Selling Design

Preface

You probably heard Jennifer Daniel made quite a splash with her San Francisco Creative Mornings talk "Design is Capitalism". Watch it above (for those with sensitive ears / hearts, beware: there are some serious swears in this talk).

I want to be clear this isn't a rebuttal. I agreed with a lot of what Jennifer said actually. In fact, in my visit to San Francisco this past summer, I saw a lot of what she was talking about first-hand while working on site with one of these big tech companies.

There were a lot of big hairy controversial things said in this talk. We need people to say things of this nature sometimes, but I felt compelled to write some further ideas on the topic because whenever a pendulum starts to swing back hard the opposite way, and the paradigm of what's cool and accepted starts to shift, it can breed extremisms and there are always big consequences.

I'm pretty moderate in most ways. So I'm not a capitalist per se. I don't think it's the God breathed economic system.

But I do believe in selling.

Just as the ol' time motivational speaker Zig Ziglar points out, even the effectiveness of a high school English teacher hinges on selling. If you can sell students on the beauty, truth and power of English class, you will be infinitely more effective.

I don't know how Jennifer Daniel feels about selling. I imagine she thinks it's pretty neutral, which it is. It depends on what you're selling.

Selling is the art of communicating and persuading.

 

As Frank Chimero pointed out in his 'Shape of Design' talk, you can persuade people to do good things with design or bad things. So, yeah, it is neutral. JD says this in her talk.

Why I'm Afraid

I'm not 100% sure what Jennifer intended the audience to take away from the talk, but I know what I choose to take from it.

We have a big problem: design is massively overselling itself, way beyond its ability to deliver.

Here's a great business principle I try to practice: Under promise, over deliver. If I think I can get an illustration over to you on Tuesday, I'll tell you Thursday. If I'm early, you're stoked; if I'm late, I still delivered on time.

JD points out that designers in the past decade have been promising to 'save the world'.

We haven't saved the world yet.

We massively and ridiculously over-promised, and we massively and ridiculously under-delivered.

I agree with this wholeheartedly, but here's what I'm afraid of: this funny poignant timely talk will spur on an extreme paradigm shift. Instead of it being cool to oversell design, it will then be only cool and acceptable to massively ridiculously undersell creativity, commercial art, illustration and design.

I could see this future: a whole generation of industry leaders - self deprecating artists - massively devaluing their work to the business world in a ploy to bring a balance to the creative force. Completely undoing all the work of the past 50 years, the work that means I can provide for my kids making pictures in ways my mom probably couldn't.

 

My Response: Let's Sell Creativity, but Do So Honestly

I'm guessing it was not JD's intention to spur on better salesmanship of our trade. In fact it may have been the opposite of her intention, BUT that's what I'm doing.

We need to sell creativity.

Everything I do with my writing and podcast is aimed at increasing the awareness of the value of creative people, or helping creative people better sell their value. Maybe in SF and NYC creatives are being given large piles of cash for their brilliance, but here in the Midwest I still know the majority of businesses do not understand creative people or their value.

Back in my home state of Indiana I have piles of creatively brilliant friends who are not properly utilized by their communities or local businesses. This is a gross understatement. Many of my closest family and friends could have a different life if society better understood their value.

I'm not talking value to save the world. I'm talking about sheer old fashioned value in the workplace, business, community and society.

JD is right. We don't have to save the world. But we can bring value as regular contributing citizens. This alone is still hanging in the balance. This cause is worthy enough.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. For good or for bad, I often fantasize what it would have been like if my mom's high school had understood her creative talent and was able to usher her into (non existing) local organizations which could have helped her learn and grow as a creative professional. Would those opportunities and achievements have stopped her from feeling the need to turn to hardcore drugs later in her life? Even on a smaller scale, would that outlet have enabled her to be less bored with life and family life? 

It's a big IF I know, maybe uncalled for, but in the wake of two abandoned sets of kids, you can't help but ask these questions. 

My mom is an artist, and she is probably more naturally talented than I am. I often grieve her brilliant unfinished kids' book pitches she had started when I was a kid.

Maybe I'm putting too much weight on this. But I wonder if my mom's life would have been different if our society had been more sold on creativity for business in her time.

I'm also someone diagnosed as 'ADHD'. I don't know the science, but while it does make it difficult for me to do 'normal' work, I often suspect ADHD might actually just be code for being gifted with different skills that don't fit into our current school system (because they are built around the idea of factory work).

Here's why I'm afraid: although creativity has been overselling itself, at least our culture is starting to take it seriously and started to see its value in business and I don't want us to shoot ourselves in the foot.

It's fine for anyone from a privileged background who will be ushered into great creative roles in the higher ends of society (I'm not saying JD is this, I don't actually know her well at all, so don't take that the wrong way!). These types of opportunities have existed for years and will continue to do so. But it's terrible for my friends from low income homes in the midwest where this battle on "society seeing creativity as valuable" is still far from being started!

Maybe on the coasts, in the social circles of the middle and upper class, we need to knock design and creativity down a peg or two. BUT please, please do not stop selling creativity.

So whether this was a call to stop the selling of design or not. I'm taking it as a call to sell design and creativity more honestly, and therefore more effectively.

In my eyes the overselling of design is mostly wrong in the sense that dishonest salesmanship is just bad sales. If you want to sell something successfully in the long run it's more important to be honest and really believe in what you're selling and what you're saying.

So here it is, my sales pitch for design and commercial art:

5 Powerful and Important things Commercial Art Really can Do for Business and the World


1. It CAN (Help) Save the World (Or Destroy it, Depending on What Your Organization Does)

Branding and design did play a role, albeit small, in helping charity:water become a charitable sensation, bringing clean water to thousands of people and saving lives. Charity:water says design played a big part in this. Design may not be able to save the world, but it can play its part, just as any respectable industry can.

Branding and design and creativity also played a large role in Hitler's Nazi campaign.

JD is right, design is neutral. It depends on what you do with it. But that doesn't mean that it's not incredibly powerful.

Let's continue to sell the good guys (who also have money to pay us) on the power of our work to persuade, inform and delight (Frank Chimero's words again).

 

2. It Can Grab Attention

The world has become incredibly noisy. I know this isn't news.

BUT maybe the only force in the world  powerful enough to cut through this noise is creativity.

To put it simply, a tasty looking illustration will get more engagement on Facebook for your business.

A tasty looking brand campaign or poster has the power to create more awareness for your Presidential campaign. (Thanks, Obama.)

This is powerful stuff.

 

3. It Can Restore, Recycle and Refresh

A clean can of paint in a fresh color made my old broken-down shed look brand new.

Branding, creativity and design can refresh your business, your town, your clothing.

In a world covered in waste, choking on its own junk, design and innovation can help us creatively breath new life into old resources.

On a deeper level, there are designers working on brands that help consumers embrace cleaner fuel solutions.

Did I mention my shed looks really good right now? Amazing what color can do.

We almost trashed that thing.

Also, making our world more beautiful isn't saving it, but it's still a good thing. It's still a human thing.

 

4. It Can Bring Clarity

Writer and brand expert Donald Miller says people don't buy the best product, they buy the product they understand. 

Apple products aren't always the most powerful machines, but they are often the easiest understood and used. 

Need another example? 

The designers of the healthcare.gov website had the opportunity to make getting healthcare an easy experience. They didn't succeed. (I'm not a republican btw, this isn't a diss on Obama).

Even the power of hierarchy of information can allow people to vote effectively.

Is this saving the world?

No.

Clear voting stations aren't the best thing since Jesus in saving our souls, but they are still important. 

 

5. Mad Men

If we didn't have Commercial Art, Mad Men wouldn't exist and I really liked that show. 

----- 

Jennifer Daniel did something really important. I believe she was personally touched by some of these things and needed to express herself.

I don't think she wanted to make underselling design cool, but I'm afraid this could be the aftermath. 

Pointing out the problem our industry has with overselling and under delivering is of massive importance.

I hope this article is part of the solution to this problem.

Conclusion: Please don't let anti-selling, under valuing and self deprecation of our practice to become cool in our industry. The rest of society doesn't need your help, they can do that all on their own. That is all.

 

P.s. I know I don't personally know you IRL JD but I send much love you to you via the cyber web. I hope you don't feel this is in any way an attack.

 

P.S.S. Sorry for calling you JD

 

P.S.S.S. I don't know if it's p.p.s or p.s.s. And I'm too lazy to look up the answer, so sorry again. 

 

 

Maybe on the coasts, in the social circles of the middle and upper class, we need to knock design and creativity down a peg or two. BUT please, please do not stop selling creativity.

 

So whether this was a call to stop the selling of design or not. I'm taking it as a call to sell design and creativity more honestly, and therefore more effectively.

In my eyes the overselling of design is mostly wrong in the sense that dishonest salesmanship is just bad sales. If you want to sell something successfully in the long run it's more important to be honest and really believe in what you're selling and what you're saying.

So here it is: my sales pitch for design and commercial art.

5 Powerful and Important things Commercial Art Really can Do for Business and the World

 

1. It CAN (Help) Save the World (Or Destroy it, Depending on What Your Organization Does)

Branding and design did play a role, albeit small, in helping charity:water become a charitable sensation, bringing clean water to thousands of people and saving lives. Charity:water says design played a big part in this. Design may not be able to save the world, but it can play it's part, just as any respectable industry can.

Branding and design and creativity also played a large role in Hitler's Nazi campaign.

JD is right, design is neutral. It depends on what you do with it. But that doesn't mean that it's not incredibly powerful.

Let's continue to sell the good guys (who also have money to pay us) on the power of our work to persuade, inform and delight (Frank Chimero's words again).

 

2. It can Grab Attention

The world has become incredibly noisy. I know this isn't news.

BUT maybe the only force in the world  powerful enough to cut through this noise is creativity.

To put it simply. A tasty looking illustration will get more engagement on Facebook for your business.

A tasty looking brand campaign or poster has the power to create more awareness for your Presidential campaign. (Thanks Obama)

This is powerful stuff.

 

3. It Can Restore, Recycle and Refresh

A clean can of paint in a fresh color made my old broken down shed look brand new.

Branding, creativity and design can refresh your business, your town, your clothing.

In a world covered in waste, choking on it's own junk, design and innovation can help us creatively breath new life into old resources.

On a deeper level, there are designers working on brands that help consumers embrace cleaner fuel solutions.

Did I mention my shed looks really good right now? Amazing what color can do.

We almost trashed that thing.

Also, making our world more beautiful isn't saving it, but it's still a good thing. It's still a human thing.

 

4. It Can Bring Clarity

Writer and brand expert Donald Miller says people don't buy the best product, they buy the product they understand. 

Apple products aren't always the most powerful machines, but they are often the easiest understand and use. 

Need another example? 

The designers of the healthcare.gov website had the opportunity to make getting healthcare an easy experience. They didn't succeed. (I'm not a republican btw, this isn't a diss on Obama).

Even the power of heirachy of information can allow people to vote effectively.

Is this saving the world?

No.

Clear voting stations aren't the best thing since Jesus in saving our souls, but they are still important. 

 

5. Mad Men

If we didn't have Commercial Art Mad Men wouldn't exist and I really liked that show. 

----- 

Jennifer Daniel did something really important. I believe she was personally touched by some of these things and needed to express herself.

I don't think she wanted to make underselling design cool, but I'm afraid this could be the aftermath. 

Pointing out the problem our industry has with over selling and under delivering is of massive importance.

I hope this article is part of the solution to this problem.

Conclusion: Please don't let anti-selling, under valuing and self deprecation of our practice to become cool in our industry. The rest of society doesn't need your help, they can do that all on their own.

That is all.

P.s. I know I don't personally know you IRL JD but I send much love you to you via the cyber web. I hope you don't feel this is in any way an attack.

 

P.S.S. Sorry for calling you JD

 

P.S.S.S. I don't know if it's p.p.s or p.s.s. And I'm too lazy to look up the answer, so sorry again.