THE GRAPHIC DESIGNER IS DEAD.
In an industry that’s seemingly changing faster than you can say “Fyre Festival Fraud,” it’s a wonder that some legacy terms and, to some extent concepts, have refused to change. Take for instance, the title “graphic designer.” While the actual practice of visual communication through pictures and symbols has been in the human toolkit from the dawn of time, the term graphic design is a 20th century development. It’s generally accepted that William Addison Dwiggins coined the phrase that came about as he described his approach to book design. The term also arrived as the Futurist and Dada art movements, in addition to advertising, exploded onto the scene. As much as these movements were about embracing technology and industrialization, the phrase would eventually come to describe a person using type, illustration, and photography, arranged in some form, for largely commercial purposes.
Fast forward to today, where there have never been more outlets or channels that need some form of communication. I’m sure I’m not alone when, every day, I wake up with some sense of FOMO around a new app, or ad unit, or plug-in, or lens, to create for or with. It can be paralyzing. But it can also be exciting. It can actually allow the “graphic” designer to break free from a title that is increasingly archaic and stifling.
For an example of this, one need look no further than job boards on any given day. What you will see are no less than 20k job openings for Graphic Designer. Open any job description, and the majority of them ask for the world and more. Most ask boldly for experience and proficiency outside of what we have traditionally thought of as graphic design. It seems employers are using this title as a catch-all for responsibilities and functions that reflect an uncertainty with a constantly shifting technology landscape, coupled with ever evolving consumer behavior. In an industry whose fundamental tenet is clear and concise communication, these job posts have a tinge of irony that’s hard to miss. So then, why the specificity in title? Why hold hard and fast to something that may not truly embody what you’re looking for?
Overall, it feels like we are due for a bit of an update. We need to get everyone on the same page. Designers trade on emotion; that’s always been the case. The effective ones use every tool at their disposal. Type and pictures, those are table stakes. The toolkit has expanded. Designers are increasingly challenged to move beyond just 2D executions of the communication strategy. They must learn to employ more and more experiential tactics and weapons to move the needle. Sound, motion, smells (maybe), AR, VR, influencers all have a role in the designer’s toolkit. The designer’s role is to create a way for all of these elements to live in harmony to achieve the desired response or emotion. And it doesn’t stop there, because what works in one channel or outlet won’t necessarily work in another. Or, even worse, given time, message fatigue can and will undercut even the most effective executions. That’s a huge task that seems to push against the confining guardrails of the term “graphic.”
So what we need is a recognition of the role this person really plays in an organization or as part of a team. The word “graphic” captures maybe 25% of the true responsibilities of the role. It minimizes the true effort and thinking needed to effectively perform the job at a high level. Insightfully, more and more college and university curriculums bring some of these real world challenges and shifts into the classroom. Students are entering the workforce armed with at least some level of aptitude in skills beyond what has been seen as a traditional graphic design skill set. That’s a start, but is it enough?
It’s time to call the ball here. It’s time to make a shift that manages expectations on both ends. Both from an employer standpoint and a prospective employee standpoint. We should consider dropping the term “graphic” from a vast majority of these job listings. Call them Emotion Designers, Comms Designers, Experience Designers, or, hell, just Designers. Any of these would more accurately describe the role as it sits in the current hierarchy of most communications organizations.
At a time when we rail against pigeonholing people into too specific of a class, rank, or category, it seems only fair to evolve a term for a role and skillset that’s changed so dramatically from when it was first uttered nearly 100 years ago.
What do you think?