The Uberization of Graphic Design

Removing the Friction between Designers and Clients

We once believed the Creative Services industry was secure from the innovations of Silicon Valley. We saw inklings of attempts to breach our ramparts a decade ago– crowd-sourcing, AI, machine-learning. We dismissed each venture with confidence that professionalism would prevail. A lot of good that did!

Many services that once seemed secure and unpenetrable are being disrupted through technology. Think of real estate (Redfin), the hotel industry (Airbnb), Taxi/Livery (Uber/Lyft), Banking (Square). 

Now the impenetrable walls of design have been breached by the likes of Fiverr, Upworks, Konsus, Squarespace and the list goes on and on. Each venture is quickly solving some of the key customer pain points we avoided for years– because we were united. Like refusing to show work ahead of being paid for it. Or refusing to post our fees online, until a conversation occurred. Or using proprietary tools and techniques that were too expensive for a freelancer or novice. It is apparent that the traditional agency way of life is endangered. As they come from every angle how will we win, or will we be forced to submit?

First let us understand what brought the disruption to our doors.

The Friction

Disruptors have focused on the friction between the designer and the design buyer. Until recently, customers were forced to submit to a long process which included an agency search, and RFQ process, interviews and proposal reviews in order to narrow down to a contract. For a first-time buyer, the process was even more mysterious and daunting.

The internet has trained all of us to shop more efficiently. Instead of driving around town to buy shoes, we narrow our search online. We use criteria important to us to find just what we need. Place it in the shopping cart, check out and it’s at our door in a matter of days. Immediate gratification. That’s what the new design customer is seeking. Here are a few pain points the disruptors are focusing on.

The Cost
I believe the number 1 if not number 2 anxiety producing mystery to design is ‘how much is this going to cost me?’ No respectable design firm ever publishes their design fees online. But the disruptors are doing this. Konsus touts “price-predictable” design that is fast and reliable. Prospects want to know how much it costs sooner than later so they don’t waste time. Like buying a car, design buyers want to narrow down their search to fit within their budget. And because designers can be found directly online, clients can overpass traditional agency relationships and fees. Freelance designers are able to connect directly via Behance and Dribble and remove the costly overhead competing for head to head with large agencies.

I heard a vlog discuss the difference in buying a logo from a design firm that charges $500K vs. a designer charging $1500 is the value of safety. The design firm has an established track record, a process to vet and the support system to roll it out to all touchpoints. They defend their pricing as a safety measure since the cost of failure could affect 1000’s of touchpoints from signs, to the product, apparel. But the reality is that most of the available pie for designers are small to mid-size companies. A small or young business can afford a $1500 logo and if it fails– buy another. It was only $1500! 

The Obstinance! 
Designers can be obstinant and elitist. They can come off as holier than thou and condescending. They preach about the value of design, the importance of process, their expertise, their value. Those that will survive are revealing the secrets of our trade and offering advice through webinars and free downloads. They are embracing open-source and even helping their competition succeed.

The Time 
Clients don’t like to wait. In an age of 2-day shipping and immediate gratification, most buyers don’t understand why they can’t have a solution quick. So companies like design a logo as you fill out a survey on your business and preferences. Within 5 minutes I was shown dozens of options with it mocked up on signs, business cards, t-shirts, and for $90, I’d have full ownership, a social media kit, business cards and all files! Well, an obstinant designer will tell you, “you get what you pay for!” A client might say, this looks believable, I think it’ll work!

How does it measure up?
With Social Media Campaigns it is much easier to track the ROI for a specific ad. Brands can watch their influence grow and their revenues increase with each click-through. This is changing the long-term approach to branding to be more reactive and pragmatic. The problem is that clients expect analytics on everything already. While data is great to have and can help confirm a decision or success of a campaign or a message– for branding and strategy it is more challenging. For a long-term solution (like a brand) you must rely on faith-based in intuition and the vision to make it succeed. The short-term approach is, ‘Well, let’s see if this sticks. If not, we’ll try something different.’ That doesn’t speak to confidence. 

Bye Bye Barriers

We used to have security thanks to expensive design tools that only an agency could afford. You had to work with an agency that had bought licenses for expensive and well-designed typography. They had licenses and trained professionals in Adobe applications. They had reliable connections to printers, programmers and fabricators.

Now all those expensive tools are available to the masses online. Google Fonts offers 915 open-source font families for free use online or in print. Imagery is easy to come by for free at Unsplash or at a small fee at Shutterstock. Design templates can be bought for dollars at Creative Market. Anyone can design a website using Squarespace, Wix, and even within these sites have logos made using free tools. If you browse the App Store you will find 1000s of photo retouching apps that remove the need for photo retouchers. If you want something printed, you can have it on-demand with services like Moo, Printify, etc.

Even design school has been democratized! You once needed a degree from an art school in order to get a career in design. Now you can take classes online through General Assembly and build a portfolio at a fraction of the cost and time it once took. Tutorials abound on Youtube, Skillshare, training anyone to be a better illustrator, lettering artist, UX designer, etc.

The Good News for Designers

Don’t get me wrong, not everything is bad. There is a way to work the system. Many designers and firms are figuring out how to survive the new normal. If we don’t adapt, we die. So listen up.

Making money while we sleep
Every design firm has attempted to make its own product. It was an expensive bet to invest in producing inventory and marketing it to sell. Now services like Society 6 and Threadless are using on-demand print technology to provide creatives an online store-front to share their wares. Other sites like Creative Market allow creatives to sell their typography, templates, paint brushes and more to the creative community. This circle is helping creatives deliver quicker and support one another. While having tools to enable passive income streams is great, there are downsides. You do sacrifice more of your profits to these sites. It is also hard to manage the customer service experience because it is mostly out of your hands. The quality of the product is also questionable and can be inconsistent.

Working virtually anywhere
Thanks to Slack, Zoom, and other teleconferencing tools we can now work together from virtually anywhere. This is allowing agencies to hire cheaper talent across the country (and the world). This enables freelancers to travel or move wherever they desire. 

Agencies are being forced to trim corners including that corner office and the ping pong table. Co-working is allowing agencies to either sublet their space through sites like LiquidSpace, or downsize to places like WeWork. Coworking spaces provide camaraderie, stocked kitchens, kombucha on tap and that ping pong table you had to sell (maybe they bought yours!).

Build a better mousetrap
Find the companies that will value your work and pay a premium by targeting with better SEO and promotions. Automate your intake process and streamline the time it takes. This can also filter out the riffraff and save time on the courtship. Consider putting your pricing structure out there to mitigate the sticker shock and set expectations up front.

If you can’t beat ’em, build them
And if all else fails, your best bet might be to go back to school in AI, robotics and machine learning. Create the next AI disruptor service to knock out all these– The magical design button. The one that clients have imagined existed, but we always rolled our eyes about. The magical button you press that immediately makes all their changes and gives them what they asked for- “a bigger logo!”