is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Vice President of User Experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. You can reach him through one of the services below.+
Among the fifty or so potential jurors who reported along with me to the courthouse for jury duty last week, I noticed there was a surprisingly large number who identified themselves as designers. I was in the candidate pool in three jury selection processes, and I heard maybe a dozen people state their occupation as packaging designer, art director, interactive designer, web designer or just plain graphic designer. When it came time for me to answer the judge’s questions, I could only answer sheepishly that I was yet one more of the same.
This is Manhattan, after all, where we have what is probably the densest assembly of design professionals on the planet, so it shouldn’t surprise anybody to find a disproportionate number of design professionals in any gathering. I have a deep and abiding respect for the trade and its art, but every time I hear someone, including me, identify himself or herself as a graphic designer, it makes me cringe a little.
Terms of Endearment
Perhaps it’s the general vagueness of the term “designer” that nags at me. There’s something mungible about it, something inexact. Especially in the fact that, in general usage, it can indicate someone who applies a creative eye to either clothes, furniture, interiors, buildings or almost anything else.
Prepending the term “graphic” to it doesn’t help qualify it much, either; it pales in explicitness compared to other design professions. Everyone more or less knows what a set designer works on, for example, in spite of their relatively fewer numbers;. You’d be hard pressed to pull someone off the street and get him to explain what a graphic designer actually produces in the course of a day’s work.
The Big Easy
There’s also something almost too easy about calling oneself a graphic designer, a faint suggestion of trying to have it both ways. Graphic design seems like the shortest and most commonly accessed route to having a ‘creative’ career while reaping the benefits of a white collar job — neither the drudgery of graduate work nor the asceticism of fine arts is required to make a decent salary and consider yourself artistic when you’re a designer.
In a way, I guess I’m advocating for accreditation: a design equivalent of the bar exam, that would confer a more objective, widely understood status on practicing professionals — and that would encourage a little more pride in our job titles. I admit, it’s an elitist notion and I’m not entirely comfortable with the exclusivity of such a system, but in general, I like the idea. Of course, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t necessarily mean fewer designers showing up for jury duty.+