Are ad agencies lowering the calibre of designers?

Once upon a time, designers could hop between product and marketing design. Now, says Marc Anderson, one strand is lagging behind

In today's interactive landscape there are a great number of roles for designers. However, regardless of rank and specialty there are two distinct camps that visual designers fall into: marketing and product. A great way to differentiate between the two is to think about how the designer spends their days: are they designing a company's application (product) or the materials enticing customers to engage with that application (marketing)?

I have worked in both camps and am fascinated with the discrepancy between the two in terms of the work required to present new ideas. Advertising agencies, which typically specialise in marketing design, are not creating designers of the same calibre as smaller product shops. The negative effects are widespread across the talent pool and designers who could once work anywhere are having greater difficulty remaining desirable to both sides.

To understand the difference, let's look at the creative process in three key parts: the creative concept, the amount of work, and the designer.

The creative concept

When starting any new work, the concept takes a central role in ideation, but – depending on the environment – can mean two very different things. In marketing, the concept is an aspirational statement that the brand leans on to incite a common emotional connection from its customers. In a product shop, the concept is a more focused hypothesis against which designers can explore and test a specific visual and functional route.

I'll use US bank Chase as an example. 'So You Can' is the brand's marketing concept. It hopes to evoke the feeling in customers that they should choose Chase because it is the bank that will empower them to secure their financial future.

Chase's product marketing concept must inform the creative work, so the designers have a starting point. For mobile banking, it might be 'How can we empower customers who are not near a branch?' This will set an expectation against which the features of the app will be measured.

Already we can see the point from which the two types of design will immediately diverge. The marketing path explores work that makes customers feel a certain way, and the product path enables customers to act a certain way.

The amount of work

These two paths of design will require vastly different amounts of work to sell a single idea. Marketing agencies often worry about breadth so they can create work that satisfies the creative concept, and in doing so develop enticing 'splash' visuals that allude to a product idea. They'll create several visuals against several ideas, yet none will be explored in depth.

Product shops will explore fewer ideas in much greater depth. Because they already have the product idea 'sold' they can instead explore the functionality and business value of that product. They can take a closer look at how customers will interact and examine various visual and structural executions. At this stage we see two designers: one that excels at creating beautifully enticing imagery, and one that solves complex interactive problems.

The designer

Design is a career that was once unified by knowledge of typography and grid systems, but is now fragmented by the needs of the client and each agency's role in serving those needs. Designers in marketing agencies have become more focused on creating pretty visuals that wash over functional detail, while those in product shops look to create an engaging and straightforward user experience.

This division between expertise in form and expertise in function will undoubtedly increase as marketing agencies continue their attempts to serve all aspects of a client's business. Work created in volume is doomed to breed designers that lack the ability to solve functional problems, which is integral to the role of a product designer.

Though both marketing and product agencies exist in the same community, their resources are becoming increasingly difficult to share. As the gap widens, designers will have to choose between the two paths earlier on, or maintain practice on both fronts.

Marc Anderson is a senior designer at Fi New York. He has a background in interactive and mobile design, and an interest in making experiences relevant to their consumers

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