Bread & butter work

I struggled with the title of this post a bit. Do I call it “Bread and butter work” or “Why you can’t make a living building websites anymore”?

Read on and be the judge…

The intriguing thing is that with all the elevation of the design profession over the course of the past decade or so, the things we make are increasingly becoming commoditized.

I equate this conundrum to a comment I heard a couple of years ago at an oil and gas trade show I attended in London. The show happened right as the price of oil was crashing. A plenary discussion was held with several big-wig oil execs. Towards the end of the Q&A portion, a student stood up and asked if the oil industry had brought the downturn on itself. With so many technical advancements over the past couple of decades, oil fields that were thought to be dormant were suddenly thriving because of this innovation revolution. None of the execs gave a response.

Has a similar predicament hit the design industry?

Technology plays a big part is the commoditization. Software has made it so that just about any novice can quickly put together a design, and like it or not my fellow designers, it’s not altogether terrible. In fact, it be kind of sort of good.

Where once you had to have access to the right tools and had to have a degree of proficiency and craftsmanship, anyone can it now do.

Back in the late 90s, I remember pitching a website design to a mid-size company and we were going up against a big national agency. We worked through what we thought was a good price, but the other agency came back with a bid approaching a couple of hundred thousand dollars. This was not some huge enterprise site; it was for a medium-sized business. When was the last time a design firm was able to charge those kind of fees? Particularly when you can build a safe, secure site on WordPress for next to nothing. Again, self-service is doing design in.

The problem: The value is misplaced.

Design isn’t solely about the things themselves. The best design is thoughtful, and that is one thing software cannot do. It can give you amazing hand skills, but it cannot think up a good idea or create feelings. Yet.

There is a real, intrinsic value to good design. Unfortunately, it’s not tangible. More unfortunate, a client will either know it when they see it or won’t be able to articulate why this the design is better. It just is.

So how do you capture that value?