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An Economy of Design

It's been a brutal time for print publications. Newspapers are either dying outright, or morphing into the obscene infotainment formats that USA Today spawned years ago. When I moved to Chicago in 1992, one of the great diversions of the day was reading the Chicago Tribune over lunch. You literally could not read all of it in a sitting, it was so rich with content.

Look at it now, and you can read it from cover to cover in 15 minutes. That's if you can bear the cheesy infographics and trash stories that predominate (Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, etc.). The Tribune is obviously not alone in this. Other newspapers and magazines have suffered, their bottom lines crippled by the loss of advertising revenue and competing publications online. The Chicken Littles have been crying that the sky is falling and there has been little to refute that prognostication.

One publication has thrived, however, by zigging while everyone else has zagged.

The Economist, the bastion of incisive global commentary and reporting, has bloomed. Sales and ad revenue are at all time highs, with no loss in quality of reporting or printing.

How have they managed to do so?

By standing by their convictions and doing what they do best; offering what readers have come to expect and value. They deliver deep, in-depth reports and analysis to their core niche audience, eschewing trends and the quick, easy news of the moment.

They recently updated their online magazine, continuing this model of well-written content, in a well-designed, no fluff website. It's a deceptively clean redesign, providing a broad range of easily navigable content in an elegant format.

While other publications, both print and online, have denigrated into offering the news equivalent of the one-night stand, The Economist is still a worthwhile relationship, one that rewards careful reading and evaluation.

It's an apt metaphor for how designers and consultants position our services, particularly in this challenging economy. We can base our efforts on price, in which case both we and our clients lose. There will always be someone cheaper, and once we begin basing our services solely on cost, we lose any possibility of the relationship, instead fulfilling a transaction. It's rare that a reduction in fees does not also result in a reduction in deliverables, leaving the client feeling that they got less than they deserve.

Crowdsourcing, speculative work, and hack creative agencies will always be a fact of life in our profession. We can either play that game, in which case we will always lose, or change the playing field outright by continuing to deliver premium work, and educate clients about the value of our services.