The Millennial Designer
Richard Grefé and Chelsea Vandiver
America’s Millennials have often been characterized as superconsumers who love to share, but analysis of what makes them tick creatively is still rare, even as the leading edge of Gen Y approaches middle age. Chelsea Vandiver, Executive Managing Director for Creative at Ziba, and Ric Grefé, Executive Director of AIGA, recently discussed their experiences working with Millennial creatives.
What’s most distinctive about the rising generation of Millennial designers, in your experience? What have you taught them and learned from them?
Ric Grefé: Young designers and design students today — I hesitate to call them “the Millennial Generation,” as if they were an object instead of individuals — pursue the rewards of creativity as a profession with enthusiasm, an unhindered sense of possibilities and non-ideological pragmatism. They often exude confidence, which may or may not have been earned. When coupled with curiosity, this can fuel extraordinary explorations.
The most important thing we can teach is the value of context, whether in terms of history or business. These designers grew up in an era of narrowcasting; we need to help them gain breadth of understanding. Particularly how others see the same problem they are trying to solve.
I have learned to appreciate the speed and frequency with which they shift attention and form impressions. I may not be personally comfortable with this phenomenon, but I appreciate how it is transforming human experience. I also welcome their commitment to making a difference in the lives of those less fortunate, and their rejection of old norms — like being defined by your work habits rather than your contributions.
Chelsea Vandiver: Millennials tend not to be defined by conventional roles. Designers today often have to solve problems across a broad perspective; the nature of the work itself is forcing designers to extend past traditional roles. Millennials seem very comfortable operating in that looser space, pushing their own boundaries.
Designers with courage are always trying to get to the core of something, to understand the real problem. In the past, problems were more discretely broken down: you’re a graphic designer, and you’re going to be designing our logo. We need these diagrams, we need a brochure. Millennials have the courage to say, “I don’t understand how this small piece is going to help us solve the big problem. Here’s another idea.”
Sometimes the two generations challenge each other, and it creates an interesting tension. Disruptive thinking and challenges are always good for a creative organization, and having that come from someone younger often means it’s better received. It’s not perceived as a threat; it’s just a great idea.
How do Millennials relate to/differ from the “T-shaped” ideal of a capable professional designer?
RG: Chelsea set up the challenge here, a moment ago. The problems young designers face are no longer neatly divided into graphic, industrial, product, environmental, and they seem comfortable with this. The "T-shaped" professional, however, is modeled on having a skills set as the stem, and a horizontal made up of integrative thinking skills and a broad knowledge base in humanities, social sciences and history. That offers a deeper appreciation of a problem’s context and its range of potential solutions.
CV: The traditional “T” shape represents designers who are fundamentally grounded by a particular discipline. I was talking with a designer recently who described Millennials as being grounded by their purpose or ideals, and then developing whatever skills are necessary to realize their ends. Picture an “E” laying on its back, essentially, instead of a “T” shape. So if a Millennial designer is really interested in geriatrics, for example, or education, they’ll ground themselves idealistically beneath the problem, and then reach up into it agnostically, using whatever skills and tools might be required. I get the sense that because craft isn’t necessarily the end-all and be-all for Millennials, they can focus on solving the problem by any means necessary.
Many people argue design itself has become increasingly democratized — consider Everyone is a Designer In the Age of Social Media, by Mieke Gerritzen and Geert Lovink. What does this have to do with Millennial designers?
RG: There is no question that social media creates opportunities for people to explore designing solutions. Certainly that is encouraged by crowdsourcing practices and clients who do not understand what they should expect from effective design. Good design can come from someone who is untrained and inexperienced, but the most effective design is likely to come from those who have learned how to deploy empathy, creativity and exquisite execution. Younger designers may see opportunity, participation and diversity as being enhanced, but the overall quality of design and its benefit to society may be compromised.
CV: It certainly seems like there’s a lot more people going to school for design than was the case 15 years ago, and full-time, salaried jobs haven’t increased in step. Maybe there are even fewer than before. More people can take on basic design tasks themselves, for better or worse.
Multi-disciplinary design is hard. So Millennials don’t want to focus on just one discipline? That’s fine. But they need to be able to reliably solve problems by any means necessary, and put their time and energy into that generalist pursuit, rather than a specific, tactical craft. It’s great that design has been democratized, because it forces people who really want to stay in the game to heighten their focus. Hopefully this means designers in general can work on more complex issues. Where do you want America’s greatest minds, after all? Designing posters, or solving real problems?
What does legacy mean to Millennial designers?
RG: There is not a deep understanding of history and precedent among many young designers; characterizing someone as a "design hero" is a good way to earn their skepticism. But on the other hand, this is a generation that has followed fame in social media and commercial media with single-minded intensity. So it may be that there is a respect for legacy, if it is imaginative — even in today's terms, when technology can make legacy work commonplace. Today's great designers get standing room only audiences among young designers, but young designers also want to participate in defining what is great design. They are not waiting for experts to tell them.
CV: You go back ten years, and designers talked a lot about icons — about making something that seared itself into the public consciousness. Now Millennials talk about transformation, having an impact on our culture’s trajectory. It’s less about tangible achievement, and more about future orientation, affecting evolutionary change. Millennial designers want their legacies to flex and grow and react, rather than creating a perfect tombstone that never changes.
It’s changing for businesses, too. Rather than designing that one greatest hit, the interest now is in aligning a business to create multiple hits, to stay vibrant going forward, to make something that’s capable of change and growth. Interaction design is exciting to Millennials for this exact reason, I think: it provides an opportunity to create living systems, rather than just static things.
Can you distill a few essential insights for Gen X or Boomer managers working with Millennial creatives?
RG: Respect their point of view and patiently seek to understand it. Draw them into complex decisions, so they can begin to understand complexity and your own considerations. Demonstrate flexibility. Articulate values.
CV: I agree. Millennials need context. If you’re asking people to connect the dots, everyone needs to understand what each dot means, and the landscape they’re arrayed in. Younger designers want transparency. They want to know, fundamentally, why does this matter? Millennials want to know what their work is going to mean to people, and to the business. Breaking work up into discrete tasks, unconnected to the larger whole, does not work. They’ll do it, but you’re going to get surface-level engagement. As a manager, my task is often to set context, and frame the issue — providing an appropriately constrained space and then orienting trajectories within it. Give Millennials the permission and freedom to solve problems from outside the box.