The Dying Art Of Design


Progress is good, but we need to make sure that we’re progressing in the right direction. Our fundamental skills and the craft of design have started to take a back seat. Using the right tools and techniques is certainly an important part of design. But do our tools and resources make us better designers?

Taking a close look at the current state of design, we can see that sometimes modern design tools and processes do more harm than good. Please note that in preparing this article, we presented basic questions to designers, from beginner to expert, in an unscientific poll. Close to 600 designers participated.

Draw Comics The Marvel Way

As a teenager, I loved comic books: the art, the stories, the super-powers I wished I had. I remember the point when I went from reading and enjoying comics to wanting to create them. I became obsessed with being able to draw exactly like the great comic book artists of that time, people like Jim Lee1. Taking books like How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way2 out of the library was like having the artists themselves sitting next to me, showing me the way. Many designers can relate to this, because today through blogs and Twitter we can follow those whom we consider to be the best designers in the world, learning what they read and where they go and maybe even getting a glimpse of how they create the work we so admire.

Superman and Batman
Batman and Superman3, drawn by Jim Lee.

This “how to” approach is reflected in the design resources we find today. Soon after a certain style or effect becomes popular, tutorials and other tools to create it become available. But the element that was missing from my “how to” books is the same element that is missing from these tutorials, lists, and galleries: “why.” Why did they choose that typeface? Why did they opt for a minimalist style? Why did they use that particular technique to spotlight the product? We can go through the motions of creating a design, but we really need to understand why it works. As we’ll see, certain historical developments offer additional insight.

Imitation And The Cargo Cults

What is original? More to the point, is anything original? Defining originality in design is one of those complex gray areas. This subject has sparked ongoing debate about what is inspired and what is blatantly copied. Last year, Jeff Veen4 gave a talk that showed how the cargo cults5 of the World War II era relate to this discussion about design today.

During the war, islands in the Pacific region were key tactical locations in the battle between the US and Japan. The two countries began to air-drop food, weapons, medicine and other supplies there. Some of these supplies were shared with the indigenous people who lived on the islands. When the war ended and the air bases were abandoned, the cargo stopped dropping.

Cults sprouted up that enacted rituals imitating what they saw the soldiers do, believing this would bless them with supplies. They even constructed air strips, bamboo control towers and straw planes, all in the hope of bringing back the airplanes with their bountiful cargo. The reason this copying didn’t work, Jeff Veen points out, is that they missed all of the underlying principles.

Straw Plane
Straw plane6 made by a cargo cult of the South Pacific.

We can see modern-day examples of this by comparing the iPhone to the subsequent copycat phones that failed by only mimicking what their designers thought made the iPhone a success. Simple imitation completely misses the point of what made the original great. Some phone makers, including HTC, wound up being sued by Apple for patent infringement7. This goes back to how we use the design tools and learning resources available to us. There needs to be an element of intention and a deeper understanding first.

The Modern Designer

The Designer’s Diet

The diet of a typical designer is low in in-depth content and high in inspirational lists, tutorials and freebies. A review of blogs and our poll of design professionals shows a clear trend in the informational diet of creatives. They consume a lot but bypass a deeper understanding of design. In-depth articles and case studies are the least-read articles. Over 75% of the articles that designers read are either design tutorials or inspirational lists.

Designer Diet

Designers feel most comfortable starting their latest project by sifting through inspirational lists and working in their favorite computer application (Photoshop was used by our poll respondents more than all other software combined). And what about those freebies? Designers devour them for their projects. In fact, they said they use freebies more than client-provided, stock or original assets. To be fair, this is likely because these types of articles and tools are highly visible online, but this is still a bit daunting to hear. This content would not exist without such a big audience.

Tutorials Should Foster Thinking

On nearly every design blog right now, you can find some sort of design tutorial. They range from useful techniques to borderline useless “how-to”s. The problem isn’t just the tutorials themselves or their perceived usefulness; it’s how they are positioned relative to design. These tutorials are not “design” tutorials; they are, more accurately, tool tutorials.

This may seem a negligible difference to some. The problem with the former label is that it implies, falsely, that you are learning to design. If someone follows certain steps in creating an effect, that is learning how to use a particular software application. “Design” has many definitions, and every designer will give you a different one. But I think most designers can agree on what design is not. And it is not a 10-step recipe for creating a “Super-Awesome Laser Beam Effect.”

Bad Tutorials

Online tutorials focus so much on the tools that many designers are learning to use the software well but are losing fundamental design skills. In his article “Don’t Be a Tooler248,” Von Glitscha talks about how the craft of design is being watered down and skills like drawing are being forgotten. Many designers have traded in the pencil for the pen tool. He says, “Too many designers look for the easy way out when it comes to a creative process, and that is problematic to their creative growth. Instead of bolstering a core skill like drawing, they pursue a path of least creative resistance, and the end result is a Tooler.”

The focus on trendy effects encourages cargo cult-like ritual in which designers mimic a technique without understanding what makes it suitable for a project. A Photoshop filter or gallery feature becomes the driver and turns a design into a meaningless visual layer. This reflect poorly on the industry, showing designers as being proficient with design applications and resources but not design itself.

Ingredients of Good Design

Good design is the result of great thinking, as well as great ingredients. Typical ingredients are compelling photography and strong content. The job of the designer, as a sort of master chef, is to measure, blend and cook these elements into a successful project. Where do these ingredients come from, and just how good are they? Some elements come from clients, some are original work, and others come from stock vendors like iStockPhoto9 and Veer10. But the majority of ingredients come as freebies. Free WordPress themes abound. One can download thousands of textures, graphics and social icons to use in their next project.

Burger Chef customer service promotional photo, 1960s (via bayswater9711).

Using cheap or free design elements is like a five-star chef using canned sauces and pre-made dishes in the spirit of a fast-food restaurant. Creating from scratch seems to be a thing of the past. Photo shoots and original illustration are now usually done only by agencies that work for big clients with deep pockets.

Certainly, factors outside of the designer’s control will affect these decisions, such as budget. But the price of using only cheap or free assets is that designs will increasingly look like replicas of each other. In addition, clients will come to expect assets for free or next to nothing, so budgets will not be there for future projects.

There are even risks with using paid assets such as stock photography. A photo could be used by another company for another purpose12, thus diluting your client’s brand. Granted, not every client can afford a certain caliber work. Time and money are often a luxury. Many designers openly use freebie art and pre-designed WordPress themes for clients13 to save time and money. The question is not whether this is right or wrong. This is up to the designer to disclose to the client. The question is is this making the craft of design more efficient, or is it killing it?

Harmful to Your Design Health

Dependance on resources such as freebies and tutorials is turning our design industry into an assembly line that churns out the same exact piece, with perhaps slight variation. Design is not a commodity, but the more that designers use freebies and the like, the more it will become one. The Web is just a large copy machine14, as Kevin Kelley puts it. Design seems to be going down this road, too. Even our information resources—the design blogs themselves—are clones of each other.

“When copies are super abundant, they become worthless. When copies are super abundant, stuff which can’t be copied becomes scarce and valuable.”
Kevin Kelly15 (Image: Ibeamee16)

No wonder many clients see the designer’s role as being to create eye candy or a beautiful “skin.” With this view prevalent, designers will never be considered people who can solve problems for businesses and their customers and who can effectively communicate ideas. We will simply be a mindless pair of hands that knows how to apply some trendy colors and glossy effects to make things look nice. A technique with no purpose makes a design irrelevant. If design becomes irrelevant, then at some point we may be, too.

Return to the Art of Design

The solution is not to never read this type of content or to use these assets, but it needs to be measured. Designers need to push themselves with the fundamental craft of design.

Inspiration Requires Perspiration

Remember when special effects in movies were real? When the stunt man actually jumped onto a moving car? When characters ran around a luscious green jungle in South America, not in front of a flat green screen in a warehouse in Los Angeles? Computer technology has become integral to the creative workflow. It definitely has benefits; but the problem is that the “should we” has crept into “we can, so we will.” Many shallow stories are built around amazing effects, as opposed to engaging stories being supported by technology. In design, the “story” is communication and problem-solving. We need good reasons to use the techniques and graphics that we use in our designs.

I’ve seen posts in forums from designers looking for great paper textures or certain free graphics. What about finding a real piece of paper, scanning it and creating your own texture? Or sketching a graphic element and importing it to the computer to create your own unique piece of art? Sometimes we need to get our hands dirty. In the end, it will give us a new appreciation of the work, and we will be proud of the result. It doesn’t always work out because of time or budget constraints, but make sure the decision is based on those and not laziness.

Graphic Design Books
(Image by jamiecoull17)

Reading a quick article online or scanning a few nice websites is easy. More difficult is digging deep in a book or finding the time and money to attend a conference. Plenty of books and offline resources have great information on design. A little research is all it takes to find plenty of libraries and universities with good graphic design programs in all parts of the world. Great design takes more effort than a few clicks.

Build Skills With Purpose

Practicing and honing skills are vital to growth. Knowing the ins and outs of our software is an important part of the job, too. Thinking conceptually and devising solutions should come first, though. If a designer finds that he needs to brush up on a tool or technique, then a tutorial is the ideal way to learn. Our tools and resources are a means to good design, not the end. Identify the purpose first. The purpose might relate to the website’s user experience or a message in a product advertisement. After you’ve determined the purpose, find the best tool or technique to support it.

From the article “The Role of Sketching in the Design Process2518.”

Designers are more comfortable with their favorite design application than with good old pen and paper. Sketching is about getting ideas out and finding the best solution on which to iterate. Some sketchbooks of designers are so beautiful that they are almost intimidating. But great drawing skill doesn’t make the thinking or result any better. And some of that skill is gained with practice. The point, though, is to focus not on how great the sketch looks but on how sound the concept or user experience is. On the computer, we focus too much on getting the lines and colors just right, which ends up distracting us. Buy a pencil and paper: it’s cheaper than any application you’ll find.

Train Your Design Brain

Boxing is one of the most brutal sports. Learning techniques and conditioning the body is critical to being able to compete. But even boxing has more to it than the aggressive physical displays that the audience sees from the seats. Some of the greatest boxers, like Muhammad Ali, recognized this balance; they were great not just at knocking out opponents but at out-thinking them, too. Mike Rooney19, a former boxing trainer of Mike Tyson, says, “Boxing is 80% mental and 20% physical. Anyone can get in physical shape.”

Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali versus Sonny Liston (1965), by Neil Leifer20.

Design is similar in that anyone can imitate or find free assets that make for pleasing visuals. To be great designers, we need to improve our mental game. We have many ways to get our minds in shape to be the best tool in our arsenal. When we get in the ring with the client, we need to be ready to take some punches. We also need to be trained and armed with the fundamentals so that we can help clients understand that we’re not just sharing our feelings or loose opinions but that we have sound reasons behind our design choices.

If you don’t understand or can’t explain fundamental design principles21 such as negative (or white) space, balance and contrast, how do you expect to consult with a client on the best approach for a project? The website design industry is great, and many designers are self-taught. They don’t need certification to ply their trade, and they aren’t required to continue their education, as in other professions. But this is also a disadvantage, because anyone without training or understanding can call himself a designer. A deeper understanding or a degree in design (or a related field) can make all the difference.

Great Design Is History

Paul Rand
(Image: Paul Rand22)

Design began like any craft: people practiced it, studied it and challenged themselves. While modern design tools and resources certainly make our many tasks easier, they don’t always improve our work. Tools and shortcuts are temporary. Great design is timeless. The best tool available is sitting in our heads; we just need to upgrade it once in a while. Training and experience leads to solid solutions and happy clients who demand our expertise.

We determine the type of information made available to us. Every click (and tweet) can be a vote for a better and smarter design community. Please choose wisely.




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Francisco Inchauste is an interaction designer at Universal Mind, helping clients create great Web experiences. He regularly contributes to Web design blogs, magazines, and books. He recently served as Editor of Smashing Magazine’s UX Design section. You can connect with him on Twitter, or read more on his blog.

  1. 1

    Not one of my favourite reads, Smashing… Some pretty valid points, but generalising a bit don’t you think?
    The title was pretty sensationalist, not too accurate.
    Aside — I’m sure a lot of respectable designers have used or asked for freebies at one point or another, its nothing to be ashamed of.

  2. 52

    Uh… Superman and Batman are from D.C., not Marvel

  3. 154

    totally agree with the article

  4. 205

    Pete Skenandore

    April 8, 2010 7:53 am

    I don’t think this article takes into account the myriads of wannabe’s that are enabled by new media. Having experienced both traditional design school and my fair share of online tuts, I think there is an incredible value delivery from the free medium mimicry.

  5. 256

    Great article! Something that is slapped together with canned elements is not design. Design is thoughtful and guided by personal principles.

  6. 307

    I am no designer, nor do I aspire to become one. But I’ve been on the customer side of design projects, and it has always been a disaster. (just so you can get a picture, I once had to tell off a so-called design professional for creating a printed brochure using 72-dpi jpegs pockmarked with 3-mm-compression artefacts). The bad practices you list here were among the contributing reasons for every mediocre result we’ve had to pay good money for. Some of them were plagiarising sources so widespread that even we customers had seen them before. So I sincerely hope that more designers read articles like this and start producing work worth paying for.

  7. 409

    It is exceedingly rare to read an article or tutorial on design blogs these days that actually benefits me as a designer.

    I don’t have a problem with modern design tools and processes. Anything that helps a designer work more efficiently without limiting their options is progress in the right direction. What is harming the design community is this “plug and play” mentality that design blogs implicitly encourage. While that kind of information can be useful to designers, it’s not design. Design is solving problems and creating solutions in creative but effective ways.

  8. 460

    Many good points. Reminds me of when I was in college and knew folks that were in design even though they had no artistic interest.

    It’s a rough reality that many of us have to churn out design after design and sometimes the creative process gets muddled because of it. It’s easier to pull stock than spend the time to illustrate each individual piece, and with tight deadlines it reduces the project time significantly when you can do so. And it’s a tough sell to budget-conscious clients that a custom illustration that adds to the bottom line will communicate more effectively than something they saw on some clipart site.

    But I’m with you. The projects I take the most pride in are the ones that tax my creativity and theory.

  9. 511

    I find it ironic that a lot of what the author decries is exactly what websites like Smashing Magazine and Noupe provide. Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly agree with this post.

    I believe the problem lies not just in the abundance of online resources and software tools, but in the overall attitude (or “malaise”, if you want to get wordy) the internet has bred in the current generation of creators. What’s more worrisome than the Cult of the Cargo the author describes is the ever growing Cult of the Amateur. This is the mindset who finds something noble, honorable, and pure in the complete lack of standards, talent, ability and training a so-called “artist” demonstrates when they put their work and their persona online. They subscribe to the myth that the world is full of creative savants and artistic geniuses who have henceforth gone unrecognized and overlooked by the world and now see the internet as a revolutionary tool to subvert the traditional, repressive model known as “professionalism”.

    All of us, when starting out as designers and artists, are guilty of many of these infractions, I’m sure. But too many self-proclaimed designers never grow out of this infant stage and continue to label and market themselves as creative professionals while never truly living up to and deserving that title. That not only dilutes the marketplace (why pay a skilled designer when someone will do a job that looks 1/2 as good for 1/4 the price?) it dilutes the title itself. It may be alarmist, but if we’re heading for a future where “designer” is as valuable as “street musician”, then we’re all in a lot of trouble.

    The internet is great in so many ways, and the easy sharing of ideas and techniques is a wonderful, revolutionary thing. But, like the other says, we should never replace the fundamentals of great design. It’s a craft as much as it is an art, and like any craft, its rules are there for a reason.

  10. 562

    What is this? Another article blaming the designers for using tools to be more productive. Photoshop, stock photography, these tools are there for a reason that is to use them. The rest is Bla, bla, Inspiration, Sketching… This is in la la land where you get paid what you are supposed to and have time to spare. (Only in dreams) To run everything by the steps. Understanding what the clients wants vs. needs, brainstorming, prototyping presentation etc.

    The reason being all this design that you are calling unoriginal or freebie, is because the entrepreneurs, business owners and most of this “Business minded” people don’t care about design or design thinking and all it’s benefits for their business. All they care is productivity, fast, fast get it done, etc.

    What you all and you (writer) should be thinking about, is how to get to this business owners to trust designers and involve them into a more executive, top level, position, where decisions about planning, strategy “business” and all the good stuff gets look at.

    Ask whats the role you play into decision making when it comes to your company?
    How would you , through design, would improve business?

  11. 613

    So, Smashingmagazine is dying of itself useless roundups, right.

  12. 664

    Love it!

    I came to design in quite an informal manner and without a lot of core training. As one who didn’t begin with understanding, it’s easy for me to see its essential value (I could feel I was missing something vital) and seek it out. This article is a well-written, compelling reminder that as designers we ought to be about the heart of matters. We are great because we can think. Ultimately, that’s our greatest skill – the ability to think through a problem and devise a solution. Tools are a part of that, but they are the limbs, not the heart. A big thank you to Francisco for bringing that message home.

  13. 715

    I think people are missing the point of this article – it’s not stating that tools, inspirational sites, or pre-made designs are all bad. In fact, those can all be extremely useful.

    The article is simply pointing out that people are jumping into design and never getting past skimming the surface of trends or using other people’s ideas; the danger in the number of “designers” who are only capable of producing tweaked templates or largely unoriginal ideas. It encourages people to not just learn the “how” of a technique, but to learn “why” – and then innovate their own solutions.

  14. 766

    I think that as time passes, more and more people will be skilled in making “beautiful things” and have good tool skills. This will ultimately get us to a point we’re everything is overloaded with pseudo-information, and truly skilled designers will be on top again. People will see that it doesn’t just take a skilled toolman to make a good design. As far as I’m concerned, good design is often buried because people want things to be safe, esthetic and neutral. Good design should always communicate with its audience and not necessarily trough it’s visual form, but the message that it holds within.

    Sometimes I refuse a project just because it had to be done 3 days ago – good design always takes time.

  15. 817

    good article,

    when I freelanced before I worked a 9-5 I used to create everything myself, from backgrounds to icons. But now working in a web design studio I’ve come to realize that I was the exception not the rule.

    ‘Toolers’ will always be there and not eveyone can be the next Paul Rand….that’s why people like him are special.

    Personally I wouldn’t be able to just use a tutorial and not alter it or change it or experiment with the techniques. Some people like to just copy the tutorial exactly and say ‘Look what I did’ and wait for the applause…..yeah.

  16. 868

    An interesting read. A growing trend that I am seeing is that anyone with Photoshop automatically thinks they are a designer…anyone can recreate tutorial fed content, it is more of how you use that information and adapt it to different processes and solutions that people need to learn.

  17. 919

    I’m amazed. Excelent. Thanks for share your point of view. It’s time to stop the loop and get inspiration outside.

  18. 970

    five-star chefs using canned or pre-prepared ingredients? more like college bachelors or something, but that’s ok. pre-prep elements improve the output of people whose skills or time are limited. the advent of Quark XPress stirred the same discussions. sure, it resulted in seemingly ubiquitous rectilinear layouts with troublesome typography, but people wanted cheaper design options and more control.

    although every project would benefit from elite skills, few projects require them. drum machines didn’t eradicate live drummers, they just made them a more specialized solution.

    if you ARE a five-star chef, i agree: don’t be any lazier than necessary. you owe it to your discipline and yourself. if you’re not yet an excellent designer, i also agree: reach for greater heights where you can.

  19. 1021

    This article makes me feel like there’s hope for shedding off the shell of triteness that the design world has built around its self.

  20. 1072

    Hey there thanks for this great and really quality article. I really enjoyed reading it and have bookmarked it so that I may read it again and again to remind me what’s real about this industry.


  21. 1123

    As someone on the other side of the fence, I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate here…

    I have a Fine Art background and have been in Graphic Design for nearly 3 years now. Software is my weak link – it doesn’t seem to understand the way I think (or vice versa). Often times I’m scolded at work for not using resources or references, trying to be too clever and make it all up from scratch. In some areas, I’m way below the quality of ‘canned’ design and the bosses would much rather grab something off iStock.

    One of my very talented co-workers has a technique that involves grabbing stock elements, collaging them and then making a painting from that reference. It’s one of the most brilliant things I’ve seen.

    One could liken modern Design to Hip-Hop. I could spend a year learning to play the violin, or call in a seasoned studio musician, but if all I want is a 3-second run from some concerto in F, I might as well sample it and throw it into the mix.

    Besides, part of what makes a master chef so masterful is that you could give them minute Ramen and a tin of tomatoes, sit back, and watch what they do. You say it yourself, it’s not the what, it’s the how.

    Where we definitely agree is that tutorials do not a designer make. But no-one ever said they did. The clue is in the name – a tutorial only documents a specific process. Liken it to a putting masterclass from Tiger Woods – you won’t win the PGA tour by doing it but it will improve your game, at least in some aspects.

    I don’t know enough designers to comment on how healthy the design diet is, but the ones I know are well rounded and draw from a wealth of experiences and interests.

    Finally, I appreciate the effort that went into your writing as well as the accompanying illustrations.

  22. 1174

    This article is so good I had to go outside for a walk just contemplate what I just read. Awesome. Thanks.

  23. 1225

    Very nice meta-article about design. I’m considering becoming a full-time freelancing designer in the next six months. The only reason I’m hesitant deals with this very idea of being a ‘tooler’ vs a ‘creator’. I’m asking myself is this a job in itself? Is it enough of a job? Does it make enough difference?

    In India, the design industry is pretty nascent. When I tell people I’m a designer, they dismiss me as just another maker of pretty gradients and idiotic flash slideshows. I think it is important for designers to distinguish themselves from ‘toolers’ – for their own benefit.

    Regarding ‘tooling’ – there’s nothing bad about it. When I first got interested in design, it was all about picking up the skills and knowing the software, from illustrator to flash to fcp to cinema 4d. I spent over a year doing just that.

    Then I moved onto a phase of thinking more about concepts, understanding colour theory, etc.

    Perhaps the industry will also evolve in such a way – learn the tools first, then spend time understanding the rest.

    • 1276

      I don’t necessarily agree with what you just said there. More than often I’ve come across people who claim themselves as designers, but all they do is just to use Photoshop. No educational background, no understanding of design theory. I am very offended by that. Just because of these self-claimed designers, people don’t take the design industry seriously. What you said there is just that, and it is just other way around. You should have understood what design really is – it is really a problem solving process. Before designing, you must plan ahead and know that what is it that you are aiming for and why. Then, find the most appropriate program to solve the problem (design issue). Stop destroying the design industry for the real designers, you toolers.

  24. 1327

    When I was studying graphic design, we didn’t touch a computer until our 3rd year. Two years of learning things the hard way and doing them by hand was a good way of understanding the why’s of design. When you’re busting your hump for 12 hours working on a design that would take you 20 minutes on a computer, you tend to want to know why you’re doing it. fourteen years later, it’s sometimes hard to remember all that stuff, but I think it’s still a subconscious influence on my work.

  25. 1378

    It seems that artist are now specializing into the specific fields. Who know…

  26. 1429

    does this mean smashing magazine will go away from the roots in which it started, and stop capitalizing on digg and stumble algorithms by publishing articles like “20 must have photoshop brushes”?

    If this is so, i am really happy!

    Its all about the theory.

    • 1480

      Why does everybody keep bashing SM for “lists”? Come on, guys, for months now, SM has published tons of in-depth articles. Sure, there are few lists here and there, but that’s just to keep a good balance. You can’t bombard your readers with 1000 words of deep content every day. That’s one of the reasons “A List Apart” only publishes 4 articles per month, without exception. They realize that really good content is rare, and so they select only the good ones for publication.

      Let’s just accept the fact that SM has different goals, and is trying to publish a variety of things to cater to a wider audience. The SM bashing is just getting lame and immature and the bashing itself seems to be just as “trendy” and meaningless as the points the author here is discussing about the design community .

  27. 1531

    Yea, I think “design” as we know it IS dying. Well sorta. I think it’s just becoming cheap and so the ability to sustain a life from a “career” in design is actually what is dying. No one wants to pay any money for it. “Oh, my sister’s fiance took a weekend course in Photoshop, he can do the same thing. I’ll get him to design for me, sorry, you’re too expensive.” THAT happens ALL the time.

    Or hey, here’s another one for ya, how’s that $1 stock photograph? What a great idea. Wow, yea, too bad for the photographer though. Even if they can make money in volume…The real problem is perception. Perception of buyers. People buying these design services then believe design is overpriced. It drives down the value of design.

    How many successful print designers are there these days? Not as many. Is there more competition? Maybe. I don’t know. I went to SVA and I know the school grew in size and more people went to be graphic designers. I know it became a popular career choice. I know more and more people want to buy Apple notebooks and sit in Starbucks with fancy clothes designing things. Screw it. I don’t do print design now. I wish I did, I love it, but scrap that education. I’m doing web design and web development.

    But what are we talking about here for print design anyway? Out of college, or a few years after, making 40, 50, even $60,000 a year? In 2010???? Uh, I better be living in the middle of no where to swing that. You go to a college like SVA or FIT or Cooper Union, get out…Actually want to stay in Manhattan…Now you have $1500+ rent plus $500+ in loan payments each month?? Not happening. Sorry.

    What does pay? Web design. You can make more money with that and even more with web development. Ah…So the internet is where the design went and where you can make money….Yes, I did then pay loans and rent and lived in Manhattan for years.

    A few years later…Oh snap! $12 web templates?!!?!

    Looks like it’s catching up to the internet too….Yea, I think design is dying. It’s sad because design, art, photography, and all creative careers are interesting. They are fun and limitless. It’s just that who would think in such a limitless and evolving career, the value of it would drop?

    You’d think with competition and evolution and change that you’d always have to re-learn your job (which you do anyway) and that would make you valuable. With experience you’d get more money and it’d be a fantastic career.

    Sorry. It’s not.
    However, the good news is the internet STILL is limitless and just because one day you won’t be able to get by alone on production doesn’t mean you still can’t have a good career with the internet. You just have to adapt. It’s still creative skill, just not applied in the way you might expect. Much less traditional…But boy is it ever going to be tough!

  28. 1582

    I really enjoyed this. This is the difference learning under someone, or professional study (learning the “whys”) can make. It’s something that people who just cracked open a copy of photoshop and call themselves designers just can’t replicate without years and years of finding out the hard way, if they ever find it at all. They don’t know why.

    You just need the good foundation.

  29. 1633

    I agree 100%. As an example of one source of the problem are a number of schools that base thier schedules on shortened classes, i. e. 4 weeks. Last summer I attended just such a class—”Design Fundamentals”.

    Oh sure, anyone can teach the foundations of design IN FOUR WEEKS! I feel for anyone who really thinks that is true.

  30. 1684

    This was a great article…something I come to expect from this site. I completely agree with the author, but I am a developer (read code monkey) and so-so when it comes to design. That hasn’t stopped me from trying to get better though and I prefer to start on paper.

    The only issue that I run into as someone who has to pay the bills comes in the form of clients with smaller budgets…i.e. under $5,000, and no current website and no ranking. At that price point, custom layouts and designs are pretty hard accomidate…especially good ones. I have a lot of clients in that situation. And considering it takes time to create compelling content and build rank…I often recommend buying a template.

    For me, if the client can’t afford a custom design but needs a website, this fills a major need. The template is selected based on a 25 question checklist (based on all aspects of the clients business, category, history, branding, etc) and then adjusted for their needs. I take the template, rewrite the code so it validates and follows best practices, and port it to a template based CMS. The idea is to spend their limited time and money on the things that will get clients to their site and make them money. (In-site SEO, content and link building) Then, when they have the money…move up to custom design and branding (that I refer to a very talented designer). And because the content should largely be there and the site is in an easy to skin CMS, the upgrade is greatly simplified.

    While I agree completely with the author…great design takes time and money, something many small businesses can’t fully afford. I don’t believe these people should be forced to be site-less. Great design and layout should always be the goal and constantly evolving…but many people need to start with a Ford before they can move onto a Ferrari.

  31. 1735

    Maria Manoela Porto

    April 8, 2010 10:19 am

    I am a big fan of SM but this article should never be here!

    First of all, this title is wrong. Design is not art so there is no “art of design” to be dying!!! It could make a little sense if it was all about art and being an artist but a designer is not an artist.

    Design is for use and comunication no matter what. And that’s why the design won’t ever die because it’s around every single piece of stuff we do, we read, we wear, we are nowadays. So if you are a designer and ever feel like you are dying as a professional, you simply need to study more, to get to know new ways to do stuff. It is common to any kind of business in this world. If a doctor doesn’t know the last tech top operate a paciente he will be obsolete. The same will hapen to a designer if he leaves it all to “talent”. Leave the talent for the true artist, whose works are atemporal and will also never die but will become part of history and culture.

    It is a shame that Smashing Magazine publish an article with this title. The rest doesn’t even worth reading.

  32. 1837

    Fantastic read! Thanks! I certainly agree on most of the tutorials out there – I don’t ever enter one thinking it’s going to teach me how to actually design – it’s just going to teach me some techniques and different ways of using my tools. But just because I know how to scan a crayon line and turn it into a brush stroke doesn’t automatically make me a fantastic designer. I need to use knowledge of design to understand where, if ever, that crayon brush stroke is going to be an appropriate fit for a design.

  33. 1888

    okay first of all

    @Anjum, don’t trash SM ;) Smashing Magazine is my temple and my religion is very Smashing :DD Its articles are always beyond deep and enlightening..ehuehue

    that said..onto the article

    @ The article – I couldn’t agree more on this note and ALSO I couldn’t be more relieved after reading this…turns out I was caught up in this freebie and tool training rut as well. Generally I am really good at finding concepts, but I entered the design school without any knowledge of the media to be used at the execution stage, which ACTUALLY can really slow one down, but at the end of the day a designer shouldn’t dwell on that (like I did). I am doing my Final project right now and I am (was) obsessed with doing every single cool tutorial I can find online, cause it’s so cool and hip and whatever…my concept finding abilities began to fade away. You’d be surprised to find out that it is actually possible to spend half a day if the entire one downloading free stuff and gazing at tutorials. (which are gonna sit there doing nothing anyways, but hey it was free so who cares if I can count the amounts of the pixels on my two hands :S )

    Bottom line, I am glad to have read this article before my potential in conceptualizing was absolutely outdated due to lack of informational updating.

    Freebies and tool training and abundance of relevant free online sources is a QUICKSAND for any designer, BECAUSE IT IS FREE and even if it is not free (as the article mentioned) IT IS A SHORTCUT or a TRICK. But at the end of the day you end up TRICKING YOURSELF.

  34. 1939

    Hit the nail right on the head.

  35. 1990

    It seems like some commentators here really don’t like this article – relax, it is an opinion piece and one which I personally do not entirely disagree with.

    I am not a professional web designer – it is a hobby for me and has been for years. I haven’t taken the time to read some of the great books that I know are out there about design. However I have taken the time to learn the importance of colour, of good typography and usability,

    There are a lot of sites and blogs out there saying and doing the same thing and with very similar designs. However I think that web design, at least, has come a long way. The standard of the tools available has increased and so, irrespective of the effort put into creating an online work by an individual, the quality of websites has increased. I would far prefer that there are thousands of websites using similar themes that are semantically coded, accessible and not offensive to the eyes, than thousands of websites built using some crappy wysiwyg design tool and animated gifs (like back in the day!)

    In an ideal world, everyone that is involved in design would take the time to learn about design theory. As far as the Internet is concerned – it is free and open, anyone can do it and this is both the Internet’s vice and virtue.

  36. 2041

    I would completely agree with this article if it were titled “The Dying Art of Web Design” because most websites out there look extremely similar per category (blog, news, etc).

    However, if you step outside of the web design world and look at modern day concert posters, digital paintings on places like Deviant Art, modern works in a museum or online art gallery, and contemporary design for everyday things such as furniture, there is an AMAZING variation of design.

    • 2092

      [blockquote]there is an AMAZING variation of design[/blockquote] there’s also an amazing amount of sub-par design.

      • 2143

        That is the case in every single aspect of the universe. Nothing is as great as it could ever possibly be in every instance of it’s existence. So that’s a silly comment to make.

        • 2194

          No, variety is beside the point. Load up new brushes in Photoshop, take a new course, learn new tricks, etc, that’s variety. It does not however change the thesis of the author that design is a dying art. With all the variation in the world, design can still be mostly crap.

          edit: “Victor” a few post further down puts it more eloquently.

  37. 2245

    This must be the greatest article i read so far this year.
    I myself am getting tired of all those articles about tutorials and tools on how to create “design”, no wonder that if you visit a css gallery website you’ll find bunch of websites which look the same except for some different icons here and there, and only 1-2 out of 10 really standout as great designs.

  38. 2296

    I don’t understand why people are coming and generalizing things, what does medicine even have anything to do with design, OF COURSE the patient will go flatline if the doctor doesn’t know how to operate the new robotic device. HOWEVER the point is that design is not a precise science and isn’t science at all. The point is that you don’t see doctors preferring scissors to a scalpel just because he wants to experiment or because his hand will shake less or better yet because they are closer than the scalpel or cause they are by Mac and it happens to be the doctors favorite brand….SO people…form your analogies properly, otherwise your comment is the one “doesn’t even worth reading”.

    And talent doesn’t equal coming up with a good idea. So no one is leaving anything up to talent.

    I always loved Chermayeff and Geismar.Their top priority was to come up with the function and then the form, because you can’t deny that what is on the inside will always out no matter how much you try to conceal it with clothes, in the designs case its the effects and techniques.

  39. 2347

    Thanks for the article!

    I am a design student, and I used to find myself always buying ‘inspiration’ books adn looking through web galleries, but I’ve learned to stop looking at the galleries and books because they weren’t the best at helping me to gain my own style and become a true creative.

    Anyone with a little knowledge of the tools can copy what he or she sees, but a TRUE designer creates ideas, not imitates them.

    Thanks again!

  40. 2398

    Good read with lots to chew on. Thank you.

  41. 2449

    This is, without question, one of the best articles I have read on Smashing in a long time.

    Well done.

  42. 2500

    I’ve got some bad news…It’s too late, design has already become a commodity.

    The good news? If you’re really any good at it, you have nothing to worry about anyway. Here’s my logic.

    Design is now a commodity, and a cheap one at that. You should accept it. Don’t fight it. Embrace it as an inevitable truth. It’s the result of widespread technology and the aura of “hipness” and appeal that surrounds the design industry. Everyone wants to be a “designer” and now they can, and are. Therefore I use the term “designer” loosely. It refers to both traditional designers trained in design theory from universities and colleges, and self-taught “jack-of-all-traders” trying their hand at design to make a quick buck. Technology has opened the floodgates and there’s no turning back. Just look at the number of agencies, studios, freelancers, (and amateurs posing as professionals) out there competing.

    I know many of you will say that competition is a good thing because it helps fuel creativity and drives innovation. That may hold true on a grander scale, but when you’ve got millions of hungry designers out there who all want a piece of the pie, anything new or exciting quickly becomes diluted in ubiquity and therefore is regarded in the public consciousness as a commodity.

    Competition this steep also drives prices down. I’ve seen the notorious “craigslist designers” going for $10-an-hour in the US! It’s a basic marketing principle that once the customer becomes accustomed to a lower price bracket, they don’t go back up.
    These “fauxsigners” are cheapening the trade, and that sucks, I don’t dispute it. CMS’s like wordpress, predesigned template businesses, and cheap design outsourcing to countries like india have also contributed to the downfall of design as we know it. Point of all this being…design is already a commodity.

    But I don’t care. I don’t feel threatened one bit by this one bit. I have three things much of the competition doesn’t: quality, experience, credentials. I hold a BFA in communication design. What was once a standard requirement in the industry is now a huge advantage. Because of my education and my understanding of design theory, I’m already a step above much of the lower-end competition. I can create completely customized original work, that speaks for itself. Work that actually improves the client’s communication with their customers, instead of just pretty for pretty’s sake. In short, real design with real results.

    Authentic designers will always get work. They won’t accept cheap rates, because they won’t have to. People will pay for real results, and if they won’t, they’re not worth your time.

    So in conclusion, its the very same “designers” that started this manufactured movement, who are in trouble. They’re the ones who will suffer when it all comes crashing down. Authenticity will prevail. In the words of the Joker from The Dark Knight “If you’re good at something then never do it for free.” Create authentic, original works with purpose, communicate effectively, and you don’t have a damn thing to worry about.

    • 2551

      You said: “I have three things much of the competition doesn’t: quality, experience, credentials.”

      Quality and experience are blurry concepts that can´t guarantee efficiency and nobody cares about credentials. If a 18 year old can make a website for $50 (using a template) is fine for a lot of companies.

      The skill that 18 year old don´t have is “business mentality”, the ability of work with communication goals and objectives. Add this weapon to your list and you will be safe.

  43. 2602

    Screw the “How to recreate the trendy look of the moment” tutorials.
    I’m logging off and going to go draw now.

  44. 2653

    Great article, I really enjoyed it, not only because of its content, but also because of they way it was written.

    I almost completely agree with the article. We see the same web sites and styles over and over, no matter what the industry, theme or message of the respective site is. Fancy techniques and free resources don’t make a great design.

    Besides understanding what effect or impression a certain technique or tool creates (e.g. a shadow adds depth to a design) is only one of the things we have to learn and understand (something I always try to include in tutorials I write on my blog). The second, much more challenging part is to know when depth or texture or minimalism is required. That’s were a true designer can shine.

    Knowing the basics, such as color theory, typography or perspective is much more important – how to translate this things into actual graphics on the computer is something you can worry after you figured out what and how you need them.

    To get to an end here: Great article, more please!

  45. 2704

    I am not surprised designers look at 75% inspiration and tutorial related articles. It is out of necessity. We have to deliver great design that our clients will buy. I can have a really nice design with hand drawn illustration and personal photography… but if it doesn’t have “a nice letterpress text effect seen on Apple” our clients will see it as foreign. We are providing a service here. We have clients to make happy, checks to cash and mouths to feed. Keep the tutorials and inspiration coming!

  46. 2755

    Downloading and controling photoshop doesn’t make you a designer. even making nice compositions of nothing, doesn’t make you a designer.

    In hebrew we call all of these people “Executers”, they are good at a technique but have no design education.

    I began as one.
    that’s why i went to a design school.

  47. 2806

    I think Web design is now like the fashion industry. Every season brings new trends and colors, and most designers feel the urge to keep up. Although it’s wonderful to keep pushing the envelope and try out new techniques, however, it gives designers no time to do things properly and do them with the purpose. It’s funny to see how much time some Web designers spend blogging about their work. Makes you wonder when they find time to work on the actual projects and execute them correctly (really get to know the client’s vision, do proper research, write good code) while they are blogging about it 24/7. Home life must not be good… I do love all the latest fashion though… ;)

  48. 2857

    Interesting Post!!!

  49. 2908

    I was taught that as designers, we should strive to be creative problem solvers, always trying to be original, but functional. Unfortunately, expectations and budgets, along with a desire to “mimic” instead of create by clients really has changed what’s expected of most designers I know (myself included). I takes a lot of coaxing to get a client to open their minds and take a chance with original design and slightly deeper pockets.

  50. 2959

    I really enjoyed this article and feel like you hit the nail right on the head. Unfortunately, we live in a world where everyone is trying to make a buck. Everyone is a designer, web developer or a photographer now. They take a class in Photoshop or Dreamweaver and buy a DSLR and that makes them an expert. It’s kind of sad.


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