What Graphic Designers Say They Do

Abstract
This paper reports the results of a survey of 1500 US graphic designers. Respondents provided information about their levels of involvement with project-related information gathering and analysis, planning, and end-user evaluation. While there are significant levels of involvement in some of these activities, comments made by respondents reveal that involvement with information gathering and analysis, planning, and end-user evaluation is mostly informal. That is, they are often conducted without a formal methodology, and are often not mentioned in project proposals and other related documents.This suggests an opportunity for graphic designers to adopt a formal method for incorporating information gathering and analysis, planning, and end-user evaluation in their design processes. This could allow graphic designers to construct a process comparable to more respected professions, and should promote design solutions geared more closely to the needs of audiences. There is still much room for improvement in the areas of information gathering and analysis, planning, and end-user evaluation in the practice of graphic design.

Introduction
People who work in fields which involve problem-solving activities (medicine, engineering, etc.) often follow a process that consists of the following basic steps: identification of a problem; gathering and analysis of information; development of a plan; designing a solution; evaluating the solution; producing and introducing the solution; and evaluating responses to the solution. Feedback into the process can occur at any point, so that steps can be repeated as necessary to refine the final outcome.

This process does not appear to exist in a formal or rigorous way in graphic design. My experience in and observation of the field seems to suggest that graphic designers are quite adept at designing, producing and introducing solutions (messages), but that these are based on little if any information gathering and analysis. Likewise, it is rare to find graphic designers that solicit end-user evaluation of their efforts, whether in prototypical or final form. This may explain why many graphic designers find themselves with a less than favorable professional stature.

Part of my research into graphic designers’ methods involved a large survey of professional designers that attempted to measure their involvement with information gathering and analysis, design planning, and end-user evaluation efforts. The survey and its results, are described below.

The Questionnaire
A questionnaire was constructed that contained the following sections: demographic information concerning the respondent and the design organization; project initiation and design process; activities prior to form-making (I use this term to signify the creation of prototypical and actual visual communications); activities during form-making; and additional written comments.

The questionnaire was mailed to 1500 professional graphic designers, geographically-distributed across the United States. The mailing list was carefully constructed from graphic design professional organization directories, so that a cross-section of appropriate graphic designers would be surveyed. Freelancers, for instance, who are generally hired on a per-project basis, were not included in the survey, as their opportunities for involvement with information gathering and analysis activities are generally not extensive. As well, Allied, Junior, and Institutional professional organization members were not surveyed.

Sample Size and Response Rate
302 fully-completed questionnaires were returned and included in the findings, resulting in a 20.1% response rate. While this rate is fairly low, the sample size is of an acceptable quantity from which to draw conclusions. A low response rate might be interpreted as a majority of interested respondents influencing the results, as uninterested members of the targeted group probably did not bother to respond to the questionnaire. So it may be that the levels of involvement with information gathering and analysis activities reported here may be inflated somewhat beyond their occurrence in the field.

Section One: Demographic Information
This section of the questionnaire consisted of two sub-sections. The first requested demographic information from the respondent (experience and education), and the second concerned the design organization (size, client-base, types of services, etc.)

1.1 Respondent Information

Number of years experience in the graphic design profession:
(respondents were asked to mark one response only)
Over 20 years: 30.7% (93)
16 to 20 years: 18.3% (55)
11 to 15 years: 32.2% (97)
6 to 10 years: 11.9% (36)
1 to 5 years: 06.9% (21)
Less than 1 year: 00.0% (0)

Level of design degrees completed:
(respondents were asked to mark one response only)
Ph.D.: 00.0% (0)
Master-level: 18.3% (56)
Bachelor-level: 66.6% (201)
Associate-level: 03.6% (10)
No degree: 05.9% (18)
Other: 05.6% (17)

Comments:
Over 80% of the respondents had 11 or more years of experience in the graphic design profession, and held a bachelor or master-level design degree. The respondent group can be characterized, therefore, as both experienced and well-educated. The majority of respondents listed their titles as either Principal, Director, or President of their organizations, and indicated their involvement in a wide variety of creative and management activities. No significant relationships between higher level of experience or education, and greater involvement with information gathering and analysis activities were found, however.

1.2 Design Organization Information

Types of graphic design organizations:
(respondents were asked to mark one response only)
Consulting firms: 73.8% (223)
In-house departments: 26.2% (79)

Number of regular, full-time employees within graphic design organizations:
(respondents were asked to mark one response only)
Over 50: 07.3% (22)
30 to 50: 03.4% (10)
0 to 29: 03.9% (12)
10 to 19: 08.9% (27)
5 to 9: 14.6% (44)
1 to 5: 61.9% (187)

Number of regular, full-time employees working as graphic designers:
(respondents were asked to list a specific number)
Responses varied from a high of 60 full-time graphic design employees to a low of one. The average number of graphic design employees was 4.1.

Comments:
The breakdown of design organization types and number of graphic design employees appear to be representative of norms for the field in the US.

Other disciplines employed by graphic design organizations, or that graphic design organizations interact with on a regular basis:
(respondents were asked to mark all applicable responses and list disciplines under “Other.”)
Product designers: 16.2% (49)
Interior designers: 12.9% (39)
Architectural designers: 17.2% (52)
Writers/Editors: 68.5% (207)
Photographers/Illustrators: 75.8% (229)
Others: 38.4% (116)

Comments:
These results suggest that graphic design organizations most commonly interact with those directly involved in the production of their work. Printers, service bureaus, and paper companies were typical written responses in the ‘Others’ category. Only a very small percentage of respondents (approximately 8%) wrote-in collaborators involved with developing design rationale, such as market researchers or design evaluation experts.

Types of clients served by graphic design organizations:
(respondents were asked to mark all applicable responses)
International organizations 55.6% (168)
National organizations 79.4% (240)
Regional organizations 66.9% (202)
Local organizations 71.9% (217)

Activities of clients served by graphic design organizations:
(respondents were asked to mark all applicable responses)
Manufacturing organizations 68.2% (206)
Service organizations 86.8% (262)
Retail organizations 53.9% (163)
Cultural organizations 52.3% (158)

Comments:
Again, these results appear to reflect norms for the field, with graphic design organizations providing services to various types of clients involved in a wide variety of activities.

Types of graphic design services provided:
(respondents were asked to mark all applicable responses)
Corporate Identification 90.1% (272)
Print/Editorial 91.0% (275)
Product Packaging 56.3% (170)
Environmental/Retail 49.0% (148)
Multi-media/Interactive 26.1% (79)

Comments:
These results suggest that traditional, print-based communications (trademarks, business stationery, brochures, etc.) continue to make up the majority of services provided by graphic designers. Product packaging and signage/way-finding systems also represent significant services for the field. Interactive multi-media design, while clearly a ‘buzz-word’ at the moment, has not yet made a widespread impact on graphic design practice.

Instances of recognition in national or international publications and/or exhibits in the last three years:
(respondents were asked to mark one response only)
Over 20 15.5% (47)
10 to 19 20.5% (62)
0 to 9 64.0% (193)

Comments:
Many respondents took it upon themselves to comment that they do not enter design competitions, and therefore would not have their work published or exhibited. These sentiments seem to echo the growing dissatisfaction with competitions that is evident in much current graphic design literature.

Section 2: Information Gathering and Analysis Activities
This section of the questionnaire consisted of three sub-sections. The first requested information concerning initiation of projects, while the second and third were concerned with design organization involvement with inquiry-based activities prior to form-making, and evaluation activities during form-making.

2.1 Project Initiation and Design Process

The scope of the design organization’s involvement with a project is typically determined by:
(respondents were asked to mark one response only and to provide a short, written explanation)
The client organization 65.6% (198)
Client/design negotiation 14.2% (43)
The design organization 19.8% (69)
A third-party organization 00.4% (2)

Comments:
A majority of respondents indicate that the client typically determines their involvement with a project, while a smaller percentage indicate that they determine their involvement, or negotiate their involvement with the client. Typical written responses state that most graphic designers are not in the position to determine their involvement with projects, particularly with new clients. Many respondents indicate that greater input in determining their involvement occurs more commonly with long-term clients.

The design organization’s response to initiating a project:
(respondents were asked to mark one response only and to provide a short, written explanation)
Acceptance of client’s brief 23.6% (70)
Open-ended problem inquiry 56.6% (171)
Tightly-directed inquiry 19.8% (61)

Comments:
A majority of respondents indicate that some type of problem-inquiry takes place at initiation of a project. Typical written responses center around the need to obtain information beyond that supplied by the client at this point in a project’s development.

The final outcome of a project can best be defined as:
(respondents were asked to mark one response only and to provide a short, written explanation)
Client-requested work 09.6% (29)
Designer-defined work 06.3% (19)
Work defined by both 84.1% (254)

Party bearing responsibility to determine use of design efforts:
(respondents were asked to mark one response only and to provide a short, written explanation)
The client organization 49.5% (149)
The design organization 46.9% (142)
Marketing consultants 03.6% (11)

Comments:
Respondents overwhelmingly indicate that the outcome of their work involves collaboration with the client, suggesting a partnership in determining how design efforts are used. On the other hand, when asked to name the party bearing ultimate responsibility for the use of design efforts, responses split almost evenly between the client and design organizations. A majority of written comments indicated that respondents felt that graphic designers probably should bear responsibility for determining use of their efforts, but that many clients feel free to ignore advice, or to not fully implement proposed solutions. This may suggest that many graphic designers are perceived by clients as suppliers of a service, as opposed to strategic-level advisors.

2.2 Activities Prior to Form-making

Does the design organization typically gather information related to a client’s project?
(respondents were asked to mark one response only and to provide a short, written explanation)
Yes 87.5% (264)
No 12.5% (38)

Does the design organization typically analyze design efforts of other organizations in competition with a client?
(respondents were asked to mark one response only and to provide a short, written explanation)
Yes 54.6% (165)
No 45.4% (137)

Does the design organization typically analyze design efforts that a client has attempted in the past?
(respondents were asked to mark one response only and to provide a short, written explanation)
Yes 68.5% (207)
No 31.5% (95)

Does the design organization typically engage in efforts to identify areas where design efforts can be more effectively used?
(respondents were asked to mark one response only and to provide a short, written explanation)
Yes 70.2% (212)
No 29.8% (90)

Comments:
Responses indicate that graphic designers are, on a whole, involved in information gathering activities prior to form-making. A significant majority respond that they gather project-related information, but the percentage of positive responses declines when queried about particular activities.

Most respondents indicate that they review past client design efforts, and identify areas where new design efforts can be used more effectively. The least amount of activity appears to take place with analysis of competitors’ design efforts. Typical written responses to this question mention that this activity might be performed by other consultants or in-house personnel outside the design organization. Many negative respondents indicated that they would not perform this service unless it was specifically requested by the client.

Many respondents also indicated through written responses that the above activities are most often performed on an informal basis, without mention in project proposals, and without a formal methodology. Even though the quantity of responses concerning these information gathering and analysis activities is significant, the opportunity for graphic designers to formalize this area of the design process clearly exists.

2.3 Activities During Form-making

Does the design organization typically develop a plan or written document discussing rationale for design efforts?
(respondents were asked to mark one response only and to provide a short, written explanation)
Yes 41.7% (126)
No 58.3% (176)

Does the design organization typically solicit user input during the concept development stage?
(respondents were asked to mark one response only and to provide a short, written explanation)
Yes 40.9% (124)
No 59.1% (178)

Does the design organization typically solicit user evaluation of communication prototypes?
(respondents were asked to mark one response only and to provide a short, written explanation)
Yes 32.1% (97)
No 67.9% (205)

Does the design organization typically solicit user evaluation of final designed communications?
(respondents were asked to mark one response only and to provide a short, written explanation)
Yes 28.5% (86)
No 71.5% (216)

Comments:
Responses indicate that a majority of graphic designers do not engage in planning and user evaluation activities during the form-making phases of the design process. Moreover, it appears that involvement with these types of activities lessens as the design process draws to a close.

As mentioned in the prior sub-section of results, written comments indicate that those involved with the activities in question often perform them on an informal basis, without mention in project proposals, and without a formal methodology.

Written comments also indicate that approximately one-quarter of positive respondents interpreted the user evaluation questions to mean evaluation by client representatives (i.e. “we show mock-ups to the client”). While members of the client organization could be considered users of designed communications in certain cases (sales personnel are significant users in respect to sales and price literature, for instance), they probably should not be considered so in all instances. Positive responses that contained written comments indicating this interpretation of the above questions were tabulated nonetheless, so the positive responses shown above may be slightly inflated.

A common written comment of those responding negatively to the above questions can be paraphrased as “If we have done our jobs correctly, there is no need for these types of activities.” While this point is obviously debatable, it does indicate a certain lack of interest in incorporating planning and user evaluation activities among the negative respondents.

Section 3: Additional Written Comments
The final section of the questionnaire enabled respondents to make any additional written comments concerning the issues and activities surveyed. The majority of these responses could be classified as supportive of the subject matter. Non-supportive comments tended to be similar to those paraphrased in the previous section, where respondents did not feel the need to employ formal information gathering and analysis activities. Others indicated that their clients were quite adept at handling these activities.

Still others expressed a desire to become involved with information gathering and analysis activities, but indicated that it would be difficult to do so given current economic conditions, tight client budgets, and their unfamiliarity with these activities.

A selection of supportive written comments are supplied below:

1. “Our field is remarkably informal in research and related areas. Outside focus groups by third parties are unusual.”

2. “I believe it is critical if we are to be communicators thru (sic) design that we are responsible for the work we do being truly effective communications. Knowledge of marketing and follow up on success (are) critical to understanding. Mere design decoration is not the business we are in, though too many do just this and charge too much. Our purpose is to further our client’s business, not be fine artists.”

3. “The field of graphic design needs to improve its professional standards. In fifty years, things will be much better. For now, it is a confused and frustrated field of endeavor. Environmental graphic design has proven to be less competitive, much more respected and very lucrative, albeit a difficult profession to master.”

4. “To compete successfully in today’s crowded design marketplace, a design firm must be able to provide services that include all aspects of marketing, research, product development, federal and international law (for packaging legislation, for instance), product evaluation, etc. In many respects, marketing consultants and design consultants are becoming one and the same — particularly in the packaging design field, our area of focus.”

5. “It is our responsibility as designers to educate clients to our need to gather and analyze information as an absolutely necessary part of the design process. Most clients do not understand the need for this phase of a project.”

6. “Please be aware that we are identity consultants and our work is primarily in corporate, brand and retail identification. The analysis and planning aspects of problem solving are always integral to (our) design process.”

Comments:
Respondents working predominantly in the environmental, packaging, and corporate identification areas of the graphic design profession claim to have a more formal methodology than the rest of the field, and greater involvement with information gathering, analysis, planning, and evaluation activities. Questionnaire results indicate that this claim has merit, as these specialized respondents, when isolated as a group, have significantly higher positive response rates to questions concerning those activities.

Conclusions
The typical consulting organization, though relatively small and working with a variety of client-types, might consider incorporating formal information gathering and analysis activities in its practice (including such activities in proposals, for instance). This should be approached in a flexible manner, however. Not all clients can be ‘educated’ to appreciate the value of these activities, and not all designers will be comfortable engaging in them. Developing strategic partnerships with market researchers, user-evaluation experts, or other specialists might be a logical first step towards becoming familiar with these activities, and learning how to adapt them to the needs of the graphic designer.

In-house design departments appear to have their own unique set of problems in the areas of information gathering and analysis. Their responses, when isolated as a group, were somewhat lower than the consultant designers. The need for client education, strategic partnerships, etc. appears to be even greater with this group. Some written respondents from in-house departments indicate that these designers feel a sense of isolation from the development of an organization’s messages, as they are typically brought in at the end of the process, and deal with visual format only. Some, in fact, suggested that a special study of in-house design departments be launched, so that their particular situation could be explored in more depth.

In either case, augmentation of traditional graphic design services with information gathering and analysis activities could benefit all those concerned. By formalizing the activities covered in this survey, graphic designers might go a long way toward constructing a rigorous process comparable to other, more respected professions. Allowing end-users to evaluate designers’ efforts throughout the form-making steps of the design process could result in messages better suited to the needs of audiences. These types of messages are probably also of a strategic value to most clients, as they would be able to provide their customers with highly-useful information.

Most graphic designers have no system in place to measure the effect of their work on an intended audience. Professional recognition currently consists of peer-approval through a variety of publications and juried competitions, where emphasis is almost exclusively on the development of sophisticated graphic form. The use of information gathering, analysis, and audience evaluation techniques might provide graphic designers with a more significant method to establish the success of their efforts. Greater documentation of successful audience-based graphic design projects could supply the profession with a more obvious means to demonstrate its value.

If the graphic design field is to progress beyond its current stature, it must provide an alternative to business as usual. Technology will only continue to improve, and with that improvement comes the threat of an eroding of the field. It is no longer enough for graphic designers to say that they hold the secrets to creating sophisticated visual form, as soon everyone will have professional-level tools for that purpose on their desktop. It is the effectiveness of visual communications that should set professional work apart from work created by non-designers. If graphic designers do not take steps to ensure that this value is added to their work, they must face the possibility of their profession becoming increasingly marginalized. This survey of the field indicates that there is still much to be done.

…………
Originally appeared in Information Design Journal, Volume 8, Issue 2, 1995, pp. 181–188.

Design educator + Professor @ The Ohio State University

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