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Automation & Design: are you safe?

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In her final piece for WhichPLM in 2017, resident digital printing expert Debbie McKeegan shares her thoughts on the unspoken code of conduct for designers. In a part-blog, part-interview post, Debbie discusses just how much the technological revolution has brought about for designers – the good and the bad.

As the year comes to a close I have to ask the question: what does the next industrial revolution, Industry 4.0, have in store for the design industry?

History holds many lessons from which we can learn on the topic of automation. Industries revolutionised by robotics and their application within manufacture: agriculture, automotive, mining, textiles – the list is endless. But, aside from the software we now use subconsciously in our day to day lives, the biggest impact has been witnessed within manufacturing at all scales. For many industries this has brought about necessary reform, and ultimately rewards for us all. Time stands still for no man and, as the last industrial revolution demonstrated, we must embrace technology, Industry 4.0 and all it brings to remodel our design businesses in order to nurture and bring about change.

Within the design community we have travelled some way into this journey and have witnessed the reform enforced by software, automation and its effects, the ‘Photoshop generation’!

We’ve now seen over two decades of CAD design. Designs created in minutes, not hours, and as such offered for sale at massively reduced prices. Many of the established commercial design studios across Europe, being no longer competitive, disappeared for this reason over a decade ago. Design studios built on a fixed model were no longer viable and therefore closed.

With the loss of many of the great commercial design studios, the textile industry lost years of valuable design skills, and alongside those an essential part of its heritage, ultimately affecting both the availability and quality of design technicians. Those studios that survived embraced new technology and held their ground. As the wheel turns full circle once again, we now see painterly, artisan design studios begin to thrive as the consumer demands design with creative soul. A hand painted piece of artwork captures the unique creativity of the designer, no two brush strokes are identical. The same cannot be said of Photoshop or Illustrator software in the wrong hands. Both are truly creative programmes, capable of aiding the designer in their creative journey. But it must be remembered that software is a tool and not the originator. The designer must put their own unique style into their portfolio, and not be dominated by Photoshop’s automation.

You cannot automate creativity.

…You can, of course, aid the process but design isn’t an algorithm.

A few months ago I had the great pleasure of spending the afternoon with the ‘Grand Master’ of design himself, Geoff Haley, and his talented family at their studio in Yorkshire. Over a delicious afternoon tea, I asked a few questions:

Debbie McKeegan: How long have you been in the industry and where did you learn your craft?

Geoff Haley: I have now been designing for over 40 years, starting as a lowly carpet design apprentice but have spent the last 27 years in freelance, for all areas of textiles and wall coverings.

Debbie: How long does it take to create a Haley Studio masterpiece?

Geoff: We specialize in more detailed quality work, which can take up to a few days to produce.

Debbie: Has the value of designs created and sold fallen? What’s the difference between price paid in the 90s compared with a 2017 purchase?

Geoff: Sadly, as time has passed, we have seen accountants get a strangle hold on studio buying and we now struggle to get the prices we received a quarter of a century ago.

Debbie: How does your studio address ‘rip-offs’; what’s your strategy?

Geoff: All our artwork originates on the drawing board. It’s hand painted using our painterly craft which makes us more difficult to copy, so we haven’t had a problem with copyright, as yet, that we are aware of! 

Debbie: What can you do to prevent being copied?

Geoff: Ultimately you can’t prevent being copied, let’s not be naïve – it’s part of creative life. But those that do copy are always behind you and do not lead. 

Debbie: Are the buyers leading the charge on de-valuing design / creativity?

Geoff: I do feel that buyers are leading the charge on devaluing design, as most are sales orientated and tend to look at what is selling, often commissioning ‘rip-offs’. Conversely, the designer’s perspective is to produce original work that foresees the next stage / trend in the fashion. 

Debbie: Has our industry lost its integrity? Designers don’t do plagiarism? 

Geoff: As a design community we should respect each other, but sadly over the years the professional code of conduct has waned somewhat.

Debbie: What advice would you give to the next generation?

Geoff: As for young designers starting off, I would suggest they try to develop various design styles, as the fashions are changing so fast, the creative person of the future will have to be very adaptable.

The tragedy for the next generation is that many students are no longer taught essential drawing skills as part of their educational training. Still life, gouache, oils, acrylic are alien worlds – lost to software. The availability of the necessary skilled creatives to tutor in the education sector is limited. But outside of the education sector there’s a vast sea of online tutorials that can help to bridge the gap (though sadly not replace) what we have lost.

Those that survive any reform must have a unique business model. Any service that’s automated removes labour, increases efficiency and speed to market. Whilst the product remains the same – or in many cases may be improved – does this damage the perceived value?

How does that effect design?

Digital manufacturing and fast fashion have created the need for ‘Design on Demand,’ which in turn has created a new vibrant industry. Just as Getty, iStock and Shutterstock revolutionised how, as consumers, we buy photography, the same now occurs within the design world. Online archives exist to furnish buyers with designs in seconds, and where once a design would be purchased outright you can now buy limited rights to meet your meterage needs. The result is a huge decrease in the revenue for each piece of artwork. For a pattern produced in minutes that’s still a viable option for a CAD studio. But, without question, it devalues the origination of design, and no longer rewards the designer for their valued creativity and skill.

In an online world, in order to build your brand you are forced to have an online presence. Be that a website, Facebook, Pinterest or Instagram page. Your potential client wants to evaluate your work before a commercial conversation can begin. For a company that sells services that’s a little easier than it is for a designer who must bare their wares for all to see. It’s a competitive world and unfortunately this leaves the designer wide open to copyright infringement. And it’s become a huge problem. You can embed various identic safeguards into your online file, but a design is essentially a visual and, with the many unscrupulous traders out there, you are going to be copied. This is now an issue of endemic proportions and as an industry we must discuss how we best protect our creative intellectual property.

I don’t want to end the year on a negative note – as a designer and digital pioneer I have embraced all of the amazing advantages that new tech offers designers. There can be no doubt that the advent of CAD, digital print and incredible software has created a diverse range of opportunities for designers from multiple industries. How we move forward remains to be seen. I would hope that as true creatives we value our talents and work together to report copyright infringement when witnessed.

There’s an unspoken code of conduct within the design community, professional creatives protecting each other, and let’s hope that as a new year approaches we work harder, together to that end….

*All images provided by, and belonging to, Haley Studios Ltd.

Debbie McKeegan

Award winning British designer, Debbie McKeegan, began her digital journey almost two decades ago – pre-Photoshop, and pre-digital print. With a manufacturing background, a vast knowledge of traditional textiles (from both a design and production perspective), and an interest in CAD from its onset, today Debbie serves as an expert in the world of digital print.

With her partner, she founded the Digetex Group in 2004 – specialising in Textiles and Wallpapers for a multitude of industries worldwide. Debbie has developed many new digital production practices, and speaks as an authority on digital design and print worldwide. As a WhichPLM contributor, she is able to pass on her wisdom as a digital pioneer; embracing the creative freedom offered with the advancement of new technology, she looks forward to sharing her knowledge.