The nature of this profession has changed and will continue to change.
Those designers who think of themselves as artists who make things look nice will have an increasingly difficult time going forward. Designers who specialize in common, one-off projects, like logos, flyers or banner ads, will find it difficult to compete against lower-wage designers overseas, crowdsourcing, a glut of other design graduates and the semi-automated, do-it-yourself services, like Canva and Wix. This will not change. It will only become more common going forward.
There are increasingly fewer reasons why small business owners — the kind who think in terms of one-off projects — need to hire designers to do what they or one of their non-designer employees can obtain online for much cheaper. These kinds of clients don’t think in terms of great, award-winning, one-of-a-kind design — they just want their sales flyers or business cards to look reasonably nice. If they can get that done cheap, fast and to their specifications without the hassle of dealing with a designer, they’ll do it.
The primary reason these clients hired designers in the past is because the services and tools were not available for them to do it themselves. They, like most people, buy their clothes off the rack rather than hiring tailors. They pick and choose from sets of pre-made house plans instead of hiring architects. They don’t hire interior designers to furnish their new houses — they do it themselves in a piecemeal fashion by thumbing through catalogs, visiting stores and looking online.
So what if they’re wearing the same shirt as 5,000 other people they’ll never meet or sitting on the same sofa that’s in a hundred other houses that look the same as half the other houses in their subdivision? They don’t care about these things as much as they care about convenience, saving money and getting something that’s good enough.
Now that Canva, 99Designs, Wix, Snappa, etc., exist, why would people who buy everything else off the shelf hire designers to do the work they can now also, essentially, buy off the shelf?
So where does all this leave professional designers? It leaves us playing a game where the ground rules have changed. Those who adapt to the new reality will do fine. Those who don’t will fall by the wayside. Change always happens and this change is little different from what’s happened to a thousand other professions in various ways for many years.
Honestly, small one-off clients with small one-off projects has never been a good way of making good, steady money anyway, with the exception of those who have figured out ways to scale it up and mass produce the stuff using a formula of some kind.
So how does a pro designer compete against Canva and others? You don’t.
Instead, you shift focus to those things that these online service and crowdsourcing sites can’t provide. You also work for clients who need more than Canva or Fiverr can provide.
A semi-savvy start-up might get a serviceable logo from 99Designs, but it won’t get them an integrated visual branding strategy that considers their target audience, competition and marketing challenges. Canva can produce a nice-looking banner ad, but it can’t create a money-making ad strategy that intelligently leverages and plays off the brand equity built up from the company’s previous marketing initiatives.
Planning to make a decent living designing things that can be cheaply outsourced to lower-wage countries or handled via do-it-yourself software is a dead-end plan. Successful designers can no longer thrive with an outdated-strategy of mostly just making ordinary things look nice.
Designers need to think past small-time clients and one-off projects. They need to think in terms of what the future will bring, like AI-assisted design. And even more important, they need to build their careers and their niches with these things in mind while catering to those business clients that need strategic custom solutions to difficult business problems.