Summer 2007

Messy medium

Social media is shifting message-making away from mass media and into the hands of multiple users.

Last year in the UK, internet advertising revenues overtook both local newspaper and magazine advertising revenues for the first time; this year they will overtake national newspaper advertising revenues. Print publishing is in crisis, so why isn’t graphic design?

It should be, because there is a deep change occurring. Many publishers have placed a moratorium on print launches and are belatedly shifting their resources to the net. Individuals that left it too late have lost their jobs (Tom Moloney, chief executive of Emap – once the owners of Eye – departed abruptly in May), and the bravest publishers have wholeheartedly embraced not just the internet but also its most threatening aspect – emerging social media.

A little over a year ago, The Daily Telegraph began a successful exercise in blogging by journalists alongside moderated reader comments. In May this year it handed over a section of its website to the crowd by launching readers’ blogs in a new ‘My Telegraph’ section on its website. Within 48 hours more than 2000 bloggers, many aged 60-plus, signed up to have their say under the imprimatur of their favourite newspaper. Giving this newspaper over to its readers, albeit in a small way, is a huge cultural shift for an institution as conservative (with small and big Cs) as The Daily Telegraph. It signals a kind of official, absolute recognition that mass media is dead if not yet buried.

Such changes are inevitable, as newspaper proprietors, acutely aware of the juggernaut plundering of first their classified and then display advertising revenues, surrender their sole rights to moulding public opinion. I have watched, fascinated, as Telegraph journalists have submitted themselves to instant rebuttal by their readers, and editors have handed over part of their agenda-setting power.

The Guardian and the Times have taken similar, more-or-less radical paths to the Telegraph, but not yet giving such free rein to readers. Condé Nast is following the lead set by social media start-ups such as Stylehive and Fashiontribes by launching and buying up the social bookmarking site Reddit. What’s happening now at CondéNet and at many of the major news and magazine publishing houses is a complete reappraisal of business models and editorial strategy, coupled with an attempt to come to terms with just how editorial content provided by journalists and art directors fits with the stuff people make themselves and share with each other on the net.

These examples mark a turning point not just for editorial design but also graphic design, a profession that was built out of the age of mass media and mass production. Now design has to make its own radical adjustments to a world of social media in which communication flows in multiple directions, no statement is definitive and unanswerable, brands are defined by their audience as much as their makers and, the more finished or resolved a piece of communication is, the less useful it becomes.

Many of the traditional goals of design, such as corporate expression and perfect resolution within known and accepted boundaries, are redundant in these new contexts. Since the advent of digital typesetting our understanding of the underlying value of design for print (that is, the good that it provides) has slowly changed as the old craft and technical skills became embodied in machines, with the weight shifting to form-giving and image-making, and then shaping ideas. Now the values of design will change and so, too, must its working methods.

The experience of making any complex hybrid of service, interface, business process and technical system, points clearly in this direction. Traditional design is set up as a clean linear process of brief, response and review: tell us what you want, here’s our answer, hope you like it. The creation of innovative communication types that don’t fit known boundaries is messier because, by definition, people have an incomplete understanding of what they want or how to get it. You’re bringing together people with different skills who don’t share the same language or methods. Solutions must be worked out through thinking of the whole system and how its components interact, and then modelled in different ways: so you make it, and then you make it again, each time with more flesh.

The last part is something some designers do very well, but usually alone and away from the client in the comfort zone they call a studio. Genuinely innovative design (something that changes how people do or see or pay for things) is usually much more collaborative. My recent experience at the Telegraph and Hearst (the National Magazine Company) has shown that writers, editors, designers and technologists must share know-how and experience to come to grips with the opportunities created by networked social media, and that the best way to do this is through the collaborative making, not specifying. One aspect of design thinking – drawing and modelling many possible solutions – supports this process, but the culture of retreating to the studio and then returning flourishing a grand solution does not. Instead, the client has to become an integral part of the design team and this can only happen and work well with trusted consultants in the context of a long-term relationship.

In editorial publishing there is a tradition of designers working closely with editors, but the addition of technical and commercial variables adds new dimensions of complexity. Dealing with this requires a genuinely interdisciplinary team undertaking many cycles (not one) of design, making and testing. Success in solving problems this difficult requires removing three of the grand assumptions underlying our professions: that we know what we’re doing; that delivery implies completion; and that we can produce the whole of the solution. A profession organised in a studio system, inward-looking and focused through its culture and education on static, two-dimensional visual design, is in no position to join the party.

Web technology is maturing, and the emphasis of innovation is shifting a little from engineering to ideas and how effectively ideas are implemented. The ratio of thinking and designing to making has reversed – from something like 1:2 to 2:1. The My Telegraph project was six months thinking and three weeks making. This means the dominance of technology companies is waning. People who can think holistically about technology, customer services and business or brand opportunities – and can demonstrate their ideas in practice – are winning trust. The value of design in this context lies in openness to different solutions, the ability to structure and visualise and model options, and a willingness to think from the viewpoint of the customer. Design as two-dimensional form-giving, or as one-off, once-removed marketing consultation performed separately to product and service development, are rapidly devaluing currencies.

This is why the branding companies are now doing most of their work in Eastern Europe and Asia – nobody wants them here. Fifteen years ago brand implementation was a big, difficult task; it’s now something small agencies can do for less money, and it’s seen as less valuable by the clients – just image-making and house-keeping. In developed economies, marketing and client-service budgets are moving from brand and traditional advertising into the social Web and rich internet applications. It’s difficult but innovative work that involves making tools and platforms for people to use, not making finished messages shouted from megaphones or rhetorical asides expecting no reply.