I’ve actually tucked my Credit card and Debit Card in a hidden compartment in my wallet, so I’m less likely to use them.

There’s another wrinkle too: whatever money I withdraw on Monday, that’s the amount of money I want to save this week. If I take out $100, my goal is to increase my liquidity $100 this week. If I take out $150, my overall liquidity should be up $150 on Sunday. The more I earn, the more I can save (and the more play money I get). I’ve been using this system for a few weeks now and my liquidity has gone up each week. I actually feel a bit of remorse when I go to a restaurant and drop $50-$100 when I shouldn’t be. I’m less likely to eat fast food when I have perfectly good and healthy food at home. This system walks a nice line between rewarding me for my hard work, and socking some away for investment.

Remember, the reason I’m doing this is because I know with credit cards, debit cards and ApplePay, I won’t keep track of anything. The tendency for humans is to spend about 90% of what we earn. Just got a raise? Doesn’t matter. You’re going to spend all of it. On the other hand, with this new system, I’m aggressively throwing money at investment funds and jacking up my liquidity levels.

Try it for a couple weeks and let me know how it goes.

 

 

 

Giving vs “Giving”

rose

A few times a year, we have the opportunity to really tell our friends and family how much we love them. We meet for dinner, and exchange gifts, and good times. But when it comes to gift-giving, we’re hit and miss. Sadly, for many, it’s a time when they feel imposed upon. Obliged. They feel the social pressure of having to get something, or having to show up. We think of the least offensive thing, the most useful thing, we scour the best-seller lists on Amazon. Kinda pathetic. In a celebration of genuine friendship, we turn to a generic algorithm online. Nice slippers/tie/toaster. We all know it’s bullshit.

Giving out of obligation isn’t really giving. It’s “giving”. It’s passive aggressive. It’s a charade. “Giving” is giving to get. My theory is that consumerism (movies, music videos, and of course, advertising) has successfully convinced us that getting stuff is the best part of the week, the month, the year, even life. It’s a treat when you get something from your parents. When you get good grades in school, you might get some money, or a night out.

On the other hand, when we hear about the “The Gift of Giving”, we miss the point. We take it way too literally. We just think about birthdays and Christmas and think, “Okay so it’s Nana’s 80th, but I’m the real winner because I gave her a pair of $30 slippers?” It doesn’t work like that. That’s just giving material stuff out of obligation: pure “giving” territory. Real giving is a mindset. it’s something we obsess over on a daily, hourly basis.

The most financially successful men and women on this planet fall into two camps: those who still believe this fallacy and have since turned to addictive substances to get an ever-increasing hit, and those who get the most satisfaction from using their wealth and resources to contribute to the world. None of this stuff is new. It’s just old, largely ignored, and under-advertised.

Giving is the Goal

Giving time. Giving food. Giving attention. Giving love. Giving compliments.Giving money. Money’s at the end of the list because it’s the one that takes the least thought and the least time. It scales perfectly, thus undermining the gift

.If you want to be self interested and selfish, and live this endlessly satisfying life, you don’t need a million dollars to do it. You can do it with about 25,000 bucks a year. You, like Kevin Spacey’s character in “American Beauty” can quit your job, stop and smell the roses (ahem), and just chill out, get high, eat Cheese burgers, on 25k a year. So why not do just that?

Until you truly find a reason to help other people, that’s where you’ll stay. Being Rich and Famous are just not that motivating to your monkey mind. Rich? What’s rich? Having security? Having an absence of anxiety or stress? In many ways the average earners have less ‘anxiety’ than the rich and famous. What’s famous? To our humble ancestors, famous was knowing more than 150 people. Not 100 million. We just can’t think about those standards. The only way up is contribution to others. The only motivating factor is if you genuinely want to help other people. Thats the only thing you need scale for. Helping yourself is easy. You can do that in a closet.

Rather than living in fear, some of us need to get back to a selfless mindset. Once we genuinely tap into this giving spirit, we’ll finally stop wasting money (ironically) on ‘selfish pleasure’ (short-lived) and use it one bigger and bigger projects that help others, and ultimately lead to a long-term contribution Buffett, Gates et al. would be proud of.

Can Fitbit Survive?

fitbit-long

Apologies for the alarmist or sensationalist headline. I know. Fitbit just celebrated their IPO. The founders are totally rich. Customers, for the most part, are ecstatic. If you take a look at their current product lineup, it looks robust. While Samsung and Google were out in front with wearable hardware and platforms, no one was as early as Fitbit with polished, well-designed hardware, with very clean and useful cloud software for syncing.

Just look at this dashboard. Totally drag/drop customizable, with a clean iOS/Android app that looks pretty much the same. If you opted for their Aria scale, it would sync your weight and body fat to the cloud. It’s brilliant.

 

screen

So why am I talking about them in the past tense?

Well, here’s the problem. The Apple Watch replaces most of the functionality of the Fitbit wrist-worn devices. I’m not saying it’s better. Frankly I think Apple Watch 1.0 is kind of a pain in the ass (docking/charging a watch nightly mostly). The problem is that Apple introduces in the consumers mind this question:

Do I get an Apple Watch Sport now for $350 or get a cheap Fitbit Flex for $100 knowing that the latter will be eaten by the former?

As a potential user for all of these, I see the Apple Watch purchase as an inevitability and not because I like Apple stuff. I just think it’s the future.

We went from Mainframe computers to Microcomputers to Laptops to Handheld computers (smartphones), and the Computer on your wrist is the next step. Is it the best place to interact, one handed, one sided with a teeny square screen? Nope. It’s just that these things must get smaller, and the prospect of replacing your watch with voice-activated commands on your wrist is so tantalizing, I’m certain it’s the future. I’m certain that, sooner than anyone thinks, that watch is going to be useable without a cellphone to make calls. That’s it. Everything else is irrelevant.

The watch has two incredible things going for it: it has a smaller physical screen (which means less busy work, simpler interfaces), and it has an insane price range. iPods were about $300 each. iPhones go for about $1000 each, tied to a phone contract that is getting more and more antiquated by the minute. If you live in a big city, you can find wifi everywhere (which makes the Apple Watch as primary communicator even more likely). Why do we need a ‘phone number’ when our most commonly used apps are messaging apps? Without getting into it, I think the Watch presents a fantastic solution for consumers and a fantastic stream of future profits for Apple. That’s why I think it’s a hit.

Back to Fitbit. Where do they fit (apologies) in world of Apple Watches? If the Fitbit is just doing a subset of what Apple Watch already does, it’s kind of a dud. No USPs, right?

Here’s my take: If you don’t have an Apple Watch (or any smart watch) and you want step tracking and sleep tracking (which Apple Watch may never do due to battery limitations, by the way), you can get a Fitbit Flex and wear it with your watch. No one is suggesting that the Apple Watch will have a >50% marketshare (they’ll just take the profit share, like they always do). So there is a huge market for Fitbit here.

watchI’m not being funny. This could be the future Fitbit business model. Slapping bits of tech on traditional watches. The Fitbit is subtle and not exceedingly male or female. It comes in various colors, so your can pop out the ‘bit’ and get a band that matches your outfit (an expensive chore with the Apple Watch, by the way). My contention is that the more Fitbit moves into ‘watch’ territory, and that face starts getting bigger, it’s all over, and unit sales get ugly. Rather than get bigger, Fitbit needs to get smaller.

Let’s look at another product that was more of a direct competitor to Fitbit. A failed product. A clunky mess.

nike-fuelband-thumb

The Nike Fuel band was cool. It’s Nike, after all. But man. Look at those rainbow colors. Subtlety? This thing is huge. It’s like a Lite-Brite on your wrist (Google it). The only time you can wear this is when you’re running. That’s what Nike (amazingly) missed. They ignored fashion. The Fitbit is meant to be worn all the time, even when you’re sleeping.

The Fitbit display is so minimal it’s a work of art. You tap the Flex and you get a row of 5 dots (20% each, tracking either your steps, distance or calories burned). You can double tap to go into sleep mode. In the morning the Fitbit will gently vibrate to wake you. You tap it to stop, and you’re back in active mode. It’s ingenious. It’s not a huge market (these retail for about $100), but it was executed marvellously.

flex-dots

That product did it for Fitbit. It made them rich. It gave them word of mouth. But if they want to thrive, they’ve got to figure out a way to go smaller. Going bigger is like going back to Desktop Towers and Mainframes. Perhaps they keep re-issuing the Flex every year with better and better stuff: better battery life, more sensors. Perhaps they do a necklace. Or earrings.

Or maybe they just cater to a billion Android users. That could work.

 

The Improv Myth: Reversal

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One of my favorite business books in college was “The 48 Laws of Power” where Robert Greene walks us through the magnificent victories and blunders of Eastern and Western History to reveal threads that run through all humans, to teach us how to accumulate and withhold Power. For each of his rules he would highlight stories where someone followed the law perfectly, but also ‘reversals’ where holding too strictly to the law could get you in trouble. Everything in moderation I suppose.

It is in that spirit that I followup my “never improvise” with a post discussing the very opposite. Sorry. While the ‘No Winging It’ rule is great around the office, it dawned on me just scatterbrained we are in our ‘free time’;ironically, when we should be doing almost no rehearsals, we do them in excess.

“I’m running low on gas. Better pull over. Oops, no space. Maybe I can get around that car. Maybe I can park on the other side and take the hose. If anyone comes, I’ll make it quick and get out of there. If someone gives me a weird look I’ll crack a joke. Am I being a dick here? I’ll just wait. She’ll be done soon… … … What the hell is she doing? Okay, I’m being a wuss. Just swing around the other side and get some gas. Not alot. Just $10 or so and get the hell out of there…”

We’ve got it backwards. We obsess about fitting into a totally beserk chaotic world perfectly (as if that’s even possible), and we ‘wing’ the super rigid structure with defined beginning and end points, and scripted Powerpoint decks.

Why?

Maybe we want to look cool at the office. Maybe we realize that work (or at least our office) is such a disorganized shitstorm that no one will be ‘prepared’ and we don’t want to look like squares. On the flip side, why do we ‘prep’ for a 30 second chit chat with the cute barista, even though we’re married and have zero interest in impressing her. We’d like to make a graceful entrance and exit from this establishment (Dunkin Donuts, whatever) despite having absolutely no idea who these people are. Here is that point I want to focus on. When we enter any environment (grocery store, bar, hotel convention hall) we are swarmed with people–people who take hours to get to know very well. We instinctively know this, but try to guess/assume what people are like based on their appearance and end up saying stupid things like,

“You’re tall, did you ever play basketball in… oh.. you that a lot, huh?”

“Hi! My name is Jason, wait, let me guess, Korean? Anyeongha– oh, Vietnamese. Sorry, I got nothin’.”

“I noticed you checking out those crab cakes. I’m more of a sushi man, myself. I snagged a few for later, would you like one? Where are you going..?”

Absolutely painful. It may have taken this schlub two seconds to come up with such awkward boring garbage, but in his mind, it was two seconds well-researched, well-planned and well-spent. It was the very best he could come up with. Awkward to the point of being offensive and tone deaf.

What we’re left with then is the social equivalent of nudity, skydiving, and karaoke combined: just saying whatever comes to mind, trusting yourself, and knowing that nothing will every go wrong.

We work rigorously for years (high school, college, career) to shut this part of the brain off, possibly out of fear that you might hit on your Math teacher, or tell your boss to go to hell if he thinks you’re spending a weekend fixing his mistakes, but in real life, this part of the brain –our real personality– is everything. It’s that thing that so attracts us to leaders. Congruence, some call it. Integrity, others. Life. Energy. Passion. Whatever. It’s being in the moment, experiencing the words for the first time as they pass your lips, and float into someone’s brain and … just like that, the two of you click.

Or maybe you don’t. Maybe you shouldn’t be at the party in the first place. But if that’s true you haven’t lost a damn thing, and you’ve learned something about yourself (as opposed to flailing around, wondering why your fake persona didn’t wow them). “Be Yourself” is pithy yet insulting because it simplifies life/integrity/passion/communication to two measly letters. How about this: “Shut your damn brain off.” Just enjoy the interaction.

If you’re still at a loss, just remember, “Hi, I’m Jason” is a million times better than anything you could of come up with while you were stalling.