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Metamodern Design : Chapter 5 Design Has Become a Commodity

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The commodification of design is a result of the failures within the design and creative industries. Beyond the trade, skill, practice and discipline of design, the industry is touted as a construct of social hierarchy within the design and creative communities themselves. The ideological structures are formed around groupthink that you first, must subscribe to the values of the group and second must display these values within your work in order to maintain relevance or climb the social hierarchy within the design and creative fields. From here, you may be recognized by the community and therefore garner the accolades, attention and recognition for your work. The social structures are both determined by the old-world thinking and values of design beyond design itself. It is rooted within the values of the individuals who have served as the gatekeepers of the design and creative fields.

Furthermore, new opportunities for designers and creatives have emerged and the value placed on those individuals who have set out to garner value through their offerings are validated within the design and creative communities ONLY IF they meet the criteria of the group first and foremost. This idea rests in the notion that the designer must exist within a liberal political belief. They must use their design as a tool to fight for ideals or fight against ideals that do not align with the groupthink as a collective. They must blend in and homogenize their work to the likes of the group for self validation, group validation and to garner new work and opportunities not based on their skillset, but on the ability to rise within the social heirarchies of creative fields to attract the attention of those who might become their client based on the premise that they themselves have not only become proficient in the field of design, but they have fully taken on the expected identity of a modern-day creative.

I have observed for years the slow crumbling and dismantling of the creative community by placing value on the identity of the individual by subscribing fully to the ideals and communal thinking guided by gatekeepers. And those gatekeepers are leveraging their careers by standing on the intersections of their identity beyond the actual work.

Promoting the political rhetoric where the discussion around design is somehow infused with political leanings that align with progressive ideals, as if, those ideals are somewhat more noble and justified in design over any other alternative belief. To question this premise is to become non-hirable, uncreative and unworthy of being a part of the design community.

The gatekeepers leverage a political narrative as a way to justify their own path to “design success” and maintain their own sense of self-worth and power within the social hierarchy of the design community. The dismantling and disruption they chose to pursue in the 90’s and 2000’s has paved a way for their own success and career path; giving them a platform to speak to their own beliefs outside any relevance to the practice of design.

My problem with this is that design should be non-partisan and apolitical. Design is about identifying the truth of the challenge and discovering the truth of a solution beyond political ideology or rhetoric in which a designer “must” align in order to assume he or she can have any impact in the world. This thinking creates an echo chamber within the design industry. We then get communities of creative efforts rooted in Los Angeles, Silicon Valley, Seattle and New York. Assuming that the only valuable thinkers and minds have somehow accepted that, in order to succeed, you must be a progressive liberal leaning person to make impactful and valuable design.

The young designers and followers of design iconoclasts either subscribe and echo these sentiments or risk being ostracized by their community.

The problem here is not that the ideals and topics they are discussing is invalid. The problem is that they are using these topics to leverage the validity of their voice in design, beyond the work. They have garnered attention and if you disagree with their political and social beliefs, you are ostracized from the group. If you buy into their beliefs and agree, you give up your ability to be an individual designer.

It’s a tempting path. Where the validity of design is built on the notion of followers, influence and ability to be a leading voice in the room. However, these voices are a homogenized predictable echo-chamber of values and ideals within the creative industry that has created a postmodern conversation of boring and predictable work rooted in disruption, sex appeal, provocative ideas and pushing boundaries for the sake of seeking attention.

My opinions about design and creativity is built from the experience of past work and within various design and creative communities. From working in-house at global brands, agencies, startups, creative communities.

After watching the validity of design and creativity being determined beyond the work and built upon the groupthink narratives that drive the community – I began to question my own values. Over time, the values and hierarchical structures within the creative communities felt like I was not myself. The individual is only worth their creative approach, as long as their other values aligned with the group. The more your values intersected within ideologies, the more you would be accepted and validated for your work, thus resulting in more notoriety.

In addition, the commodification of design is a result of leadership within organizations lacking the usefulness of design and the work of designers. In the 2018 Design in Tech Report open survey, 1219 samples identified the core problems designers face from leadership in their organizations. “Be clear about the business problem”, “Advocate for the user”, “Allow for failure” and “Ask questions to build empathy”(Maeda, “2018”) are lacking in leadership where design exists. To improve possible outcomes, designers have stressed the need for these ideas to be included in their work. The alternative results in design becoming a commodity and misunderstood and under-utilized.

However, design is seeking to evolve and shift out from this commodification. The value of design has been underutilized in recent years and the growing sentiment among designers is clear. Models of design processes, workplace culture, design ethics and continuing the dialogue around design has further evolved in recent years.

Evidence has begun to emerge related to processes, models, data and research showing the impact that design has beyond current expectations. Where the ROI of design is seen as a correlation between companies who succeed and the models in which they utilize design to outperform expectations and their competitors.

InVision’s “Five Levels of Design Maturity”

InVision surveyed 2,200 design professionals to provide insight into companies utilizing design and the level of maturity in which they progress.  (Source: @invisionapp: Design Maturity Model)

1.Producers 41%

Design is what happens on screen

“At this level, organizations make early attempts to create efficiency and consistent story though visual identity guidelines but neglect processes, collaboration and advanced tools.”

(Source: @invisionapp: Design Maturity Model)

Most designers and small agencies exist at this level. They try to implement visual guidelines and standards with a focus on aesthetic, but fail to progress at the maturity of the following steps. This is both at the maturity of the designer and also the maturity of the organization and leadership.

2.Connectors 21%

The workplace becomes a workshop

“User research, user stories, usability testing, and personas are also more prevalent. Overall, there’s more talk of design in the air – from executives who espouse its importance to the employees who express more interest and empathy for customers.”

(Source: @invisionapp: Design Maturity Model)

This level of design becomes a progression of understanding the value of design and how research can impact the direction moving forward. Utilizing data and research to make informed decisions to mitigate risk for bigger challenges and higher stakes in projects.

3.Architects 21%

Design is a scalable operation

“They have shared ownership, role clarity, joint accountability, and more documentation of their now more substantial design practices. This enables design to support complex ecosystems while integrating with complex internal operating structures.”

(Source: @invisionapp: Design Maturity Model)

As the results from research, data and testing had proven out successful outcomes, the organization decides to implement more design focused initiatives through structures within the organization infused across the DNA of various disciplines.

4.Scientists 12%

Design is powered by hypothesis

“They have sophisticated practices for analytics, experimentation, recruiting for user research, and monitoring and measuring the success of specific efforts. They also have the beginnings of a design strategy practice and vision development.”

(Source: @invisionapp: Design Maturity Model)

This maturity level recognizes that the impact of design is built into utilizing deep analytics and research to understand the challenges at depth before diagnosing solutions. My business in Neon Wilderness is built from this foundation.

5Visionaries 5%

Design means business

“Design brings a unique lens to strategy thought exploratory user research techniques, trends and foresight research that assesses product market fit, and the delivery of unified cross-platform strategies.

(Source: @invisionapp: Design Maturity Model)

This approach is essential to the future of design. In my work, I have developed a proprietary patent-pending process where I merge massive amounts of data to build and deliver strategies for business, brands and design solutions across digital and physical mediums. The focus of my work (and small parts of this book) is focused on moving from each level of maturity throughout my career. I appreciate that InVision has broken this maturity model down into these steps. In my opinion, you must start at maturity level one and commit to the journey of design to reach maturity level five.

McKinsey’s Design Index

The McKinsey Design Index looks at research and data of top performing companies across multiple sectors and evaluates their design impact within the business and on their product or service. Tracking the progress of 300 publicly traded companies over 5 years with two million pieces of financial data and recorded 100,000 design actions reveals the greatest correlation with improved financial performance across design themes. (McKinsey, “2018”)

  1. Companies with top quartile McKinsey Design Index scores outperformed industry-benchmark growth by as much as two to one.(McKinsey, “2018”)
  2. Higher McKinsey Design Index scores correlated with higher revue growth and, for the top quartile, higher returns to shareholders.(McKinsey, “2018”)
  3. The financial outperformance of top-quartile companies holds true across the three industries studied.(McKinsey, “2018”)

Research yielded several striking findings:

“We found a strong correlation between high MDI scores and superior business performance. Top-quartile MDI scorers increased their revenues and total returns to shareholders (TRS) substantially faster than their industry counterparts did over a five-year period—32 percentage points higher revenue growth and 56 percentage points higher TRS growth for the period as a whole.

The results held true in all three of the industries we looked at: medical technology, consumer goods, and retail banking. This suggests that good design matters whether your company focuses on physical goods, digital products, services, or some combination of these.” (McKinsey, “2018”)

The Value of Design reflected across these top performing companies is distilled down to there 4 models.

Analytical Leadership: Measure and drive design performance with the same rigor as revenues and costs.

(McKinsey, “2018”)

Cross-Functional talent: Make user-centric design everyone’s responsibility, not a siloed function.

(McKinsey, “2018”)

Continuous iteration: De-risk development by continually listening, testing, and iterating with end-users.

(McKinsey, “2018”)

User Experience: Break down internal walls between physical, digital, and service design.

(McKinsey, “2018”)

“Companies that tackle these four priorities boost their odds of becoming more creative organizations that consistently design great products and services. For companies that make it into the top quartile of MDI scorers, the prizes are as rich as doubling their revenue growth and shareholder returns over those of their industry counterparts.” (McKinsey, “2018”)

Design in Tech Report

The past few years, John Maeda has put out a Design in Tech Report focusing on the current trends within design and the predictions of where design is headed based on research, surveys and analysis.

Key takeaways from these reports are the following:

  • There are three kinds of design. Classical Design, Design Thinking, and Computational Design.
  • In the last 12 months there were 19 acquisitions of creative agencies and companies.
  • The value of design is in relation to the other parts of a company’s operations.
  • Alone and isolated within a company, design is a microworld of aesthetic high-fives.
  • Scaling design at the speed of Moore’s Law is not possible.
  • Scaling design IS possible at a slower-thandesirable velocity.
  • Inclusive design has achieved broad acceptance among designers.
  • For non-designers, inclusive design can be a harder idea to sell.
  • There’s fear about AI’s future impact, but there’s creative hope out there too. Yes we can.

(Source: Design in Tech Report, 2019, Maeda, J.)

In 2019, Design Census (design shows results from a survey of 9,429 people that a majority of designers have 5-9 years of experience and work mostly in digital products, advertising and marketing industries. Their income is between $50,000-$79,000 per year. Most feel happy but not completely satisfied with their role. Assumptions made here is the role in which they work in the organization, their contribution to the strategic approach to their work or the pay in which they make for the work. (, “2019”)

Average industry growth for graphic designers from 2015-2020 has seen a -0.8% growth rate. (IBISWorld, “2020”) Where the assumption is that the tools and resources for companies to create their own graphic design in house has increased and the need for a designer with a select skillset has diminished in demand. Graphic design employs 155,816 people with a market size of $13B. As access to design tools increase, the market size will decrease to save and cut costs for hiring designers. We have seen the decline over the past 5 years.

In addition, IBISWorld states “Demand for the Graphic Designers industry is expected to decline in 2020 due to a decrease in total advertising spending from businesses.” (IBISWorld, “2020”)

From a competitive perspective within the industry, we see data showing that design agencies and companies are competing on price over the value of the impact they offer. In addition to the decline in demand for designers, the competitive pricing also creates decline in the industry overall.

“Regional economic activity drives demand, because most graphic design firms are small and work locally. The profitability of individual companies depends on accurate bidding, timely delivery of projects, and a steady volume of work. Large companies have advantages in marketing and sales, breadth of services, delivery of complex projects, and supporting ongoing contracts. Small companies can compete effectively by responding more quickly, adopting new trends, and specializing by services or markets. The US industry is highly fragmented: the 50 largest companies account for less than 15% of revenue.” (Dun & Bradstreet, “2020”)

There becomes a constant threat of new entrants into the design industry. Diminishing returns are due to bargaining power of buyers and bargaining power of other sellers.The added threat of substitute products or services creates a pattern where design has become a commodity.

University of Salford, Manchester UK states the following in their Design 2020 Report:

“In line with the shift of the UK economy, there is a growing recognition that through the effective integration of design – linking creativity and innovation, and shaping ideas to become practical and attractive propositions for users or customers (Cox, 2005) – companies are more likely to be innovative, become more competitive, increase their profits and boost their performance. This is confirmed by research (Design Council, 2006) in which design is seen as a key driver of business growth and competitiveness. However, it is also recognized that many companies, especially UK-based SMEs, are missing the huge opportunity that design and creativity can offer, that SMEs typically lack aspiration, are unable to see the relevance of design, often lack the skills and don’t know where to turn to engage with the design industry (The Work Foundation, 2007). It is apparent that UK industry as a whole has to find ways in which it could increasingly use design to add value to its products and services in order to differentiate them in highly competitive markets. These issues rather than being less important in the current economic climate are in fact more important. To operate in the future our design knowledge and skills will be one of the means of moving out of recession.” (University of Salford, “2020”)

The pattern for design has revealed that the classical and traditional designers are in less demand and therefore become more specialized as the growth of demand for technology and digital designers is still needed. However, as more access to tools, the decline of designers are needed, and substituted products and services becoming automated and available creates a threat for the future of digital design as much as it has had an impact on classical print design.

“The Technology and Interactive Design industries are more common with people who have less than ten years of experience, while people who have twenty or more years of experience are more likely to be in the Print and Advertising industries. These patterns reveal how job opportunities in the tech sector are continuing to grow, while older industries like print are perhaps becoming more limited or specialized.” (Sosolimited, “2017”)

Commodification of design has been happening and data supports this. And this commodification seems to contribute to a “race to the bottom” mentality that threatens the design industry as a whole because of the unfocused offerings the client wants to push onto consumers with new designed products or services. Design becomes an order taker to stay in business and the client is not tapping into the added value design can have beyond the output of the work.

“The challenge isn’t new in our industry and the solution seems so simple, and yet very few are leveraging it. As organizations look to innovate or renovate their brands or offerings they continue to look within at what the company can make, what they have capacity for, or what a customer has asked for. They may even look to the category, competition or adjacent categories playing the “me too” game, creating products that lack a meaningful point of difference for consumers. Compounding the problem is the prevalence of designers seeking inspiration from the category (or the likes of Pinterest) rather than watching people and behaviours, and listening to the consumer aspiration, translating those insights into big ideas.” (Roberts, M. RGD, “2017”)

The medium contributed to the message. The medium related to the industry and digital has changed. There is diminishing returns as a designer and I am thinking about the next level of design. There is pretense to design. A church, a road system, a theatre, an orchestra house. The radio. Tv. The escape. The phone and digital has become a portal to drive business, advertiser and constant selling – it used to be a place of curiosity and inspiration and experience or discovery. The journey of digital design has changed to a commoditized expenses for driving business. But design is greater and has informed the progress of humanity in different forms. It has evolved during different time periods and revolutions – industrial revolution. Design today is a last stop for business to continue churning but the fulfillment in the work is not what drove designers to be stuck within their situation.

As the commodification of the industry continues, designers need to find ways to pivot and adjust to the fast-changing landscape that technology has created (and will continue to drive) in terms of opportunities for design and jobs within digital innovations. Design must find new ways to advocate for the value beyond the work. To encompass the strategy, process and overall impact beyond the aesthetic of design.

“In 1959, design was largely recognized as a noun, synonymous with style. Postwar consumption and the growth of the American middle class fueled the notion that design stimulated repeat consumption and accompanied the peak of planned obsolescence. Today, design, increasingly understood as a verb, is core to the value proposition and often accompanies disruption. With our focus moving from designing artifacts and products to designing experiences, we have gone from designing “how it looks” to designing “how it works.”(IIT Institute of Design, “2020”)


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