So you want to be a graphic designer in 2043?

So you want to be a graphic designer in 2043?


The next 25 years in graphic design through the lens of the last 25

25 years ago — in 1993 — I’m a junior majoring in graphic design at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, 7 miles from my family home. Pet Shop Boys and the Artist Formerly Known as Prince {  O(+>  } provide the soundtrack as I set up my desk in the stat room next to the window. This is a good time to be in art school. I’m honing my skills on soon-to-be obsolete tools of the trade: stat camera, Pantone paper, Phil’s Photo and a two-color Xerox machine that you could jam just about any paper through. I’m also discovering the latest in design technology — the Macintosh Quadra in the computer lab, replete with QuarkXPress, Photoshop, Illustrator and about a dozen fonts.

Four years from now I’ll meet my wife and partner, Dawn. Ten years from now we’ll start Toolbox Creative.

It’s hard to comprehend 1993 as a quarter century ago. It’s even harder to imagine 25 years from now will be 2043.

So what will the graphic designer of 2043 look like, and how can today’s design student successfully navigate the next 25 years in our industry?

Here are my thoughts:

Some things never change

It’s comforting to me as I’m looking back, looking ahead and feeling really old, to realize that most of the underlying principles of the job have not fundamentally changed — and I don’t think they will in the future.

Designers are communicators

In 1993, the hot descriptor for design shops was the word communications. My first job as a designer was at Wolfinger Cerminaro Communications — and that’s just what we did. That’s what designers always have and always will do: communicate. Designers craft clear, concise pieces of communication. Communication is what we do, but it’s equally critical to how we do what we do. Designers ask great questions, challenge understood norms, look at things from multiple perspectives and present a clear point of view.

Commercial art

That term was already out of fashion in 1993. But in a lot of ways, it’s the most accurate way to describe what we do. I love my fine artist friends, and they are in a tough industry, for sure – but I will argue to anyone, anywhere that graphic design and illustration is a bigger challenge, precisely because it is commercial art.

We need to channel our muse, perform our magic and birth something beautiful, just as fine artists do. It’s just not our baby.

If you can’t embrace – and love – the fact that we spend our careers articulating someone else’s vision and helping them achieve their goals, then you’re not a designer, you’re a fine artist.

The client’s always right, except when they’re not

Put any two designers in a room together and you’re guaranteed to hear some client war stories. We once had a client want their logo so big it no longer fit on the piece. We had another client tell us we could do anything we wanted for her book cover, as long as it had a purple tiger on it. I could go on.

The space between what a client wants and what the designer knows to be best is where all the money is earned in our business.

It’s a lot of fun to complain, but for our industry to be sustainable, designers must find the right clients and vice-versa. For the most part, when the client’s not right, they’re not the right client. The designer’s primary value will always be in our ability to dig deeply into what a client wants in order to discover what they need.

The world will always need clarity and beauty

Designers distill. Designers are editors. As long as there are people making things more complicated than they need to be, the world will need designers to turn complex thinking into compelling concepts. As humans, we will always crave beauty and order. Designers bring beauty and order to everything they touch.

Some things will definitely change

In 1993 I likely would have done a lousy job predicting the future. I doubt I’ve gotten any better at it, but here goes:

Design as a commodity will collapse

The single biggest challenge our industry faces today is the commoditization of design. Toilet paper is a commodity. Nails are a commodity. Nails can only get so cheap because you can only pay so little for materials and labor. Some designers will work for nothing, and when the floor is set at zero dollars, it can’t go any lower. This inequity will naturally correct itself in the coming decade. The result will be more hobbyist designers, fewer professional designers, and a much clearer line between the two.

Design tools will be ubiquitous

In 1993, to select a font for a logo, I had to select one from Phil’s Photo, blow it up on the stat camera, X-Acto out the individual letters, kern them by hand, add any illustrative elements and then blow it down on the stat camera. The tools of the trade and the know-how to use them were rare and valuable. Today, everyone has access to all the tools they need to design anything they want. Nothing that we do has to cost anybody anything.

Access to and proficency in the tools of the trade will only increase. 

The designer’s value will continue to shift away from the tools they own and toward the process by which they use them.

In 2043, everyone will be able to design their own experiences, craft their own logos, build their own brands. Everyone will code as easily as speaking. We’ll be able to create something from nothing simply by thinking about it. Designers will be valued for how they think versus what they do.

The workforce will have been educated in design thinking

In 2043 we’ll have a workforce educated in design thinking and project-based learning since elementary school. This will likely result in fewer designers, but exponentially more people who think like designers — and that’s a good thing.

The social stature of the designer will rise

In 2043, world leaders will be graphic designers. Design thinking and creative problem-solving will be ingrained in how all businesses, institutions and governments operate. We like to think of designers as the rock stars of the business world, and our star will only rise in the years to come.

Designers will better understand and better sell their value

You can’t get a million cardiologists to compete to diagnose your heart condition for free, and then give a Starbucks gift card to the one you choose. Millions of designers currently operate this way, and that’s not sustainable. As the value of design thinking is more broadly embraced, designers will sell their services based on the value they create for clients and not the time it takes them to do their work.

The care and feeding of a graphic designer

The impetus for this article was an invitation to speak with a class of designers in Denver. I was asked to show some work, talk about what I do and take some questions. Personally, and as a designer, I’m much more inclined to think ahead than to look back. In general, designers take too little time to reflect on past work and experiences. It’s been a trip to look so far back and project so far ahead.

As I write this, I’m at my standup desk, next to the window in my office. I’m listening to Pet Shop Boys, and they’re telling me everything will be just fine.

About Toolbox Creative:
Toolbox Creative offers a powerful engine to grow technology brands and take on the big players in the field. We help innovative technology companies look and sound as good as they truly are, increasing brand equity, boosting media buzz and making the most of marketing dollars.