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Design is so Much More


In her latest post for WhichPLM, resident Expert Shoshana Burgett explains just how many roles we lump together under the term ‘creatives’, and how vital it is for designers to embrace digital change, using data to make smarter design decisions. Shoshana has held positions at X-Rite, Pantone, Xerox and currently runs colorkarma.

Over the past thirty years, digital printing has evolved, grown, shifted, and now converged. In early May, while we were all sheltered in our homes, Printing Industries of America and SGIA announced their merger. Now, thirty years after desktop publishing began, the print and textile worlds take one step closer.

Today, design is part of everything. Adobe’s portfolio has expanded to include all design elements, images, graphics and sound. And online platforms like Canva allow anyone to design within a browser.

As we approach a new decade, it’s clear that design has never been more critical to the success of a product. It’s a part of the product, company branding, the unwrapping of the package, the user experience (UX), displays, and much more. The role of the designer has grown and expanded as a result. Smart designers, those who want a seat at the table, know more than just design.

Start at the beginning.

Desktop publishing was in its infancy in the ‘90s, with printing companies purchasing Benny Landa’s E-Print 1000, one of many Indigo printers that would change print history. Xerox entered with its DocuColor 4040 and later the iGen3, and others from Kodak, Xiekon, HP, and more. Thirty years later, almost every printer has a hybrid production, of offset, xerographic, and inkjet technology.

And the materials have evolved too. What was once print on paper is now print on plastic, PVC, vinyl, textiles, and more.

Ricoh has shown new technology that prints directly on trucks, along with their new Direct to Garment (DTG) printing technologies. Companies like EFI continue to demonstrate the power of printing technology and the expanding applications that come from it.

Graphic designers in the 1990s were on the bleeding edge using Adobe Illustrator, QuarkXpress, and Apple’s IIFX. Logos, magazine layouts, album covers, adverts, marketing materials, and others all had a creative explosion. The internet, email, and social media brought about omni-channel communications pushing printers and designers to work across multiple mediums. As a result, today’s designers are not merely graphic designers; they are branding managers, marketing managers, visual merchandisers and more.

I recently spoke with Amanda Altman, President of A3 Design, a retail packaging and branding agency in upstate New York. Altman commented how she has watched the design landscape evolve over the last twenty years. “What used to take weeks now takes days and our clients expect immediate gratification for both them and their customers. For example, logo design has become a living, breathing story for a company. Today, it consists of every touchpoint a company has with a consumer, employee, and vendor. Our job as designers and brand advisors is to keep the creative train on the track. To make sure that all of the pieces of communication – from the graphics, messaging, packaging, displays, and digital – are done with finesse, consistency and authenticity.”

Graphic designers are the most common, responsible for 2D designs. Some graphic designers have honed their skills to become specialists in one area, such as logos, packaging, or type design. There are visual merchandisers responsible for the look of retail displays and brand experiences in stores. Visual merchandisers use wide-format and 3D printing to create today’s retail experiences. Interaction designers or industrial designers focus on the experience of the product – how it feels, works, and engages with the user. Product designers are the umbrellas for everything under the product, encompassing the digital and physical requirements. And this list only gets longer…

There are web developers, user experience and user interface designers. These individuals are highly focused and skilled, and their roles are focused on one thing – the digital realm. There are footwear and apparel designers (who are very tactile and visual). Today’s textile designers are engaging digital printing like desktop publishing did thirty years ago. There are architectural designers who are responsible for the interior or exterior of a building. They are using today’s print technology to create an environment that may look like bamboo but is printed on tile or wrapped on metal.

The role of design has evolved so much that there is now color and material designers. These individuals are responsible for concept boards and provide seasonal direction and design themes that are applied across materials. A brand may have a seasonal pallet of 100 to 150 colors. A color material specialist looks at how colors produce across materials, from print, packaging, textile, plastics, leather, or whatever the role specifies.

For the designer rooted in pen and paper, there are technical designers to support them. These technical specialists are similar to prepress managers but reside inside the brand. They require an in-depth knowledge of printing techniques and take sketches and turn them into accurate Illustrator files that can be produced. Packaging engineers look at material and design to find ways to save space, protect products during shipments, and leverage new materials for sustainable packaging: all this, plus a focus on how packaging interacts with consumers.


To be a great designer, means going beyond just design. Creatives must also interact and work with technology. Companies are moving from a 24-month design cycle to having new products on the shelf in 2 months. To go faster, companies needed to digitize more of their workflow. An Enterprise Management System (ERP) is the critical backbone for manufacturing. ERP is an enterprise-wide solution that connects all aspects of a big corporation, sales, services, purchases, inventory, facilities, human resources, etc. It is the life force of the business, tracking every aspect of a business.

Product Lifecycle Management Systems (PLM) are vital for creatives, helping drive innovation. Unlike the transactional ERP systems, PLMs are where ideas are formalized; where companies’ Intellectual property (IP) reside. PLM systems are where the secret sauce is stored. PLMs and ERPs connect when it is time to identify resources and begin execution, shared with suppliers across the globe.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems are what track a consumer’s behavior. The CRM knows I prefer a rose colored shirt compared to a teal blue one. CRMs know what people buy, when they buy, and how much they spend. Sales and marketing live off these systems to market, sell, and communicate to current, past, and future customers.

Smart Design

All creatives, whether they are designers, product managers, or marketing, interact with one or more of these systems. Smart apparel and footwear designers should look to past successes and failures and develop products grounded on trends, price, design, and metrics. To design well is a given. To be able to design well, while considering cost, time-to-market, and consumer behavior, are the skills leading brands are searching for.

Today’s creatives are marketing departments, branding agencies, product managers, and everyone else in those departments. Over the next decade, designers will have to either embrace these digital workflows, design with customers, cost, and compliance in mind or find their rolls, slowly replacing those who do work and interact with these systems. The future of design is not merely digitizing the process; it is using data to make smarter design decisions.

Lydia Mageean Lydia Mageean has been part of the WhichPLM team for eight years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like our PLM Project Pack, or our Annual Publications, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.