re-Branding Our Industry

“Venti-coffee-no-room-for-milk, please.” I had plenty of time to ponder things as I stood in the long line at Starbucks at the Joyce Kilmer service area on the New Jersey Turnpike. I couldn’t help but remind myself that a mere 10 years ago I used to stop at the very same service area for coffee, only there was no Starbucks there at the time and I would make my coffee stops at the Sunoco gas station instead.With my plastic Sunoco travel mug I could buy unlimited coffee refills for only 25 cents, which was a substantial discount from the 69 cents a comparable sized cup would cost without the mug. In other words, I was able to purchase my coffee for the amount of money that it was really worth — 25 cents. It was actually the cup and lid that was worth more money and as long as I wasn’t taking that off their hands, I could get my caffeine fix on the cheap.

So how did I now find myself in line at the very same Starbucks, waiting 10 minutes to shell out 2 bucks for a cup of 25 cent coffee? The answer is that the coffee industry, and Starbucks in particular, had succeeded in re-branding coffee to increase its perceived value in the eyes of consumers. On its website and ad campaign, even Dunkin’ Donuts now gladly hawks — as the hitman Jules of “Pulp Fiction” fame would say — “not the regular coffee but the gourmet s–t.”It’s time to Re-Brand Our IndustrySo if we can accept that the same old 25 cent cup of coffee is now worth more than 10x the amount of money it used to be, why is it more difficult to advance the notion of the true worth of design services? After all, coffee beans have not gotten significantly better since 1995. Starbucks has not tapped into a magic reservoir of beans, never before found or tasted. Designers, on the other hand, were probably undervalued 10 years ago but have had to learn more and add increased skills since 1995.Print designers have had to learn and adjust to not only increased printing technologies such as water-less and and on-demand, they have also had to become somewhat competent with respect to the web. Web designers have had to learn more, in the past 10 years, about dynamic technologies for database-driven sites as well as keeping up to speed with Flash, CSS and web standards compliance.Of course, designers must learn all of these new skills in addition to continuing to develop their core design and communications skills, without which all the technology in the world would be irrelevant.So why hasn’t our value gone up? One has to be able to see the irony in the fact that an industry where the professionals must, for its client, juxtapose words and images in order to communicate an idea, emotion or brand is woefully inept at doing the same for itself. To be sure, many designers are conflicted over the notion that they should sell themselves at all, let alone our industry. I once had a design mentor advise me that in job interviews, I shouldn’t say very much about my work. Simply lay it on the table and let the work speak for itself. Read “no selling”. His feeling was “if you have to sell it, your project was not successful.”So don’t sell. In fact, don’t even speak that much. Let your work speak. Selling is for salesmen. We brand others, not ourselves. Not only does the shoe maker have no shoes, he often doesn’t even believe he SHOULD have shoes.Of course, the notion that design projects specifically or designers in general don’t have to be sold is contrary to the reality we all live with. Few of us who have ever hired designers would argue that the best portfolio, rather than the best candidate, usually gets the job. One can have the finest work around but if they do not sell themselves as a trustworthy, responsible, professional potential hire, they will be dragging their exceptional portfolio onto the unemployment line.And while it’s true that a good design can often stand on it’s own, we all know that there are many things that go into making a successful design project other than a beautiful finished piece. Was it completed on time? Did it come-in at or under budget? Was the finished piece preceded by a smooth and well-executed process? These and other questions are often just as important than the finished piece, maybe more so.Although in our minds we would acknowledge that design and designers need to be sold and are sold every day, our unwillingness to do either often puts us at odds with the clients we wish would value us more. Our “the work should speak for itself” credo often comes off, in the eyes of clients, as arrogance. It fosters an unflattering “you just don’t GET IT” posture. As we have seen, this attitude doesn’t exactly cause clients to uncontrollably throw money at us.If clients just don’t get it, we have to educate them better. If the outside world doesn’t see our value, we have to re-inforce it and possible re-brand ourselves.Part of the reason we flock to pay Starbucks, and similar locations, $4 bucks for a grande mocha or a venti caramel macchiato is because they have transformed — not the coffee — but the experience of buying coffee. It’s far more pleasant, if not cool, to order a tall-skim-latte than it ever was to order a cup o’ joe. All the while we’re greeted with pleasant staff, jazzy music and a laid-back interior. Starbucks is not just a place we go to buy coffee, it’s a place we don’t mind hanging for a bit. It’s nice to be there and that’s part of the reason we pay more for a 25 cent cup of coffee.The most ironic aspect of the transformation of coffee is that it couldn’t have been done without graphic designers. Starbucks, better than most corporations, really understands the value of good design to transform perceptions and brand. If we can do it for a cup o’ joe, why can’t we do it for ourselves?Maybe it’s time the shoe maker got himself a pair of shoes? Or maybe we just need to wake up and smell the coffee?.chris{}


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