Beware the Vanity Designer

We’ve all seen the Dilbert-esque jokes about how a presentation or a logo could be put together in Word by the boss’s 10 year old nephew… but the problem for designers in small or medium sized enterprises is actually far worse.

Unlike programmers (who work in mostly inscrutable “code”) or artists (who probably exhibit a creative ability that is daunting to a casual observer), designers inhabit an office cubicle of skills, ability and taste that looks like it could be duplicated (given the tools, an hour or two of training and a modicum of ability).

That visible part of the design process that involves laying-out and creating things on screen just seems oh-so-easy, and so tempting to copy.

See no easel

The difficult part, the back-end is never seen (thus never valued) by an interested onlooker.

Developing workflows; researching tools, technologies and techniques; understanding file formats; resolving output problems and dealing with all the issues that affect digital, web and print design…

none of this counts for anything to the onlookers, who live in a perceived world of wizards, templates and word-art. Hmmm.

The concept of a structured design process also gets little understanding or appreciation by this wave of casual design watchers.

The ability to research, identify and work up ideas and final designs, while collaborating and communicating the thought process and design possibilities to all interested parties…

…is an unseen bit of voodoo. Not seen means it’s not there. It must be very simple. It must just… happen. No thinking involved. Just some check boxes and a sign off meeting.

Design It Yourself

Without knowledge of this creative underpinning, there’s a growing perception that it is possible for non-designers to just do it themselves.

To a certain degree this is true. Modern tools, along with good templates and strict branding guidelines make it possible. But the branding guidelines and templates have to be impeccably produced by designers, and they should lay down the law so they can be followed by… well, not the most design-blind accountant, but a reasonably competent person, let’s say.

But that’s not the big problem. The big problem is when certain parties who are clambering up that corporate ladder of management perceptions think that they could do this whole design thing themselves. They can then leverage their position and influence to appear to be the brains behind the whole damn design operation.

A designer working in-house (or contracted to work on-site), may come across several of these frustrated designer-wannabees.  And they seem to act benignly… at first. But you need to watch out. Basically, they are stalking you for all your visible design skills that they’ll steal and use to further their own career machinations. Nice!

The Road to Dell

Look out for the signs from a seemingly innocent observer who is secretly on the road to a design takeover…

  • They will start to show an interest in what you are designing for no apparent reason.
  • They will be very intrigued by how you are using buy viagra levitra and cialis your design related programs.
  • They will crowd around your screen, watching you work.
  • They will quiz you about why you are doing certain things.
  • They will start a design before giving it to you to work up or “have a play.” Those words are a red flag: they suggest that the actual designer is just a simple soul, following instructions and playing about having fun doing the work… while the real design is done by that vocal person who has a STRONG OPINION.
  • They will start to take nearly finished designs and do the last bits themselves (and start to take the credit…)
  • They will inject their opinions more and more into any design discussion. (Remember, management perception that this person has design knowledge is the name of the game. They have to vocally give the impression of knowing this design game)
  • They will take all the available templates and use previous designs to create their own simple layouts (if they are lucky, choosing and changing a pantone colour will suffice and garner a design reputation.)
  • They could also point out how they chose their living room paint colour and their kitchen layout. (Design GURU!)
  • They will start to present themselves as a design spokesperson in meetings with senior management (where the designer, as a rude mechanical, will not be present to interject and object at the ridiculousness)
  • They will very visibly show off some self-published vanity design projects to maintain their design guru status.
  • They will use their power and influence to manoeuvre themselves up the greasy corporate pole towards a role as a bona fide Design Manager. (This only works if the board or senior management team is un-schooled enough to be taken in by this design bluster; or if the designer-to-be is actually already part of the senior management team…)

The fool on the hill

And there you have it. A pretty substantial company now has someone in charge of all design thinking who has zero experience of actual design outside of their narrow corporate manoeuvrings.

All they have is a few months of designer-stalking under their belt and enough hours of flight time on a Dell grot box with CS4 to understand the difference between the InDesign and Photoshop icons. Excellent!

They have no design schooling or training. No qualifications. No portfolio. No skills or experience in communicating a design idea or ethos. No experience in working in or managing a creative team. No experience of giving or receiving genuine design criticism. No interest in the history of design. No knowledge of the development of design and technology.

Nada. Nothing. But they are somehow the manager of design in a modern enterprise.

A thousand designers bang their heads against the desk.

But we will carry on because there are good companies and good projects out there. If you love design and want to succeed in design, you have to ignore the distractions of difficult clients, manoeuvring colleagues and vanity designers.

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