Advice For Clients: A Designer’s Value

Without the aesthetic, the computer is but a mindless speed machine, producing effects without substance, form without
relevant content, or content without meaningful form
.   –Paul Rand 

There are those who know how to write code for a web site, but not how to design one. There are others who know how to manipulate a photo but are clueless as to why and in what manner. Technical know-how does not make one a designer, just as a person may know how to play a guitar but not how to make music with it.

I had a conversation with a fledgling designer who expressed concern over his pricing and how designers with less technical knowledge were undercutting his rates and winning jobs. He was obviously looking at his compendium of software skills as the criteria for judging his value to clients and companies. He didn’t want to work for minimal compensation, having invested a substantial sum in education, software and hardware.

We took a look at his skill-set, and he proved quite capable in everything from page layout to web design, motion and photo editing, all of which are valuable assets. But from there I took him in a new direction with this idea: Tools don’t make a designer. A designer is a designer whether using a computer or pencil and paper.

[Tweet “A designer is a designer whether using a computer or pencil and paper. #design #designthinking”]

I was surprised that he was surprised at my statement. This was a new concept for him.

Here’s my basis: A designer should not be defined by his breadth and depth of computer knowledge, but by his ability to design. Absolutely, he must be able to use the tools of the trade – we can’t produce our work without them. However, tools pertain to production processes, not to design decisions. They are the how, not the what.

A well-trained designer has the ability to:

  • Create and innovate
  • Make appropriate aesthetic choices
  • Explore and evaluate options
  • Answer the “what-ifs” questions
  • Communicate visually
  • Understand their client’s or employer’s needs and develop appropriate visual solutions.

None of these require knowledge of Photoshop, WordPress or Lightroom.

A designer successfully marries art elements and organizing principles with functional requirements. Technical ability plays a supporting – not a defining – role. Generally, work will come on the basis of the portfolio. It’s is what one does with those skills that matters.

My recommendation to this fledgling designer was to re-think his value in the marketplace and to reposition his approach. A designer as problem-solver is far more useful in the world than one who offers only a technical skill-set.

Be careful who you work with. If you are an employer of, or looking to contract, a freelance creative, make thinking skills a higher priority than technical ability when assessing their capability. You need to do this particularly if you are deciding between crowdsourcing or working with a local designer on your project.