13 November 2006
Michael Hardt
Michael Hardt

The Sami have a nice picture to describe the view on the future:

"We move backwards through life, looking at our past.
As we don't have eyes in our back of the head we can't see our future."

There is a lot of truth in it - philosophically. Practically I have never seen a Sami going backwards. They look forwards to avoid getting lost in the woods or destroy the traces of the reindeer. Of course nobody can see the future, but one can estimate it.

This estimating process is called a scenario, building on a statistical evaluation. The result is called a trend, a projection of an existing direction within society into the future, basing on mathematical and statistical calculations. Trend is not another word for fashion and a trend cannot be made; it can only be made usable. A mega-trend is a long-term projection of the social development. As designers, we have to be aware of the trend, follow the development and translate it into visible items.

The public discussion is dealing with the new media. Politicians discuss legal action against data pirates, downloading music illegally. Copyright laws break down worldwide. The big record companies have a dramatic loss of sales due to the pirates.

Innovative and successful products today are small high-tech devices that ensure permanent access to the individual and social information network.

People don't want to buy a CD with 25 songs just because they like one. They like to sample their own individual music program. And they want to listen to their own music wherever and whenever they want.

While the music industry called for legal action and politicians began to prepare steps to reduce freedom, Apple assumed that the intention of people is not to do something illegal, but to use the possibilities of new technologies. So their answer was to make downloading legal, easy and affordable.

iTunes and iPod are product developments basing on trend research and decisions following changing consumer behaviour. iTunes had 100 million legal downloads within 3 months. All of a sudden the future of the music industry looks bright again, even brighter than before. They have made the step from a material product to an immaterial product.

Designers play a major role in heating up mass consumption and we complain about this capitalistic world - but we helped to make it. We can also play a role in shaping a new and hopefully better world. It is not a secret that if we continue our mass consumption and throw-away mentality we will have used up most of the world's resources within less than 50 years. Society has to learn to save as many resources as possible. If we could manage to use half of what we use today, we would gain time to find new technologies and materials. Maybe.

The era of industrialised mass consumption is on decline. A new mega-trend is coming up but the trend lines have not crossed yet. Experts expect this to happen within the next 5 to 10 years. A change in mega-trend happens once or twice in a century, and we have the privilege to experience such a change:

The trend of immaterial mass use.
The market structures and routines are not developed yet. But as you can see in the example of iTunes, it is under rapid development. This trend will change the design profession as well. The key-word is:

Sustainable Design
Until today, a designer is paid to produce the prototypes for the industrial production of communication products. The vast majority of our jobs is connected to marketing and aims at selling more products. Even if you illustrate a children book, the interest of the publisher is to produce a material product that attracts clients to buy it and provides a return in investment.

One can look at design from a more idealistic and ethical point of view to see the cultural importance, the artistic aspect. You might not like to hear this but designers often overestimate the importance of this cultural aspect. The majority of our clients see us as executive staff in the preproduction stage of a project to improve the sales.

In most of the cases today the designer is not asked to communicate a message. We are commissioned to design a CD-cover, a catalogue, a brochure, a corporate identity, an illustration for a book, a packaging: Material products.

Let's imagine 2 possible scenarios of our future as visual communication designers.

Scenario 1
Imagine a global furniture distributor asking you to design their next catalogue:

320 pages, format 210x250, CMYK, 100 million issues, split in 20 regional issues and languages, including Chinese.

Fee for the design per page 1 000 Euro.
Design of the regional versions 500 Euro per page.

Total 3.52 million Euro.

What if you find out that the project would look better with 40 pages more?

Ask for 440 000 Euro more!
More pages, more work, more money.

Scenario 2
The same client comes up to you and asks you to design their new product communication concept.

So far they had a catalogue with 320 pages, format 210x250, CMYK, 100 million issues, split in 20 regional issues and languages.

As total design-fee they offer 3.5 million Euro.

For every page you need less without loosing communicational impact you get a bonus fee of 10 000 Euro! For every page more your fee will be reduced for 10 000 Euro.

Would you propose the additional pages of scenario 1 because the design would look better?

Imagine you would save all those pages because you would find a new way of getting the message to the reader - would this be a bad deal for your client?

Why would someone be interested in offering such a project where you get more for doing less or less for doing more?
The answer is simple: The client would save a lot of money because of your intelligent proposal. Less paper, less printing costs, less weight to transport, less petrol for trucks. The savings would be millions of Euros.

Forests would not be cut and petrol would not be spoiled. Time, energy, resources and money would be saved but, on the other hand, you would be responsible for printers losing work, paper mills closing, and truck-drivers becoming unemployed.

How could you solve the issue?
You need to analyse the communication process: What is important and relevant? What part of the message can be taken out without losing information? How can we use existing media in a more sophisticated way? Identify weaknesses and look for possibilities to improve the process and reduce costs. This is part of the design project to be visualised, documented and presented to the client. Visualising processes is an important and growing field of activity within our profession [information design].

You will be able to visualise that the weak points of the process are
a. the dissemination of the catalogue and
b. the waste of information and material. A consumer who wants to buy new furniture for the sleeping room because he moves together with his girlfriend might not yet be interested in information about children's furniture at this stage.

It takes time to transport the product to the consumer and the catalogue as such has a given lifespan of actuality, including the need to fix prices over this period. If the transport of the information could happen online, many problems would be solved.

But some simply want the good old catalogue.

Why not make this printed catalogue a beautiful book of inspirations, sold via Amazon or available in the client's stores, with a link to a pricelist with technical data online? Instead of incurring costs, you could generate new income. I guess that an issue of 1 million would be considered as a bestseller. And it can be organised to be printed just-in-time, printing on demand. The problem is to assure that the consumer can print out the additional facts he wants with his own facilities: Decentralised printing on demand.

If you come up with such a proposal you must be well prepared and have good arguments. To change old habits takes an effort. You will have more enemies than friends. Unfortunately visual communication designers in general are not seen as competent to design the communication process and the emphasis of the design education has so far been more product- than process-oriented. If we want to contribute to the new trend and make design sustainable we have to leave the product orientation and become process oriented.

Sustainability means to avoid production.

So we have to put the focus on the process. It is not the media that counts but the communication. We design visually perceived communication.

Communication is a process, not a product.

About Michael Hardt
Michael Hardt is a French designer with German origin. He is a Professor for Visual Communication in Bergen, Norway; Member of the Norwegian design organisation GRAFILL; and Friend of Icograda. Michael has been active in the international design community as Chairman of BEDA Bureau of European Designers Associations from 1991-1994 and Vice-President of Icograda 1995-1997.