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Purpose in Design

Graphic Design’. ‘Graphic Designers’. ‘Let’s get a designer’. What’s the first thing on people’s minds when they consider this? ‘Creative’? Likely. ‘Expensive’? Maybe. ‘Don’t they make easy money?’ Possibly. But do people really understand what is involved in the creative process? Does anyone ever understand what is involved in something when they’re not… well, involved in it? Some may feel that all a designer is, is someone who knows how to use the software and charges a rather inflated hourly rate to use it. And sometimes, this may certainly be the case – there are as many designers out there as there are designs, with varying degrees of quality and price tags. Give one design brief to 100 different designers and you will get 100 different results.

‘So, how much for a logo?’, a potential client might ask. ‘How long is a piece of string?’ may invoke a clearer answer… Whereas some logos just come together very quickly, with very little research and discussion, others require hours, days – or even weeks – of research and an equal amount of communication with the client. Hence, giving an accurate quote can be quite tricky, and time and budget needs to allow for ‘background work’. It’s like commissioning a painting from an artist – you don’t just pay for the hours they put into painting the actual finished article to put on your wall, you also pay for their lifetime of expertise, their style and technique which has developed over time. And with ever evolving technology, a designer needs to keep track of any new developments in software, as well as the increasing complexity of the web and other resources, to stay on top of the game.

Take agency fees versus freelance designer fees. Due to the amount of people involved as well as the reputation of the agency itself, the price tag will be substantial. You’ll have a Project Manager, a Client Relations person, and a team of designers, artworkers and possibly copywriters, proofreaders, web developers, animators etc. at your disposal – whatever you may need for your project. Many people have their say and many eyes will check progress and ensure quality. Freelance designers, on the other hand, are, well, only one person, possibly taking on a combination of the aforementioned tasks – and whatever they do not feel they can do themselves would need to be oursourced. With their own strengths and weaknesses, and of course fewer eyes to check progress, prices are much more affordable. Needless to say, agency clients and freelance designer clients are not the same animal. And although a lot of the time you certainly get what you pay for, that’s not to say that an agency will necessarily do a better job than an individual designer – there is more involved than manpower, resources and capabilities.

So how does someone who is just starting their own business, or someone wanting a rebrand, choose the agency or person who will be responsible for the look and feel of their business, and in some way, for part of its success? Although not the be-all-and-end-all, branding is an essential part of a business; it corresponds more than just a logo or style – it encompasses not just what the business is about, but (maybe even more so) the identity of the person(s) behind it. It’s called ‘corporate identity’ for a reason.

A portfolio, although being a good start and an important part of selling design services, is only a part of the equation. A portfolio shows a personal style, and even reputation. But even the best design means very little if the client doesn’t like it. Besides the fact that the design needs to have meaning to the client and be relevant to their business, the most important thing is for the client to have their needs met, their ideas understood – factors that go beyond training and creativity. Maybe they come across the most impressive portfolio ever, but if there’s something about the designer or agency that’s doesn’t quite feel right, they move on. So, what is this certain something, this je ne sais quoi? As author and inspirational speaker Simon Sinek argues, ‘People don’t buy what you do, people buy why you do it’. Why does someone become a designer? Because they want to make money? Or because they feel a passion for design, a deep desire to ‘visually communicate’ their ideas to people and help them correspond their passion, and put their heart and soul into it? This is about inspiration – money alone is just about motivation. And although money can be a great motivator, it does not, and will never, compensate for lack of passion, for lack of purpose, lack of ‘why’.

Why do businesses hire a designer? Because they don’t just want someone to design something for them, they also want someone to tell them what good design is. Whether it’s window cleaning or selling insurance, that’s what the business does best. That’s why they’re hired. It’s their area of expertise. No one is going to hire them and then tell them how to do it. What does a designer do best? Of course – design. It’s wonderful for a designer to work with clients who appreciate the work involved and the time and effort it takes, who can communicate their needs and have the budget to allow some amazing creativity to unfold. Take graphic artist Marian Bantjes, a designer-gone-illustrator who has built a reputation on her own unique style of art after 20 years in graphic design. And although it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, she is sought out for her style and creativity. She is doing what she loves, and it shows.

When the ‘why’ is in place, the reason, the passion – there is space for real creativity, for a designer to develop their own style and step out of the mainstream. And when that happens, there is no such thing as competition. No matter how many businesses out there are offering ‘design’, their services and methods will be different. Their purpose is different. And there is a place for all of them.

By Esther Lemmens, January 2012

Simon Sinek – How Great Leaders Inspire Action

Marian Bantjes – Creative Inspiration and


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