Lipman: How the Internet Ruined Design…

You Say Everyone’s Creative? How The Internet Ruined Design…
…And What Designers Can Do to Save It


By Gregg Lipman, managing partner for CBX, an independent brand strategy and design agency, offering branding, innovation, packaging and design services. Founded in 2003, the agency currently employs 85 thinkers, creators, planners and producers at its New York City headquarters and Minneapolis offices. 

Every designer knows that “creativity” is more accessible than ever, thanks to platforms like Pinterest, SnapChat and TikTok, along with tools like Canva. On Instagram, everyone can appear to be a great photographer. But what separates the amateur from the professional? How does our craft of professional design retain its value?

A few years ago, a CPG client asked to do more collaborative creative development with our agency’s design team. Granted, most clients want to participate in creative development. But what I found notable was their rationale: given the rise of online design tools, “…we are all creative now!” As they say in Latin, ‘Oy vay’!  I’ve got two acoustic guitars in my basement and trust me, that does not make me Eric Clapton.

The irony is – many marketers have rejected perfection as a goal; believing that it’s better for a product’s look and feel to be authentic and natural. Meanwhile, the Internet has given non-designers the tools to make their creative work “perfect.” An example: we chose a photographer to develop art for the Optika retail brand.  He had found a ‘one-of-a-kind’ Japanese printing device that output distorted imagery. He had spent months mastering the technique of manipulating images in that style.  Today, laypeople can use hundreds of Photo Shop filters that do the same thing, and these filters are used by seven-year-olds every day. Is there a difference between creation of imagery for a commercial purpose – and creativity for your own amusement? Everyone has a camera in their iPhone, but we recognize the skills that professional photographers develop. So why should designers be concerned? Because thanks to the ubiquity of design tools, we’ve commoditized the profession of design. By definition, if design is a commodity, it decreases in value.

As professional designers, our creative output has a job to do that’s more rigorous than making friends or grandma giggle.  Our creative output has to work – to have marketing impact; to communicate brand characteristics; to create equity for the brand; and ultimately, to sell.

Even the ‘social’ part of social media technologies has a commoditizing effect on design.  Clients used to say they wanted a design project to feel ‘fresh’ – today, you can Google “fresh” and the algorithms will show you what people think ‘fresh looks like. When we can view thousands of inputs that relate to a particular mood or category, we’re being drawn into a sea of sameness.  Cliches are effective.  It’s why they’re cliches: images so well understood they’re idiot-proof.  Designers know that we have to go one step deeper. Our challenge: manipulate that cliché so it’s both understandable and unique.

In our work at CBX, we’re in search of the idea – the concept behind the design that registers in the hearts and minds of our audience. Consider what it took for our agency to redesign J.M. Smucker Co’s corporate identity and logo. Our process involved months of client interaction and contributions from 17 staff members. Sure, your nephew can design a logo with crayons. But a professional has to do that at a high level and do it every time, reflecting an understanding of the perspective, psychology and behavioral dynamics of consumers. Laymen pick the color they like. Designers pick the color palette that will endear their client’s product and brand to a specific audience.

And amateurs play with tools they are given.  Apps give them what they want: an endless supply of filters and type choices. So while everyone may think they are designers, they are not. Designer’s design-think. We are left brainers and right brainers. We seek historical perspective.  We understand the psychology of behaviors. And our success is measured on results we deliver to clients.

Design is not a deliverable.  It’s a process, unique to each of us. It is a craft.

So the technology of design apps will continue to evolve. Maybe that just makes the bar for us all as professional designers higher.  In the meantime, I’ll keep strumming that guitar at home to my audience of one…my dog, Levi. To him, I just may be Eric Clapton!