The More the Merrier

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When I first started in design, the tools of the profession were—as far as I was concerned—fairly expensive. Granted, at the time I was unemployed and only had a few thousand dollars to my name, and thus every expenditure on equipment and software stung.

The first computer I bought was a refurbished 2006 Mac Pro (the big cheese grater one), and while I had been running Illustrator on my old 2001 2.0 Ghz Dell, I was just starting to get into video editing and motion graphic design, and so I opted for Final Cut Studio. At $999 it seemed both a bargain and a major financial ouchie, for while it combined a lot of the tools I needed into one relatively affordable package, I had little discretionary income to spare.

But acquire I did, and several iterations of computers, multiple numerous upgrades and purchases of software and lots of equipment acquisitions later… well, I guess I have more than when I started 🙂

In all seriousness though, the cost of the tools has dropped dramatically even over the past 9 years, while the functionality has increased. When I first started in design cellphone pictures and videos were utter crap; now they not only rival the nearly defunct point-and-shoots, but usually handily surpass them. It was only a few years into my design career when the DSLR video revolution (starting with the Canon 5D Mark II, a camera I still have and love) shook things up.

And on the software front things have never been better. I am currently on Adobe Creative Cloud, and the efficiency of the software (which has left the dregs of the 32-bit world I started in behind) is so much better and the functionality is so much more powerful, that I can now make much higher quality work in much less time, primarily because I’m not forced to fight the software as much as before.

For example, a year or two into my design career my friend Cory let me have an old couch that I put in my office. I jokingly referred to it as my “render couch,” because of how long I used to have to wait for things to render out of Final Cut Pro 7.

And, to be fair, the render couch did get a few render naps.

Now, however, those long renders are almost completely a thing of the past. It has actually been quite breathtaking. In the past I used to use the lull in render time to catch up on email, maybe work in Photoshop (assuming there was RAM available), or just take a break. But the lack of lengthy render times means those things are gone, which is bittersweet on one hand, although on the other hand it does help me to get a lot more work done.

Double-edged swords, and all that.

The craziest aspect of this whole shift in the field has been how affordable it is to not only get into it, but also to stay current. In the early days of video production, cost of equipment was often a prohibitive barrier to entry. Cameras were insanely expensive, and editing suites and seats equally so. But little by little— and then finally in large fits and spurts with the move to digital— the cost of entry has fallen dramatically.

Now we are in an era where within the next couple years anyone with a smartphone can shoot 4K video which would offer better video quality than cameras that cost thousands 10 years ago. Software is less expensive than ever, with entire suites of applications available for dollars a day or even free, depending on what you need and can get by with. Hardware is more powerful and more affordable as well, giving more people than ever access to the tools that would blow away anything available a decade ago.

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””][clickandtweet handle=”” hashtag=”” related=”” layout=”” position=””]The democratization of the tools means that a career in this field is within a lot more people’s reach.[/clickandtweet][/pullquote]

This leaves the field of design in an interesting place, for the democratization of the tools means that a career in this field is within a lot more people’s reach. It also entails— perhaps— that the ubiquity of the tools may portend that more and more people may realize they can do things themselves, and opt not to hire out their design or video projects.

It was a thread on a tech forum that prompted this post, and the basic question asked was this: given that nearly anybody can have these tools, going forward why is anyone going to pay a professional when every kid born will be able to edit video by the time they leave diapers? What kind of future lies ahead for design?

To be sure, in the past I have had these same questions myself. But as I have thought through this and other related matters more— as well as had more business now than ever before— I think that the democratization of the tools is actually a cause for optimism.

Here are a few reasons why:

1. More Exposure to the Tools Creates a Larger Market

In the past video production (as an example) was an expensive affair, partially because the tools required were themselves an expensive affair. All the equipment for all aspects of video production required lots of skill to master, and of course all that investment needed to be recouped in the production fees. Additionally, there were fewer outlets for video to be used, which entailed that to get into that limited field meant lots of outgoing cash.

However, the greater ubiquity of both the tools for production and the enlarging of the market has not entailed that everyone simply thinks they can do it themselves. Rather, as video has become more and more ubiquitous, it has come in many respects to be seen more and more as a necessary component of marketing one’s business, of reaching one’s market and of connecting with one’s customers. This means that there is more demand for video than ever before.

One reason (I believe) that this has occurred is precisely because of the ubiquity of the tools. For example, if you have a smartphone from the last couple years you can almost be guaranteed that it will take a really decent photo and will probably capture usable video. This doesn’t mean that most people suddenly think they have a career in video production, but it does mean that they daily feel the impact of visual media and begin to grasp (even if they are not aware of it) the importance of communicating their business/organization/etc. visually. Media that puts a face on their business or connects with their customers is more and more not optional, and those who perceive that value understand that an investment in media can lead to a greater reach in their market.

To be sure, there are plenty of people who will not pay a premium for media, thinking it’s either not worthwhile or that they can do it themselves. It can be tempting to see this as lost business, until you realize that it actually isn’t. In the past, video production (continuing the example) was often cost prohibitive for many businesses and organizations. They might have wanted to employ it, but couldn’t justify the cost. But now that it is more affordable than ever, we are beginning to see that there is a burgeoning market outside of the traditional outlets (TV and movies) who haven’t been able to be in the market before.

The upshot of this is that the people who think they can do things themselves or don’t see the value were never going to be in that market anyway. It was not the ubiquity of media that prompted this opt-out, but rather it merely revealed that it was there all along.

I’m optimistic on this front in my own work since I have more business and interest now than ever before. And while it (hopefully!) has something to do with my skill, it probably more comes down to something else:

2. We Don’t Just Make Shiny Things Any More

When I first started in design, I thought that my primary purpose was to make things that looked good. Thus, I thought that my career in design was wholly dependent on my skill, technique, style, etc. And, to be fair, there is a lot of that wrapped up in being successful as a designer. The years I have spent developing my craft have (hopefully!) made me better at what I do.

But one of the major shifts due to the democratization of media creation tools and the subsequent expanding of the market is that the value that I bring as a designer is no longer wholly based on my skill or style or technique (as important as those are). Rather, the value that designers bring to their clients is increasingly about problem solving.

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””][clickandtweet handle=”” hashtag=”” related=”” layout=”” position=””]The value that designers bring to their clients is increasingly about problem solving.[/clickandtweet][/pullquote]

While clients are more and more tech savvy, they do not necessarily know how to translate that into a way of effectively reaching their markets. They may understand the need for media and even have ideas of what they want to do or communicate, but not necessarily understand how it can speak into their context. In this respect the way designers become problem solvers is to help clients steer their vision into something that has market reach. This will of course involve creating well crafted and executed media that is aesthetically appealing, but even more involves crafting media that has the most effective reach.

The burgeoning of media has led to an increasing number of different markets, each with its own specific ways of being reached. While in the past knowing a market has always been important, the limited means of using media entailed different strategies. The sheer scope, scale and reach of the internet has allowed for niche marketing to really come into its own. And although those niches are still small compared to the market as a whole, they are now becoming large enough that catering to one’s niche is for many businesses the most successful marketing and business strategy.

Designers can take advantage of this by seeking to gain expertise in certain areas and learning how to speak to certain niches. At least for smaller outfits, trying to be a one-stop shop for any possible need is increasingly a less successful strategy. Instead, by focusing one’s efforts and design towards particular markets, one can come to understand that market more, know how to speak to it more effectively, and thus gain expertise in that field and convey added value to potential clients.

3. We Can Be Nimble and Quick

One major shift (especially for smaller projects and outfits) that is the result of the democratization of media is that potential clients increasingly expect multiple competencies from the same media provider, even if that is just one person. In the past most video productions required multiple people with disparate competencies (i.e., director, videographer, editor, colorist, etc.) to put together the production. And, given the size and scale of the production, this is still often the case. However, for many smaller outfits looking for specific kinds of media that doesn’t require this sort of production, they often expect the same person to pull off all of the above. (Or, if they don’t expect one person to do it, they sometimes expect to pay the price of one person!)

This can be a double-edged sword to be sure, but it can also be a boon to the designer with multiple competencies, because it allows one to be nimble enough to take on projects that larger outfits are priced out of. This doesn’t necessarily entail a lowering of standards or quality; it just means that creating media has changed a lot in that the tools of the trade have removed some of the barriers from production and post-production. It also means that the types of media required by certain clients are increasingly manageable by fewer people.

This doesn’t mean that we have to charge bottom-dollar, but it does mean that we are able to be very competitive in our niches because we can quickly price out potential jobs and streamline the production process significantly. There are obviously markets and needs for larger productions and thus larger design and production shops, but my ultimate point is that the market is such that there is room for all of this, and that one of the keys to succeeding in this sort of environment is to be nimble by having multiple competencies.

One segment that is shrinking relative to the rest of the market is that of the single competency. For example, in the past one could bill oneself as an editor, whose main competency was editing. One might have other competencies, but the reason one was brought onto a project was primarily as editor. There are still places for this position, but they are increasingly rare, usually reserved for larger traditional productions such as TV and movies where a dedicated editor is still necessary. The difficulty is that the competition for these jobs is fierce and there are relatively few positions like these, which makes the probability of success increasingly less dependent on one’s initiative.

Being able to bring more skills and competencies to bear upon a project increases one’s value to newer and more niche markets which don’t have the budgets of Hollywood or TV but are still looking for high quality media created by professionals that can reach their markets. In many ways, traditional media is utterly distinct both in size and price from most other types of media. The former is seeking the broadest possible market; the latter more of a niche. The former requires larger productions and crews; the latter need smaller. Neither is better or worse than the other; they are merely different, and this is an important distinction to understand about being nimble in the market.

4. We Collaborate And Compete

A phenomenon I never expected to encounter is that sometimes those who are competitors can actually become a good source for clients. This seems counterintuitive, but I have frequently been given leads to potential clients by contacts who are technically my competitors. This can be for a number of reasons: they don’t have time, they think the project would better fit my style or skillset, etc. I think this is still a rather nascent thing, but one effect of having a larger market is that more and more of us are in a lot of the same networks, and find that it doesn’t have to be cutthroat world of competition, but can also include collaboration.

A lot of this is enabled by the connectivity of the internet, as more and more of our professional lives are spent building connections, sharing work, etc. It is natural that we gravitate towards groups and niches that are filled with like-minded and like-skilled individuals, many of whom may actually be competitors.

There is often also a natural give-and-take in these blossoming relationships. If I am able to recommend a project to a friend (even if that friend is actually a competitor), that show of good-will and camaraderie can sow the seeds of them sending a project my way. Or they may find our working relationship to be a good one and put my name out there to their networks, and vise-versa.

Given that there are more clients and more need than ever before, it behooves us to seek to build as big of networks as we can.

Conclusion

The world of any type of design has always been fast-paced, and now that is true more than ever. There is more competition than ever before, but also far more opportunity. The key to success in the world of design is really adaptability, to be able to intuit the ebb and flow of the market, to be able to take its pulse and be proactively engaging it rather than just reacting to trends and changes as they come along.

I for one am optimistic about the future of design (and my part in it), and I think that there really has never been a better time to be a part of it.

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Jason Watson

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