Graphic designers and cabbies

Sunday, April 12th, 2009

In a discussion with a journalist from Times Higher Education last week about Twitter he asked how I responded to critics who said Twitter threatened to “dumb down” education and research I speculated that the same complaint was probably made about moveable type (Guttenberg, not the blogging tool).

Stephen Bayley over in The Observer asks if technology makes us stupid.

All new technologies, going back to fire and the wheel, by way of movable type and light bulbs, de-skill people. Old crafts are abandoned or lost in favour of automation. And when you de-skill someone, you alter not only his culture, but his personality. Satnav has done this to black-cab drivers. Once this proud tribe had a private religion known as the Knowledge; all of London’s streets had to be memorised. It was an amazing feat achieved only after great effort, and consequently it was admired and therefore empowering and dignifying. The Knowledge gave black-cab drivers what the marketeers call a “point of difference”.

Now any larrikin can buy a satnav for £199 and tell you how to get from Edmonton to Peckham by using rat runs. The USP of the black cab has disappeared in a miasma of pixels. As a result, some urban anthropologists have noted a change in behaviour of cab drivers. Once known for courtesy and reliability, many have become sullen and aggressive. This is because technology has democratised their proprietary knowledge and beliefs.

When I read that I thought “you could say the same about graphic designers as for cab drivers”. By which I mean the invention of Photoshop, QuarkXpress and so on. I know, I was there at the time. My first job interview consisted of a guy throwing me out of his studio because he wanted a paste-up artist – a skill – not a Mac operator. His business didn’t last long after that.
Funny thing is, I still hear it. Bitter old men (and not so old, and not always men) bemoaning the loss of respect for their once proud profession.

The thing is, being a cabbie is more than just taking someone from one address to another. Surly cabbies are missing their real USP if they think the satnav has castrated them.
There is a difference between “skill” and “craft”. And “the knowledge” is more than knowing the quickest route from A to B.

Designers need to bear that in mind, too.

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