The threatening but beautiful democratization of design
by Tobias van Schneider
Designers notoriously don’t know what they want. On one hand, we want everyone to understand, appreciate and practice design. On the other, we’re masters in gatekeeping and protecting our trade.
Over the past ten years, design, as an industry and a craft, has gained the recognition it has always been asking for.
Graphic designers have leveled up from "digital artisans" to leaders of successful tech companies. Design, with a capital D, is about more than how it looks, but how it works.
Companies like Apple put Design on the map by embedding it deeply into their product and marketing strategy. "Designing" a business and product experience was once the differentiator. Now it’s expected.
As more companies adopted this approach, the design industry struggled with its newfound attention.
Design-driven became a hip keyword. It was plastered all over our Keynote presentations, meetings and marketing slogans. But it didn't mean anything. Designers vyed for a seat at the table, but didn’t know what to do when we got it. When we finally had the spotlight on us, we forgot our lines, froze on stage.
Over time, though, we got better. We learned to speak the language of business. We infiltrated the largest companies and started many of our own. We navigated the politics and found that seat at the table – at the head of the table, no less.
In our new world, we have both Design, as a philosophy, and design, the execution. We're both thinkers and creators. Design thinking brought a thoughtful process into every aspect of a business, while design as the craft supported it with the technical implementation.
We finally got what we wanted: The democratization of design. But it hasn't quite looked the way we imagined it to.
The democratization of design came in two phases:
1. Design thinking became the new standard. Today, good design is the expectation. We no longer argue the benefits of design, because they’re a given. Many companies might not understand exactly what design is, or what exactly they need, but they still rush to bring designers to the table as early as possible.
2. The demand for design as a service has grown more than ever. Perhaps this came from a deeper understanding of "design thinking,” or simply because we raised our base standard for aesthetics.
"When we can get someone on Fiverr to design our branding for a hundred bucks, why pay thousands of dollars for an expert to spend five weeks doing it?"
Design is now everywhere. We design systems to make design more approachable and affordable for non-designers. We’ve standardized the “craft” of design with new systems, and a new creative class was born on the groundwork we've been laying for years. We’ve worked to educate everyone in our company, from the engineers, the office manager to the salesperson, to become designers themselves. (Because the whole thing with "design thinking" is that it’s supposed to be everybody's business, right?) Both Design and design are now embraced by everyone – not just designers.
But this is where it gets tricky. Because when everyone's a designer, who's a designer?
Our modern design tools signal this new reality:
Canva is one of the largest graphic design platforms, yet most traditional graphic designers haven't heard about it.
Fiverr (perhaps the truest form of design's democratization) is one of the largest creative market places in existence, but anyone with respect for design doesn't approve of it.
Figma is a free design tool in the browser that enables everyone on every computer in any country to start designing, all barriers removed.
Design Pickle (a regrettable name) is similar to Fiverr but helps you find more dedicated designers at a low monthly cost. It's another way of making design more approachable, more affordable for those who may have considered it a luxury before.
Carbonmade (my own company) is a portfolio platform that makes it dead easy for any creative person to design their own website. It's for people who enjoy and appreciate design, but aren't necessarily designers themselves.
And it’s here we see how the democratization of design is a double-edged sword.
The more people with access to design, the more opportunities for everyone. Yet if everybody has access to design, we're making ourselves obsolete as designers. And while the bar has been raised for good design, we’ve simultaneously lowered the value of it.
When we can get someone on Fiverr to design our branding for a hundred bucks, why pay thousands of dollars for an expert to spend five weeks doing it? Why invest the time, money and effort in becoming the best at your craft?
Yet herein lies the beauty as well.
Before we had a 1,000 companies that wanted design, and only 100 who could afford it. Now we have 1 million companies that want design, and 800,000 who can afford it. And there are hordes of designers who want the job.
As we've found a seat at the table, the table has grown. There's still room for everyone; the client who hires on Fiverr or uses Canva isn't going to hire you anyway. And that Fiverr project is their entry point to design. Ultimately they will level up and hire you, but they never would have done it without getting a taste of it somewhere else first.
The democratization of design is threatening only to those who stand still. But it is beautiful for the rest of us who keep pushing forward.