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Musings 02 November 2002
AIGA President Clement Mok on the problems confronting design

by Ruth Arnold

Like many people these days, Clement Mok is spending a lot of time talking about the problems facing design. Like others, he's concerned about the future of the profession and how designers will go about finding work in the changed environment. But unlike those who think the trouble began with the dot-com debacle and that the solution lies in economic recovery, Mok believes it started at least two decades ago and that recent boom times only masked it. And he's not convinced that a better economy is the answer.

“There’s been a decline in the profession for over 20 years, and the source of that decline is our own failure to create new offerings, our failure to reinvent and reinvigorate our practice,” said Mok. “During the economic boom, we didn’t have to invent new services to make a living, so we were in denial. But the bursting Internet bubble and the stock market downturn have made the problem very apparent.”

In the late-1960s and 1970s, designers pioneered ideas and services in response to market needs, said Mok. Corporate identity programs helped companies distinguish themselves in the emerging modern marketplace; in-house programs helped them provide clarity to employees. “There was a constant pushing of the envelope as to what a design practice ought to be. Great design programs and institutions and best practices came out of that – and design had a seat at the management table back then.”

In the ensuing years, he contends, the sheer volume of work created by economic expansion bred an environment of complacency where existing services were merely tweaked for each new project. Designers were often not adding any new value.

While economic growth was masking the problem, Mok believes that technology – valuable as it is – was aggravating it. “Technology has brought on a set of complications of its own,” he said. “Technology forced practitioners to get ‘silo-ed’ and to become specialists in particular areas. Pretty soon design went to specializations without us taking a good hard look at the collective practice and what we were doing,” he said. Specialization led to fragmentation. “We were at odds with one another as a group, and inadvertently we undermined our collective power, primarily by not having a core set of practices and issues that we could agree were what design stands for. There was no attempt to have a common starting point.”

Going for the big D
Moving toward that common starting point is among Mok’s key objectives for his two-year term as president of AIGA. In fact, he believes the need is so great that he even hesitates about what to call today’s design practice. “I think we’re stretching to even call it a profession,” he said. “If you look at other professions, there are benchmarks. The world has certain expectations of doctors and lawyers, for instance. There is a body of knowledge and a set of skills required to be members of those professions. If you look at design, we’re all over the map in terms of how we define ourselves.”

Achieving true profession status, according to Mok, will require both individual and collective effort. Individually, designers must expand their view of their own roles, moving from thinking of themselves as graphic designers to what Mok calls “designers with a big D” – those who don’t limit their work to certain media, but who apply design thinking to all kinds of problems.

Collectively, designers need to “strengthen the infrastructure that gives the field credibility.” He’s not calling for certification, but rather for “building up a body of knowledge that defines design.” But he sees an obstacle to that objective. “The problem that we now have is that, by and large, our body of knowledge is academic, it’s all about the work. We need to move away from the things we produce toward what it is that we actually do. If you ask a doctor, for instance, what he does, he says I perform heart surgery or brain surgery. If you ask a lawyer, she says I prosecute criminals or I litigate cases. They describe their work as activities. But if you ask a designer what he does, most often he’ll say I do annual reports, or I do brochures and Web sites or posters. We describe our profession by things rather than by activities. And that’s so deep within our genetic makeup right now that if you ask a designer to use a verb to describe what he does, he finds it difficult to answer.”

Verbalizing the practice of design
Put quite simply, then, Mok believes that solving the problems now facing design calls for designers to start thinking about their work in terms of verbs and to begin defining the practice by activities. And what verbs would he like to see them using? “There are essentially three activities that designers do,” he said. “First, designers give form to ideas – graphic designers give visual form, product designers give structural form, and interactive designers give behavioral form, but they’re all doing the same thing. And secondly, designers bring clarity to information. Those two activities are really our core competencies, and they need to be a common reference point for all designers.”

The other activity that designers do, according to Mok, is to “imagine what’s possible.” The realm of possibility, he contends, should not be reserved for engineers or scientists or marketing gurus. It is the legitimate realm of designers (that’s with a big D, of course).

When designers start using verbs to describe what they do, it affects how they go about finding work, said Mok. They no longer limit themselves to seeking brochure work or branding work. “They begin applying design thinking to a totally different kind of design problem, and they find that there are incredible opportunities out there for work, even in an economic downturn,” he said.

“Look at the communication problems that need solved today. Look at the morale problems, at corporations with information problems, merger and acquisitions activity, the need to deal with voluminous information, all kinds of social issues. Think about how communications can make a difference. When you take a look with that perspective, you realize there are actually tremendous opportunities for designers today. We can play a role in solving these problems and we can begin making a living out of doing that.”

Courtesy of Ruth Arnold
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