Relevancy of design. Part I: Roles and skills

A Four Part Series. Part I How many designers have returned to the office from a meeting with the deflated statement, “Everyone in the room was a designer”? And how many times have designers heard from clients, “Design is fun”? Yes, design is fun. Design also entails hard work and late nights, and more often than not, it is practiced by well-educated, passionate professionals.These professionals love and live design in everything they do. It’s fun, it’s difficult, it’s satisfying and its relevancy is threatened by the unskilled professional and human-centered design being misused by corporations. For the field of design to remain relevant and valuable in the next decade, it must develop a standard of expected skills and roles, consistent design language, code of ethics and produce well-rounded intellects and talent from undergraduate design programs.

June 7, 2022


Design education

Relevancy of design. Part I: Roles and skills

The goal of this paper is to present the major threats to the field of graphic design, as well as to recommend solutions to remain relevant into the future. Graphic design will be referred to as “design” and be defined as: the mediation between people and activities through visuals, audio and experiences; the making of complex information manageable; a form of non-personal communication that is meant to fulfill a predetermined objective; and a focus on audience behaviors over artifacts.


Currently designers are sandwiched between two threats to their relevancy—the unskilled professional and the misuse of human-centered design by corporations. The unskilled professional perpetuates the myth that we are all designers. These are the curators of content, the DIY crafters and the web template downloader. The curator posts a provided image on Facebook and calls it design. The crafter selects a wedding invitation and calls it design. The template downloader selects a WordPress theme and calls it design. Design critic Steven Heller said, “People should not think they are designers because they can fiddle with type on a computer template. If people start thinking that graphic design is as easy as One, Two, Three, it will diminish designers’ authority and clients’ respect” (Lupton). The crafter does no harm and could be compared to the amateur weekend painter who poses no threat to fine art. The unskilled professionals, on the other hand, create a threat to the field of design through their speed over craft, quantity over quality and inflated self-determined level of expertise.

The second threat to the relevancy of design is the appropriation of the design process and principles by corporations who are currently prophesying human-centered design. The misuse of human-centered design by corporations as a new, easily obtained skill undermines the history, professionalism and intense study of the design field. IDEO, a global design and innovation company, defines human-centered design as “…a process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor-made to suit their needs” (“What is Human-Centered Design?”). Widely read business books such as Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All outline the design process as a recent discovery, that anyone can do and obtain in the seven hours of the Creative Confidence audio book ignoring design history and education (Kelley). Design theorist Jessica Helfand flippantly questions if, “There may, at one time, have been a design predisposition against humans” (Helfand 150). Megg’s History of Graphic Design suggests that human-centered design can be traced back to illuminated manuscripts as most were made “small enough to fit into a saddlebag. This portability enabled the transmission of knowledge and ideas from one region to another” (Meggs 43). This may be a simplified version of human-centered design, but it still fits within the common definition—“solutions that are tailor-made to suit their [user] needs”—and confirms that designing with the user in mind is not new.

Human-centered design misunderstood or misused by corporations could reduce the designer’s role as projects will be designed exclusively by the user through research. Human-centered design is sometimes misused in the corporate world as a research based approach replacement to creativity. For example, Google has begun a new effort called “human-centered machine learning”— using machines to create algorithms that are human-centered. According to The Creative Group’s 2018 Salary Guide, the top 5 “Hot Jobs” in the creative field range from content strategist to marketing analytics manager with no reference to design (“The 2018 Salary Guide” 10). These approaches could minimize the designer’s relevancy through the reduction of creative thinking and the rejection of new ideas guided by research—not exclusively based on research. If the creation of something new is removed from the definition of human-centered design, then what is the role of the designer? Don Norman stated in his essay, Human-Centered Design Considered Harmful, “What is needed is a strong, authoritative designer who can examine the suggestions and evaluate them in terms of the requirements of the activity” (Norman). Designers should listen, question and walk in the shoes of the user utilizing human-centered design theories as a guide, but they also need to anticipate future needs using their creativity, intelligence and years of experience. Defining the roles and skills of the designer in the design process and their relationship to peers, clients and users, will differentiate design from a corporate version of design and secure design’s relevancy into the future.


Defining roles and skills in the design field will set expectations for hiring and creating interdisciplinary teams while also setting design apart from the unskilled professional and the misuse of human-centered design by corporations. The roles and skills of the designer change from project to project and client to client. In recent years, the titles associated with these roles and skills have become ambiguous creating credibility concerns. In the past, skills and experience were indicated by an earned title. For example, the title of creative director should be associated with leadership, expertise and longevity. The title is currently used for a wide range of experience to inexperienced skill sets. Industry confusion is increased by expectations of the designer to have multiple interdisciplinary skills that can range from highly technical to artisan. From The Creative Group’s 2018 Salary Guide, “…managers also want to hire employees who can do it all—that is, perform multiple jobs. The odds of finding these individuals in the current employment market, however, are not in their favor” (“The 2018 Salary Guide” 6). Furthermore, designers are expected to partner with their clients, become experts in each client’s industry, as well as be able to conduct or interpret research. There is the newer field of user experience (UX) associated with design. There is no standard for the expectations of a UX professional. The typical UX employment listing contains an enormous amount of skill requirements—art to computer science—compared to the small amount of industry experience—two years. The inability to clarify roles, have realistic skill sets and have a standardized hierarchy of titles creates confusion in hiring and credibility issues within the industry and with clients.

When the design field was in the predicament of job skill and title evolution in the past, solutions were found. The introduction of the computer in the late 1980s changed the role of the designer, their relationship to printers and the expectations of clients. Prior to the introduction of the computer, printers handled much of the design production work. The printer and designer worked together to bring concepts to realization. The handcrafted and time consuming design work left the client out of most of the production process. After the introduction of the computer, the role of the printer was minimized, while the client’s access to the production process increased through ease and speed. Meredith Davis states in Graphic Design Theory that designers during this time period “gained complete authority over the technical and formal creation of published work” (Davis 208). Alternately, the designer was “stripped of the role of gatekeeper” and therefore “looked for ways to add value” by adding design strategy and branding to become an intricate part of business practice (Davis 209). IBM’s chief executive, Thomas J. Watson Jr.’s 1973 declaration of “Good design is good business” had finally come to fruition (“Good Design Is Good Business”). With these new roles and skill sets, many design firms altered their business models to specialize in corporate branding while others added branding to their skill set. These new roles and skills brought new titles (brand architects, brand strategist) as well as a new branding language (brand audit, brand guides). This time period exemplifies an era of new expectations, and skills associated with design that brought new titles, realistic roles and a language that added credibility to the design industry.

To create industry-wide job titles based on experience and skills earned, the industry will need to look backwards in order to move forward. There was a time when the title of production artist came with a certain expected skill level that eventually moved to graphic artist, to art director, and so on. There was also an understanding that designers who chose to stay in production were highly and specifically skilled and respected for their dedication to one portion of the process. Additionally, industry titles indicating longevity, such as art director and creative director, were associated with leadership, years of experience and climbing of the design professional ladder ( A standardization of specific skills associated with earned titles and a respect for specialization will help design stay relevant into the future, as well as the establishment of a design language that is distinct, consistent and accumulative.

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