Way back in 1990, before anyone had heard of the world wide web or multiple master fonts, I was enrolled in a program at the local community college called Desktop Publishing. In the class were a number of secretaries and recently laid-off businessmen who hoped to add one more skill to their resume. My fellow students cared not for design, they only wanted to learn the software they needed to get a higher paying job. In 1990, anyone with the know how to do desktop publishing was in demand (that is why I was there after all).
I didn't come to the class wide eyed and thinking that software was the answer to my financial plight. I had already taken a number of design classes in high school and college and knew the value of good design. Yet with all the extravagance of a community college trying to provide a program to meet the demand, the DTP certificate was given to students without the slightest scrap of design schooling. There I was at the ground floor of what is still eating at the graphic design profession.
After the introduction of Desktop publishing, it became possible for anyone with a computer to set up a grid and design a traditional magazine, newsletter or brochure. You could spend $500 on the top of the line software, or get by with the $99 discount package. In addition to ten-key typing and filing, the office manager of the '90s was asked to design the company newsletter and learn about printing. Software and paper companies advertised that with their product anyone could be a professional 'desktop publisher'. The power of Gutenburg's press was thrust into the hands of the masses, it was time to rejoice!
Unless you were a graphic designer.
The DTP revolution caught the design industry with its collective pants down. Many designers refused to do any work on the computer, while the DTP train was rolling over the typesetters and print shops that designers depended on. No longer was it good enough that you could design a magazine like Time or Newsweek, software programs had templates that would allow the client's mother to layout these magazines.
The graphic design industry had to do something to justify itself to a penny-pinching corporate world. Many designers pushed, pulled and explored until they found that personal tastes and ideas could fit into design and make it different from all the DTPers who did not have any artistic ability. The rules we had all spent years applying were now thrown out in favor of breaking everything as long as the design looked 'right'.
Now it was time for designers to rejoice. Once again we were needed and our clients who had hired the DTP skilled receptionist found that their image was tarnished by a lack of professional design. Companies needed to look professional, and asked designers to do their stuff, and make things better. We all loved it and our design, with healthy heapings of personal expression, were winning awards left and right.
As design magazines and contests increasingly placed the spotlight on designers who brought their own agenda and style into their design work, a generation of new designers came into the profession thinking that this was the way things worked. Every young designer wanted to be the next Neville Brody or David Carson. They wanted the rapid rise to success, and the awe of their peers. They saw the work of 'cutting edge' designers and they emulated it, without thinking whether it was best for the project on hand. The personal creativity added to projects was not design in its true form, it was art.
Many young designers were too quick to embrace the extreme, without looking at the needs of the project. With the costs of printing dropping, and the almost zero cost of setting up a web site, young designers have nothing to hold them back. This post-DTP generation has little respect for the basic elements of design. They just want to hype their own work, and reap the benefits.
Not too many years ago graphic designers practiced design, implying that there was always something to learn. Designers worked hard to apply their skill to presenting a client's message in a design that filled the needs of the message. One would not see the excesses and illegibility of today's design ever getting to the printer. A designer constantly tried to learn more about the elements of design so that they could apply them for the benefit of the client.
Gone are the days of working into your profession. Today's designers no longer mentor for a few years before being handed the work of a major client. They exit college and go to work for a local service bureau to learn the software and make some connections. If they are lucky they will get a few months experience with various temp jobs, but eventually all of them end up wanting to do personal work for a client who really needs good design.
Today's post-DTP generation of designers do not practice design, they 'do' design. They treat it like the video games that they grew up with, as something to master, with a pin on one's chest to say "I know all there is to know." They pick up books filled with four-color images of 'cutting edge' design and pick and choose what to add to their own style. This generation is not about following the principles of any design movement, they are about riding along the cutting edge, right behind the designers who define it. When was the last time you saw a young designer do a web site based on a grid?
There will be a backlash against the current work of the post-DTP generation. Companies are not going to want their annual reports to be the personal gallery of some designer's PhotoShop explorations. Firms are not going to hire designers to create a web site that take minutes to download and requires every possible plug-in to view. As Steven Heller wrote in his essay 'The Cult of the Ugly:' "Experimentation is the engine of progress, its fuel a mixture of instinct, intelligence, and discipline. But the engine floods when too much instinct and not enough intelligence or discipline is in the mix."
In the case of many post-DTP generation designers, their mixture is lacking in intelligence and discipline, their instinct is based on what to emulate, and not when to innovate. The fuel that drives their engine of design will one day run out, and the designer will be left stranded on the side of the road. Their constant practice of pushing the envelope and going to the edge will take its toll on the traditional design skills that they should have been perfecting.
What will happen to these designers when the path they have chosen leads them into a blind canyon? With luck they will be able to remember the skills that their design instructors taught them and will start providing design that meets the clients' needs, and not their own. As for the young designers who are not able to adapt, or too stubborn to realize that their work was more art than design, I would like a double espresso to go.