Is design becoming a commodity?

Is design becoming a commodity?

I was looking over my skill set today and felt compelled to ask the question of whether or not some of my expertise has fallen into the realm of commodity. 

Take for example the art of 3D illustration, modeling and graphics. There are a number of offshore firms doing this and cranking it out really at a fraction of what it would cost in the States. They probably have more processing horsepower, faster rendering speeds and obviously lower pricing. Can a really talented small business or freelance designer compete in this landscape?

Here’s another example. Visit the site called 0Desk. (www.oDesk.com). You will see that there are hundreds of designers out there who are doing logo design for an average of $8 an hour. If you were formally trained at a university or design school in the art and science of corporate identity then the notion of a solid, versatile and sustainable logo that costs $20 makes your head spin. To make it even more challenging,  a lot of the clients posting jobs on this site are asking for “sketches” up-front before they hire. Nevertheless, these clients are getting what they need and (based upon the number of designers that bid on these jobs), there are lots of people out there willing to do the work. 

If you did enough of these jobs could you actually eek out a living?

I had an acquaintance in the consumer electronics business that used to say, “There is very little nourishment in a bowl of volume.” (And that’s an industry that should know.) I have seen this proven out many times. Becoming a commodity, no matter how much you sell, is a slow road to nowhere. Most would agree: The key to big success is in differentiating your brand from everyone elses.

So where is this going? I think that with the advent of the personal computer —specifically the Apple computer and its emphasis on graphics and graphic software — even faux-design became accessible to the masses. It’s the idea that with just enough technology,substance doesn’t matter so much. (Take a look at most PowerPoint presentations.) 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that great design has to cost a fortune or that designers who work cheap are hacks — I dare not. I’ve done dozens of design projects of all sizes and scale on tight budgets. I’m not whining either — just reflecting. I think that the conclusion from all this is still the client’s ability to discern the differences in good and good enough. If you have a discerning eye, much of what you see from the 3D rendering farms has two distinct components: superior realism, and average design. As for logo design, the design master Paul Rand said, “Ultimately, the only mandate in the design of logos, it seems, is that they be distinctive, memorable, and clear.” If you can do that for $20 you are under charging.

Therein lies the difference, and I’ll admit it’s subtle. Even in product design, the difference between the iPod and all the other mp3 player choices is the subtle difference of great design. And yet, there are many manufacturers out there selling a steady clip of “average”. 

So how do I summarize this and answer my original question: Is design becoming a commodity? I believe almost anything can be commoditized in today’s world. It’s the nature of technology: faster and cheaper. So the answer is: Yes. Great design may well be in the eye of the beholder. If it functions and is pleasing at the same time, I think you have a winner. At the same time there is, and will always be a place for the exquisite, which can be simple or complex. And even those designers will, at times, do the $20 logo. 

One thing I think remains true: Even the best technology can’t supplant the human spirit and the vision it can produce — tough to commoditize.

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2 thoughts on “Is design becoming a commodity?”

  1. E,

    I always appreciated that even when we were starving you wouldn’t do the $20 logo!
    Isn’t it true that a designer with a preferred brand earns the right to charge a premium – even when the work he’s being hired to do can be done as easily, and as well, by an average designer.
    I am thinking in particular of the designer hired by Steve Jobs to do the logo for his company Next. The logo never seemed especially fantastic to my untrained eye but the charge for the work was $100,000.

    Tim

    1. Finally, my blog is back up and running. Problems with my hosting service. In response, you are right, as a general rule of thumb, the more you are in demand, the more you can charge. that pretty much goes for everything and everyone. And as a matter of fact, you’ll note that I quote Paul Rand in my blog. He was the designer of the NEXT logo. He is not the designer of the Apple logo, which is a popular rumor. That was designed by Rob Janoff.

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