There are a lot of jobs that this country needs filling.

In the first quarter of 2017 alone there were 750,000 job vacancies, a record of over 34 Million people in work, 27 Million of those in full time employment and the lowest unemployment figures we’ve had for 42 years.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a political rant.  I mention these official stats to make a point.

As any long term unemployed person might tell you, or many of those in  jobs, where they haven’t been able to buy a pay rise for 4 years, never mind a whole 1%, but can’t find anything to move onto either – we just don’t have the skills base for the vacancies available.

But this is nothing new.

In the first half of the 90’s the computer age managed to knock down the walls of resistance in our industry; finally there were interfaces that creative designers could work with. You should know how the rest of that story goes; what you may not have realised is the effect it had on recruitment, quality and over supply.

In 1991 if you had taken any experienced graphic designer, put them in a Tardis and deposited them in a studio in 1981 or 1961 they would have recognised the tools, how everything was done and been able to sit down to do the job.  Even in 1939 or 1920, the only thing they’d have worried about would have been the lack of cartridged technical pens and having to dip a nib in an ink bottle – but apart from that an experienced scribe illuminator / stone mason / architect from the 11th century could probably have been trained up within a couple of months to work with our time traveller back in 1991.

Then, just between 1993 and 1995, (adjust that to 1991 and 1993, if reading in London) portfolios of hopeful graduates had gone from all traditional graphic design to partly computer aided, then to fully computer aided – with the occasional  “oh this is just some hand rendering” (note; “rendering” not “drawing”).

Decades, if not Centuries, even Millenia of tradition and method “upgraded” in a couple of years.

Of course they needed to be – the advancement in production speeds and eventually, by the turn of the century, the quality of what could be achieved, was undeniable to even those most die hard “real” artists. That didn’t mean that all those centuries of handed down skills and insights were no longer needed though – just the opposite.

And –  there’s always a downside.

Between the mid 90’s and early 21st century printers and sign makers started, by necessity, to upgrade their artwork rooms. Not to try to compete with design houses and ad agencies, but to handle the electronic artwork files being sent to them by graphic designers.

Being further behind the curve than ad agencies, they were mainly making it up as they went along. Some were using proprietory software that came with their plate making and electronic typesetting machines, most of the kit was obsolete when it was brand new. Heidelberg, that gargantuan manufacturer of printing presses, started giving away a couple of Apple Mac computers with every quarter of a million pound 5 colour print line! But the guys in the Trades had two major issues:

The first, was that although automation and electronic typesetting had led to redundancies across the print world, the people being trained up to use the new systems; Apple Macs and some soon to be gone competitor machines, were not necessarily time served full colour Printers, because those lads were still worth their weight in gold. They were hot metal and automated typesetters, stencil cutters, even machine minders; great on the one hand because of all that experience of what would work on the press – but not great because their training in the new tech wasn’t “less”, than those kids coming out of college, it was just different.

So the second issue was where the artwork files were coming from.

It was a perfect storm of semi-tech savvy arty graduates with no experience of production and tech savvy tradesmen who knew artwork wouldn’t work the way they were given it. We saw highly paid “graphic designers” at high staff turnover ad agencies who just for starters, didn’t understand bleed, crease or crop marks – never mind why “the black is grey, I designed it as black, why is it grey” and they had no old timers around to show them.

For two years, later in that decade, we had the odd printer (printers can usually correct without making a fuss) but mainly sign makers, who were slower on tech uptake and were using incompatible systems for much longer, saying “can you sort this file out for us so we can use it?” We of course said send it back, to which we were told the XYZ agency had told them to take it or leave it – that’s how they produce artwork.

You can guess any name you want to put in that XYZ from a couple of now quite well known agencies local to us, to a few big London / Manchester agencies – doing roll outs for household brands through local suppliers.

It all settled down, eventually, but it was a signal many should have taken note of.

With every technological advance there is an element of “dumbing down” – it isn’t a fully fair description, but it is nonetheless true.  Higher production, quicker turn around, fewer people, means boring or repetitive jobs are automated, while, what used to be highly skilled jobs are replaced with software that can do in split seconds what used to take hours by hand.

It sounds great – and it is – but the loss of those simple, repetitive and hard, highly practiced methods which intuitively inform experience is a level no computer can ever provide.

However – this heady mixture of being able to produce graphics, passable to the untrained eye, without 5 years of intense practice and 20 years of perfecting the art of illustration and technical drawing, combined with the excitement of computer geekdom, was an attractive prospect for many thousands of school leavers wondering what to do with their lives, and realising they didn’t have to be able to draw anymore! This would be easy!

For years, there being hardly any industry left to offer apprenticeships, youth unemployment figures were kept down by shuffling school kids off to college and universities, on courses that would never lead to a job in Engineering or Science or Medicine, while kids up for an arts course were jumping in with the encouragement of Jobs and Gates – and governments – happy to have a delaying tactic for youth unemployment – that didn’t include Conscription into the forces.

For a lot of years our industry was inundated with graduates where the standard of work was – lets be kind and say variable – many dreams were crushed as they couldn’t find jobs – the ones who had real talent, at least most of them that had real talent, got lucky, got into the industry and managed to get the magic 5 years experience, working with people who knew what they were talking about. Others, often with confidence boosted by lecturers and well meaning parents, who couldn’t find a job, set up on their own – which is both a hard way to learn and even harder on the clients, never mind the reputation of the industry.

In short; the industry has gone through an unprecedented era where a greater influx of entry level “designers” attracted by the technology which ironically reduced the number of jobs available, perpetuated lower standards in both concept creation and reproduction… but – we survived, and no one seemed to notice what had happened.

Times are changing – more young people are looking to go into advanced engineering, which is quite glamorous now, and the sciences (thank you #BigBangTheory) because they are hearing about these options earlier in their school careers, when they can still do something about it.

Meanwhile our industry as a whole is still on its way back to being respected as the experienced, professional, essential element in the economy that most of us already are:

BUT! We are at a crossroads.

The Industry is Creative Marketing and  Communications – that is – creating interest and increasing sales via anything you can look at or listen to that conveys a message – subliminal or direct.

This is now increasingly split into three parts:

1) Instant Marketing, through all the touch points of mobile communications, social media, instant pictures and chatter.

2) Chip Paper Design – flash pages, throw away gimmick graphics, forgettable “look at me” styles with no depth of meaning, that say a lot about the designer’s insight and nothing about their client – or their client’s customers.

3) Great Design, high quality photography / graphics and meaningful copy, that leaves a lasting impression with the client and their customers.

Some of No 1 is essential simply because three or four out of five first timers to your website (depending on which stats you believe) enter via a smart phone. If you sell a relatively cheap product, you just want to get in / get out and make a buck No 1 is all you need worry your head about.

If you sell a quality and / or high value product or service, you’ll still need to cover the bases at No 1 but No 3 is the only way to go to gain those highly sought after and thought through buying decisions.

No 2? If you are daft enough to pay some inexperienced design / pseudo “marketing” company because they seem trendy / cutting edge – and have maybe been on a course  – you can at least put a tick in the box of “live and learn”.

There will always be No 2s – is that the way you want your business to be scented?

Disclaimer: These opinions and timelines are based on personal knowledge and first hand experience, they are not necessarily those of the whole Graphic Design and Creative Marketing Sector or Design Business Association #Dba but everyone who was in the industry, when the first Apple fell off Steve Jobs money tree onto a studio desk, will have their own similar timeline experience.



© 2017 Blue Strawberry Elephant Ltd