The new Digital Media and the end of graphic design
More than ever before, businesses and groups need websites. For years, design agencies have been offering their services to web developers and their clients. So why is it, among this flurry of opportunity and activity, that the designers are going broke?
For several years now, graphic design agencies have been offering their services designing web pages, under the moniker of "digital media" or "digital marketing". But something is not right in the world of graphic design - small businesses seem to be doing most of their work for friends and family (for free), and even the larger, established companies are finding their revenue stream being progressively pinched off. It seems that something is changing in the world of digital media, and the graphic design business model is no longer viable.
I think the problem is caused by two, main factors. On the one hand, modern technology is reducing the perceived value of what graphic designers do. Today, schoolchildren can put a website together (really - it's part of the national curriculum!), and almost anyone can become a master Photoshopper, assembling spectacular images out of the least promising material. This is rather what happened to music production and distribution over the last ten years: now anyone can record and distribute a rock album (as good as a bought one) from their bedroom, and consequently the record industry (and all the related businesses) became virtually redundant. Graphic designers can still do a more "professional" job than their juvenile competition, but - unfortunately - neither their prospective clients, nor the visitors to their websites have the visual sophistication to notice the difference. Visual design has been "dumbed down".
The other factor is the nature of digital media itself. To trained, experienced, talented graphic designers, "media" means visuals. But other specialists regard "media" as something else: writers see it as writing, videographers see it as video, and so on. But, in the new digital age, "media" means all of these, and more: the digital revolution has driven the convergence of all these different media. Today, images, text, video, sound, gameplay, social interaction, e-commerce, and everything else all coexist in unified, integrated experiences. "Digital media" is becoming a much larger concept than it was, and both customers and users are developing the sophistication to embrace that. Specialist designers - whatever field they're working in - generally haven't got there yet.
Traditionally, creative effort, in graphics, in video, and in sound, has been based on the originator of a work taking control of the user's experience of it - graphic designers specify every aspect of the page or display surface, video artists fill a screen, musicians turn the volume up. But in today's multi-media fully-connected world, that control no longer exists. Where a graphic designer used to be able to control the shine on a piece of paper, now he can't even control the size of it. Where a musician used to be able to sound-engineer an entire concert hall, now he has to compete with all the other ringtones.
Today's digital media is a more fluid, more dynamic, and much more rapid animal. Today, text, graphics, video, sound, interaction, commerce, live content and technical analysis must co-exist in a seamless whole. Users won't wait five minutes for a beautiful piece of flash to download, unless there's something else worth watching in the meantime. Users don't care what visuals are on a website when they use robots to download podcasts - they care about the content of the podcast. And nobody cares what's on a website if they can't find what they want through the search engines. That's the challenge facing modern digital media - to step away from the traditional forms of separate media, to truly embrace the digital revolution, and to create unified, digital media experiences which change the perceptions of the people who experience it - wherever and however it's experienced.
That's why there's a new breed of digital media designers springing up. They're visually literate, just like the traditional graphic designers, but they're also successful at handling video and sound, and they understand how writing works. But more than any of those: they understand how to integrate them all - they understand the underlying technology and the overarching psychology of the web.
The Webgineers is a showcase for this new kind of design: it looks good, and while it's a comparatively sparse design, it is nevertheless characteristic and expressive (it's supposed to look industrial). You can look at that website on a modern web browser (at any screen size) and it loads in a moment. You can look at it on a TV, or on a phone, and it still works. You can't see the heavy-lifting going on behind the screen. You never even notice the flash loading. Within three weeks of launch, it was fully indexed by all the search engines, and it's got a strong presence in the blogsphere as well. The designers know, from the logs, that people are finding that site and spending time on it - and are converting: the psychology works. And that, fundamentally, is what matters: do people see the media, and do they walk away changed?
Now, I'm not suggesting that traditional graphics is dead. It's not, and there will always be a need and a place for great visual design. But what is changing is that, firstly, traditional forms of design (such as print and packaging) must co-exist with digital media (vide, for example, The Matrix, which integrated film with video games to create the overall experience), and secondly that digital media is itself an integrated and ubiquitous form, and is becoming much more so (most music and games sales are now made direct to phones). Those two observations mean that the nature of graphics, and the nature of digital media creation, are changing radically. The task facing today's design companies is to ride those trends into the future.
About the AuthorJules May is a director of The Webgineers, a digital media consultancy based in North Scotland. They can be contacted on +44 (0)1241 830679