Dissertation: The Value of Design in the Digital Age


The digital age has increased efficiency in the design process, and has made design packages that were previously exclusive to professionals accessible to the public. But has this now started to have a negative impact on the design industry, and reduced the value in design? In this essay the broader issues of the influence that digital technology has had on design will be discussed, and it will be shown that now it is not so much the execution of design that holds value, it is the thinking behind it.

The Value of Design in the Digital Age

“The impact of new technology is overestimated in the short term and underestimated in the long term” – John Hegarty, 2011.

Digital technology has made the design process cheaper – in the supporting interview one designer notes the reduction of people now involved in the design process, as typesetters, retouchers and artworkers in particular have been virtually disbanded. Has this reduction in the cost of design reduced its value?

In response to the £12,000 bill for implementing minor amends to the NHS logo, the Conservative MP Greg Hands noted in The Times newspaper that “Modern graphic design packages surely allow anyone with an average brain to design something as good as, or better than, what we see in front of us here” (Gosden, 2009). These graphic design packages have facilitated design to the public, which now means that those with no formal design experience can produce design work commercially; “computer technology makes it possible for anyone to wake up one day and decide to become a designer, simply because they have the appropriate piece of software on their computer”. (Jacques, Appendices 1.1). Have graphic design packages meant that technology has now made design so easy that anyone can now be a designer? Has this in turn reduced the value of design?

As a foundation to the research several locally based branding designers were surveyed, these designers all work for local, independent design agencies. From the answers received it is clear that in general these designers follow a similar process when creating a piece of commercial design work. This process involves a meeting with the client to establish a brief, a presentation of prepared design work, and a set number of iterations to the design work followed by completion. This is clearly a time consuming process, and as such the cost of the design work to the client will be far higher than alternative providers that are able to reduce this process. One solution that is able to offer design work via a condensed process is crowd sourcing.

The website DesignCrowd.co.uk is a crowd sourcing network with over 135,574 graphic designers in over 136 countries (DesignCrowd, 2013), and provides a system which allows a user to submit a brief for a minimal fee, and offer a price reward of their choice – normally in the region of $100 – $500. This brief is then answered by a pool of universal designers, thus providing an enormous variety of solutions that the customer is then able to select from, request unlimited iterations to, and acquire as necessary.

The advantages for the client of this process against using a local design agency are numerous – the process is much quicker so they can be up and running with a new logo in a very short period of time (on 16th July 2013 the header of the DesignCrowd website read ‘Get a Custom Design in Hours!’), and the enormous variety of designs they have to choose from means the possibility of receiving a solution they are happy with is very high. The ability for unlimited iterations to a design means that the client gets a feeling of control; they can have it altered and modified until it meets their exact taste and requirements. In contrast several of the local designers surveyed would present a maximum of two designs to the client, with only two rounds of iterations, and unlike DesignCrowd, if the design is still not to their satisfaction, there is no money back guarantee.

It therefore must be argued that the value of design has now been reduced as a result of the digital age, if a company is able to receive a custom designed logo that meets their satisfaction for less than $200, in contrast to the £850 per day that one of the professional designers surveyed charges.

Besides the debatable morality involved with encouraging free labour, there are obvious flaws of a system used by DesignCrowd: when a designer is creating work with no guarantee of being paid their only focus would be impressing the client, rather than impressing the audience of the brand they are designing for. They are therefore likely to create ‘safe options’ that they think will appeal to the client – often a regeneration of other popular logos, as there is simply not the time to create something truly innovative. Although the result may feature highly in terms of aesthetics, it is unlikely to be diverse, nor break the mould.

But what is the importance of breaking the mould and standing out from the crowd? Is it a necessity? To create design work that is simply a regeneration of all other design work in its market is, in a sense, ignoring “the joy that we all take in variety and difference and the good will that consumers develop towards the organisation that offers them diversity” (Hegarty, 2011).

It can be seen that the digital age offers more freedom for brands to stand out from the crowd with their visual identity, as the previous constraints of the printed medium do not apply to digital media. In his book ‘Problem Solved’ Johnson discusses this change; “Designing logos and identities used to be simple when organizations were happy for them to be one thing to all people and logos simply sat in the corner of an ad or poster. The trouble is, this doesn’t work in the 21st century, where flexibility is the standard. The old rules are being rewritten as designers search for ways to let logos out of the corner and into the centre of the communication.” (Johnson, 2007).

Rather than simple graphic lines and solid colours dictated by strict guidelines, today even the largest of companies are illustrating freedom with the way their logos are used; “The tipping point probably came when Google itself began a long-running series of ‘doodles’ with its own logo… When the world’s most powerful search engine showed its willingness to ‘mess’ with its logo for 24 hours, sometimes without even including the Google name, the world of communications took note” (Johnson, 2007).

Although there is now greater freedom in how a logo can be used, its value as the heart of a company’s identity must still be considered.

“You stick a flag on the iceberg so that you can see it, and the logo or the symbol is like that flag sticking out above the water. But under the water there’s this massive great bit of ice that’s full of all sorts of applications, all kinds of areas of the brand that still need to be designed” (Johnson, 2013). A logo needs to represent the complete organisation from its core values to its services; requiring thorough research and consideration before the design work can begin. Returning to the weaknesses of crowd sourcing, it is this stage of the process that is compromised for price, and so whether the completed logos are an accurate representation of a company can be considered a matter of luck.

Besides symbolizing a companies values, a logo must also be at the heart of a brands visual identity, and even for small businesses the visual media may be extensive, comprising of a website, a brochure, headed letters, business cards, etc. A successful, considered visual identity would mean that even without the logo, it is clear that all of these pieces of media belong to the same organisation. This is achieved via a consistent style in terms of aesthetics, but also with tone of voice – on every interaction with the client the brand’s message needs to be considered. This complete brand consistency across all platforms can be illustrated by Apple; the contemporary, elegant style of their products is still applicable to their after care support – “When you buy Apple Care, instead of receiving the standard bland letter or email, you receive a nicely designed box containing the paperwork, guidance, and all the information you need” (Swan, 2012).

Although this may be considered creative and innovative on Apple’s part, in fact what they are doing is incredibly simple – merely putting the user experience at the forefront of everything they do, followed by acute attention to detail.

In his presentation on TED Talks, Rory Sutherland discusses that it is the little things that can have an enormous influence on a user’s perception of a brand, “Years of marketing have taught me that if you actually want people to remember you and to appreciate what you do, the most potent things are actually very, very small.” (Sutherland, 2010).

Sutherland discusses one example of the beautifully crafted salt and peppershakers used in the upper class section on Virgin Atlantic flights, which have the message ‘Stolen from Virgin Atlantic’ engraved on the bottom, playing on the idea that many of its users have considered stealing the shakers as a memento of their trip. If such a small detail can make a user remember an experience in such a positive way, design thinking is surely more valuable than ever.

However, these may just seem like small actions, but when produced on mass they do come at a high cost, and for the luxury brands of Apple and Virgin Atlantic this may not be an issue, but for the small businesses who are driven by profit margins, the lack of a guaranteed return on investment from such experimentations often pushes them to the bottom of the priorities list.

So it therefore must be considered that perceived value of design for larger brands is still high, but smaller brands are likely to have a lower perceived value of design as a result of the digital age, as it is these companies that see solutions such as design via crowd sourcing as viable alternatives to professional services.

However it is not just the small businesses that have a lower perception of design value as a result of the digital age. With a price tag of £400,000 there was public disapproval of the London 2012 Olympics brand identity, with the Daily Mail implying that the work it published created by primary school students provided better solutions (Mail Online, 2007). There was clearly an attitude of ‘£400,000? My 11 year old son could have done better than that!’ But really, could the 11 year old in question have created a comprehensive brand identity that is versatile, flexible, timeless, the basis of a graphic system, and is most importantly, original? (Burgoyne, 2007).

In my opinion the only area that the London 2012 identity fell short is the only area that the Daily Mail, and indeed, the majority of the British public paid much attention to – as a stand alone, does the logo look good?

So if it is only designers that appreciate the need for other attributes of a brand identity besides just a logo that meets initial public approval, and can therefore appreciate the high price tag that Wolf Ollins required, surely there is a need for education?

For example, should the London 2012 Olympics logo have been presented to the public at the end of an educational process comprising of its rationale and versatility of application, maybe they would have reacted differently, rather than their first impression of it being its blasting in the front pages of the tabloids. In the process of the local designers interviewed, all insisted on a presentation in person of the produced design work, rather than just sending over the finished result, as the presentation can allow for this education to take place.

As well as educators, the designers interviewed can also be seen as consultants; in order for them to be able to advise on what the company needs, all are involved in the writing of the design briefs, rather than completing a dictated brief of what the client wants. It is this that gives the completed work value over work produced by amateurs. But what is the importance of this? Surely it is the brand’s products or services that drives sales; does its identity really matter?

“You could argue that we’ve gone brand mad. Everything from your local hospital to ageing athletes is being treated as ‘brands’, as products that have value to be defined, enhanced and exploited” (Hegarty, 2008).

As Hegarty notes today’s world is more branded than ever before, illustrated by there being over 25 different registered British brands of bottled water (FineWaters, Date Unknown).“Whilst the world’s companies continue to produce things that look and sound the same, communicators will be called upon to differentiate one soap powder from another, by shape, by feeling, by brand” (Johnson, 2007). In an increasingly homogenised world, where digital services such as broadband providers and telecommunications can only be differentiated between by brand, how that brand represents itself and the relationship it has with its consumers is more important than ever before.

In response to this increasingly branded world, in his book Problem Solved Johnson discusses the rise of a movement opposed to branding “The anti-brand, anti-capitalist movement has left an undeniable question mark in the heads of the world’s students and, for the first time since the 1960s, a generation seems to be growing up questioning whether the headlong pursuit of designer labels is actually such a smart thing to do” (Johnson, 2007). This movement has arisen in response to the morality issues that have been a side effect of capitalism up until now – for example in response to Nike’s promotion for customers to personalise their own shoes, a student submitted a design of having ‘Sweatshop’ labelled across the side of a sports shoe (Johnson, 2007). Although it is hard to tell whether this movement will have an impact on the future of branding, what is clear is that with the transparency ensued by social media, such issues will be in the public domain.

In the past brands could hide behind a PO Box and have little need to address complaints, however social media provides an easily accessible platform that allows for instant two-way communication to be made public. When grievances are made in front of an audience of thousands, there is far more urgency for a brand to respond. For example in 2010 when Gap launched their new logo, there was such a back lash of response via social media, they were forced to revert back to their existing logo after only a week; “A Twitter account set up in protest collected nearly 5,000 followers and a ‘Make your own Gap logo’ site went viral on the internet, prompting nearly 14,000 parody versions” (Halliday, 2010).

This example alone illustrates the shift in relationship between a brand and its consumers, “today, communication between the brand and the public is no longer a monologue, but rather a dialogue” (Haldemann, 2013). This two-way communication means that a brand now has an audience that must be adhered to and respected, if their attention is to be maintained.

In response to this it can be shown that those brands that have embraced the interaction that social media allows, are reaping the benefits.

When a power shortage interrupted the 2013 Super bowl, Oreo quickly tweeted their advert ‘You can still dunk in the dark’, a message that has since been re-tweeted over 14,000 times (Simon, 2013). This clearly relates back to Roy Sutherlands message of little things having a huge impact, as in this instance a quick thinking, off the cuff advert that was put together extremely quickly received enormous public approval.

Social media has provided a new, more accessible platform for brands to stand out from the crowd, again supporting Hegarty’s argument that “There is a compelling case for variety within consistency” (Hegarty, 2008).

The value of variety within consistency can be epitomised by the successful rebrand of the Digital TV channel ‘UKTV G2’ to ‘Dave’ in 2007. As a result of the rebrand ‘Dave leapt from the 29th biggest channel to the 10th and became the largest among the target segment’. (Whicher, A., Raulik-Murphy, G., Cawood, G., 2011). The new branding of Dave was clearly original, with the tagline ‘The home of witty banter’ giving a unique character to the channel, amongst its impersonal competitors. By redesigning the look and feel of the brand, a ‘tight investment of £100,000 was transformed into a profit of £4.5million in the first six months alone’ (Whicher, A., Raulik-Murphy, G., Cawood, G., 2011). This enormous return on investment illustrates the value that design can add to a company, as a result of targeted research.

Despite the benefits of standing out from the crowd, it is clear that “Anything that is genuinely original is met with almost universal condemnation at the outset” (Burgoyne, 2007), and it is this that is likely to put off businesses from endeavouring to do things differently. However it has been shown that the digital age has created an environment where small pieces of design innovation can be appreciated on a mass scale, and those pieces that do stand out from the crowd and meet public approval can have incredible value.

In response to graphic design packages being made accessible to the public, it is clear that those designers pushing the field in terms of utilising computer software are no longer using it as a short cut for creating work that could have been produced via print, they are now creating graphic systems that are able to evolve and interact in the most sophisticated of ways, utilising the capabilities that digital platforms allow. For example the branding for the new design agency ‘Big Eyes’ utilises “a generative programme to create images replicating the muscle movement of the human iris” (Banks, 2013). Rather than being lead by the capabilities of technology, the top designers are pushing technology for solutions to their imagination.

And it is this imagination that is of value. If great design is the combination of great ideas beautifully executed, digital technology may have made the beautiful execution easier to produce, but it has done little to make that great idea easier to come by. It is now the idea behind design that is of value, as its beautiful execution is a given. The Oreo tweet at the Super bowl is a poignant example of this – the image that was tweeted could have been produced by anyone with basic knowledge of graphics software, but it is the idea behind it that gave it its popularity. Ollins discusses that a “core idea must form the basis on which the whole branding programme is developed” (Ollins, 2008), and in a world where all that can differentiate a product is its brand, being able to represent this core idea in an innovative way is more important than ever.


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