All posts by lghtstrm

After many years as an award-winning, globally experienced, creative director / designer with mastery of integrated visual design, branding and expert-level command of 2D and 3D visualization, I have completed an advanced degree in Design Development. I am currently Assistant Professor of Design Foundations at The Ohio State University. My research focuses on the provocations of design fiction to better equip us to understand the ramifications of design and its synergistic influence on culture.

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. ( 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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a brand truth

Companies who are serious about embarking upon a rejuvenation of their brand, or those who are hoping to create the next major brand, must begin by asking some difficult and fundamental questions such as why their brand exists. If you are old enough to remember the dot-com collapse in the late 90’s, it wasa painful lesson and evidence that a brand cannot be sustained without a bona fide product or service that adds value to the life of a customer somewhere in the world. If the site or the product or the service does not resonate with a prospect on an experiential level whether emotionally, practically, spiritually or even superficially it cannot be made a sustainable brand. It must add value. Without value the brand will not survive the forces of natural selection and brand Darwinism.  

The way I see it. The success of a brand and its ability to sustain itself will always be a matter of “value added” and the public’s ability to assign a certain level of reliable expectations to that product or service that provides that value. The most successful brands will always be those that deliver not only the tangible value but the emotional value as well. Whether it’s hamburgers or hotels, the latter will always be seen as the most valuable, because when confronted with two choices of apparently equal benefit the prospect will always choose the one that feels right. 

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brand thoughts



Brand meets lifestyle

When combined with a late-twentieth-century marketing concept, lifestyle, the notion of the brand takes on new meaning. Lifestyle is, by definition, a way of life or style of living that reflects the attitudes and values of a person or group. The word implies a certain level of control on our part, i.e. that we choose this lifestyle, because it gives us pleasure at whatever level. So when a product or service becomes part of a lifestyle it means that the product is part of the choices that people make. These choices become part of how they come to control and augment their lifestyle and the expectations they have for that lifestyle as they craft and order it to their liking. Being able to rely on a product or service to deliver a consistent contribution to that lifestyle is significant to the idea of branding.  


An emotional connection

Although most designers have been late to adopt the significance of branding, the profession stands poised to assume the role of branding’s most adept practitioners. For decades designers, perhaps unknowingly, have been wielding one of the most formidable weapons in brand development: emotion. Evocative communications and the sleek and sensuous lines of a well-molded device are a brand’s mission-critical connecting points. By embracing the way a brand is adopted into the marketplace design firms can play a pivotal role in crafting powerful brands, not only through their elegant connecting points, but also in guiding clients to the essence of those powerful brand connections. 

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Adding MaxwellRender


If you’ve browsed my portfolio you see that I do a fair amount of 3D rendering, mostly for work but the tools are so superior these days that I have begun working on a few personal projects that let me stretch my modeling skills. The killer is always the time it takes to render and the final quality. To that end I just added Maxwell Render as my rendering engine. I found that it had a fairly steep learning curve and there is a lot more to learn before I could say that I’ve mastered it. There are some truly exceptional artists out there using it and are extremely proficient. You can explore it at

I use SolidThinking as my modeling tool primarily because I’m Mac-based and there aren’t too many NURBS based modeling platforms for the Mac. ST has its problems for sure, but it’s far more economical than say, Maya. Though, I think I will probably end up there eventually (save my pennies). I actually learned modeling back in the old days using Power Animator, on an SGI, moved up to Maya when it was Maya 1.0. Never was able to keep up with the upgrades.

Anyway, it seems like you could research rendering programs forever. I was looking to increase render speed when I started my search and I looked at Bunkspeed before settling on Maxwell primarily because of Maxwell’s materials editor. Really great stuff. Now, however, I am hearing a lot about VRAY. I’d like to hear what others are using and some of the pros and cons. 

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