How to get ahead in design

As trends in design go, one of the more under-reported is that of advertising agencies clawing their way into the industry, but is is happening. Advertising agencies, large and small, are increasingly positioning themselves as one-stop visual communication shops.

One one level it's just plain amusing - most people would be hard professed to think of a 'profession' which regards itself more preciously than design. Other than advertising, that is.

Advertising agencies are, it must be admitted, well placed to move into design. After all, they have the client relationships and they have strong creative teams. They have the staff, they have the technology. Hell, they even know what design is for and have a few Macs knocking about the place.

Such Cargo Cult attitudes to design are nothing new. Newspapers and printing companies have been knocking out 'design' work ever since the first Macs landed on their desks in the late 1980s, exploiting underpaid, under-motivated and often poorly trained staff. This has never been seen as a real threat by anyone in the lofty heights of the design industry.

Nor has the phenomena of spotty teenage nephews equipped with a cracked copy of Photoshop - the industry always knew that the clients that didn't take design seriously weren't worth having.

What is different this time is that advertising agencies are potentially a serious competitor to design firms. They have already proven the value of their two-person creative team methodology and they aren't just a bunch of amateurs with some raw, but poorly focussed, talent.

The question must be asked, though: why are these multi-billion dollar corporations set on slumming it with graphic designers? Surely it's not for any love of the work at the coal face of visual communication.

Well, there are two reasons, both of which come down to simple economics:

First of all, the majority of purchasing decisions, particularly for less expensive items, continue to be made at the actual point of purchase and such decisions are of course influenced by packaging.

Secondly, there is an increasing sense of fear, misplaced in my not particularly humble opinion, that in today's world advertising doesn't work. Advertising works as well and as little as it ever did. Concerns about its viability are, if not as old as the hills at least as old as the computer on which I am writing this. The American retail tycoon John Wanamaker famously quipped: "I know that half of my advertising is working - I just don't know which."

In short, money is scare and design has enough cool - and economic import - to have attracted the attention of these people who are renowned for their ability to sniff the pound coins out of clients' pockets at a hundred paces.

But is it worth getting worked up about? Probably not. The truth is, though, as self-regarding as the design industry is, it does do an excellent job. If you want the best design you go to a designer - it really is as simple as that. Even if an advertising agency does step up to the plate with quality creative work, that industry better known for the three Martini lunch than for delivering value for money.

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