Is Design A Commodity?

Last week I was reading an article in How Magazine, titled “An Irreversible Movement,” by David C. Baker. The article was actually two essays, one by Baker and one by Debbie Millman, with each author taking a different side on crowdsourcing and it’s impact on design and designer’s. Baker had a quote within his essay about design being a commodity

Design is or (soon will be) approaching commodity status, but the management of the design process is difficult, misunderstood, and undervalued.


The quote struck me, because I’ve never thought about design as a commodity. Is design now a commodity or could it ever approach commodity status? As I’ve been thinking through this I can definitely answer yes and no. Ok, that’s not so definitive, is it. I can see how design can be commoditized by the market, but I don’t think design is truly a commodity.

Let me walk you through my thinking, though you may find I raise more questions than I answer.

The article itself is only available in the print addition, but you can get a feel for what it was about reading What About Crowdsourcing on the How Magazine site or the associated forum thread discussing the article.

Commodities exchange

What is a Commodity?

To answer the question we first need to define what a commodity is. Here are a few definitions I found at online dictionaries.

  • Commodity: a physical substance, such as food, grains, and metals, which is interchangeable with another product of the same type.
  • Commodity: a good or service whose wide availability typically leads to smaller profit margins and diminishes the importance of factors (as brand name) other than price.
  • Commodity: a good for which there is demand, but which is supplied without qualitative differentiation across a market.

There are a couple of related ideas in the above. Commodities are goods and services where there is little difference in quality across a market and where buying decision comes down to price and price alone.

Keep both ideas in mind as you read this post and think about the question.

Typographic design

What is Design?

I think we also need to answer the question what is design as well, though I’ll offer a limited answer, since it can easily take up several posts and discussions on its own.

Design is a planned solution to a problem. When we talk about visual or communication design, the problem is naturally one of communicating a message or messages to an audience visually. When we talk about web design we add in solving problems of usability and other technical concerns.

Rarely if ever is there a single solution to a design problem. A large part of a designer’s job is choosing the best or most appropriate solution to the problem. That there is generally more than one solution to a problem implies that the quality of solution, the quality of design varies across the market.

On the other hand is there truly a best solution? You and I would likely come up with a different design for any client, but does that necessarily mean your design is better than mine or mine better than yours?

What is creativity and what role does it play in design? Again some definitions I came across:

  • Creativity is the ability to generate innovative ideas and manifest them from thought into reality. The process involves original thinking and then producing.
  • Creativity is the ability to produce something new through imaginative skill, whether a new solution to a problem, a new method or device, or a new artistic object or form.

Innovative, original, new, imaginative, artistic. These aren’t commodity words. These words hint at qualitative differences and in our definition of commodity we learned that commodities don’t show qualitative differences from solution to solution.

How much creativity then is part of design?

Out of our minds. Learning to be creative

Andy Rutledge wrote an interesting post for A List Apart a couple of years ago Here’s the post republished on Andy’s site.

Creativity has nothing at all to do with self-expression or flamboyancy. Aside from the simple ability to create things, the most important feature of creativity is a highly developed perception filter that is somewhat less common than we’re led to believe. Despite what we were taught in school, we don’t all possess significant creativity, and fewer of us still have any skill at employing it. True, anyone can make something, and anyone can make something up. In this mundane sense, everyone is creative. But this basic truth belies the design-relevant definition of creativity, and ignores the fact that each one of us has different creative abilities.

An interesting way of looking at creativity, but what stands out to me in the context of this discussion is the last sentence about each of us having different creative abilities. Again that implies difference in quality.

A couple of other quotes from the post that also lend to the argument of qualitative differences.

Creativity is an inborn capacity for thinking differently than most, seeing differently, and making connections and perceiving relationships others miss.

It is primarily these disciplines that set top creative professionals apart from those who are merely gifted.

Of course Andy has also argued that creativity has nothing to do with design, which would mean we shouldn’t use it as an argument against design commodity here.

Then again Andy makes sure to protect brand when hiring and choosing clients to avoid becoming a commodity.

Pricing art as a commodity

Do Clients Value Design?

Our clients must value design to some degree if they’ve hired us, but search any small business forum and it won’t take you long to find many people expressing opinions that design isn’t important, especially on the web. There’s a common thought that design isn’t necessary.

Usually people are referring to design aesthetics when they say this, though to most people design and design aesthetics are one and the same. They’re not differentiating design and art. They point to examples like Craig’s List to show that you don’t need design to be successful. Personally I think there’s a lot more design at Craig’s List than people give it credit for. Aesthetics? No. Design? Yes.

Content though, trumps design. Most of us will put up with a very bad design if we feel the content is worth the effort.

From what I can tell most people don’t see the value in design. You and I do, but we’re designers. We think design matters and equate code to poetry. The best designs are often unnoticed to those not in the profession. It’s only when design gets in the way that people realize it’s impact. Bad designs stand out to the average user. Good design is seamless and unnoticed.

This will probably sound a bit elitist, but how many sites have you looked at that were clearly designed by an amateur and what did you think of those designs? I know I cringe when I visit a site where every bit of text is centered and there is no space between any element on the page. I cringe when I see tables showing the default html borders and no consideration whatsoever to any principle of design.

Yet cringing though I may be, I also know the owners of those sites often think they look great. They honestly like how the site looks and can’t see the difference between it and one designed by someone like Jason Santa Maria.

If the average person doesn’t see value in design, if they don’t see the difference between good and bad design, then what is the criteria for their buying decision? Likely price. If people don’t see the value of your services and can’t see the difference in what you offer as compared to the next designer aren’t they viewing you and design in general as a commodity?

Oddity commodity

Can Design be Commoditized?

A few more thoughts on both sides of the argument:

Things like design patterns and design templates and themes lead design down the path of commoditization. If we’re all using the same design patterns doesn’t that lead to a sameness in our designs?

If people are buying templates and themes then aren’t their sites looking mostly the same? If more and more designs use the same stock photography and freely available icons and patterns and textures aren’t we commoditizing design?

Everything can be outsourced or done cheaper. Every part of the design process can be sent to someone who works for less than you do. Outsourcing to reduce costs leads design toward commodity status.

Think about Apple. Apple is a company who’s business is based around design. They nail aesthetic details and above all else look to design the best experience they can for their customers, even if that means ignoring features much of the market wants. If adding the feature takes away from the experience, the feature doesn’t get added. Apple innovates through design.

Apple may not have the largest market share in many markets, but they often have the highest margins. You may or may not like them, but they are certainly doing well and people mainly choose Apple products because of the differentiation in the quality of design. Their success would indicate that design is hardly a commodity.

Apple logo in an iPad drawing

Earlier I mentioned content trumping design. That’s true, but many studies will show that we thing we’re more productive when the thing we’re working with is aesthetically pleasing. We often judge content based on it’s packaging. Design can and does provide a better experience and make things better. Even if it’s only the perception of something being better it becomes better based on that perception. Design matters, which indicates it’s outside the realm of commodity status.

Let’s take this back to the original article that started me thinking about all this. The article was about crowdsourcing and the idea that crowdsourcing design pushes it toward commodity. However doesn’t the idea that several or many different designs are created and then a “best” one chosen clearly say there are difference in the quality of those designs.

Again consider the two aspects of commodities. No differentiation in quality and a buying decision based solely or mainly on price. You’ll never convince me that there is no differentiation in quality from design to design. The influence of creativity and the idea that there isn’t a singular design solution as well as my own observation of different design, clearly say to me there is a great differentiation in quality from design to design.

On the other hand if the market doesn’t see the value in design and can’t see those differences in quality then they are commoditizing design. As tools are developed that enable anyone to create a design (good or bad) the supply of design increases. People start to buy on price alone, which leads many designers to compete based solely on price, which again leads us down a commodity path.

Can design be commoditized? I think the answer is yes, based on how the market views design. Is design a commodity? I think no based on the always present differences in quality from design to design. Design itself will never be a commodity, but the profession of design can be commoditized.

If we don’t want the latter to happen we should do what we can to consistently improve our skills and create better and better designs. We should never use price as a selling point and by example show others that good design outperforms bad design.

Like I said more questions than answers. Do you think design is a commodity? Has it been or can it be commoditized?

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15 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this.

    Whilst I feel that designers are appreciated for our skills most of the time I wholly agree that a large proportion of the projects we quote for are measured against cost as opposed to the value our design and project management skills can deliver.

    In pitch situations we’ve found that the key is to concentrate on our strengths and differentiate by demonstrating the value we can add to a business rather than simply showcase our design skills.

    Another key thing we aim to do is discuss budget @ the outset and negotiate on the deliverables if we feel it’s unreasonable based on the client’s expectations.

    Sometimes we just have to accept that we’re not suited to the client and we’re lucky enough to have clients that respect our input…let’s hope that continues!

  2. I’d have to say that design is a commodity based upon the large number of practitioners but, that said, apples (the fruit not the computers) are commodities but some folks still pay more for organic apples or ones with other special qualities. The trick is to find something that removes you from commodity pricing and to sell that not simply “design” as a service to clients.

    • I don’t see design itself as a commodity, but rather the business of design that can become a commodity. Might be a subtle distinction, but it’s how I see it.

      True about apples and organic apples. Maybe that’s a better way to look at it. Design can be a commodity to many, but there will always be some who see it as more and we can help them see it as more by highlighting what we do different and better.

  3. Excellent post.

    I like the way you presented both arguments, and then supported each with examples and links. I also completely agree with your assessment from the perspective of a “designer” and one who consumes products and services…

    Well done. Very insightful and engaging read, thanks :-)

  4. Designers are always quoted as “those people doing those things” by the most part of customers; I like the way you put attention on how designers (and design) can be commoditized, it’s a word that needs to be spread all over =)

    Thanks for provinding this article =)

    • Thanks Claudia. I like your quote. I guess many people don’t really appreciate good design, though in their defense when design is done well it’s often unnoticed. It just works.

  5. Though this is unfortunate and hard truth, but, most clients don’t understand design, they take it as something looking beautiful, while it should be something that looks good but serves its purpose & bring results.
    Crowdsourcing is a serious issue, but, we have to digest this that crowdsourcing is going to happen now on larger scale.

    • True. Most people seem to equate design solely with aesthetics. Aesthetics are certainly part of design and on some projects can even be the most important part of a design, but design is more than aesthetics.

      I expect crowdsourcing to grow too. I do think the better designers will always stand out to those who appreciate design though.

  6. Thanks Sarah. Good idea to focus on your strengths and how you’re different from the competition. It’s why I promote my knowledge of seo.

    I try to bring up some discussion price as early as I can. It took me awhile to learn to do that, but it really does separate those shopping on price and those shopping on value very quickly.

  7. My opinion is that design and creativity will never be a commodity. Though it is true that there are solutions that are results of designers and creative individuals solving problems that have commonalities to a number of problems which have been made into “Re-sellable Templates” It is also true that they will never fully solve the specific requirements of every single problem faced by the people who want communicate effectively and successfully. Every problem is unique, even when there are commonalities, so unique ideas and solutions are required to complement them.

  8. You probably know I agree with you Erick.

    I think where commodity comes in though is that if enough clients in general think of design that way then the business of design can be commoditized for most. I say most, because I think there will always be some that will see the value in good design and so the best designers will never become commodities.

  9. Graphic design will soon go the way of custom kitchen cabinets if we don’t find a way to differentiate ourselves. We must learn to speak the common language of business and ROI in order to justify our design reasoning. Strategy and analysis must become the backbone of design decisions and no longer can we continue as an industry to make “pretty trash” that only “we” like.

    Think about Apple. They design in the US, but manufacture in China. In fact, they hire so few people that their average revenue per employee is in the hundred thousands! You might think Apple loves design, but they really love innovation and money. As soon as China learns how to design from a Western perspective, it’s over for the US design landscape as we know it.

    Differentiate or find another job. Now.

    • I think there will always be people who appreciate good design and understand it’s not a commodity. And there will always be people who never see it as anything more than a shiny coat of paint. I agree with you that it’s up to us to convince everyone else.

      I think Apple does love design and the company is design centric. It’s still central to what they do. The supply chain naturally helps increase their profit, but I don’t think they’d choose their supply chain over their design thinking. Without the focus on design their customers would shrink and the rest becomes irrelevant.

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