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Okay … this is something of a rant. Bear with me or indulge me. I might be spot on, totally off, or just in a lousy mood. A friend called this morning to tell me that his grandson was considering a career in graphic design. He asked for my thoughts and opinion. I couldn’t come up with a single encouraging idea. I told him to have his grandson look into another career option. I’ve been at this design stuff for a while now. All in all, roughly 35 years, give or take. In that time I’ve watched the graphic design profession slowly erode into a shadow of what it once was.

Back in the heyday of graphic design, around the 60s and into the early 70s, designers had a seat at the Board table, so to speak. Our talents, skills and opinions mattered and were seen as valuable to our clients. Clients, particularly larger corporations, knew they needed what we provided and that, short of launching a design or art department, they couldn’t do it. Many valued the third party objectivity an outside designer or firm brought to the table. For others, it was simply a matter of costs. Salaries, benefits and other additional overhead such as office space and equipment add up pretty quick. It’s often less expensive to outsource projects to a designer or firm rather than bear the costs of a salaried employee or two.

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Then came 1984 and the advent of the Macintosh. Computers are a great tool. I don’t know how I would do what I do these days without one. But, with it came a significant lowering of the barrier to entry into the profession. Now anybody with Creative Suite, or an open source application such as Gimp or Inkscape, can be a “designer.” And they do. So, as designers, we find ourselves competing with the likes of an 11-year old who has some computer savvy, an administrative assistant and a client’s next-door neighbor’s nephew who “does some really nifty graphics.”

Beyond this is the litany of skill sets employers and client companies are seeking these days. How often have we seen ads seeking a graphic designer with an excellent knowledge of Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign? That’s fair enough. It’s when they start adding to the list that things get a bit dodgy. Many add in skill sets that include, html, Dreamweaver, WordPress, PHP, ASP, SQL, motion graphics, Powerpoint and more, along with answering the phone and making coffee. I had one consulting client who was even asked to babysit a client’s kid and another who was asked to include janitorial duties in their proposal. Huh?

If they’re feeling generous, they may offer a whopping $10 US/hour. Well … that may be an exaggeration, but one that’s probably not too far away from reality.

Jaded? Me, jaded? Perhaps a bit. Somehow I must have been absent the day they covered making coffee and babysitting in art school.

For example, here’s an ad I came across seeking a Senior Graphic Designer. I withheld the company name to protect the ridiculous.

[Company] is seeking a talented Senior Graphic Designer to join our Marketing team. Ideal candidates will be dynamic creatives who enjoy working in a fast-paced environment. The Designer position will elevate the level of [Company] marketing campaigns. This role is responsible for providing the design and execution of innovative visual communication materials, including catalogues, posters, sales materials, websites, digital materials, banner ads, multi-media, animation, video, and more.

Through excellent concepts and creative skill, this position will develop innovative materials and POP that communicate our brand portfolio concisely. Candidates should strive to effectively translate branding and marketing strategies for a wide range of product brands into creative marketing campaigns in both print and digital capacities. S/He should have the ability to develop design for both B2B and B2C audiences.

RESPONSIBILITIES INCLUDE:
• Translate corporate positioning and individual brand positioning into campaigns that marry with strategic sales initiatives.
• Develop and create innovative concepts while keeping within project scope: ability to understand marketing brief, strategic positioning, brand demographics, data, business requirements, timelines, and budgets.
• Complete project management: strategy, communication, estimating and budgeting for individual projects.
• Conceptualize, source and manage the development of POP that reflects brand positioning.
• Understand marketing initiatives of individual projects in relationship to overall company goals
• Photography art direction and management for product and brand shoots.
• Develop production specs and schedules on creative projects; manage production to completion.
• Extensive experience in digital design development; websites, tablet design, interactive. Skilled in Flash, HTML, Dreamweaver, and other web programs. Knowledge of apps a plus
• Full knowledge of current media channels including social media and all new media
• Team with writer to develop creative concepts for campaigns
• Extensive communication of marketing objectives to internal staff, customers, and sales force.

POSITION REQUIREMENTS:
• Superior knowledge of current Mac technology and production techniques.
• Portfolio including: POP, promotional materials, brochures, posters, website design, e-blasts, banner ads, micro sites, interactive, tablet design, video, etc.

EDUCATION:
• BA or BFA in Design, Art or Communications required.

EXPERIENCE:
• 6-7 years experience at in-house marketing, creative department or marketing agency
• Experience in direct to consumer and B-B marketing

PERSONAL SKILLS AND TRAITS:
• Ability to brainstorm with team members
• Creativity, confidence and the ability to collaborate and succeed in a dynamic multi-faceted organization.
• Ability to coordinate multiple tasks and projects simultaneously.
• Excellent problem-solving skills.
• Advanced verbal communication and organization skills.
• Must be a team player who is very detail-oriented
• Ability to present information clearly and concisely, listen and understand actively

All Candidates should submit their resume and online portfolio.

Hmmm, if I’m reading this right, they’re looking for a print designer, web designer and developer, multi-media designer, animator, videographer and project manager all rolled into one. Oh … and there’s also that “more,” bit at the end of the first paragraph. Who knows what that might involve.

I don’t know what the salary range is for this multi-faceted position, but I’m guessing it’s nowhere close to the sum of those skills as individual positions.

AIGA and Aquent team up each year to provide salary ranges for a variety of design-related positions. Using their survey’s middle-of-the-road numbers for a Senior Print Designer and Senior Web Designer, typical salaries are:

Senior Print Designer: $62,000/yr
Senior Web Designer: $72,000/yr

Those total to $134,000/yr. But, that number doesn’t even include the myriad of other responsibilities listed above. The survey lists a Web Project Manager at $68,000/yr and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics lists a Videographer at $48,400/yr. Is anyone interested in laying odds that this company isn’t planning on hiring some Renaissance person at $150,000/yr. or more?

I also find it rather interesting that the AIGA/Aquent survey also lists a Senior Designer, with an equally split focus on print and web/interactive, at $64,000/yr. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but it sure looks like some companies are getting a heck of a bargain when they consolidate several disciplines into one position.

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I can appreciate a client’s need to save money in this less than wonderful economy. However, I take issue with prospects and clients who believe that all we do is tap a key or push a button and voila! Sorry folks, it doesn’t quite happen that way. Inasmuch as some clients see hiring a graphic designer as “rent a pair of hands to materialize my vision,” designers are, or should be, problem-solvers. Professional graphic designers see it more as, “rent a brain.” The computer is not the end all device for spewing out design solutions.

Here’s a case in point. A while back a company (I won’t even call them a client) decided to save some money and have an employee put together their full-color brochure. I was brought in to handle the pre-flight and print management. My silly mistake was taking on the gig. It seemed to be an in and out project that wouldn’t take too long.

I was wrong.

They sent over a disk and I opened it to find the employee had created the piece in Publisher. Oh joy! My heart be still. Sure, there are a few ways to get a Publisher file into InDesign, but, converting this and that and jumping through several hoops wasn’t part of our agreement.

Wait. It gets better.

Upon further investigation of this design that looked like it was thrown up by some demented reject from Pantone®, the employee hadn’t created it as a CMYK doc. They used 28, count ‘em, 28, spot colors. How’s that for a printer’s nightmare? So, a call was made to the [not quite a] client person. “Um … er … yeeeaah. You know that file you sent over? Well, …” Several hours and many cups of coffee later it was fixed and press-ready. But the cost conscious [not quite a] client, who was trying to save money, ended up paying way more to fix things than they would have if they had a pro do it in the first place. C’est la vie.

Aside from clients trying to be graphic designers, there’s the whole spec issue. We all know that drill and I won’t spend too much time on it. If you’re living under a rock and don’t know about how spec is hurting both designers and clients, swing over to No!Spec.

Over the years, as professional graphic design was increasingly devalued by many client types, spec work, contests and such gained popularity. So, we find ourselves competing against hobbyists, kids and low-ball designers who don’t give a hoot about the industry.

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To add insult to injury, many clients companies don’t care. They simply want something to put up on the Web, mail out or distribute at a trade show. “Good enough” seems to be the mantra. When clients don’t give a hoot about how their materials reflect their branding and positioning, what’s a designer to do? Should we become swoosh-ready, clip art toting graphic decorators, working for a buck and a quarter, rather than strategically thinking graphic designers?

There will always be those client companies who do value good design that solves their problem-at-hand. They should be commended. But, those companies are becoming more difficult to find as the industry landscape becomes more and more competitive. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics cites a growth rate of roughly 13 percent for graphic designers through 2018. They also say the competition for jobs will be “keen.” As I understand it, those statistics don’t include the self-employed or freelancers who make up a large portion of the design community.

So, to close out this rant, my belief is that we have some work to do in educating our clients and prospects about the real value of graphic design as a resource to help them reach their business goals, if we are to survive as a viable industry. The computer is no more a solution-maker than a rapidograph,t-square or X-Acto™ knife. It’s all about strategy and how a graphic designer uses their tools to bring a client’s message to life and, ultimately, influence their audience.

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