Creative work has no value. Or does it?

When I worked at ad agencies, there was this joke about the creatives. It went like this:

Every copywriter has a half-written novel manuscript they are hoping to get published. Every designer practices fine art on the weekends hoping to eventually become a full-time painter or photographer.

However, we creatives had a different way of telling the joke:

When a client tours the office, an accounts person would make the inevitable crack about novels or painting to earn free bonus points with the client. We creatives always politely laugh, then return to our desks to try and find a new creative way to sell used cars for the client, as our souls die just a little bit more.

There’s nothing wrong with designing ads to sell used cars. There’s nothing wrong with selling used cars, either. That’s not the point.

The point of this story is that there is always a question about the value of creative work, and an assumption that creative professionals are selling out to make ads because they can’t pay the bills with art.

Is creative work valuable anymore? When anyone can write a blog, listen to a song for free, or design something pretty on Squarespace, it can seem that creative professions are going the way of the dodo bird.

Could the design industry be headed in the same direction as the music industry, for example? Many types of design services and products imply they can replace human designers: themes, design software, hosted website services, etc.

Seeing this, designers throw their hands up in frustration. It’s tempting to think that no one values design anymore. Designers feel their profession is being threatened by cheap substitutes, and fear that the value of what they do is being diminished.

However, to clients and other non-designers, those other avenues of achieving design are so exciting because the results are predictable. Design is mysterious and difficult to understand to everyone except professional designers. It can feel like a select few are holding this essential tool hostage. Why shouldn’t non-designers circumvent designers, when they’re trying to protect a monopoly?

At the heart of this issue is the question of what design is and what it can accomplish.

For example, can a $10 (or free) theme deliver the same results as a $10,000 custom site design?

This often leads to finger pointing. Designers get accused of being money grubbing con artists, and non-designers get accused of being cheapskates.

The accusations aren’t doing anyone any good. Before anyone can begin to answer that question objectively, we need to take a step back and examine what design is and what it can do. We need a common sense definition.


You’re a designer, so you know that definition already: design is creative work with a purpose.

Purpose is critical when evaluating design because instead of judging based upon aesthetics, which are dominated by personal taste and plagued with subjectivity, it’s easy to measure whether a purpose is achieved.

However, in your dealings with clients, programmers, and other non-designers, when was the last time you actually discussed that purpose? I’d wager you usually discuss the specifics of a design.

After all, you’re trying to defend your work and make sure the result will perform, and when your counterpart is asking you to make the logo bigger or remove some critical interaction, you have to do something to make sure the design isn’t ruined.

So you answer with something like this: “If we make the logo bigger, it won’t look as good.”

And what always happens? The other person won’t give and you end up having to make the logo bigger.

This is because you aren’t connecting the specifics of a design to purpose. Of course the design will look worse with an obnoxiously large logo dominating the visual hierarchy. But what does that mean for the goals of the design? It almost certainly means the design isn’t going to drive sales or communicate the message as clearly.

But that’s not what you said. You said the design wouldn’t look as nice.

This is exactly why people don’t seem to value design; we don’t explain it to them well enough. When we fight even tiny changes to our design or claim SquareSpace Logo is bad, we can come across as petty. No one else but a designer understands why a gigantic logo can cause a design to be unsuccessful or what the difference is between DIY and custom design. They’ll never know unless we teach them.

Unfortunately, designers don’t get to just design things. We have to work with others, and that means we have to advocate for our work. Designing things is only a part of our job, and it might even be less important than the process of selling the work.

When professional designers talk about design, we will describe it in grand terms. We’ll use clever metaphors and big words, but what non-designers hear is gibberish. They don’t get it.

We need to learn to connect design to the goals and needs of the people we work with. We need to explain it in terms they can understand in order for them to see the value.

That’s what The Tiny Designer is all about—explaining design in a simple way so that non-designers can understand why it should matter to them.

It’s about fighting for the design profession and proving what we designers can do.

When non-designers finally understand that design can deliver results and it’s not just about pretty colors and typefaces, we designers won’t have justify our $10,000 custom sites designs against free themes.

The difference will be as obvious to clients and coworkers as it is to us.


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