Clement Mok reckons design is in decline – and the unstoppable world of business is forcing it to become a commodity. His message is simple... Adapt, or die.

Clement Mok is a man who has been there, done that. His position as a design leader with opinions that count has been hard-won, and he has the battle scars to prove it.

Quietly spoken, Mok has a CV many would envy. He worked with Steve Jobs with the launch of the Apple Macintosh as part of Apple’s Creative Services. He built a design company from one person into a 140-employee firm in the form of Studio Archetype. He witnessed it get taken over by Sapient, where he was made chief creative officer looking after nearly 2,500 people.

He’s launched a stock library (www.visualsymbols.com), founded NetObjects Fusion, and was president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts – one of the world’s largest creative organizations – during 2001-2003.

So, when he says that design is dying, it’s worth paying attention.

“In the broadest sense, design is in decline if we continue to operate and conduct business in the same way,” he says. “It requires both a willingness and desire to make a change – sadly, not enough of us are doing significant work to demonstrate the alternative.”

The problem, reckons Mok, is that design is changing – and it’s no longer good enough to be a skilled artisan. Designers need to speak and understand business and management.

The trouble with design

And it gets worse: technology is bringing creative tools to the masses, driving designers out of business. Unless new areas to design and create for are found, says Mok, then design is in trouble: “Right now, designers aren’t in the driving seat,” he says.

Mok enjoys explaining how things could work – and he says that leadership skills are one of the key areas to work on.

“You can’t grow leadership in a very short period of time; you need to mentor people,” he says. “You can tell people how to do it, but until you practice it, you can’t really become a leader. What I learned training leaders in the design world, and training leaders in the business world, those things can only get you 60 per cent of the way, the other part is the ability to read people’s drivers and motivations, and figuring out how to address those issues. And this is actually very hard to do when things are moving so quickly.”

But can designers be leaders, or is their world one where they’re constantly chasing the brief?

“Absolutely,” he states. “There are different kinds of leadership, and we have to create a different currency about what leadership is about. This is about making decisions about efficiency, saving costs – those are valuable metrics, and those are measured by the financial market as a form of leadership, making the right choices.

“But, there are different kinds of decisions that are also about making the right choices, creating the right products, selecting and identifying the right market for those products, and developing communications that will engender product and audience loyalty,” he adds.

But designers today just aren’t comfortable with that kind of way of thinking – and here Mok gets animated: “We designers leave creative decisions up to people like the marketing folks; we're like, 'we're not really good at it, so we'll let someone else do it', and in a strange way we have relegated that responsibility as leaders. I do think we could do it, it's just that we don't seem to want to take the helm of something not obviously creative.”

The fact is, designers are their own worst enemies, says Mok.

“Some of us are trying to articulate the value of design to the business community, to people who spend money on design, but we say it in so many different ways and with all our biases that we actually confuse the people who utilize design,” laments Mok. “We’re saying stuff like ‘our flavour of design is much better than the other one’; or, ‘you don’t need an interactive designer – we can do it’; or, ‘we have a better methodology and process'. So, having been a client myself, and having firms to do the pitches, you’re like 'Oh no, no wonder they’re so confused.’”

Yet Mok is quick to point out this is more than simply being able to talk to a client in their language – it’s about getting designers and clients working together to develop new ways of being creative.

But first, says Mok, we need to break down the perceptions each group has of each other.

“I think the market is demanding this change, and I think if we don't then basically, it'll be total chaos,” warns Mok. “And we've seen total chaos: it’s grenades being lobbed, and the perception that the business guys are brain-dead and suck out all creativity the minute they walk into a room. And, on the flip side, they think that creative people have no accountability and no responsibility.

“At the end of the day, design is about creative problem solving, whether you’re an executive, or a designer, or the accountant. It’s about creative problem solving,” he says.

Design as a commodity

But the overwhelming driver for change is that design itself has become a commodity, Mok feels, and that’s something the business world understands all too well. And this is especially true when designing products, which Mok hails as the area of growth for the future.

Mok says that at the start of a project’s lifecycle, the actual widget – the designed element – is what has the value. People think it’s cool, and will buy the product. But, as it gets easier to make, the value shifts from the creativity – or the what part – to how the product is made.

“Over time, the what part becomes a commodity,” says Mok. “The ability to make a Web site is much cheaper now than three years ago, for example, and the ability to make brochures and annual reports has gotten cheaper over the years.

“So, look at cars, or building software, or whatever, and the how you go about making the thing is what is generating the value,” Mok adds. “But, disastrously, this process is something that designers are saying ‘we don't even want to talk about the process, and why do you even want to value that? You know, I just make up the process in the shower.’ And that's just ignoring the other half of the cup. Yes, it's important to value what we create, but we need to value the invention and new ways of making things. And, as a profession, we have not done a very good job.”

Mok is no doom monger – and even though he sees design being relentlessly commoditized – he is optimistic about the potential opportunity.

“I think it will continue to be commoditized, and there will be those who understand that it has been commoditized, and they need to reinvent new services and new offerings. Those people are going to be thriving and do really, really well,” predicts Mok.

“But, by and large, the training that is coming out of schools is creating wonderful crafts people who can do some amazing stuff, but it will not be valued in the same way as the previous generation has valued craft.”

Taking on technology

So, reckons Mok, if you can’t beat technological change, you might as well join it: “If you think about all the new technology that is coming, things that are being enabled by technology – well, someone’s got to design it,” he says. “At the moment, the engineers come up with the stuff, and the designers just aren’t there to pick up the slack, so the engineer thinks, ‘well, I’ll just design it myself’. And it’s terrible.

“We’re not putting ourselves in a position where technology is being invented and we’re there to design it. So, it’s a really huge problem, but those are the opportunities. For example, in bio-tech, people are trying to image genetic code, but there are no designers in this field. And this is a huge, booming economy. The whole area of digital security – how do you design these things for consumers and imbue a level of trust? It’s a job for designers!”

The choice is stark for Mok: “There are many problems and challenges that need to be solved and designed. We can either sit back or take an active role. It’s the job of a designer to be optimistic. If we don’t, no-one else will.”