State Your Profession

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.

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  1. I have a four year degree in design, and no doubt could pass an exam that would certify me to the satisfaction of my fellow designers, but to what end? Because our field is crowded? Yes, there are more designers these days than ever before, because 20 years ago design was much more laborious, much more exacting, and much more demanding in terms of physical skills. Now, design is a mental skill primarily, thanks to computers. It’s easier, in one sense, and harder in others (a designer these days does layout, typography, pre-press, web services).

    But still, if a design fails, rarely is a person hurt physically, like other accredited fields like architecture, or health care. So, what is our criteria? Do we legislate talent? Impossible–since taste is subjective. Can you imagine a board of traditional typographers when faced with Zuzana Licko when she first was designing typefaces? I would argue that the design revolution currently underway is because of the lack of restriction. Like in many fields, the cream will rise.

    But, next time you encounter those feelings, I suggest you do as I do when I have them (I think we all do) and just be glad you’re not a writer. Imagine the people that Mary Oliver must encounter who claim that they, like her, are poets too.

  2. I’m admittedly sheepish when I’m at a party or a dinner and I’m introducing myself for the first time and of course, I say, “Designer”. I’m sheepish about it for the very reason that everyone seems to say it too.

    The issue here is the same one as a few years back when everyone was claiming to be a web designer — the barrier of entry was low.

    Thus when someone says designer, I feel that the other party might think that it’s just a pretty word for “what you’d like to be doing but rather, you’re unemployed at the moment.”

    I’m have no qualms about being one and knowing how well I do my job and that I can make aliving off it, but it’s still odd to say it. As if the legitimacy of the profession isn’t as concrete as say, being a doctor or a lawyer.

  3. Martin: what you’re describing — the ‘legislation of talent’ in the absence of truly critical success factors — is a very good reason why we’ll probably never see accreditation. I wouldn’t contest it, either, because it makes a lot of sense and in many ways it’s anti-free market. But setting that aside, there are quite a few benefits, one of the most convincing of which is the likely increase in the perceived value of accredited designers (if the accreditation is done right, of course). Read: more Benjaminz.

    And, to be honest, another selfish part of me wants to avoid the very situation that Naz describes, which is to be able to have a more interesting answer to the question of my occupation when chillin’ at a party. Maybe it would get me out to more parties, too.

  4. I’ve always been uncomfortable describing my occupation — Graphic Artist sounds like I’m making tshirts, Graphic Designer is too vague and requires a non-technical explanation to family members, Web or Print designer pidgeon holes me into a predefined stereotype I give up fighting out from under.

    I like the idea of accreditation; in San Francisco, I have the same problem as you in New York (and it’s tough to sift through the 100 or so home schooled Corel Paint users). However, we’re not a concrete bunch, and there are design standards I would not agree with — who and how would I be judged? God forbid another self appointed design committee… not to mention meetings and conventions, no meetings…

  5. Khoi: I think this is a really interesting conversation–and I appreciate the forum.

    What I see described here is everybody feeling a bit sheepish about describing what they do, because the value of it has been lowered by amateurs who self-describe as designers. I think this is a terrible reason to have some sort of accreditation.

    As for perceived value of design–never in history have we had so many clients paying so well for so much creative work. While the role of the designer has changed, the industry is larger now than ever in history. Good clients understand design, and frankly, even accreditation won’t weed out poor designers who know how to past a test.

    But, I think my reserve is based on the abstractness of the idea. Maybe we need a model, or some more concrete ideas. How would people see this actually working if they could wave their wand and make it happen?

  6. I forgot to note: there are some circumstances when I’m quite proud to say that I *am* a designer — usually not at hipster-like gatherings though, but within people who I take seriously and I know who will take me seriously.

    Luckily enough these days, at least here in Chicago I can get away with saying something like “Creative Director for Gapers Block”, which sounds utterly pompous but it’s become quite alarming and surprising to realize that many of the circles I find myself in are quite familiar with the site. Those are the good days.

  7. As someone working in the creative field who does not have a design degree, I will definitely say that it is hard to answer the “what do you do?” question without sounding like a bit of a… how-do-you-say… “douchebag.”

    I work at a very established .com company as one of two web/print designers. I do have a designer title, but I would never consider myself a “schooled” designer and have a hard time labeling myself. An accreditation would seem to give one more confidence in proclaiming their “designer’ status (not that I would be accredited as such anyway).

    However, I will say that an accreditation or other means of licensing the ability to be a designer seems a bit overkill. We are not performing heart sugeries, prosecuting murderers, or even driving a school bus after all.

    As evidenced in myself, one can be productive in this field (although perhaps not hugely successful) if they simply make themselves valuable to businesses. I might have a different perspective as an in-house designer though, since a freelancer or other design firm might find it great marketing it tout the number of “Accredited Designers” on staff.

    Ok, Im rambling now… great topic though Khoi.

  8. This is an interesting conversation. It reminds me of something I read a while back at the Design Observer. Michael said “Among the design professions, graphic design is an embarrassingly low-risk enterprise. Our colleagues in architecture, industrial design and fashion design are tormented by nightmares of smoldering rubble, brutally hacked off fingers, and embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions. We graphic designers flirt withЁpaper cuts. Thus liberated from serious threats, we invent our own: skating on the edge of illegibility, daring readers to navigate indecipherable layouts, and concocting unlikely new ways to solve problems that don’t actually exist.

    I think this is fitting to this kind of conversation. Relying on your book to be taken seriously is par for the course as a designer. I’ve found in all areas of my career my book has been my validation, not my resume. For a while my comparitive lack of schooling made me feel inferior, until I started to realize that no amount of classroom work and design theory is equal to real life projects and working with designers senior to you.

    Finally, if you could say you passed the design equivalent of a bar exam, would you feel any more confident saying you’re a designer at a party? You’re always going to meet someone who will respond, “Oh do you have to go to school for that?”

  9. As someone who considers my core skills to be writing and editing, it gives me a certain perverse pleasure to see designers wrestling with the issue of unqualified interlopers. You’re right, Martin, it is worse for writers (not that I’m claiming Mary Oliver status). Adding to the problem is the irritating fact that many designers are also good writers. Cut it out! I mean, the least you could do is make a spelling mistake from time to time. But seriously, I think you’re barking up the wrong tree. As the means for creating and distributing visual information increases, so too will the number of hacks. From experience, I can say that the advantage to being a professional practitioner of a ubiquitous skill is that, the more people do it, the more people will understand its subtleties and be able to talk intelligently about it. Saying “I’m a designer” will be the beginning, rather than end, of the conversation. Just get ready for a time when, after you identify yourself as a designer, the person asks, “Oh really, what do you design about?”

  10. “I guess I’m advocating for accreditation”

    What’s next, licensing of journalists, authors, programmers and photographers?

  11. I think that in the design profession, the only way accreditation could work well would be if it were done by a jury of your peers. In other words, a certain number (let’s say 100) of “guild members” would have to look at your work and say “yep, he knows his shit” and then you’d get your accreditation. Accrediting by schooling or work experience just isn’t meaningful in my opinion, because two of the best designers I’ve ever worked with never went to school and two of the worst I’ve worked with went to great schools.

    But then again, maybe that’s all you’re really looking for in an accreditation: an official notice that someone is at least *academically* adept at design.

  12. “an official notice that someone is at least *academically* adept at design.”

    Or one would try to solve problems that actually exist. A license is no panacea for incompetence. The surest way to detect and reject incompetence is for hiring managers to have sufficient understanding of design and the requisite capacity to parse resumes, body of work, personalities, etc. If they are going to use the license as a crutch because they have neither the time nor the ability to evaluate designers themselves then the game is already lost.

  13. The definitions of design given us by the noted graphic designer, Milton Glaser:

    “One definition is that design is the intervention in the flow of events to produce a desired effect. Another is that design is the introduction of intention in human affairs. A third rather elegant description is that design moves things from an existing condition to a preferred one. This last one reduces the complexity of the idea, but I like all three definitions. Design doesn’t have to have a visual component. Ultimately, anything purposeful can be called an act of design. Lastly, design is the creation of form.”

    http://www.wbsi.org/farson/com_mgtbydesignr.htm

  14. I think accreditation is absolutely essential in this profession. Someone who works with HTML isn’t necessarily a designer, nor someone who knows how to use Photoshop. Accreditation would have to require that you understand the history of design, the history of systems thinking and visual language.

    Being a designer means you’re arriving at a problem with a method. It has nothing to do with the solution ( that whole journey vs. destination thing ). It’s a mindset, not a test in the efficiency of producing results. At this juncture, of course, a number of people say “well, what about the client ?”. Well, to that I say, ” if a client falls down in a forest and we don’t hear him sobbing, do we cease to be designers ?”

    Zuzana Licko and Vanderlans are great examples of studied typographers who made the conscious decision to push the envelope with desktop publishing after they were thorough with the fundamentals and the history of the tradition. I’m confident that had they not gone through a program that required intellectual rigor as well as visual thinking, their work would not be as strong. The same is true of that other maverick, David Carson, whose background in sociology and graphic design informed his aesthetic. His work is still far more intelligent and referential of a number of artists and art history, something that latter designers of the “style” of that time failed to capture.

    One thing I have encountered through most of these posts is the notion of declaring validity as a designer through commerce. This is mostly an American practice. Elsewhere the emphasis is really on focusing on problem solving in a broader sense rather than on limiting it to making interesting, sellable products.

    I rarely, if ever, discuss that I am a designer, artist and/or writer. All three terms have plural implications and for all three there is a lower than acceptable threshold. My solution has been to simply smile and say “oh it’s not important” and start discussing a movie or something. It’s much less time consuming.

  15. I always thought one of the nice things about creative fields was that you could actually be judged on your work, as opposed to the perceived value of your education or experience. Would we really want to trade that for the design equivalent of an MBA? Would you feel better at the party saying you were an ASD Certified Graphic Designer? Maybe Khoi Vinh CGD?

    Your work is accredited every time someone is referred to you by word of mouth, every time someone feels your writing is worth their time, and every time your work inspires someone else’s. If you need something for the business card, maybe go the BrightCorner route and have a few lines to explain what it is you really do.

    It may be a naive view at this point, but having someone you respect say they “love your stuff” would seem more validating than anything another title could give. It may not lead to the Benji’s today, but more than likely will eventually.

    By the way, I love your stuff.

  16. I followed Alex’s link, and to be expected, there was a lot of what seemed to be beurcratic hand waving and little else. This page gets to the heart of their accreditation matter. I understand the need for some arbitrary lines in the sand when starting an effort like this but little things irk me: why 2000? is there a notion of “related degrees”? etc.

    Khoi said:
    But setting that aside, there are quite a few benefits, one of the most convincing of which is the likely increase in the perceived value of accredited designers (if the accreditation is done right, of course). Read: more Benjaminz.

    to which I reply:
    Theoretically more cash. I know plenty of programmers, testers, and product managers who all have some accreditation and don’t see a single extra dime because of it. Who does? The accreditating bodies. At best it may make a difference in a hiring process in a very difficult decision between two neck and neck candidates. I’m not even sure of that to be honest.