The design profession has expanded broadly and rapidly into digital media over the past ten years. This phenomenon has brought a wealth of new people, skills, research and techniques into the profession and allowed us to accomplish things we never could have dreamed of before this growth. There were (and still are) many benefits to this expansion, but also a few drawbacks. And as I look across the digital landscape, I fear we are beginning to loose our identity. As designers, we are so caught up in defining ourselves by the most recent niche or specialization to materialize in the industry that we are failing to realize the impact this is having on our field -- that with every new title or label that surfaces we are eroding our identity more and more.
About a decade ago, the only label that really meant anything was Web design. These two words encompassed most of what a designer was doing when they were NOT working with print or other more traditional mediums. But as the Web grew other labels began to surface, largely based on specializations within the industry. Media design and interactive design encompassed a specialization in Web-based animation, kiosk design or other digital forms of interactivity. User experience design, user interface design, and interaction design encompassed the consideration of human-computer interaction and cognitive psychology principals with an eye towards providing more useful and usable on-line interactions. And then finally today with the more advanced Web we have adaptive design, fluid design, mobile design, tablet design... and the list goes on.
Given the sheer number of titles and labels we have to describe ourselves, it becomes nearly impossible to see that, in reality, these are all designers working with digital media. It is also difficult to understand that most designers working with digital media are trained to use many of these specializations, and do so on a regular basis.
This in turn creates a situation where most people outside of the profession (and I would argue quite a few within the profession) don't really understand what the difference between these specializations are, which in turn causes confusion and distances us from anyone with whom we would like to have a conversation. Our overall identity is damaged, something that is apparent across the profession, and at all levels. Some examples include:
- Students looking for work not knowing how they should present themselves to prospective employers;
- Designers working at agencies trying to communicate to clients about the products and services they offer;
- In-house designers trying to become strategic partners with the rest of their organization; and
- Educational institutions that are trying to develop programs to attract students.
One possible solution to this problem is to consider the adoption of a label that is more encompassing -- such as digital design (and subsequently digital designer). This label comes with the understanding that, as digital designers, we are an inherently cross-disciplinary group capable of providing insight and value in a wide range of areas, including any subset of the larger digital field that will inevitably arise in the coming years. It provides a consistent identity for everyone involved.
There are a number of benefits to taking this perspective:
1. It provides clarity and consistency.
The more titles and labels we use to try to define what it is that we do, the harder it is to actually explain what they mean. Everyone understands (at a conceptual level) what it means to be digital, but not everyone understands what it means when we refer to human interaction, or user experience, or adaptive design. With "digital" we have a more consistent and approachable way to talk about ourselves, which in turn lowers this barrier considerably.
2. It accurately defines who we are.
Good digital design requires a broader perspective, one where designers utilize many different tools and techniques to better understand the whole of an experience. This is the only way to create something successful, rewarding or engaging for an audience and can require skills ranging from visual design to usability testing to cognitive research. It is this quality, this cross-disciplinary perspective, that really defines us in the digital space, and differentiates us from other design professions. Digital is inherently a cross-disciplinary activity, and when we adopt this moniker we adopt the definition.
3. It matches the changing nature of technology.
All digital design activities need to (at some point in the process) take into consideration the technology that will be used to add the functionality to the design insight. The nature of digital media is such that it changes daily, with new scripts, languages, software and hardware coming to market at a rapid pace. We cannot continue to define ourselves based on this trend, for all of the reasons mentioned above. But by adopting the digital moniker we effectively maintain our connection with the technology without needing to be defined by it.
It is only natural, given the ever-changing nature of digital media, that the design profession tied to this world grew up just as fragmented. But if we take a step back from the chaos for just a minute, I think it is obvious to see an abundance of confusion and a loss of identity. As we move forward we need to come together under one banner, and for me that banner is "digital". As digital designers we can all continue on safe in the knowledge of who we are, and what we do. And more importantly have a simple, consistent, and clear way to communicate about the value we bring to the table.