Strategy vs Execution: The Future of Graphic Design


Last week I stumbled upon a new offering from a creative company, who consider their solution the next level for clients buying design.

It’s a subscription, ‘cloud’ based model. Subscribers pay a tiered fee each month, which gives them access to a team of designers.

The process is managed via a bespoke platform, that seeks to streamline if not automate the client/designer relationship. Think Uber for design firms.

Such services look like an attempt to disrupt the agency model, and there’s more companies following the trend.

The company in question certainly believes their offering to be progressive, if not revolutionary.

But it got me thinking. Between freelancers, crowdsourcing sites, traditional agencies, and now subscription services, where does the future of graphic design lie?

Mind the Gap

The subscription-style model I describe, could work for some businesses, but not all.

As per their website, the service I’ve mentioned only covers creative execution, not strategic or conceptual thinking. No ‘head’ work.

This means it would mostly be suitable for organisations who aren’t looking for growth, but a cost effective way of outputting a lot of communications.

Companies that want to grow, invest in in-house design teams, agencies, or consultants able to deliver strategic thinking. The ‘head’ work.

In this way, we might consider the gap between strategy and execution may underpin the future of graphic design.

Execution covers any process-driven aspect of design (we typically refer to this as art working).

If the strategy and concept lie in one end of the project spectrum, the execution stage sits at the other.

It is the process of following and then applying the strategy into a tangible form.

Take packaging for example: at one end of the process would be someone making a business case for the project.

They’ll strategise objectives, concepts, messaging, markets and outcomes.

At the other end, a designer or art worker will be supplied printer’s specs, and will put together the physical packaging, based on the creative and strategic direction.

The closer the execution stage is to a mechanical process (or one that doesn’t require specialist knowledge), the more vulnerable it is to devaluation or automation.

Rise of the Machines

Even with the age of digital, and the rise of augmented or virtual reality, we’re probably a ways off from a computer designing its own packaging.

But just as companies seek to disrupt the agency model, software does the same with regard to skills.

Just 10 years ago, to build a bespoke website was virtually impossible without hiring a web developer.

Now with Wix, Squarespace, WordPress and a host of other online solutions, the question has flipped to why anyone would need a web developer.

So designers and organisations invested in execution-orientated skills, might do well to keep one eye on the future.

As Design Observer predicted in their article The Future of Graphic and Communication Design:

“In the short term, digital design will move beyond screens to physical surfaces and augmented or artificial environments, and designers will occupy more positions where they are directing or consulting on larger and more complex systems of experience.”

Also, as execution-services are more methodical in nature, they require less specialist knowledge.

This makes for a crowded market, in which these skills can become oversaturated and undervalued.

Or they can be disrupted by a technology-based innovation (as with the example of the cloud-design service I describe).

Therefore, the future of graphic design, could be one where designers occupy the higher echelons of the process: that which requires conceptual, strategic and business thinking.

These are the vital elements of a project, and can largely determine success. As such they are very specialist skills, not easily given to automation, undervalue or disruption.

Moving Forward

For the design professional, such developments might seem somewhat bleak.

What was considered a viable specialism less than a decade ago, has been relegated to a utility.

But with this comes great opportunity. It’s the opportunity for creatives to develop perhaps their biggest skill: the ability to learn.

To learn is to create adaptability, and cultivate progress.

By evolving our roles, and what value we create for our clients, we can develop better roles, services and offerings.

When we reach the stage where everyone can develop a banner ad, with no design experience, our learning may point us to better solutions for those we serve.

At which point, the future graphic designer may even outgrow that title.

So by constantly learning – new skills, tools, approaches to business – we invest in our own future, and that of our clients.

As stated by legendary designer, creative director, and educator Brian Collins to Forbes:

“If you’re not ahead of the culture, then you’re falling behind it. I don’t think companies are even competing with each other anymore. We’re all competing with the future itself.”

For companies buying design, creatives may well become the linchpins of future business.

When absolutely anyone can create a website experience to rival your own, how will you make a greater impact?

When technology removes barriers to enable anyone to bring a product to market, how will your product make a splash?

More than ever, our future success will depend on those who can design, build and engender cultural change.

Those poised to reap the biggest rewards, whether creative or client, are those willing to make learning itself their most valuable asset.

Their curiosity, passion and innovation, will ensure the future of graphic design – however it will be known – is a bright one.

– Greg Bunbury







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